Plenty of smart, useful articles appear each year directing people to the nation’s buzziest restaurants, highlighting emerging trends and up-and-coming chefs. This annual guide, compiled after 34 weeks of travel and almost 600 meals in 36 cities, aims to accomplish something else: It’s a distillation of the foods and the communities to which I’ve borne witness. The undertaking has defined my work — my life, really — for nearly thelast five years as Eater’s national critic. The one-word mantra that steers my thinking, and also the city-based Eater 38 maps upon which the list is modeled, is essential. Which places become indispensable to their neighborhoods, and eventually to their towns and whole regions? Which ones spur trends, or set standards for hospitality and leadership, or stir conversations around representation and inclusivity? Which restaurants, ultimately, become vital to how we understand ourselves, and others, at the table?