Whether it’s for early morning pancakes or a sumptuous three-course dinner, Americans just love to dine out, with the average person in the U.S. indulging in a visit to a restaurant three times a month. Grabbing a bite at a fast food chain is a popular go-to — indeed, we’re the world’s biggest consumers of fast food — but you may not know that over half of the restaurants in the U.S. are independent.
At these often family-owned and operated local eateries, diners can indulge in delicious dishes they might not find anywhere else in the country, served with a side of personalized recommendations and friendly, familiar faces. For dessert, there’s the satisfaction of knowing you’ve supported a small business in an economy rocked by a few years of economic hardship.
There’s no doubt that every town and city across the country boasts its own indie diner gems, but we wondered: which ones can stake a claim to being the most beloved of all? To find out, OnDeck went in search of America’s independent restaurants with the highest average ratings as given by the public. Read on for our findings and to explore what’s in the making of a successful independent restaurant.
What We Did
We used Yelp.com to retrieve publicly available ratings and review numbers for 149,099 independent restaurants within the most populated cities in every state and across the following categories of cuisine served: pizza, vegan, burgers, breakfast and international cuisine (e.g., Chinese food). We could then rank restaurants within each state and within each category overall based on average ratings, breaking any ties by placing a restaurant higher if it had the greatest number of reviews.
- Three establishments share the title of the highest-rated independent restaurant in the U.S., with an average rating of five out of five: two in Los Angeles, which are both vegan (Hey, Sunshine Kitchen and Beewali’s Vegan AF) and one in Wyoming (Destination Taiwan).
- HillCrust Pizza in San Diego is one of the best independent restaurants for pizza in the U.S., with an average rating of 4.9 across public reviews.
- One of the highest-rated indie diners for burgers is the Las Vegas-based Leatherneck Club, also boasting an average 4.9 rating.
- Among the highest-rated indie restaurants for international food are Bistro 6050 in Chicago, Illinois; Its Izakaya in Las Vegas, Nevada; and Shoufi Mahfi Mediterranean Grill in Orlando, Florida.
Uncover The Highest-Rated Independent Restaurants Around America
America may be home to some of the most famous restaurant chains in the world, but nothing quite beats dining out at an independent restaurant you can only find locally. Indeed, since the COVID-19 pandemic, 64% of U.S. consumers intentionally visit independent restaurants over national chains, with wanting to support a local business cited as the most popular reason.
But since independent restaurants are (by definition) unique, everything from the cuisine to the customer service will be different depending on which establishment you visit — so how will you know if it’s worth a visit? That’s where online reviews come in, a resource we mined to find the highest-rated independent restaurants overall and per popular cuisine category in every state. Use our tool below to explore our full data.
The Highest-Rated Independent Restaurants in the United States
Overall, three indie restaurants tie as the highest-rated in the U.S., each boasting a perfect average rating of five out of five and ordered in our graphic below by the number of ratings they’ve received. Two of these restaurants can be found in the health-conscious city of Los Angeles and both specialize in plant-based cuisine.
“Loved this place for so many reasons,” writes one reviewer of Hey, Sunshine Kitchen, a restaurant owned and operated by two sisters in Culver City. “Incredibly friendly staff and even more palatable food.” Of Beewali’s Vegan Af, which started life as a pop-up tent restaurant, a reviewer comments: “Visited a few weeks ago and while all the food is absolutely delicious, the service was TOP NOTCH.”
In third place is Destination Taiwan, which serves authentic Taiwanese tea and street food from a small hut in Cheyenne, Wyoming. “The ambiance and location of this place is very unique,” writes a reviewer. “You can’t visit Cheyenne without visiting this place!”
Below, we’ve ranked the winning independent restaurant in every state, based on its average online rating. They range from small eateries specializing in one particular type of food (Deckhand Dave’s Fish Tacos in Alaska) to international cuisine diners (India Palace Super Casual Restaurant in North Dakota).
The Highest-Rated Independent Restaurants in the U.S. For Vegan Cuisine
More and more Americans have been trying plant-based foods in recent years, compelled by concerns for the environment, animal welfare and their own health (among other reasons). Popular chain restaurants across the U.S. are adding plant-based items to their menus in response, but for an authentic dining experience free of animal products, why not head to an indie vegan restaurant?
In this category, the aforementioned Hey, Sunshine Kitchen and Beewali’s Vegan Af eateries rank among the highest-rated in the country, as do diners in Arizona (Phoenix-based Casa De Falafel), Florida (Pure Kitchen Organic Vegan in Tampa) and Illinois (Boon Café, Chicago) to name a few.
Bowl Mami in Dallas, Texas (an average 4.9 rating), also makes the cut. Texas is famously home to what Houston Chronicle writer Chris Tomlinson terms a substantial “beef culture,” so it stands to reason that plant-based restaurants like this stand out from the crowd in the Lone Star state.
The Highest-Rated Independent Restaurants in the U.S. For Pizza
Next up is pizza, the most ordered type of fast food in the U.S. Several independent pizza restaurants average an impressive 4.9 rating online, including HillCrust Pizza in San Diego, which, like other Californian diners in our analysis, markets its use of non-GMO ingredients. Incidentally, California is also home to the largest number of organic farms in the country, so GMO food is clearly a hot topic locally.
Also making the cut is Brewability & Pizzability in Denver, Colorado, which garners an average 4.9 rating online. Founded by a special education teacher, this restaurant trains and offers employment opportunities for adults with developmental disabilities, a mission that reviewers note they appreciate and return to the diner time and time again to support.
The Highest-Rated Independent Restaurants in the U.S. for Burgers
Meanwhile, Leatherneck Club in Las Vegas, Nevada (average 4.9 rating), a bar and grill themed on the United States Marine Corps, features in our ranking of the highest-rated indie eateries for burgers. “I love the amount of memorabilia this establishment has,” comments one reviewer. “It is quite remarkable. The tribute that they pay to their servicemen and women is unparalleled.”
Ooh Lala Burgers in Tacoma, Washington, also ranks (4.8 rating). Like other indie restaurants uncovered during our research, it’s not unusual to bump into the owners and operators of this burger joint, likely lending the establishment a cozy, friendly atmosphere that’s great for business. “If you’re looking for homemade type of burgers and freshness, this is definitely the place to go!” says a reviewer. “It was nice meeting Tish, Ernest & Bridget. We appreciate the great customer service and great food!”
The Highest-Rated Independent Restaurants in the U.S. For International Cuisine
From fine French food to moreish Mexican street snacks, a proportion of independent restaurants across the U.S. are dedicated to a specific type of international cuisine. In this category, some of the highest-rated indie eateries include Its Izakaya in Las Vegas, Nevada; Shoufi Mahfi Mediterranean Grill in Orlando, Florida; and Santarepa Cafe in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Some eateries offer a menu packed with unique fusion dishes and unusual cuisine combinations. One such restaurant is Bistro 6050 in Chicago, Illinois, that — alongside empanadas and French crepes — offers personalized (and surely memorable) notes for customers. “I really enjoy how each item has a handwritten message,” says one reviewer. “‘Hello beautiful’ was written on my crepe box and ‘stay cute’ on the side of my friend’s milkshake. It is such a unique gesture that I haven’t seen anywhere else.”
The Highest-Rated Independent Restaurants in the U.S. For Breakfast
Scotty’s Cafe in Columbus, Ohio, leads our ranking of the highest-rated independent breakfast restaurants in the country, with an average rating of 4.9. “Lovely little diner with the best staff,” writes one reviewer. “Definitely a Columbus staple. It truly feels like you’re a part of the family when you come in.” Two restaurants in and near Portland, Oregon, also make the cut, a city previously named the best in the country for brunch by travel agency Hopper.
The Family Cafe is one, a family-operated restaurant that serves Iraqi cuisine and Turkish coffee that the owner makes in front of you, making for a unique experience. Rj Skillets is the other, a Mexican restaurant of which one reviewer writes: “This place was an absolute gem to find. We were there for breakfast. The Bloody Mary was strong and tasty. The chilaquiles were absolutely delicious.”
The Keys to a Highly Successful Independent Restaurant
What’s in the making of a successful independent restaurant? We’ve collated three of the most common traits that beloved indie eateries — whatever cuisine they serve — tend to share.
1. They have a strong knowledge of their target market
It’s obvious that if you’re marketing your restaurant to the wrong people, you won’t get many diners through the door. Successful independent restaurants know their target audience and build their business around it, catering their marketing strategies to suit.
For example, different age groups have different expectations of a restaurant. According to the National Restaurant Association, older generations prefer a traditional table service when they dine out over having to use technology to order their food, while younger consumers are more likely to visit restaurants with eco-friendly business practices and sustainable ingredients.
2. They offer something unique
Successful independent restaurants can attract customers away from their competitors by having a unique selling proposition. Depending on the restaurant, this might be a unique culinary creation or a restaurant theme you’ll find nowhere else. It could be as simple as being the only restaurant in the area that serves a type of international cuisine or only using (as we’ve learned that younger generations tend to prefer) fully sustainable ingredients.
3. They offer a positive customer experience
It goes without saying that a successful independent restaurant is one that leaves a positive impression on its customers. A Deloitte survey revealed the various factors that are proven to win over guests, including “delighting” guests with moments that exceed their expectations and “empowering” diners by giving them real-time information to help them make decisions.
Putting the customer first seems to be the one theme that unites all of these traits. After all, making a memorable, unique and pleasant experience for the customer is key to bringing them back and generating those all-important positive reviews and ratings. This is especially key in attracting new customers these days, as the average American hasn’t tried a new restaurant in five months.
To identify the highest-rated independent restaurants across the United States, we collected publicly available restaurant ratings on Yelp.com and the associated review numbers within the most populated cities in every state.
Our data collection process began by filtering restaurants on Yelp based on the following category tags: All restaurants, Pizza, Vegan, Burger, Breakfast and various International Cuisines. We then analyzed the ratings of 149,099 restaurants before filtering those with a rating of 4 stars or higher and a minimum of 100 reviews, resulting in 5,113 remaining restaurants.
Next, we ranked restaurants in each category and for each U.S. state based on the highest star rating (out of five), breaking ties by considering the restaurant with the highest number of reviews.
Finally, we manually checked our highest-ranking restaurants to verify they were independently owned. We also checked the reviews and top dishes served on each restaurant’s Yelp page to ensure the cuisine category was associated with what was being served.
The data for this research is correct as of November 2023.
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This content is for educational and informational purposes only, and is not intended as financial, investment or legal advice.