Shortly after dusk, the crowd at Spanish Diner in Hudson Yards gasped. At another José Andrés restaurant, a modernist foam or “liquid” olive might’ve prompted such a reaction. But on this warm September night, good Iberian food was not the main event. Folks were here to watch live television. As my friends and I mopped up briny mussel juice with potato chips, at least three giant projection screens showed American tennis star Frances Tiafoe succumbing to Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz in a U.S. Open semifinal match. It wasn’t quite the same as being at Flushing Meadows, but the Euro-leaning crowd seemed to enjoy the outcome, and the energy was absolutely electric.
When I think of dining out in 2022, I think of gatherings like these. I think of Dept of Culture in Bed Stuy, where Nigerian chef Ayo Balogun gets strangers to talk to one another by serving a short tasting menu around a large picnic table. I think of demonstrators clad in yellow and blue as they queued up for an hour to dine at a packed Veselka.
New Yorkers have long dined out for reasons other than food. Our apartments are tiny and our ovens don’t always work and so many of us have always thought of restaurants as semi-public extensions of our living rooms: a place to gather with friends, watch the big game, or simply chat with a bartender after a long day. But this year, more culinary establishments seemed to cultivate a sense of belonging via open-invite parties. It was as if restaurants were saying, we know you just finished up another 10-day quarantine or a week of working from home with the kids, so let’s have some fun and maybe get through this mess together.
The outlook is far from rosy, however. Rampant menu price inflation, higher home grocery bills, and skyrocketing residential rents are putting both yearly splurges and everyday spots out of reach for many. Hotel and restaurant workers are still quitting in droves — more so than in any other sector — even as food service pay shoots up toward $17 per hour. And as COVID recedes to more reasonable-ish levels, folks are still falling ill. I should know: I spent about six weeks letting my inflamed lungs heal from a second infection this summer, a memory I wish I could expunge with a few shots of mezcal. And while I was energized to join the parties again once I started testing negative, I was perhaps most grateful for the sacrifices of delivery workers, who kept me fed when I was stuck in isolation. This was another tough year, but we’ll get there, eventually.
Restaurants of the Year: Veselka & Eyval
New Yorkers have flocked to Veselka, this Eastern European diner for generations, seeking tender pierogies, cold beer, and warm camaraderie at all hours of the night. But this year, the restaurant became a rallying point in opposition to Russia’s unprovoked war against Ukraine. On each table, diners would encounter a yellow flier explaining how to support the Ukrainian army with tactical medical backpacks, ammunition, and lethal aid — perhaps not what one expects to think about over a plate of kielbasa. “We gotta get the word out,” owner Jason Birchard told me earlier this year. “It’s not just a war against Ukraine; it’s a war against the free world.” 144 Second Avenue, at East Ninth Street, East Village
Travel to and from Iran is complicated, a product of longstanding geopolitical tensions and, more recently, violent military crackdowns against protestors in the Islamic Republic. New Yorkers, accordingly, tend to have a delicious yet static view of that country’s cuisine, largely the product of great kosher kebab houses. But at the live-fire Eyval, chef Ali Saboor does something very different; he presents a modern and dynamic vision of regional Persian dishes, just like he did at Sofreh. Expect bronzed scallops in tamarind squid ink stews and buttery trumpet mushrooms over coconut creamed lentils. There really isn’t any other restaurant like Eyval in New York. 25 Bogart Street, at Varet, Bushwick
Restaurants of the Year, the Long List
Ensenada: This Williamsburg restaurant, by Cosme alums Luis Herrera and beverage director Jorsand Diaz, isn’t just home to some of the city’s best fish tacos; it’s one of New York’s most ambitious and innovative new seafood restaurants. Al pastor branzino with pineapple butter and cilantro is flat-out fantastic, as is skate wing mole with house XO sauce. 168 Borinquen Place, at South Second Street, Williamsburg
Bonnie’s: Wait forever, do a shot, order tinned fish as creamy as foie gras, have a martini, slurp down the MSG cacio e pepe, and tame the rampant salts with yet another drink. Chef Calvin Eng has built a very new and very cool type of Chinese American restaurant. 398 Manhattan Avenue, near Frost Street, Williamsburg
Dept of Culture: Some places you go to have a quiet dinner. Dept of Culture is where you go to hang out with strangers around a communal table for two hours while Ayo Balogun speaks at length — even while you’re eating — about North-Central Nigerian fare. You will dine very well as part of the $97 prix fixe. Pepper soup will make your brow sweat. 327 Nostrand Avenue, near Quincy Street, Bed-Stuy
Joomak Banjum & Mari: Modern Korean fare continues to dominate the creative vanguard of the city’s fine dining scene. At Joomak Banjum, Jiho Kim and Kelly Nam blend savory and sweet sensibilities like few other chefs; try the duck leg galbi with a doughnut and you’ll see what I mean. At Mari, Sungchul Shim upends the haute omakase scene with a stunning cross between Korean kimbap and Japanese temaki. No bluefin here, instead Shim serves a tuna confit roll dotted with crisp potato threads. Joomak is 312 Fifth Avenue, near 32nd Street, Midtown. Mari is at 679 Ninth Avenue, near West 47th Street, Hell’s Kitchen
Lord’s: In a city where traditional steaks reign supreme, Lord’s aims for a more interesting and challenging approach to meat. Patricia Howard and chef Ed Szymanski seek to rejuvenate New York’s once-thriving British and European nose-to-tail scene. Expect jiggly tripe, slithery ox cheek, ground-up duck livers, and a seemingly innocent steak au poivre whose incredible sauce is laced with the sticky gelatins of a nice calf’s foot. 506 LaGuardia Place, near Bleecker Street, Greenwich Village
Corner Bar: Fat mussels. Icy shellfish platters. Hot fries. One of the city’s best steaks au poivre. Club sandwiches. A long bar for walk-ins. This is a breathtaking reimagination of a P.J. Clarke’s-style tavern through the eyes of chefs who want to cook technically precise and delicious fare. Shout out to Ignacio Mattos and chef Jason Pfeifer for this Dimes Square gem. 60 Canal Street, near Allen Street, Lower East Side
Wenwen: Eric Sze knows we crave more good Taiwanese food, and he delivers just that with spicy fried tofu, meaty fly’s head, numbing cold celtuce, and a cocktail menu that, even during brunch, advertises four shots (three tequila, one baiju) for $25. It’s a party. 1025 Manhattan Avenue, near Green Street, Greenpoint
Noz 17: New York is teeming with fancy omakase spots; what sets this one apart is the freeform nature of the extended meal. Rather than predictably progressing from small plates to nigiri to dessert, chef Junichi Matsuzaki switches back and forth from drinking snacks to sushi to composed dishes in such a random fashion that you never know which course is next; eating here is like getting lost in a new city. 458 West 17th Street, near 10th Avenue, Chelsea
Rowdy Rooster & Pecking House: New York is quietly becoming one of the country’s top cities for international fried chicken. We already have ample Latin, Southern, and Korean varieties, though 2022 brought us stellar South Asian and Chinese versions. The Semma crew has another winner on its hands with Rowdy Rooster; the kitchen paints its hacked-up halal birds with enough bitter, smoky Kashmiri chiles and ghost peppers to warm up your insides for half a day.
And while our city doesn’t lack for good Sichuan fried chicken, Eric Huang does things his own unique way at Pecking House, slicking his fat drumsticks and thighs with so much chile oil that the poultry feels in conversation with Nashville-style birds. A touch of sugar balances out the pain. Rowdy is at 149 First Avenue, near East Ninth Street, East Village. Pecking House is at 244 Flatbush Avenue, near St. Marks Avenue. Park Slope
Evelia’s: Evelia Coyotzi has been selling some of the city’s best tamales for two decades from a street cart. Now she has a permanent outpost too on Northern Boulevard, chock full of tortas, (very good) tacos, and nourishing Mexican breakfast platters. 96-09 Northern Boulevard, near 96th Street, East Elmhurst
Laser Wolf: I remember loving my guava frozen cocktail here, letting its boozy slush cleanse my palate of charcoal-tinged kebabs. But what I remember even more is sitting on the Hoxton Hotel rooftop at dusk, watching the sky turn orange behind the Empire State Building. Michael Solomonov is one of the country’s great Israeli chefs, but here, the very good food takes a backseat to more important ingredients — New York City, its pulsating skyline, and the crowds gathering both here and below. 97 Wythe Avenue, near North 10th Street, Williamsburg