Mac and cheese - it's a familiar and beloved treat that we learn to eat in high chairs and continue to reach for throughout life to receive a healing dose of comfort. In its barest form, the dish is a tummy-pleasing pasta enriched with mouth-massaging dairy - what's not to love? These restaurants seek to playfully remake the simple stuff into works of art.

Macaroni and cheese had been a tubular tableside staple long before 1937, when Kraft immortalized it in what's become an iconic box.

In fact, the homey noodles were quite popular during the Civil War era, and Thomas Jefferson is even said to have been a fan (relatedly, it's the punchline to that confounding "Yankee Doodle Dandy" song).

Exactly when mac and cheese joined the ranks of Foods Worthy of a Nickname, though, I don't know. What I do know is that it's a familiar and beloved treat (like PBJs and BLTs) that we learn to eat in high chairs and continue to reach for throughout life to receive a healing dose of comfort.

This makes me wonder, can there really be such a thing as bad mac and cheese? Because even uninspired versions seem to slide down easily. (Ex-chef/TV personality Anthony Bourdain admitted to me in an interview that he's a secret lover of KFC's mac and cheese). I mean in its barest form, the dish is tummy-pleasing pasta enriched with mouth-massaging dairy - what's not to love?

OK, if basic mac and cheese is a kind of universally loved blank canvas, wouldn't creative takes that audaciously paint personal touches on it be worth a story? I'll answer that: Of course it would (besides, that was my assignment).

I therefore rolled my have-gut-will-travel self around town documenting a few restaurants that seek to playfully remake the simple stuff into works of art. In their own unique ways, the following "leaders of the mac" all qualified.