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The Biggest Dining Surprises of 2015

A look at the unexpected trends and major moments of the year in dining

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As is the tradition at Eater, our closeout of the year is a survey of friends, industry types, and bloggers. This year, we asked the group eight questions running the gamut from meal of the year to top restaurant newcomers. Their answers will appear throughout the week. Responses are related in no particular order; all are cut, pasted, and (mostly) unedited herein. We've heard about the top standbys, the hot newcomers, the words of the year, and the best neighborhoods. Now it's time for the surprises of the year. Please add your answers in the comments.

Amanda Kludt, Eater editor-in-chief — A tie: Team Torrisi taking the Four Seasons (though it seems kind of obvious in retrospect) and Danny Meyer eliminating tipping (and the domino effect it's having on smaller restaurant groups).

Charlotte Druckman, NYC-based food writer — How much I enjoyed Momofuku Ko, 2.0 and how different it is from version 1.0, which I loved and was sad to see go.

Foster Kamer, Mental Floss executive editor — Besides the fact that, yet again, the best and most interesting meals I had this year were by and large not in New York? The passing of Cutty. I wasn't among his fandom, and I took issue with much of what he wrote. But his impact on the world of food, and food writing, and the way we process and produce narratives about these things and these characters is undeniable. He cared about the subject; he cared about the writing. We need more voices like his, which have somehow become an endangered quality. Especially after losing him, which—no matter how you felt about the guy—is a tectonic shock to this world.

Kenzi Wilbur, Food 52 managing editor — Bruno was spectacularly mediocre. Did I eat different food than everyone else? Can you answer that question after somebody dims the damn lights in that place?

Matt Rodbard, NYC-based food writer — That more super talented chefs and restaurateurs didn’t throw in the dish rag and move to Philadelphia, Chicago, Madison, Los Angeles or France, where the margins are slightly more human.

[Danny Meyer by Krieger]

Hillary Dixler, Eater's senior reports editor — Sadly, I have to say Jams here. It's hard to oversell how excited I was by the return of Jams, how intrigued I was to sample the vintage menu items that made it a power player in the New York dining scene. When it turned out to be a total trainwreck, I took it personally. I still don't really understand.

Levi Dalton, Eater wine editor/host of I'll Drink to That — For me, when I look around, I see successful restaurateurs that don't present any sort of new idea or vision for food or wine. There doesn't even seem to be an attempt in that direction. Instead, it is, "Well, this idea has worked for somebody else, so we are doing that now. Except our place is better, newer, and has neater uniforms." What is missing is anything that actually seems innovative or unique. The innovation has gone into cutting staff. If you try to bring this point up to an operator, they say, "Look, we are trying to make money." And there is nothing wrong with that. But is that all there is to dining out now? And where the real surprise is, for me, is how willingly the dining public has gone along with it. I am surprised that there aren't more moments where people sort of look up from their plates and say, Well, this is kind of soulless.

Helen Rosner, Eater features editor/co-host of The Eater Upsell — It's a tie between Danny Meyer catalyzing the biggest change in the restaurant industry since the invention of the drive-thru, and the ominous return to the zeitgeist of uncomfortable backless stools, as proudly displayed at Bruno.

Serena Dai, Eater NY reporter : I'm relatively new to the trendier side of New York dining so started trying a lot of hip stalwarts in the last few months to play catch up. I was shocked at how sloppy my service was at Mission Chinese. The food and drink pretty much matched the hype, but I'd never heard anything about the service being as bad as it was — and it was pretty awful. Is there a conspiracy to hide this or something?

Erik Torkells, editor/publisher of Tribeca Citizen — This is pretty local, and I'm not sure you should ride the subway for them, but the burritos at El Vez's weekday-only, lunch-only burrito bar are genuinely worthwhile.

Kat Kinsman, Tasting Table editor-at-large — Carbs! Carbs were back! Unapologetic, free-flowing, craftier-than-ever carbs in the form of breads, bagels, grits/risotto/farro beds, pastas, pastries, and beyond. During their sabbatical, they studied up, went to, I dunno, milling school and came back all whole and schmartisanal and satisfying. Plus they brought back their friends butter and lardo along with 'em.

Mimi Sheraton, former Times restaurant critic and author of 1,000 Foods to Eat Before You DiePrices, again.

Devra Ferst, Tasting Table senior editor — That an updated Jewish "appetizing" shop could be one of the city's hottest new restaurants. (A surprise I'm super thankful for.)

Matt Duckor, Epicurious senior editor — Just how good the food at North End Grill has gotten under Eric Korsh.

Jordana Rothman, NYC-based food writer — That we’ve been content with so few surprises.

Matt Buchanan, editor at The Awl —I don't know that it was a surprise, per se, given that it is the logical product of the confluence of several trends in New York City real estate, restaurant culture (fast fine quick-service craft artisan casual dining!!!!!!), and venture capital, but the food court phenomenon felt overwhelming this year—next year it might kill us all.

[The dining room at Bruno Pizza by Krieger]

Robert Sietsema, Eater NY senior critic — African restaurants in the Bronx, especially from Ghana and Nigeria, where you could get a steamed loaf of fufu to accompany rich soups laced with peanut butter or palm oil. Absolutely the richest dish in town, and inexpensive, too.

Joe DiStefano, editor/publisher of Chopsticks + Marrow — Sad to say the closure of Danny Brown Wine Bar and Kitchen.

Dan Saltzstein, editor at the NYT Travel section — Contra. I love their low-price tasting menu model — it's extremely satisfying (and they serve the best bread in the city right now). And their pop-up crossovers with out-of-town chefs have been super-fun.

Ryan Sutton, Eater NY critic/data lead — I suppose Union Square Hospitality's decision to end tipping is the obvious answer, but that notwithstanding, Fuku+ is probably the number one surprise here. Think about it this way: Danny Meyer waited a solid couple of years between Shake Shack #1 and Shake Shack #2. David Chang waited about 90 days. Was anyone was really expecting him to turn half of Ma Peche into another fried chicken venue, and for that second venue to be the more ambitious and experimental of the two, giving us such creations as spicy chicken nuggets and Mission Chinese Fuku fingers (arguably an improvement over the MCF original)? And speaking of Danny Meyer, the number two surprise was perhaps how much his Studio Cafe at The Whitney ended up rocking with the toast-heavy menu. We all knew Untitled downstairs would be dope, but who would've thought Michael Anthony would've killed it at the more casual cafe with Thai chile-topped peanut butter toast? Or cheddar with green tomatoes? You can't get more normcore than toast (aka open faced sandwiches), but these guys made such a strong case for it makes you wonder whether a fast casual toast concept is what our world needs.

Nick Solares, Eater NY senior editor — That service included is gaining currency so quickly. Shocking but not surprising was the the original location of The Palm shuttered.

Daniela Galarza, Eater news editor — Major Food Group opened a restaurant I don't hate (Sadelles), though this is largely because they hired a great baker.

Greg Morabito, Eater NY editor and co-host of The Eater Upsell — I was very surprised by the sudden closures of Kin Shop and Perilla. I'm also surprised by the completely mixed reactions to Bruno Pizza. It's refreshing to hear a range of opinions about a new Manhattan restaurant. I hope that 2016 produces more truly polarizing restaurants.

Top photo: Sadelle's by Nick Solares

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