With the New Year fast approaching, my thoughts nostalgically turn to an industry near and dear to my heart: restaurants! Sure, it helps that my heart and my stomach are in close proximity. But I also covered the restaurant industry when I began writing for The Motley Fool in 1995.

I've already selected the search engine and Chinese growth stock I'd love to have in my portfolio in 2009. Now it's time to grab a table and peruse the specials of the day.

Eyeing the menu
Casual-dining concepts have fallen out of favor lately. Between a handful of overly leveraged laggards, and falling comps throughout the industry as penny-pinching consumers eat out less, it's a very tricky sector these days.

Fast-food chains have held up better, providing value in these recessionary times, but this doesn't mean I'm going to crown McDonald's (NYSE:MCD) as 2009's top restaurant stock.

Don't get me wrong. "I'm lovin' it" as far as the Golden Arches go. The company put in another monster month of healthy unit-level growth in November. It's also one of the few stocks to actually be trading higher this year. But that elevated price also explains why I'll be looking elsewhere. McDonald's should fare well next year, but the real gains will be found in the resurgence of stocks that got hammered in 2008.

And the runners-up are …
There are plenty of worthy stock candidates here. I should start with Chipotle Mexican Grill (NYSE:CMG), the first restaurant stock I recommended to Motley Fool Rule Breakers newsletter subscribers. The trendy burrito joint runs an amazing business; its limited menu helps quickly whittle down long lines, while an emphasis on quality ingredients vindicates its premium pricing.

Chipotle has taken its lumps this year, but it's still growing. Comps rose 3.1% in its latest quarter, with revenue clocking in 18.9% higher. But it misses top honors because the company is struggling at the moment. Year-over-year profitability is down, and the company that wowed investors by trouncing Wall Street's profit targets in each of its first eight public quarters has now topped analyst estimates just once over the past year.

I'm also warming up to Jack in the Box (NASDAQ:JACK). Beyond its namesake burger restaurants, the company's fast-growing Qdoba.Mexican Grill concept is the closest national chain proxy to Chipotle.

Sure, comps are growing faster at McDonald's and Chipotle than at Jack in the Box and Qdoba, respectively, but there's real value to the shares here. Jack earned $2.01 a share in its recently concluded fiscal 2008, after earning $1.87 a share a year earlier. It's targeting a profit of $2 to $2.20 a share in fiscal 2009. Looking further out, Jack sees bottom-line growth of 12% to 15% annually from 2010 to 2013. It's hard not to like the stock at just 11 times trailing earnings.

I'm also a fan of -- and investor in -- Cracker Barrel (NASDAQ:CBRL) at this point. Its strategically placed locations along major thoroughfares make it a natural winner, now that low gas prices make it easier for families to hit the road. Besides, maybe it's just me, but recessionary times cry out for comfort food like Cracker Barrel's country fried steak, chicken and dumplings, and fruit cobblers.

The last runner-up would be BJ's Restaurants (NASDAQ:BJRI). The casual-dining chain that specializes in deep-dish pizzas recently broke a long streak of positive comps. But despite the company's near-term challenges, its revenue growth held up better in its latest quarter than many of its casual-dining peers', even as it held the line on comps, too.    

And the winner is: Buffalo Wild Wings
The best bang for your buck in 2009 appears to be Buffalo Wild Wings (NASDAQ:BWLD). The chicken-wing specialist is flying back into favor, now that poultry prices are stabilizing and investors can appreciate the company's relative growth.

Revenue soared 28.8% in its third quarter. Comps and earnings also rose, though not at that torrid pace. As one of the few sit-down chains to show healthy growth at the unit level, the company is doing plenty of things right.

It is perfect? No. Buffalo Wild Wings missed analysts' profit estimates in its latest quarter. However, the company has only disappointed Wall Street twice in the past 11 quarters. At just 15 times next year's projected profitability, the company trades at an attractive price point, especially for an elite chain that has historically grown at a much healthier clip. There may be more attractively valued chains out there -- like Cheesecake Factory (NASDAQ:CAKE), currently in the single digits -- but Buffalo Wild Wings has earned its recessionary stripes.

Is that your stomach growling, or your wallet? Pull up a chair, fasten your bib, and prepare to feast on the best of the market's eatery stocks.

Other items on the menu:

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.