America’s Next Great Restaurants Are in the Suburbs. But Can They Thrive There?
ST. CHARLES, Mo. — The flavors at the Peruvian restaurant Jalea are electric. The location? A bit more unassuming.
The nearest major city, St. Louis, is 23 miles away. But on a quiet cobblestone street, sandwiched between a Pilates studio and a financial services consultancy, you’ll find ceviche with delicate slices of grouper and plump corn kernels, all swimming in a tart, ginger-heavy leche de tigre; and lomo saltado whose soy- and vinegar-laden sauce arrives lacquered onto chunks of rib-eye.
Jalea’s owners, the siblings Mimi and Andrew Cisneros, recognized the risk in choosing this quaint street over a city known for its vibrant restaurant scene. But they saw opportunities in the suburbs that they wouldn’t find in St. Louis. Yes, the rent was lower. And St. Charles, where the Cisneroses spent their teenage years, is also one of the fastest-growing counties in Missouri.
“St. Charles is not just the white suburbs where we grew up,” Ms. Cisneros said. “It is becoming globalized like everywhere else.”
There is also less competition than in the city, they said. Because St. Charles is a small community, the two believe they can make a bigger impact here. With the lower overhead costs, Mr. Cisneros, 29, said he felt much freer to experiment with flavors. (He runs the kitchen, and Ms. Cisneros, 30, oversees operations.) Since the restaurant opened in December, they have been encouraged to see that locals are eager to try Peruvian food.
Media coverage of restaurants in the United States has long centered on cities, while suburbs are most often associated with restaurant chains. But Jalea is one of many independent restaurants — including Roots Southern Table in Farmers Branch, Texas; Travail Kitchen and Amusements in Robbinsdale, Minn.; and Noto in St. Peters, Mo. — that are raising the collective aspirations of the local culinary culture and turning suburbs into dining destinations.
Some places are offering regional flavors, or creative takes on heritage dishes; others feature a tasting menu or an extensive wine list. They are meeting the tastes of a suburban population that, in part because of the pandemic, is not only growing but also diversifying. The stereotype of the suburbs as homogeneous, white-picket-fence communities is long outdated, and as people move there from cities, they are bringing their appetite for more sophisticated, varied menus.
Established big-city restaurateurs have taken note, and in recent years have expanded their empires deep into the suburbs. But many of the most exciting suburban restaurants have been opened by smaller-scale entrepreneurs taking a considerable risk.
Tiffany Derry, who has run several restaurants, knew there was a stigma attached to suburban dining when she opened Roots Southern Table last June in Farmers Branch, a Dallas suburb. There, in a residential neighborhood, she said, some guests were surprised to find a Southern restaurant run by a renowned chef serving duck-fat fried chicken and jerk lamb chops.
Ms. Derry, 37, and other chefs who have opened similarly ambitiousrestaurants in the suburbs believe they can change those perceptions.
“You don’t need to make it in New York to be somebody,” said Alen Ramos, who with his wife, Carolyn Nugent, sells European-style confections at Poulette Bakeshop in Parker, Colo. A chef can succeed in the suburbs “as long as you are smart and you execute well and you take care of your guests.”
This was the hope of Edo and Loryn Nalic when, in 2019, they opened Balkan Treat Box, a restaurant in Webster Groves, Mo., specializing in the foods of the Balkan Peninsula. But they worried that the flavors would feel too unfamiliar to locals.
“For a good half a year we both were looking at each other like, ‘Do we water this down?’” said Ms. Nalic, 42. But she said customers were thrilled to discover an independent restaurant serving food that felt new to them.
“They don’t mind that they can’t pronounce” the names of some dishes, she said. “They want to learn how.”
Other owners have had to make a few adjustments to their menus. A decade ago, the chef Peter Chang began building a collection of acclaimed and successful Chinese restaurants that has grown to a dozen, all except one in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Still, Mr. Chang, 58, said he was hesitant to put dishes with intestines on the menu, for instance.
Alex Au-Yeung opened his two businesses — the Malaysian restaurant Phat Eatery in 2018 and Yelo, a Vietnamese diner, last March — in Katy Asian Town, a shopping center in a Houston suburb, aimed at the area’s large Asian American population. Yet “80 percent or so” of his diners are white, he said.
“We have to adapt quite a bit with the flavor sometimes,” said Mr. Au-Yang, 50. “Like shrimp paste — we have to back it off a little bit, not make it too funky.”
These sorts of challenges feel inevitable to many of the restaurateurs. The American suburbs were, after all, designed for white populations and single-family homes.
They developed in large part after World War II. Many people became homeowners thanks to federal policies like the G.I. Bill, which provided veterans with low-interest mortgages. But these policies largely benefited white Americans. People of color, primarily Black people, were regularly denied bank loans, as their neighborhoods were redlined, marked as a higher risk by insurance companies. Property deeds often explicitly prohibited the sale of homes to nonwhite people.
Spurred by the civil rights movement, laws like the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which prohibited discrimination in the financing, sale and rental of housing based on race, religion or national origin, slowly opened opportunities for people of color in the suburbs. From 2009 to 2019, the proportion of nonwhite people in the suburbs grew by seven percentage points — nearly twice the rate in urban areas, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.
Navjot Singh, 36, said Spice Street, his regional Indian restaurant in Silver Spring, Md., draws a more multicultural audience, and earns more revenue, than his place in Washington, Cafe of India.
From 2010 to 2020, the number of Americans living in suburbs grew by 10.5 percent, according to census data. Suburban residents have also become more affluent; their average household income grew by 2.3 percent from 2009 to 2019, to $83,000 a year, according to the 2019 American Community Survey. (By comparison, the average urban household income was about $65,000.)
While this growth predated the pandemic, the past two years and the expansion of work-from-home culture have accelerated the once-gradual shift, said Hyojung Lee, an assistant professor of housing and property management at Virginia Tech University.
Millennials, the generation driving this growth, have brought an increasingly urban feel to many suburbs, Dr. Lee added — a change that often manifests in independent restaurants.
Megan Curren, 35, an owner of the Graceful Ordinary, a fine-dining restaurant in St. Charles, Ill., said that while many Chicago restaurants are still hurting financially because of the pandemic, St. Charles’s are recovering faster. Spaces like hers have plentiful room for outdoor dining, she said, and people are moving into — not out of — the area.
Still, this seemingly symbiotic relationship between restaurants and diners has its complications.
As suburbs accommodate more diverse businesses that enrich the community, that success can attract the attention of developers, said Willow Lung-Amam, an associate professor of urban studies and planning at the University of Maryland. The resulting developments can drive up costs, forcing out the same entrepreneurs who helped make the area more enticing in the first place.
Mikey Ochoa opened his Latin restaurant, Oculto, in Castro Valley, Calif., last December. But he can’t afford to live nearby. In Castro Valley, he said, “the price of a one-bedroom is more than my two-bedroom apartment” in Hayward, just three miles away.
Mr. Ochoa, 31, added that Castro Valley isn’t well equipped for an influx of restaurants. Many of the spaces for rent don’t have refrigeration, a hood or a grease trap, he said, and building a restaurant there could ultimately be more expensive than in the city. He opened Oculto in the Castro Valley Marketplace, a food hall where he was able to negotiate an affordable lease.
The design of some suburbs makes it even harder for independent restaurateurs to succeed there.
While not all suburbs are alike, in general, suburban planners are not well versed in how best to support independent restaurants, said Dr. Samina Raja, a professor of urban planning at the University at Buffalo.Because they don’t understand that these businesses often have a shorter financial runway than large restaurant groups or chains, the planners are less likely to provide economic development grants or loosen zoning restrictions.
Restaurateurs also have to navigate numerous local government departments, including health, planning and zoning, which may not be as well prepared to handle independent owners’ needs as cities are.
“I have not come across suburbs that do a great job of streamlining the process,” Dr. Raja said.
Dr. Lung-Amam, the professor of urban studies and planning, said many suburbs lack public transportation and are not zoned for mixed-use development, so homes and businesses can’t exist in the same area. Restaurants, then, have few nearby residents who don’t have to drive there to eat.
Creating a robust dining scene can require a significant commitment from the local government.
In 2013, when the chefs Mike Brown, Bob Gerken and James Winberg wanted to expand Travail, their tiny gastro pub in Robbinsdale, Minn., into a larger restaurant group with a tasting-menu space and a brewery, they couldn’t afford the tear-down and construction costs required to build multiple restaurants. The town government stepped in to acquire the property and demolish the space as an investment: Ideally, the new space would increase property tax revenue.
But Kristen Jeffers, the founder of the Black Urbanist, a media organization whose stated mission is to look at urban planning through a Black, queer and feminist lens,said some suburbs still perpetuate exclusionary practices. Informal redlining continues to occur, making it hard for Black entrepreneurs to get loans, she said. At the same time, she is reassured to see some suburbs’ growing cadre of younger residents speaking out against such practices and supporting nonwhite business owners.
In fact, Mr. Chang, who runs Chinese restaurants in the Washington suburbs, has been so encouraged by their success that he was skeptical when a few years ago, his daughter suggested opening a restaurant, Nihao, in Baltimore — a city with a population of more than half a million.
He had all kinds of worries: that the operating costs would be too high, that it would be harder to find staff, that there were so many restaurants in Baltimore already. Yet in the year or so since Nihao opened, sales have been steady, he said, and the business has been running smoothly.
It was a big surprise for Mr. Chang: that a restaurant could succeed in — of all places — a city.
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