June 23, 2024


Than a Food Fitter

Food Writers & Chefs Talk The Best Restaurants Of 2021

15 min read

We didn’t eat at enough restaurants last year. Sure, in a lot of ways 2021 was more “normal” than 2020 — we started going to concerts, bars, movie theaters, and generally having lives again. Covid cases were on a downward trend! Vaccination rates were rising! Then we got hit with the Delta and Omicron variants and that renewed sense of optimism started to fizzle.

As of January 4th, there’s a fair bit that’s unclear. How serious is Omicron? Is it less dangerous than previous strains? More contagious?

The fears (many valid!) associated with this new strain of Covid means restaurants — which generally run on paper-thin margins — are struggling once again. So, in an effort to give some shine to our favorite independently owned and operated businesses, we reached out to some of our favorite chefs, food personalities, and food writers and asked them to shout out their favorite restaurant experiences of 2021.

Hopefully, things will open back up again (again. Again?) soon and you can let these recommendations guide your 2022 dining experiences. Let’s eat!

Table of Contents

EDITOR’S PICK: “Verdant” By Abbey Road Farms, Carlton, Oregon — Steve Bramucci

black cod broth
Abbey Road Farm

I’ve been following chef Will Preisch’s cooking since he was in his mid-20s, running a Portland pop-up supper club called Holdfast with his good friend Joel Stocks. As a food writer who was new to fine dining, had been around the restaurant industry a little, and had begun to see the fissures in the traditional restaurant model (and the specific version of capitalism sold to my generation), everything about the Holdfast experiment thrilled me. The menu was full of wild ideas, the chefs mocked the idea of owning a brick and mortar and paying steady rent, etc, and the food was a mixture of recognizable flavors and ingredients (limpets, the snails that cling fiercely to rocks on the Oregon Coast, once famously featured on the menu) combined in unexpected ways. The food was clearly influenced by the foam and gelee era of Noma, the famed Copenhagen restaurant where Preisch once volunteered (“staged”), but it was also all Oregon in its ingredients.

I loved it and brought everyone I knew. I covered Preisch for various outlets and kept loosely in touch with him.

So when I headed to Oregon in the fall for a foraging trip and discovered that he’d launched a lunch tasting menu called “Verdant” at Abbey Road Winery in Carlton, just 45 minutes from the heart of Portland, I made it a priority to visit. I am so thrilled that I did. Just like at Holdfast, Preisch is a repository of bold ideas which he executes with an incredibly deft touch. After an oyster amuse-bouche, there was a cold salad featuring a sort of “green goddess” cold soup that was so airy and bright that you felt like you were sipping spring. After a similarly bright spot prawns course (with totally different flavor notes), came a miso cod in black olive and fennel broth that hit all of the sweet spots of classic misoyaki butterfish and yet remained completely surprising thanks to that unctuous broth. But it was the first of two desserts (the more savory of the two, standing in for a cheese course) that blew me away: ice cream made with lees — a byproduct of the winemaking process — and a white wine gelee.

This ice cream was my most interesting bite of the year, bar none. It was deeply funky but still retained some distant conjuring of grape flavor notes. It was more savory than you’d ever expect ice cream to be but every bit as silky. The sugar came from the wine gelee, which was sweet and really carried the sharper flavor notes of wine that you wouldn’t want the ice cream to have. The meal, top to bottom, was creative and bold and deeply refined. All the things I missed in the years that restaurant dining was shut down.

Roscoe’s House Of Chicken N Waffles, Various Locations, Los Angeles, California — Dane Rivera

Despite being a food writer, I didn’t get to spend much time in restaurants this year due to the pandemic. My focus was mostly around fast food in 2021 but on those days when I was feeling burnt out from drive-thru food, I hit up a comfort classic, Roscoe’s House of Chicken N Waffles. Most of my Roscoe’s orders this year were, unfortunately, to-go orders, but I spent a considerable time with the menu.

My go-to’s include the Carol C. Special, a simple breast and waffle combo, and the Big Mamma, which consists of scrambled eggs, onions and cheese, and served with potatoes in gravy with a hot biscuit. You can’t forget the sides — red beans and rice, candy yams, cornbread, mac and cheese, mixed greens, order them all, they’re all mouth-watering and wonderfully food coma-inducing.

Thai District, Long Beach, California — Dane Rivera

This is now my favorite Thai restaurant of all time. Granted, I’ve only had Thai in a handful of states, and never in Thailand, but I’ve never experienced flavors dance across my palate the way everything from Thai District does. The food here is so aromatic, each bite is absolute ecstasy, as sweet and spicy chilis bounce off sweet and complex blends of basil, garlic, and onion, and fresh vegetables. The Spicy Fried Rice will blow your mind, the Duck Curry is last meal worthy, and no table order is complete without a serving of Thai Disctric’s crispy tofu and pad see eew.

There aren’t a whole lot of reasons to venture out of Los Angeles and into Long Beach, but Thai District is one of them. And ComplexCon. Gotta love ComplexCon.

Brunch at Proof On Main, Louisville Kentucky — Zach Johnston

Proof on Main biscuit
Zach Johnston

Proof on Main has this duality to it of being both a very obvious tourist spot and a chic hotel art bar. The first part might sound off-putting but let me clarify. Proof on Main is on Main Street right in the middle of Whiskey Row in Louisville, Kentucky. The thing is, you can 100 percent miss this place unless you’re looking for it. The entrance is on a side street through a hotel lobby. That means that you don’t get a constant flow of tipsy tourists looking for a bar to belly up at. The other side of that coin is that this is a lobby bar/restaurant. That being said, the hotel Proof on Main is attached to is 21c Louisville, which is a “museum hotel.” The hotel is a chic, modernist museum-meets-hotel that bleeds over into the restaurant and bar both with the art on the walls, interior decoration, and the beauty of the food.

It’s also worth noting that this is Louisville, the heart of whiskey country, so the bartenders are phenomenal and the whiskey menu is stellar.

I had a couple of good meals at Proof on Main, but it was the breakfast that I still dream about months later. I had the fried chicken with a subtlest sausage gravy I’ve ever seen (and I’m a biscuits and gravy scholar). But it was the biscuit on the side that blew my mind. Pictured above, it was a classic crumb biscuit (instead of flaky) that had the perfect lightness and heft combined with deep butteriness and the right counter of large flake salt. You felt the grains come off the chaff in the flour in this biscuit — that’s amazing flour. It was deep and made my eyes roll far back in food-born ecstasy.

I went back for that biscuit almost every weekend over three weeks and I never got tired of it. Hell, I even had their breakfast bison burger once (also pretty great) and still got a biscuit on the side. They’re that good.

Nepenthe, Big Sur, California — Chloe Caldwell

Nepenthe is one of my favorite restaurant experiences of the year. If you’re doing a road trip up the coast, it’s a must stop location! The food is good — think classic burgers, sandwiches, beer, and fries — but it’s the view and chill environment that really make it special. It’s located right off the road on the edge of a cliff that overlooks Big Sur. So you get mountains, evergreen trees, and ocean views all in one place. It’s absolutely beautiful!

I went to Nepenthe during lunch hours and ordered the California Beet Salad, which had blue cheese, orange supremes, pickled fennel, spicy candied walnuts, and citrus vinaigrette dressing on it. The refreshing fruity salad was exactly what I needed for a sunny California day on the coast. I also ordered a side of fries, which were that perfect crispy on the outside and soft on the inside ratio. To drink, I’d recommend the Elderflower Sparkler and The South Coast Margarita.

Manuela, Los Angeles California — Alex Malcolm (Eats By Alex)

Alex Malcom

Located in the Arts District of Los Angeles, Manuela unites chef, farmer and artist to create an authentic and original dining experience. Led by Executive Chef Kris Tominaga, the menu showcases seasonal ingredients sourced from the best farms and producers in Southern California.

Manuela is situated within Hauser & Wirth, who have been supporting the arts district since 2016. Their rotating exhibitions & large mural-style paintings on exposed-brick walls, bring a beautifully eclectic backdrop to the space while you are dining. Order the half chicken, with chili de arbol & white BBQ sauce (and the House Negroni if you’re feeling frisky), you will not be disappointed. As someone who predominantly cooks, I try to ensure that a restaurant will give me an experience or preparation I can’t get on my own… and Manuela takes the cake every time.

Il Corso, Palm Springs California — Max Miller (Host Of Tasting History With Max Miller)

There’s an Italian restaurant in Palm Springs called Il Corso. Hands down the best dining experience I’ve had in 2021. They had the staple Italian dishes you expect but also had many authentic dishes that rarely make it to the menus of Italian restaurants in the US. It’s right downtown, yet just off the beaten path so the noise of the main street doesn’t spoil the peaceful atmosphere. I look forward to going back soon, even if only to explore their cocktail menu a little more.

Recommended Dish

The Risotto Pescatore — lots of fresh seafood over perfectly cooked risotto with a light tomato sauce.

Detour Doughnuts, Frisco Texas — The Food Romantic

When looking back at all of my eatery experiences the past year, there’s one shop that stands out as the best: Detour Doughnuts. This gourmet doughnut shop in Frisco, TX has been one of my favorites for a while due to their absolutely stunning, unique, and delicious doughnuts. There’s been a constant rotation of new seasonal flavors throughout the year including rose champagne, neapolitan, taro coconut, biscoff & banana pudding, pumpkin cream cheese (my favorite), and dark chocolate pomegranate (just to name a few). In addition to new flavors, there’s also been a wide range of decorative doughnuts for a variety of holidays, special occasions, and meaningful purposes, including a #StopAsianHate doughnut (after the tragedy in Atlanta earlier this year). Not only did this doughnut represent a necessary message, but all sales of this doughnut went directly to gofundme.com/aapi (a total of $5,872 was donated on March 22nd from the sales of this doughnut).

Detour Doughnuts has constantly brought a sense of comfort and joy to those who stop by. Whether it’s an exciting new flavor or an adorable new design (there were even Friends-themed doughnuts for the Friends reunion special) – Detour is a place that has brought a smile to many faces, including mine!

Cafe Gabriela Oakland, California — Chef Charleen Caabay, Chopped Winner, Co-Founder, and Chief Innovation Officer at The People’s Ecosystem.

Cafe Gabriela

The best way to curate this is all in a day’s work. I love starting the early mornings at Cafe Gabriela. Not your regular coffee shop, but one where you will leave inspired by the artwork and even by the cafe’s name. “Gabriela,” named after Gabriela Silang, a Filipina revolutionary who revolted against the Spanish colonizers. Sourced by local vendors, owner Penny and her team have been serving the Oakland community for quite some time. Freshly ground coffee, a few breakfast bites, and many treats to choose from. My favorite is the Filipino Adobo sandwich; it just brings back memories of home.

Fob Kitchen, Oakland, California — Chef Charleen Caabay, Chopped Winner, Co-Founder, and Chief Innovation Officer at The People’s Ecosystem.

Then comes lunch! Fob Kitchen, a Filipino food gastropub, also can be found in Oakland. Owner Chef Janice’s curated menu brings all the comfort on your plate no matter what you order. The freshly rolled lumpia is crispy when fried and is so tasty with the dipping sauce. You can’t go without ordering your meal with garlic rice and a fried egg. It really doesn’t matter what time of day! Pork eaters must get the Lechon kawali. Fried pork belly; you can not go wrong! Another favorite is the torta talong, known as an eggplant omelet — another comfort food favorite! Their bar menu is cute and brings memories of being on a resort in the Philippine Islands.

Magnolia Street Wine Lounge & Kitchen, Oakland California — Chef Charleen Caabay, Chopped Winner, Co-Founder, and Chief Innovation Officer at The People’s Ecosystem.

My next choice is the Magnolia Street Wine Lounge & Kitchen. Chef Leilani, an Oakland native, brings her memories of her upbringing with delicious soul food, libations, and even live music! So many fan favorites like fried chicken, shrimp and grits, fried fish, mac n cheese, and peach cobbler waffles! I can rave on and on. Wine pairings and good eats are all you need. You can expect live music from local DJs or a local band on some nights.

Either of these choices, you really can’t go wrong. Hidden gems that the lucky ones have found and frequented. Don’t miss out, and get you a plate!

MáLà Project, Manhattan, New York — Chef Priyanka Naik, Author of The Modern Tiffin, Food Network Champion

I absolutely love MaLa Project and take any friends or family who come from out of town to this restaurant. It is a different take on schezuan cooking – it’s categorized as “dry pot.” So you pick the ingredients you want and they saute it up in this delicious house blend of multiple chilies, garlic, ginger, cinnamon, schezuan peppercorns, bay leaf – it is SO good and spicy. And the best part about it – you can be completely vegan here! I recommend the Mala Peanuts, Dan Dan Noodles (sans meat), Mixed veggie & tofu dry pot and the mung bean jelly with chili oil.

Mora Pizza, Miami, Florida — Chef Priyanka Naik, Author of The Modern Tiffin, Food Network Champion

Mora Pizza is actually not a restaurant and they operate out of a local bodega in Miami. But one of my sisters lives in Miami and has been raving about this delicious vegan find, so the last time I was there I had to go. Mora fulfills all your devilish desires, but vegan! I’m talkin buffalo chick’n calzone, garlic knots, eggplant parm – they bake all of their bread fresh and it 1000% makes a difference.

Planta Queen, Manhattan, New York — MáLà Project – Manhattan, New York — Chef Priyanka Naik, Author of The Modern Tiffin, Food Network Champion

Planta Queen is exactly what it says – a QUEEN for plant-based food. Everything here is delish, it has an awesome vibe – slightly upscale, but not pretentious at all. And the menu is packed with delicious Asian and Global-inspired dishes (just my jam). One of my favs is the Peking Jackfruit and the Crispy Rice.

ilona South End, Boston, Massachusettes — MáLà Project – Manhattan, New York — Chef Priyanka Naik, Author of The Modern Tiffin, Food Network Champion

I unexpectedly landed here one fine evening in October. Boston is the city of my alma mater, so I am very familiar with all the happenings, but since I graduated, there have been SO many delicious restaurants that have popped up! I was fortunately in Boston to accept an award from my alma mater Boston University, so I was lucky enough to have a celebratory dinner at ilona! They are fairly new and have such a cool vibe – blue velvet booths, white floors – very Greek. And the food was excellent. All of the dips were heavenly, and the bread! I am a sucker for warm, fluffy pita and anything with za’atar sign me up!

Chulita,Venice Beach, CaliforniaMáLà Project – Manhattan, New York — Chef Priyanka Naik, Author of The Modern Tiffin, Food Network Champion

I frequent LA and LOVE LA. Mainly for the weather, beach and food. Specifically the Mexican food. Last time I was in LA was October 2021 (to film on The Kelly Clarkson Show!) and my friend took me to Chulita for a late lunch. I loved it! The restaurant has an effortless indoor-outdoor vibe, very Tulum/bohemian, excellent mezcal menu and a TON of vegan options. I particularly liked the taquitos and vegan queso! So good! Definitely go here in the daytime – the vibes are so LA – chill and chic at the same time.

Miss Ollie’s, Oakland, California — Chef Nikki Steward, CEO and Head Chef The High-End Affair

Chef Sarah Kirnon is the owner and chef of the restaurant, she’s from Barbados but I’m trying to tell you — this is the best Carribean food I’ve had in a long time. Ox tail second to none, Currently she has this jerk crab that is fucking phenomenal but my favorite has always been the ox tail.

Hoyo’s Kitchen, Columbus, Ohio — Chef Nikki Steward, CEO and Head Chef The High-End Affair

The dope thing about Hoyo’s is that it literally pays homage to his mother. It’s a Somalian restaurant and Somalian mothers are responsible for recipes and everything culinary wise, so he wanted to represent Somalian women in the culinary space. His mother is in the back working, seasoning everything, this is some of the most authentic, just really good African food. I feel like Iove everything, they have multiple locations so it’s kind of a food stall in different marketplaces.

Mango chicken, spicy rice, the lentils, the chickpeas, the veggie sambusas, it’s my favorite go-to thing when I’m looking for comfort food in Ohio.

Lung Yai Thai Tapas, Miami, FloridaChef Nikki Steward, CEO and Head Chef The High-End Affair

It’s legit my favorite Thai place in the f*cking country. I did my culinary studies in Thailand. Lung Yai Thai Tapas by Chef Bas. When I sit down at this place… first of all they know me so they automatically give me a table because the line is always down the f*cking block. It’s very small, it’s in Calle Ocho in Miami. I literally order everything that I can possibly think of on the menu because you can only order one time. When you’re with your group everyone has to get their order together because you can’t have seconds, so we usually order like two of everything.

The Pad Kee Mao is so good, the Khao Soi is one of my favorites, the panang curry, the crab rice, they have like a duck basil noodle situation. Nuts! Chef Bas is amazing at what he does.

1417ATX, Austin, Texas — Chef Nikki Steward, CEO and Head Chef The High-End Affair

This is a dope restaurant in Austin. It’s a beautiful space, just recently opened not that long ago, French-inspired, very esoteric wine list, dope ass cocktails, they have a great chef tasting menu that I really fuck with. It’s seasonal, last time I was there it was scallops, cauliflower curry, raisin chutney, pumpkin seed brittle, octopus, polenta, their 48hr beef short rib with a beet risotto is fire! It’s located in downtown Austin owned by husband and wife, Allison and Pedro. It’s all family operated,

They have a bomb ass brunch too.

Tacos Rudos, Columbus OhioChef Nikki Steward, CEO and Head Chef The High-End Affair

Red snapper taco is my fav here. Family business ran by a family from Oaxaca … phenomenal Mexican food.

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