Last night, the Sixth Annual SMART Awards dinner was held. It’s the evening when we recognize the town’s top ten restaurants as voted on by the readers of Don Day in SMA.
Four awards are presented: First, second and third place plus the best new restaurant that opened its doors during the previous year.
529 people voted. Each voter was allowed to choose up to three restaurants. 86 different restaurants received votes. For many restaurants, it was as few as one, two, perhaps three votes. For others, it was well into double digits.
With close to 300 restaurants in San Miguel de Allende, any restaurant that received double digit scores put it in the top 10%. Finishing in the top ten, put a restaurant in the elite 3%. In other words, every single one of the restaurants who received at least ten votes should be extremely proud and those in the top ten should be beaming with pride.
The top vote-getter from the previous year has the honor of hosting the awards dinner. That honor went to Firenze and chef/owner Antonio Arrieta put together a five-course menu paired with wines that showed off many of the reasons why the restaurant has been voted number one at the SMARTs in three of the five years that the awards have been held.
We lost four restaurants from the 2018 top ten. Last year’s number three, Zumo, moved locations and off the list. Nicasio made it in 2018 but missed in 2019. Denver’s Olivos has been on and off the SMART top ten over the years; this year it was off. And, for the first time in the award’s history, The Restaurant didn’t quite make it to the elite ten.
The Restaurant and El Vergel, both of which feature the talents of executive chef Donnie Masterton, did make it to the honorable mentions list, the eleventh to fifteenth ranked restaurants. Joining them was a perennial also-ran, Tacos Don Felix, plus Grille Torres, a seafood restaurant that soared up the list this year, and one brand new restaurant, the charming Tostavere.
We had savored Firenze’s first two courses, a crabcake sided with peperonata sauce and fish and scallops served on a chickpea purée, when I started the top ten countdown.
This year, I let the voters do a lot of the talking when highlighting what people particularly liked about specific restaurants. I very much agree with Tom Kotz words about the number ten restaurant on the list. Tom said it was “probably the best value for money in SMA”. Bob Cooksey said for “all around great food, service and value, it is hard to beat.” Though it has never come close to the top of the SMARTs list, it’s never very far away. In tenth place is Hecho en Mexico.
The number nine restaurant has been in San Miguel de Allende longer than I have and that’s now over 15 years. It took until 2018 before it made it to the SMARTs honor role, but it’s repeating its success again this year. In ninth place is Chamonix.
The eighth place restaurant won last year’s favorite new restaurant. It’s still in the top ten, slipping from number five to number eight. I’m talking about that room with a fabulous view. At number eight is Atrio.
The seventh place finisher was the biggest surprise to me personally. It’s another one of those restaurants that’s been around for years but never received a lot of acclaim until 2019. I realized when I saw all of its votes how, personally, I might have taken it for granted and that I was overdue for a visit. Harry Waldo said, “My wife loves the vegetables and salads. For me, the short ribs are the best I’ve had.” Theodora Richardson said, “The grilled meat is always cooked to perfection.” In seventh place is what might just be San Miguel’s best steakhouse. In seventh place is Buenos Aires Bistro.
We had already washed down the wild boar pasta with Firenze’s house red, Morellino di Scansano, when I started back up the list to announce which restaurant was at number six. It was a restaurant that qualified for the town’s favorite new restaurant but that special honor was still to come. Debuting at number six was a restaurant that I think is doing a great job of competing for the fine dining crowd even though they’re a few blocks away from the jardin. David Lewis told me it could become their ‘special occasion’ restaurant” and it’s already one of mine. At sixth place is the very elegant Casa Nostra.
When you talk about chef-driven restaurants in San Miguel, the fifth place finisher is top of mind with me. Walt Larsen referred to the “most creative menu”. Maggie Sperling talked about its “innovative use of Mexican ingredients”. Trish Brock called it “inventive without being contrived”. Jana Kolpen said that their chef “is still, by far, the best chef in town”. The very-talented chef of that restaurant is Marco Cruz. His showpiece, Nomada, sits in fifth place.
Four restaurants made their SMARTs debut this year. You’ve already heard about Buenos Aires and Casa Nostra. When I share some of the voter’s comments about the next restaurant, you might be able to guess what it is. Wendy Valentine said it “has a lovely ambience inside and out.” Jodene Hicks said, “The atmosphere is very charming with the orange tree-laden courtyard and lovely table furnishings.” Myrna Cox mentioned “the girls who run the place and the lovely garden setting.” In fourth place is Marsala.
Each year, in addition to the top ten vote-getters receiving recognition at the SMARTs, we also honor the highest scoring restaurant that opened their doors during the previous year. The top new restaurant for 2019 debuted at the highest position in SMARTs history. It was the first year I had ever had the pleasure of handing out two awards to the same restaurant. There are many different attributes mentioned in voter’s comments. With some it’s the value, with others it’s the oustanding wait staff, with others it’s the creativity of the menu, and with still others it’s the pleasant ambience and setting. The restaurant in third place seemed to score on every single one of those counts. Charles Soberman highlighted the “elegance, excellent service, and the unusual cuisine.”
Congratulations go to chefs JJ Castenada (in the photo) and Donnie Masterton for an amazing achievement in their first year. The third place SMART winner and San Miguel’s favorite new restaurant is Casa Blanca.
If there was a SMART award for San Miguel’s favorite dish, it would almost undoubtedly go to the main course at the dinner, Firenze’s legendary short rib. I had it for the first time nine years ago and I find it almost impossible not to order it, any and every time I go to Firenze.
I think by now, almost every diner knew who the top two restaurants were. Surely, if their names hadn’t been called yet, it must be Firenze and La Parada. La Parada had been in the top three for four years in a row. Firenze had been either first or second for five straight years.
The diners were correct. The top two were our host, Firenze, and their neighbor down the street, the Peruvian gem, La Parada. The only thing left to announce was in what order they stood. I stood up and made the final announcement:
“In second place, towering far above all of the other San Miguel restaurants except one in this year’s SMART Awards is the wonderful La Parada.
San Miguel’s 2019 favorite is, again, the fabulous Firenze.
With thanks to Key He Pearce for her photos.