If anything could have been more surreal for restaurants than 2020, it was this year — with its bounce from almost-done-with-COVID, to maybe not, to the great unknown of late fall. But if anyone needed proof of the resilience of American dining, you could find it everywhere during the past twelve months. This wasn’t simply a matter of pandemic pivots, or a brave new world of etiquette and protocol. Chefs and restaurateurs from coast to coast not only endured, they shone.
The gusto manifested itself in the sheer number of new restaurants that opened in 2021, improbably rising from the ashes of an industry brought to a halt. That included everything from Dhamaka in New York and Hanchic in L.A., to Seattle’s Communion, Minneapolis’ Owamni, and Baobab Fare in Detroit. In each case these were bold additions to the canon — chefs who saw the moment to share great cooking through their own personal lens, drawing on traditions from around the world. It included new arrivals like Bar Volpe in Boston and Charleston’s Post House, where veteran chefs could finesse the best of comfort food.
To celebrate the highlights of a year in dining unlike any other, we asked our Hit List contributors in many of our Resy cities to distill the best of their year’s recommendations down to 10 selections, and to choose their absolute favorite from among them.
So what follows is our Best of Resy’s Hit Lists for 2021, including the top pick from each city, a sort of Hit List supergroup. Consider it a memento of how restaurants are always there for us, in good times and bad — testament to how vibrant and varied American dining has become today.
-Jon Bonné, Managing Editor
New York: Dhamaka
There’s a reason why Dhamaka has topped the best-of lists from multiple publications: It’s really just that good. Chef Chintan Pandya and restaurateur Roni Mazumdar will be the first people to tell you they never anticipated the kind of response they received for this, their third restaurant together after critically acclaimed Adda and Rahi, which has since become Semma (yet another hit you shouldn’t miss).
When they opened Dhamaka, they felt like they were taking a risk by choosing to focus on regional Indian cuisines and dishes that are often forgotten or overlooked. But true to its name (“dhamaka” refers to a “bang” or “explosion”), Dhamaka has left a huge impression on critics and New Yorkers alike, many of whom have scrambled to get a table — or, harder yet, to order the elusive and incredible Rajasthani khargosh rabbit feast. If you haven’t been yet to Dhamaka, you owe it to yourself to go. Don’t delay.
-Deanna Ting and Emily Wilson
Los Angeles: Hanchic
Opening during a pandemic is never easy, but this tiny outfit in a Koreatown strip mall has made waves with its big flavors and fun fusion mashups. Chef Myungbin Min, who grew up in the South Bay and worked at places like Kali and Little Sister, is a master of experimentation. Some of his creations, like mandu with doenjang Bolognese or kimchi tagliatelle, are revelations. Why no one else has thought about adding marinated bulgogi to a super-cheesy risotto is astonishing — because it’s really, really good. This is more than contemporary fusion cuisine; it’s L.A. on a plate.
Washington, DC: Ellē
Perhaps you’re in search of tasting the bleeding edge of modernist plant-based cooking, like koji-aged beet bresaola, grilled fermented cabbage tartine with labneh and XO sauce, beet ‘nduja lettuce wraps, and grilled teriyaki tempeh ribs. Or maybe you’re feeling nostalgic for grand hotel food of the Italian Alps, like beef carpaccio Piedmontese with truffles, or a pork shoulder Milanese with anchovy and sauce gribiche. Who else would you turn to but chef Brad Deboy? Deboy manages to finesse both of these seemingly divergent themes, which is why we’ve been taken since Ellē opened in 2018, and never more than after a year like this.
Boston: Bar Volpe
With the opening of her second restaurant, Karen Akunowicz expanded on the promise of Fox & The Knife—freshly made pasta and an authentic look at regional Italian flavors — but changes the focus from Modena to down south. She also incorporated her brilliant pandemic pivot, Fox Pasta, into the space by creating a in-restaurant market where diners can pick up fresh pastas and sauces to-go. In sum, it’s another reminder of how lucky Boston is to have retained the talents of Akunowicz, who spent seven years as the executive chef of the city’s Myers + Chang before striking out on her own.
San Francisco: Ernest
One of the best new restaurants in San Francisco, in our humble opinion, we fell for Chef Brandon Rice’s market-driven, globally inspired fare at his restaurant Ernest. Whether we went a la carte or let the kitchen cook for us, we were treated to a different experience every time, leaving always full, always satiated, and always ready to come back for more. The one constant, a menu mainstay we always look forward to? Ikura-topped beef tartare hand rolls. Yes, please, and thank you.
Philadelphia: Middle Child Clubhouse
You can tell by looking at the menu that the team at Middle Child Clubhouse is having a great time playing with food. In addition to the sandwiches they’ve become known for, they have a wide range of eye-catching cocktails, dinner entrées, and more. It’s dishes like their okonomiyaki-topped latkes; the PEI mussels in a savory hot ham broth; and that wild foie gras and Concord grape jelly sandwich that graced their specials a few weeks back that really sets the Clubhouse apart from the Center City location that started the Middle Child craze.
Aside from the food, it’s really the vibes that have made this spot a quick Fishtown favorite. The casual bar seating invites folks to stop by to enjoy a drink with friends (try the cannoli milk punch, a grown up “chocolate milk” with whiskey, orange liqueur, chocolate, and pistachio) and the pool table really makes it feel like a playful clubhouse. But, crucially, those good vibes extend to how Middle Child Clubhouse treats its staff. Even before they opened, owner Matt Cahn made it a point to rethink the way his restaurant would operate by offering competitive wages, mental health training, and limiting the number of hours staff can work each week to promote a healthy work/life balance. Cahn believes that when the staff is happy, the customers are happy, and so far, he’s been right. And doing so, he’s set a model for restaurant life in Philadelphia — and beyond.
-Kae Lani Palmisano
Chicago: Sun Wah
We were bummed that Hit List writer Maggie Hennessy left Chicago before we could convince her to select a Best Of — the way of things in 2021, perhaps. So we asked new Chicago Hit List writer Ariel Kanter to share her favorite meal from the past year. She didn’t disappoint. If you’re not in the mood to go to Uptown, it’s always a good time for a trip to Chicago’s ever-underheralded Chinatown.
While it may not be new or trendy, really good Peking duck is always worth writing about. That’s why my favorite 2021 meal was at Sun Wah. It’s one of the few places I’ve dined in this year, mainly because the space is so airy and enormous, and because the Beijing duck is so legendary. (Our group ordered two ducks and regretted nothing.) The meal was a blur of hands and chopsticks and spoons grabbing dumplings and noodles; plopping hunks of duck and shaved scallions into buns; ladling insanely hot duck soup into our mouths. It’s one of those meals where you barely talk because you’re so busy eating. It’s also the kind of meal you think about until you can have it again. And now that it’s insanely cold out, I’m excited to try the congee on my next visit — and more duck, of course.
Miami: Côte Miami
As has been the case repeatedly this year, one of the best additions to Miami’s dining scene this year comes straight out of New York City. Simon Kim’s Michelin-starred Korean steakhouse landed in the always-stylish Design District, and brought with it its own sultry vibe — one that perfectly defined the link between the two cities. The dining room is dark and sexy, with hunger-inducing aromas of grilled meats. Plus, with more than 1,000 wines to choose from, you’ll definitely find the perfect bottle for your meal. If this is where Miami dining is headed, we’re very here for it.
Houston: Xin Chao
Viet-Cajun oysters that pack a spicy, garlicky punch. Crispy-chewy fried flat rice noodles served with a smoky beef rib so tender and flavorful you’ll still be thinking about it days later. A whole fried fish of the day so incredibly succulent you’ll be scavenging whatever meat remains on the bones long after you’re done devouring it. These mouthwatering offerings and others are what keep loyal diners returning for more at co-chefs Christine Ha and Tony J. Nguyen’s modern Vietnamese hot spot.
Ha (a.k.a. “the blind cook” and winner of “MasterChef” season three) and Nguyen (who’s set to reopen his popular Saigon House sometime next spring) launched their collaborative venture in late 2020 with a menu that successfully infuses their favorite traditional Vietnamese dishes — like braised pork belly, shaking beef, and congee — with a bit of Gulf Coast flare. The result is truly delicious food that honors the chefs’ Asian and Texas heritages, and is everything Houston could want.
Charleston: Post House
Mount Pleasant, located just across the harbor from Charleston, sometimes earns its negative nickname of “Mount Plastic.” But there’s nothing artificial about Post House, located in its Old Village District. It instead feels like both a true neighborhood spot and a destination restaurant, a clever tightrope to walk. There’s a Backbar cheeseburger and a savory shrimp curry alongside seasonal oysters, ceviche, and at-their-peak vegetables. Despite some initial chef shuffles, the kitchen has calmed, and Nathan Hood isn’t creating flashy, showy dishes, but instead takes inspiration from the Shem Creek (steps from the door) and the farms to which he has access. In doing so, he’s anchored the restaurant in a real place and time, namely the Lowcountry in 2021 — and that’s solid, no flimsy plastic included.
Dallas-Fort Worth: Roots Southern Kitchen
(Top) Chef Tiffany Derry’s latest foray was a welcome sight in Farmers Branch, a quiet enclave east of DFW airport that seems to leave the big openings to other ‘burbs. But Derry’s “homage to modern Southern cooking” quickly made noise well beyond the metroplex for its vibrant menu that spans fried shrimp and grits to My Mother’s Gumbo, not to mention jerk lamb chops paired with black-eyed peas. The family-style duck fat fried chicken is a nod to Derry’s other venture, Roots Chicken Shak, and it proves the chef can do wonders with minimal ingredients — kinda like on that TV show on which she earned kudos.
Twin Cities: Owamni By The Sioux Chef
There are a ton of talented chefs in the Cities, at the helm of restaurants that are creative and socially aware and important and just plain fun. But what sets Owamni apart is its sense of place, how deeply it’s tied not just to the state, to the city, but to the land it sits on. This new endeavor from Sean Sherman and Dana Thompson overlooks St. Anthony Falls, a site sacred to the Dakota, and celebrates contemporary Native American fare. Guests are cued in as soon as they reach the entryway, where a red neon sign announces, “You are on Native land.”
The restaurant’s lifeblood is Indigenous ingredients, those that were around before colonization. Instead of beef, pork, or chicken, you’ll find bison, trout, and turkey. And while there’s also no wheat flour, refined sugar, or dairy, it would be ridiculous to call the menu “lacking,” especially considering the skill and love with which Sherman and Thompson treat each dish.
Detroit: Baobab Fare
The yearslong buildup for this restaurant run by a Burundian refugee couple lasted so long it almost seemed it would never happen, its opening only further delayed by the pandemic. Undaunted, and having already overcome much larger obstacles to get here, husband-and-wife duo Mamba Hamissi and Nadia Nijimbere finally debuted their love letter to Detroit in New Center last winter, serving brightly colored homestyle East African dishes out of a highly visible and stylish corner space at Woodward and E Grand Blvd.
There are no misses on the menu, from the intore, a savory vegetarian eggplant stew, to the nyumbani, a fall-apart hunk of beef simmered in tomato sauce, to the pitch-perfect ending of tangy avocado and passionfruit pudding — each dish made with a mother’s care and love. Taken together with the couple’s warm brand of heartfelt hospitality, Baobab Fare is a real winner.
Portland, Ore.: Apizza Scholls
In as robust a pizza town as Portland has become, are you surprised we didn’t stray far from the original? Apizza Scholls, long beloved for its 18” neo-Neapolitan pies cooked to perfection in an electric oven, is arguably the one that started it all. Originally opened on a Christmas tree farm in Scholls, Ore., Apizza Scholls has been sending out simply excellent pizza for more than 20 years now (though they opened on Hawthorne in 2005).
Like almost every restaurant, COVID disrupted the normal flow of everything, but it actually made getting our hands on one of Brian Spangler’s pies almost easier. Out-the-door lines were traded for takeout and delivery by phone—not only 18” house and build-your-own pies, salads and desserts, but calzones on most weekdays. Because Scholls actually took the pandemic to get even better. It is as true to Portland as you can get, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Hands down, Seattle’s go-to for comfort food in 2021 has been chef Kristi Brown and her son Damon Bomar’s award-winning restaurant. Located in the heart of the Central District, on the historic site of Liberty Bank, the first Black-owned bank in the Pacific Northwest, Brown and Bomar feature “Seattle soul” dishes from a deep-fried eggplant salad with creamy corn vinaigrette to a roasted pork neck bone stew. Reservations book lightning-fast. But the restaurant usually has a few tables available for walk-ins when it opens at 4 p.m. Or, we suggest, swing by for brunch every Sunday (first come, first served) or late-night happy hour. The thicker-than-thighs cornbread French toast is worth waking early — and shows how Brown has found a way to define Seattle cooking on her own terms.
Austin: Tiki Tatsu-Ya
Any Austinite who hasn’t made their way over to Tiki Tatsu-Ya by now is probably tired of us constantly mentioning it, as they sit at your computer refreshing that browser, hoping for a seat to open up. Anyone who has been probably understands why we keep mentioning it. As one of the city’s most exciting 2021 openings, this immersive bar on South Lamar has done to tiki what Aaron Franklin did to barbecue. (And we can’t get enough of either.) A group is recommended if you want to try some of the large-format drinks — one of them comes in a fog-laden pirate ship, complete with Tiki Tatsu-Ya branded chocolate coins — or sample of their unique takes on classic tiki staples, like the mai tai made with miso-almond orgeat. Either way, this shows the resiliance of the Tatsu-Ya mini-empire in creating delight.