These are the new restaurants that floored us the most this year. They’re the spots that made sitting in a frozen shack in February seem luxurious, the pop-ups we happily took 70-minute train rides to get to, and the neighborhood counters that turned Wednesday night takeout into the highlight of the week.
You’ll notice very few fine dining establishments on this list, and, in a year dominated by takeout and sweatpants, that just makes sense. You’ll also find that a bunch of the best new restaurants started as pop-up projects in 2020. We’ll chalk that up to pandemic-era ingenuity, and we hope that the trend continues. Midtown isn’t represented this year—but vegan food certainly is. Why? It seems the work-from-home life has taken a toll on Midtown’s gravitational pull, whereas interest in creatively executed plant-based food continues to skyrocket.
In an unprecedented move, we’ve also included two places from the same people—a team that’s impressively expanding Manhattan’s range of Indian regional and rural specialties. Alongside these two, you’ll find a sexy French basement in Fort Greene, a Peruvian restaurant in Harlem with a raclette-smothered burger and a wheelchair-accessible bar, and every other new show-stopping place we’ve visited over the past 365 days.
All restaurants featured on The Infatuation are selected by our editorial team. The Best New Restaurants Of 2021 is presented by Chase Sapphire. Adventure awaits with Sapphire. You deserve premium travel perks for your journeys near and far, exclusive dining rewards, and flexible benefits that let you make more of every experience. Learn more
Dame was the year’s first new dazzling restaurant that inspired us to work hard to get a reservation, wash our hair, and put on pants that make our legs look good (in that order). After operating as a pop-up in the summer of 2020, Dame found a permanent location in Greenwich Village and began serving exceptional English seafood without any pretension. The music? “Funkytown” or something similar. The wine list? Divided into sections inspired by James Bond and Austin Powers. The food? Heavily dictated by the vegetables available at Union Square Greenmarket. If you’re like us, you’ll probably arrive with a heat-seeking mission to eat fish & chips—but you’ll leave thinking about mussels with cucumbers in a garlic-heavy emulsion.
At the beginning of 2021, a couple who’d been running taco pop-ups in and around Greenpoint realized it was time to start a new project. With commercial spaces in the neighborhood more available than ever, they signed a lease on a tiny storefront on the corner of Franklin and Oak Streets and brought in a choricera and comal custom made in Mexico City. Now, that couple is serving blowtorched tripa hugged by a fat-soaked corn tortilla, suadero best described as velvety meat confetti, and pineapple-topped al pastor with multiple layers of crispy pork that look like they traveled through a gigantic paper shredder. These are, without a doubt, the best new tacos in New York City, and they’re high on the list of best in the city. We invite you to remain skeptical of all of the hype. Go try these tacos, and let us know.
In a year when we always felt like we needed to know what was going on, there was something especially alluring about a restaurant that doesn’t even give you a menu. Fradei originally opened in 2019 with a nine-dish a la carte menu before making several pivots during the pandemic. As of March of 2021, this Fort Greene spot now serves a $90, five-course tasting menu that changes every three weeks. You won’t know exactly what you’re in store for, but expect this place to intentionally draw your attention to vegetables even when meat is lurking nearby. These vegetables might come in the form of a beet bordelaise or a soup with apples and razor clams that employs a broth made with leftover scraps of squash. Whatever vegetable-forward dishes you happen to receive, you’ll enjoy them as you sit in a space that looks like a pirate ship usurped by hot French people with nothing but wine and All-Clad pans in tow.
Rosella, a sushi spot in the East Village, almost exclusively uses ingredients found within the United States. They dole out bigeye tuna from North Carolina, striper raised in Bushwick, and incredible fluke sashimi that was caught so close to Rosella it could have taken the afternoon train from Montauk while enjoying a tallboy in a brown paper bag. The restaurant’s miso hails from Pennsylvania, and many of their wine and cider options are bottled in New York State. If you’ve been carrying around the misconception that American fish is only for guys on Hinge to pose with in their profile pictures, come to this luxurious-but-lowkey restaurant, eat some Washington State Arctic Char over a bed of California-grown rice, and be proven wrong.
Few are having as triumphant a year as the team behind Semma—which happens to be operated by the same people who run another place on this list (Dhamaka). Is it ridiculous that we’re talking about these restaurateurs twice in the same year-end guide? No. It’s well deserved. After opening Dhamaka on the LES early in 2021, the team unveiled Semma, an exceptional West Village restaurant that zeroes in on South Indian regional specialties typically made in rural home settings. Highlights include a crispy gunpowder dosa served with brothy lentil soup that we’d like to eat for lunch every day, Goanese oxtail with green cardamom, and a vat of tender venison drenched in a dark brown sauce that tastes like clove and smoke.
If you want to try Pecking House’s spicy, crunchy, and waitlist-inducing chili fried chicken, you have two options. You can either wait eight weeks to have this Chinese-influenced poultry delivered to you, or you can take the Q46 bus to Pecking House’s dining room in Fresh Meadows, which is only open on weekends. We suggest you do the latter. Beyond Pecking House’s fried chicken that’s loaded with tingly Tianjin chilies, the chicken sandwich is a huge, crunchy masterpiece. It comes with a touch of pineapple jam and some cabbage that’s packed with dark soy sauce flavor, all on a brioche bun. Add an order of the orange wet wings drowning in citrus butter sauce, and you have a must-try dining experience in NYC. Bring a group, order the whole menu, and never wait to get this chicken delivered again.
Contento is notable just based on accessibility alone—the bathrooms have touchless sinks and grab bars, and the lowered bar allows wheelchair access. But the food and thoughtful service at this East Harlem restaurant deserve to be celebrated as well. The Peruvian-leaning menu is full of standouts, like a tart ceviche, a hefty burger cradling raclette, and a section of memorable large plates like crispy pork katsu. This is a phenomenal date night spot, but you could easily just pull up to the bar if you live in the neighborhood, consume that burger, and feel the contagious energy of the place.
A lot of New York spots serve exciting food, but few hack away at what you know to be true about Manhattan’s dining scene. That’s the phenomenon of Dhamaka, a restaurant where, in one meal, you will likely try dishes associated with four or five different regions of India. As you zigzag from bright, chutney-kissed seafood to tender goat kidneys and testicles served in a fragrant gravy, you’ll come to the (correct) conclusion that a memorable dinner can indeed take place on the first floor of a food hall on the Lower East Side. Few NYC restaurants make such an obvious effort to take on India’s unfathomably wide array of specialties like Dhamaka does, and even fewer do it with a packed dining room every night of the week.
Our most memorable fishy experience of 2021—a year that involved unreasonable amounts of good seafood—took place in under 10 minutes. There we were, our legs swinging from barstools inside of this fluorescent-lit Mexican restaurant in Jackson Heights as we canoodled with a molcajete filled with aguachile negro, a plate of acid-bathed octopus ceviche, and a cup of sweet shrimp coctele. Mariscos El Submarino opened in early 2020 but remained closed for much of the worst of the pandemic. As of 2021, they’ve been serving fresh seafood we can only describe as electric. This is a change-your-year type of restaurant.
If you ever went to a fancy dinner as a kid dressed in your nicest clothes, then proceeded to have the best night of your seven-year-old life, that’s pretty much what eating at Francie is like (except you’re an adult now). At first glance, this Italian restaurant in a converted bank on Broadway might look like a country club for the old-money millionaires of Williamsburg, but it’s actually more of a casual-fancy spot where 30-somethings in designer jeans bring their toddlers for Tuesday night banana sundaes. Yes, you can order four-figure bottles of wine and $120 dry-aged roast duck here, but you can also get a $40 bottle and a half-dozen oysters. Put on your best outfit, and get ready for a truly fun night, starting with a top-notch martini poured into a chilled glass tableside by a waiter sporting a double-breasted white blazer.
New York has plenty of places to eat Shanghainese food with a group, but restaurants spotlighting food from the larger Jiangnan region around the city of Shanghai are a bit harder to find. CheLi is one such place, and it makes random Tuesdays in the wintertime feel celebratory. At this restaurant on St. Marks Place, you’ll sit underneath a hay-thatched roof at a table full of meaty Atlantic blue crab and sticky slices of fish that are marinated and fried until they taste smoky. In all likelihood, your meal’s soundtrack will include a serene waterfall gurgling a few feet away and groups of six clinking Tsingtao bottles in the back. Once your plate is overloaded with the platonic ideal of sweet, delicate seafood and savory pork, you’ll be all set for one of your favorite NYC Chinese meals in recent memory.
It only recently opened, but Bánh is already one of the best restaurants to have graced the Upper West Side in years. Their bánh mì with charbroiled pork belly is a top contender for the best in the city, and the crispy pork-filled bánh chưng chiên could be the focus of a TED Talk on how a restaurant should fry foods. The two rice-coated ovals are delicately fried and not too oily, and they perfectly showcase what makes Bánh so special: comforting, well-executed regional Vietnamese classics that have multiple layers of flavor. This restaurant’s dishes now have a permanent place in our weeknight and midday meal rotation, and, between an appetizer and an entree, you can easily walk away having spent $30 on an exciting dinner.
When vegetables taste as cared for as they do at Fat Choy, their vegan status becomes the last thing on your mind. This casual, walk-up-and-order spot highlights vegetables and rice as if they possess main character energy (which they do). Come here for slippery baby bok choy, perfectly plump rice rolls, charred scallions, and fried salt and pepper cauliflower bites that crunch and squeak in your mouth. At Fat Choy, you can either be accidentally or purposefully vegan, which is precisely the kind of restaurant that we need more of in this city.
In a city that’s increasingly filled with quiet wine bars and minimalist cafes, Ruta Oaxaca chose a maximalist approach. And that’s exactly why we love this fun Mexican restaurant in Astoria. A dinner inside their hot pink patio structure feels like a well-attended neighborhood potluck where mole flows like tap water. This is a great place to bring a group of friends who might be into trying a flight of mezcal—but drinking is not the (whole) point here. Dishes like Ruta’s rich mole-covered enchiladas, gooey choriqueso, and tender short ribs are what keep us coming back for more. With its combination of buzzy sidewalk dining area and incredibly good food, Ruta Oaxaca is exactly the kind of restaurant New York City needs. And since it’s usually never packed, you won’t have to book a table several weeks in advance to eat here.
This masa-fueled restaurant in Greenpoint, from the team behind Oxomoco, feels like a neighborhood hangout for retired art directors and people who were probably paid to model Calvin Klein denim in the ’90s. Whether we stop by during the day for masa pancakes or at night for potato flautas and mezcal, we like to join the stylish scene on the patio out front. People watching aside, we can always count on Xilonen to treat corn with the respect it deserves. They offer several varietals of the rainbow-colored superfood in the form of crispy tostadas, crunchy tacos, and giant quesadillas. But what really sets Xilonen apart from most of the other new Mexican spots in NYC is that vegetables are the star of every bite. From tender, sweet glazed carrots to creamy guacamole with crunchy winter greens, the vegetables at this Mexican spot will make you want to hug the nearest farmer.
There are only a handful of fast-casual restaurants in NYC that live in our heads rent-free. Zooba, Teranga, and Milu are among them, and now, in Washington Heights, Native Noodles. It started off as takeout only, but this Singaporean spot has expanded with a few tables both inside and out where you can take your time exploring dishes like crispy crab buns and chili crab pasta. Both involve an inordinate amount of shellfish, and you could easily have a full meal by just ordering this combo. Native Noodles is a top-tier option for a casual weeknight dinner, especially considering that everything on the menu is under $15. It’s also worth noting that this is one of the few places in NYC currently serving Singaporean food.