After a hiatus in 2020, the Eater Awards have returned to a much different restaurant landscape. In New York City, there’s more outdoor dining options than ever before, many longstanding establishments have shuttered, and pop-ups have given chefs a platform to show off their creativity and often times, food that New Yorkers have rarely seen before like Vietnamese desserts and over-the-top gelatin cakes.
The list below highlights the Eater New York team’s most memorable dining experiences during the past 18 months. While the notion of being anointed the “best” in any one category is highly subjective, there’s no doubt all these Eater Awards winners are fully deserving of the recognition.
Best Solo Dining
Solo dining is, on some level, the most honest way to experience a restaurant. Without company, single diners are hyper-aware of the food in front of them; the vibe of a dining room; and every little detail of service. In this context, Cadence, this year’s breakout East Village star from chef Shenarri Freeman, is a force to behold. The restaurant’s railroad-style dining room is just wide enough to fit one long bar outfitted with rare, comfortable bar seats upholstered in cushy pink velvet. In a kitchen setup not much bigger than that of an East Village apartment — and entirely installed behind the bar — Freeman and her staff are constructing outstanding vegan versions of Southern staples, including crisp-edged, deep-fried lasagna, smoky grits, and creamy potato salad. Sitting at the counter, elbow-to-elbow with diners to either side, is a just-communal-enough experience seemingly built with flying solo in mind. — Erika Adams, deputy editor
In a city with so many new bakeries, it can be hard to stand out. But Mel, which opened in fall 2020, quickly garnered a fan base, even with all the growing number of popular restaurants in Dimes Square. Head baker Nora Allen (who got her start at Roberta’s, later working under Max Blachman-Gentile at the Standard) sets the bakery program apart from the pack with a focus on fresh-milled, heirloom-grains. A sourdough loaf cloaked in black-and-white sesame seed stripes — allegedly inspired by Beetlejuice’s pants — is a customer favorite and go-to for sandwiches. Allen’s prowess is made clear throughout the savory and sweet pastries menu (recently, there were pumpkin pie croissants with candied pepitas and cranberries), where there’s almost always something new during any given visit. Even something as commonplace in New York as a chocolate croissant has become a revelatory experience at Mel — just another sweet reason it’s the best bakery winner. — Emma Orlow, reporter
Best Meal in a Bowl
Milu is a fast-casual cafe serving much of its food out of bowls — for people who hate eating out of bowls. From former Eleven Madison Park sous chef Connie Chung, the brief menu is inspired by several regions of China, and features duck, cauliflower, and brisket among its bowls and larger plates. The recipes are so carefully prepared and the ingredients so good, you could eat nearly anything on the menu and be happy, though favorites include Mandarin duck with duck-fat rice, Sichuan spiced cauliflower, and pork-and-fennel wontons in a chile, soy, and vinegar sauce. Flying in the face of fast-casual trends, family-style servings are also available. — Robert Sietsema, senior critic
Best Meal Under $100
Sushi On Me
As Manhattan becomes increasingly known for its exclusive omakase parlors, charging small groups of diners $350 or more per person in rooms that look modeled after religious shrines, Sushi On Me hosts multiple all-you-can-drink seatings every night, seven nights a week for $89, cash-only. Chef Atip “Palm” Tangjantuk runs a very different kind of sushi restaurant. He occasionally peppers the menu with Southeast Asian influences, like when he adds a dab of Thai chile garlic sauce onto seared white tuna. He also joyfully drops f-bombs throughout the meal (“it’s called fucking fatty tuna”) and he drinks along with the rest of the chefs and patrons. One won’t necessarily find nigiri here on par with the city’s top sushi parlors, but with the free-flowing sake and convivial environment, it’s without question one of the city’s most entertaining sushi spots. — Ryan Sutton, chief critic
Best Meal Under $10
Step inside Taqueria Ramirez, and one of two reactions is possible: “Is that a blowtorch?” first timers to this shoebox-sized restaurant might ask. Those more familiar with Mexican cooking may scratch their heads, wondering “What’s a choricera doing in north Brooklyn?” Giovanni Cervantes and Tania Apolinar, the proprietors of this fast-service taqueria, fall into that latter category, having opened Taqueria Ramirez after moving to the city and noticing a lack of suadero and tripa in their home borough. Their tacos, modeled after those served in the streets of Mexico City, are smaller than some New Yorkers might be used to, but two (priced between $4 and $5 each) can make for a small meal in a pinch. Order the tripa (beef intestine that Cervantes stews for four hours, then blowtorches to order) and one of the campechano (suadero mixed with crumbly longaniza sausage). — Luke Fortney, reporter
Best Pandemic Pop-Up
There were no shortages of pop-ups in the past 18 months, so to stand out was no easy feat. Eric Huang, a former Eleven Madison Park sous chef who had plans to open his own fine-dining spot, joined the legions of unemployed chefs and home cooks who jumped on Instagram for their so-called pandemic pivot. He took over his uncle’s shuttered Queens restaurant, Peking House, to fry up crispy, Sichuan chile-spiked chicken. New Yorkers couldn’t place orders quick enough and wait lists ballooned to six weeks or more as Huang delivered throughout the city in his mini Honda Fit (with some help from friends, too). Sure enough, he organized sold out pop-ups and then plans for a brick-and-mortar location came together to meet the outsized demand. But the success of Pecking House isn’t just about the stellar fried chicken. It’s also a story that reflects the resilience and creativity of countless restaurant workers who are always ensuring New Yorkers eat well — even during a pandemic. — Bao Ong, editor