No, we’re not talking about the fanciest spots. Or the most hyped. Or even the newest. The best restaurant meals, to us, were the ones that stayed seared in our memories long after the last French fry was dipped and the final sip of a perfect pét-nat thrown back. These are all the places we turned to for quiet, solo dinners with a book, vaxxed brunches with missed friends, and boxes of weeknight takeout when we just couldn’t with cooking anymore. In other words, these, our best restaurant meals, are all the ones that mattered most. From the street cart skewers that transported lifestyle editor Karen Yuan back to the Beijing neighborhood she grew up in to senior cooking editor Sarah Jampel’s best-ever post-baby bagel and assistant editor Chala Tyson Tshitundu’s flaky, perfect fried catfish biscuit sandwich—“a gift from the ancestors”—here are all the meals we ate (and loved) this year.
To my left: margarita. To my right: a couple arguing. In front of me: a platter of goat birria covered in bubbling cheese from Mi Tocaya Antojería. These three things are my restaurant dream combo. I don’t think, at any moment in 2021, I was happier than eating that meal. You make a taco with the cheesy birria, then dip it in a bowl of warm cosommé, the savory broth dripping down your hand. We also ate a spicy, bright aguachile, chile-rubbed fish collar, and a side of chicharos, green peas with baby corn and cotija, and other goodies. I loved this meal so much I went back, a week later, to do it all over again. —Alex Beggs, senior staff writer
Dame has been one of New York’s tougher reservations, so when I snagged one, I didn’t cancel, even when it started pouring minutes before my outdoor dining appointment. The food was perfect: crisp whitefish croquettes, tiny smoked mussels, a caper- and herb-crusted whole mackerel, fish and chips with the crunchiest golden coating. It was delicious seafood, treated with care, and it was perfect even as rain blew in sideways. I loved the meal not in spite of the conditions but ultimately because of them. We made the most of what we had to work with and found the upside, and for me, that sums up 2021. —Bettina Makalintal, associate editor