What are the Eater Awards? They’re a celebration across Eater Cities to recognize the year’s new restaurants we can’t stop talking about, visiting, recommending, and dreaming of going back to. And we mean “restaurant” in the most liberal sense of the word, having recognized food halls, Instagram bakers, pop-ups, and street vendors in the past.
This brings us to our picks for 2022: Three years after the industry was socked by the pandemic, New York City restaurants are on the upswing across the five boroughs, from indie neighborhood restaurants to splashy to-dos backed by deep-pocketed restaurant groups. Yet as close as “back to normal” this moment may be compared to the past couple of years, it’s also uncharted territory, with restaurants still reeling from the effects of COVID closures; a huge uptick in the cost of ingredients, and a public that’s more cautious about how it spends money. Despite these challenges, 2022 has courted some truly outstanding openings — far too many to recognize in this year’s Eater Awards. And while it’s rare to agree on what’s the “best” in any genre, these five restaurants were front-of-mind for all of us.
Restaurant of the Year: Zaab Zaab
When Zaab Zaab appeared in May on a restaurant row in Elmhurst with a half-dozen other Thai establishments, it seemed an unassuming little place, with a white picket fence in front and a colorfully painted ceiling depicting roosters and stars. Chef Aniwat Khotsopa had grown up in the Isan capital of Udon Thani, and indeed his restaurant was the culmination of a 30-year development of Isan restaurants in the city. We had already seen triumphs like Ugly Baby and Hug Esan, but this place carried the culinary aesthetic further, with a broader collection of fresh herbs, lots of duck, and organ meats that didn’t care if potential customers wanted tripe and liver and skin or not — these ingredients seemed exactly right in context. Whole fish were a focus too, giant river creatures heaped with rice noodles and furnished with powerful sauces, reminding us of the proximity of Isan to the Mekong River, and the menu even hinted at Laotian food on the other side. Further sophisticated Thai restaurants are sure to follow, but for this year at least, Zaab Zaab is state-of-the-art Thai. — Robert Sietsema, critic
Best Bakery: Lady Wong
From the Malaysian-born husband-wife team Mogan Anthony and Seleste Tan, Lady Wong displays a selection of Southeast Asian-influenced desserts that spotlights their experience as pastry chefs for the likes of Jean-Georges Vongerichten. More important, they’ve reanimated the fading art of kuih inspired by their homeland: those Technicolor, palm-sized desserts that take an incredible amount of skill and dedication to make.
Whether it’s the Rothko-esque colors of serimuka pandan, the primness of Malay rose cake, the springy simplicity of pandan chiffon cake, or the spiraled cuteness of an ube roll cake, there’s no denying Lady Wong makes desserts that are as stunning as they are delicious. — Melissa McCart, editor
Best Wine Bar: Claud
In the year 2022, almost every way you turn in Manhattan, there’s a new wine bar with vaguely European-leaning small plates rearing its head. No matter how many times wine is described as “funky,” lots of these bars are stuffy and staid. Yet Claud in the East Village, from co-owners who met at Momofuku Ko, Chase Sinzer, in charge of wine, and chef Joshua Pinsky, seemingly had the same trappings. Minimal design? Check. Fine-dining duo running the place? Double check. Yet the food goes beyond a run-of-the-mill wine bar. From the luxe chicken with foie drippings to the pillowy chicken liver agnolotti to the juicy red rock shrimp, which cooks itself in its own hot oil at the table, dressed-up comfort foods take the date-night main stage. While usually, we’re skeptical of a dish that got its fair share of play on TikTok, the devil’s food cake, a whopping slice made for two, is really worth all of its likes and shares. — Emma Orlow, reporter
Best Street Food: Evelia’s Tamales
At times, this city’s archaic street-vending laws seem intentionally designed to criminalize vendors: There are some 3,000 permits available to the estimated 10,000 to 20,000 street vendors operating in New York City, and officers continue to police those who sell food and other products illegally — despite enforcement being moved out from under the NYPD’s jurisdiction more than two years ago.
Few people understand this better than Evelia Coyotzi, a longtime vendor who sold tamales and cups of atole from the corner of Junction Boulevard and Roosevelt Avenue in Corona, Queens. The Mexican chef has been fined and arrested multiple times over the last two decades and continues to rally in support of street vendors across the city. Somehow, Coyotzi found the time this year to open a standalone restaurant in East Elmhurst for her tamale business, becoming one of few vendors in the city to make the leap. Her menu has grown to include menudo, weekend barbacoa, and other dishes that weren’t practical to serve from a street cart. They’re delightful, but let’s be honest: The place is called Evelia’s Tamales, and at $1.50 each, the ones sold here remain some of the absolute best in the city. — Luke Fortney, reporter
Best Restaurant for the End of the World: Bonnie’s
Who’s that standing in the foyer at Bonnie’s, a Cantonese American hotspot Williamsburg? A well-known patron on the verge of taking yet another chic bathroom selfie. What are the very cool party people drinking at the tables? Long Island Iced tea pitchers, the latest trash cocktail to command a very haute price. What’s the wait time for walk-ins? Like, 27 hours — at least it was earlier this year — but that’s okay because the bartenders are handing out mezcal and vermouth shots while patrons wait for their saucy char siu McRibs.
The world is burning, but hey, the poached chicken is nice and cool in here, at least until the green chiles kick in. Kudos to chef Calvin Eng and company for curating the salutary escapism and bacchanalia — an increasingly popular vibe that draws in diners who’ve spent too much time doomscrolling while home alone. Patrons will also eat quite well; try the cacio e pepe of the millennium, tossed in a ripping hot wok with MSG and funky fermented beancurd. Then order an espresso martini and go ‘gram another bathroom selfie! — Ryan Sutton, critic