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The Best NYC Restaurant Meals of 2021

The takeout and dine-in dishes that stood out in this tumultuous year

A chef in a black shirt holds a blowtorch over a pile of brown unagi
Blowtorched unagi at Sushi on Me.
Alex Staniloff/Eater NY

Welcome to Year in Eater 2021, Eater’s annual ritual of eulogizing the past 12 months through input from the city’s top food writers. For 2021’s final week, Eater NY will be posting questions daily about New York City’s restaurant scene in the past year, with answers from those who know it best: Eater editors and friends of Eater. Now: What was your best restaurant meal of 2021?

Amanda Kludt, editor-in-chief, Eater: Llama San, hands down. I went there for the first time this June for a special occasion (and followed up this fall with another visit) and both dinners were delicious and interesting and surprising and refined. It’s now my default answer whenever anyone asks for something for a special birthday or anniversary.

Tae Yoon, NYC editor, Thrillist: I still think about eating at Carne Mare this past summer. From the interior and cocktails to the menu, everything was spot on and the entire experience offered just enough grandeur to get me through the subpar meals I was cooking at home.

Rachel Sugar, staff writer, Grub Street: At the end of April, finally fully-vaxxed, I went to a friend’s birthday dinner at Bricolage, in Park Slope — my first meal in a restaurant since 2020. Honestly, I had been grumpy about the whole thing — it was going to be expensive, groups are stressful, it was raining, I was depressed — but my god. Parties are fantastic! I had forgotten. The food was great (I got the vegetarian Vietnamese crepe, which, in my opinion, was the best order), but mostly, we were all just high on social contact. I kept inviting people to my wedding! Why not! “This is how I want to feel all the time,” I thought. I don’t, but I have revised my stance on group dinners.

Kayla Stewart, food journalist: My best restaurant meal was the nasi ikan balado (spicy fish rice platter) at Sky Cafe in Queens. Fried fish is covered in spicy sambal terasi, while the veggie curry, sliced cucumber, and egg (also covered in sambal) adds even more flavor. The colorful krupuk served with the dish was the icing on the cake. Sky Cafe is about as big as my living room, yet they consistently manage to make some of the best Indonesian food in New York City. As someone who deeply misses international travel and has a particular love for Indonesian food and culture, Sky Cafe gave me a taste of that longing.

John deBary, drinks expert, co-founder of Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation: Trying out veganism was fun because I got to explore places I might not have otherwise gone. Hangawi in K-Town was awesome, if for no other reason than the compulsory shoe removal at the door.

Deanna Ting, senior writer, Resy: Basically every meal — and there have been quite a few — that I’ve had at Dhamaka was just so memorable, from my very first dinner there to the last. I was also lucky enough to have the Rajastani khargosh rabbit feast there with a group of my coworkers — we planned the dinner about a month out — and it was just so special. And so filling, even with a group of seven! Seeing Tina Dolker, the general manager, open up the clay pot that has the rabbit inside is just so thrilling — all of your senses get wrapped up in the whole experience, and it’s just so much fun.

Patty Diez, project manager, Eater: It feels too close to call! But tops are easily Winona’s, Miss Ada, Dhamaka, Lil Debs Oasis for those going to Hudson, and Ci Siamo most recently.

Ryan Sutton, chief food critic, Eater NY: Honestly every time I ate out it just felt so gosh darn nice just to leave the house. That said, my final freewheeling party of a meal at Sushi on Me made me feel like New York was rallying in a way that I hadn’t felt in ages. Fingers crossed we all get through this winter intact.

Robert Sietsema, senior food critic, Eater NY: Presenting less-familiar ingredients as they are eaten at home in South India in a fine dining atmosphere is the particular genius of Semma. So, as you tuck your cloth napkin under your chin, you may find yourself relishing as much as I did goat intestines on a banana leaf, as well garden snails communing in a woven box as if recently collected from a mulberry bush. Both were part of a thrilling meal that also included Mangalorean cauliflower fritters and a gunpowder dosa I was still dreaming about the next day, washed down with a cocktail scented with curry leaves.

Grace Young, cookbook author: In June we had a little mini banquet at Hop Lee of Peking duck, lobster Cantonese, crispy fried chicken with garlic sauce, yi mien, stuffed triple treasure, steamed sea bass with scallions and ginger, stir-fried snow pea shoots with garlic. Six months earlier the owner had told me he thought he could only last two more months so everything tasted extra delicious knowing that he survived winter and spring which were so grim.

Talia Baiocchi, editor-in-chef, Punch: That is a very tough tie to break between my three top newcomers this year, but I have to give it to Shukette (on more than one occasion). Ayesha Nurdjaja’s food is a 6 a.m, get-your-ass-out-of-bed wakeup call you actually want to receive. It’s full of acid, heat, flavor, but there is so much subtlety and refinement under all the energy that you want to keep going back not just to feel alive, but to better understand her cooking.

Note: Some answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.