For many, especially in the hospitality industry, 2021 was like drinking out of a firehose, wasn’t it?
As pandemic restrictions lifted, it became quickly apparent that the pent up demand for travel and dining far exceeded expectations. The world didn’t just reopen, it busted open.
Yet, whatever relief that eager spending might have brought was offset by a buffet of other problems.
Businesses that survived the chaotic year of closures, regulatory whiplash, protests, rioting, brain drain, and worker flight – not to mention successfully navigating the minefield of a rapidly shifting culture that touts cancelation, outrage, and the arbitrary redefinition of the English language as its main features – were rewarded with employee shortages, lawsuits, supply chain bottlenecks, skyrocketing inflation, and shrinking margins. And amidst all of this, the Department of Labor decided to revive the abstruse 80/20 tip rule.
It was rough waters.
And what about the rest of us, the consumers? After a year of pining for a meal out, we returned to a restaurant industry that was clearly struggling to keep apace.
I don’t think anyone expected things to be perfect right off the bat. Far from it, desperate to relieve cabin fever, diners seemed willing, if not eager, to tolerate the temporary inconveniences of a world in recovery. And most of us also anticipated returning to a world that was going to cost more too. But, at times, even I was unprepared for the degree of disruption and change: unreliable business hours; deficient, and often, what seemed like a total lack of service; severely abbreviated or even unrecognizable menus; and yes, sticker shock.
There were moments – a particular dinner in May leaps to mind – when I questioned whether I, as a consumer, had arrived on the shores of diminishing returns. My friends and I spent the evening shouting at each other in a covered, pandemic parklet on 5th Avenue – coveted dining real estate at the time – trying to be heard over the din of New York traffic and the deafening roar of the N, R, and Q trains that blasted us through the subway grate below our table (which was also venting hot, subway air every few minutes). I tried convincing myself that I was having a great time. But I was miserable.
To complain seemed cruel, especially since most of the shortcomings were understandable. The hospitality industry was just as helpless to the bigger market forces at play as we all were. Perhaps more importantly, it was clear that those who chose to stay in hospitality were doing their best, given the circumstances.
Many of the people with whom I got to work in 2021, like Greg and Daisy Ryan at Companion Hospitality, or the good people at Blackberry Farm and Blackberry Mountain, or Gavin Kaysen at Soigné Hospitality – just to name a few – were admirable stewards of their resources in tough times. They invested in their employees, maintained a supportive work environment, and were mindful that delivering a quality experience to their customers is ultimately what makes all of it possible.
As Greg Ryan recently wrote in a wonderful, year-end note:
“When a team member leaves Companion Hospitality, we say the true test of someone’s experience is that they left it better than they found it. I think in some ways that is something we do daily at our restaurants. We start our days, get through all of the ups and downs, and by the end of the day leave our restaurants, teams, and guests just a little bit better than when we found them. It’s what gets us up in the morning and it is what will continue to push us.”
It’s this kind of forward-looking positivity that redeems us all.
However, it is undeniable that in 2021, consumers began paying far more for far less of just about everything. In an industry that has long complained of being chronically underpaid and overworked, this, many began to insist, is how things always ought to have been, and that the pandemic forced a much-needed economic reckoning. Maybe. But what did become clear in 2021 is that access to restaurants, what many egalitarians had foolishly argued is a universal right just a couple of years ago, suddenly became – as I have always believed it to be – an even greater social and economic privilege than in the Before Times.
I record these things not to wallow or jab, but to remind that 2021 was far from normal. It was still a very difficult year for many, and it demanded more from all of us.
Thankfully, the year was not without delight. Despite the wobbliness, I had a lot of wonderful meals for which I’m incredibly grateful. I celebrate a few of my favorites here, including six restaurants that were at the tippy-top of my year in eating.
A priority in 2021 was returning to the places that I missed most, like Aubergine in Carmel-by-the-Sea, Cotogna in San Francisco, and The Charter Oak in St. Helena. Dishes from all three of these California restaurants were among my favorite of the year. I was especially thrilled to take my parents to The Charter Oak, and was heartened that they finally got to experience a slice of the wonderful, Napa Valley hospitality that I had been so lucky to experience for years during the Twelve Days of Christmas at The Restaurant at Meadowood.
One of my favorite meals of 2020 was at Bell’s in Los Alamos, on the Central Coast of California. So I was especially happy that I got to return in 2021 to work with the restaurant’s team, and stay for a couple of days of good eating, including a day by the smoker with Nicholas Priedite of Priedite BBQ, who smokes and sells out of Bell’s backyard. I wrote about his smash-patty burgers in a prior post, but his smoked brisket tacos are also terrific. If you’re in the neighborhood, make the effort to stop by.
And, after a year of remote Zoom parties with my friends in New York, we crowded into a booth at Carbone and stuffed our faces with antipasti and shared platters of veal parmesan, rigatoni alla vodka, and Cæsar salads. This may sound insulting, but I mean it in the best way possible: the food here is way better than it needs to be.
To find good food where I had found good food before is not surprising (thought it is always reassuring). However, discovering good food in new places is one of my greatest joys.
In 2021, I was introduced to Ojai Valley Inn, where the general manager Ben Kephart is transforming the property’s beautiful Farmhouse event space into a dining destination, featuring visiting guest chefs throughout the year. If the structure looks familiar, it’s because it was designed by Howard Backen, the architect famous for the farmstead-domestic look of countless Napa Valley wineries, as well as Meadowood Napa Valley. I was invited to attend two of Farmhouse events that year – The Restaurant at Meadowood’s Winter Residency in April, as well as a dinner with Daisy Ryan of Bell’s in August. Both dinners delivered the familiar and dependable quality of cooking I’ve come to know from different corners in an exciting new place.
I had a terrific pizza lunch at Bettina, located in the Montecito Country Mart. The pies there have the kind of knobby, blistered crusts I like – not too thick, with good elasticity. We ordered a double-decker – meat-lover on top, creamy carbonara on the bottom – in addition to some anchovies, and a beautiful salad of peaches in dandelion pesto with a scoop of burrata.
Lunch at le Central in Roanne, France was short but remarkable, mostly for the skillet of frog legs we shared. It was one of my favorites dishes of 2021. But there was also a wonderful bowl of steak tartare, ruby-red and served with garlicky roasted potatoes. Likewise, on the sidewalk of rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis in the 10eme of Paris, I had a quick but memorable lunch with a friend at Urfa Dürüm. That lahmachun was also among my favorites of the year.
At the pinnacle of my year of eating were six restaurants. If you’ve followed this blog regularly, most of them will be familiar to you. Whether dazzling or dependable – or both – the food was incredibly delicious at all of them, and they earn my highest commendation.
Here are my favorite restaurant meals of 2021:
San Diego, California
It’s hard to believe, but it had been nine years since I first ate at Addison. In the years between, chef William Bradley earned two Michelin stars, which I found to be well-deserved based on the dinner I had there in September of 2021. What’s astonishing about his cooking is not the precision – which I expect from a chef of his caliber. What’s astonishing is that his precision doesn’t detract from the integrity or flavor of the ingredients.
I’ve been lucky to have followed Andreas Bagh’s career, from his days as a cook at Geranium, to becoming assistant head chef at Kong Hans Kælder, then earning a Michelin star at Marchal at the Hôtel d’Angleterre, and finally opening his own restaurant, Esmée on Kongens Nytorv. Barely opened a month when I ate there in August of 2021, the restaurant was already on solid footing. The menu marries Bagh’s love of classical French cooking with his travels around the world, and is showcased with panache on Ginori plates in a beautifully redone interior designed by Signe Bindslev Henriksen and Peter Bundgaard Rützou of Space Copenhagen.
KONG HANS KÆLDER
My dinner here in August of 2021 was my seventeenth dinner at Kong Hans Kælder, and was just a month before chef Mark Lundgaard Nielsen would finally earn his second Michelin star. He’s one of a few who deserves three, which – together with the fact that I’ve eaten there so many times – is all you need to know about what I think of his cooking. Go.
Never have I met a front of the house more invested in the integrity of the food coming out of the kitchen than at l’Ambroisie. The servers and captains here will admonish you if you dally too long – “The food is getting cold, please eat.” It’s a shame that such an attitude intimidates some diners, rather than inspires them. I have great respect for the deep pride that the staff here takes in the products and services it offers. Here, it should – l’Ambroisie is, beginning to end, impeccable.
LE BOIS SANS FEUILLES
There are few restaurants with as much pedigree – four generations of Troisgros chefs: Jean-Baptiste, the brothers Jean and Pierre, Michel, and now César – and acclaim as le Bois sans Feuilles (if it hadn’t moved addresses, it would be the longest, continuously operating 3 Michelin-starred restaurant in the world, having superseded Paul Bocuse at Pont de Collonges). And yet, decades on, this restaurant oozes a freshness and excitement I rarely find in restaurants a quarter of its age. Over two dinners, my friend and I thoroughly enjoyed discovering the “nouvelle cuisine” – anchored in tradition, but freed by the marvelously modern pursuit of showcasing the flavor of ingredients, unadulterated – that the Troisgros family pioneered.
THE BARN AT BLACKBERRY FARM
In my estimation, Cassidee Dabney is one of the most talented chefs in America, if not the world right now. I’ve sung her praises (and that of her amazing, hardworking crew) at every turn, proselytizing the good news of soulful, delicious cooking coming out of the Eastern hills of Tennessee. If you’ve ever had the opportunity of dining at the The Barn at Blackberry Farm, you’ll know why it has been atop my favorite restaurants every year since 2018. I had two more wonderful dinners here in 2021, both in February.
By the end of 2021, I had already booked travel to Italy, Switzerland, and Germany. And as you will see in my forthcoming posts about 2022, I would end up in Copenhagen, London, Lisbon, and dozens of cities across America.
Since this post is being issued a year late, I’ll kick my wishlist forward to 2023.