1. On my most recent visit to Southern California, I visited Mendocino Farms for my first time. When you have heard so much about a concept, it’s hard not to be disappointed. But Mendo did not disappoint!

Yes, the food was very good – prepared quickly by trained chefs, with locally sourced fresh ingredients. But what most impressed me were the people – from the 1-to-1 ordering, to sampling every guest with fresh homemade sides, to the smiling person who delivered my food. “Eat Happy” is not a marketing slogan here: it is their purpose! It is not hard to see why everyone is talking about this concept.

  1. You may not have heard about this next one:  STACKED! It is an unique, “new generation” in Casual Dining. Started by the co-founders of the highly successful BJ’s, STACKED is 100% built on the premise of customization, utilizing an iPad “menu” ordering platform on every table.

 “Food Well Built” isn’t just a slogan. Guests can (and do) customize every menu dish to their taste through a visual, drag-and-drop application. Pricing adjusts on the iPad as guests add or delete ingredients – on their burger, sandwich, salad, pizza or Mac ‘n’ Cheese. Their research says that more than 90% of guests like the results; so now the brand is poised to begin expansion outside of California. Pretty interesting.

  1. Last up is MAX’s Wine DiveOne of my closest friends recommended it, with a half dozen locations in Texas and (to my surprise) in my hometown of Denver! I have been to Cooper’s Hawk, another concept where wine is center stage, but that is the only similarity with MAX’s.

With “dive” in the name, I expected and found MAX’s to be simple, and casual.  Their food is gourmet comfort food like their signature jalapeno-buttermilk fried chicken, or their MAX ‘n cheese in a truffle cream sauce made with provolone, parmigiana and gruyere. So it’s upscale “fine” food and a great wine list, without the stiffness of many “fine” places. But, what was most interesting about MAX’s is the fact that while one-half of the menu is served in all locations, the other half of the menu has the Chef’s name on it and is based on her/his sense of the local market.

 What cool restaurants should I try next? Message or comment your top picks!