It is the tradition at Eater to end the year with a survey of friends, contributors, rovers of the industry, and professional eaters. Even a year like this one. For 2021, the group were asked 13 questions, covering the best meals and the worst tweets alongside 2022 predictions and dining standbys. Their answers will appear throughout this week, with responses relayed in no particular order; cut and pasted below.
Following the best newcomers and restaurant standbys, here — whether in a restaurant or taken away — are the best meals of 2021.
Adam Coghlan, Editor, Eater London: Out of London, by mail: it will never not seem like a trick of the mind when remembering eating Ombra’s lasagne in the Lake District; nor unpacking and boil-in-a-bagging several courses of intricate Laughing Heart dishes on Valentine’s Day.
Back in London: 2 x sandwiches and 2 x tarts at 40 Maltby Street on the palettes with J. Nunn in the summer; tasting menu with (lots of Slobodne) wines at Kol in Marylebone with J. Hansen in the autumn; rabbit and saffron rice at the Clarence Tavern for my dad’s 70th; brunch at Lighthaus; roast chicken for Sunday lunch at Cafe Cecilia; amazing pork cheung fun at the excellent Dim Sum and Duck; and just before the year was out, phenomenal breakfast tacos from Sonora.
p.s. not strictly a “meal”, but Bake Street’s fried chicken makhani sandwich, Dole whip and pineapple sorbet, yikes.
James Hansen, Associate Editor, Eater London: Through the year: the first Tetote Factory visit of 2021, with its wonderfully nostalgic pizza bread, to start January. Koya’s udon by mail, in a very cold February. St John’s ox cheek hash bap and madeleines on a Shoreditch bench in March. A slice of British Americana with a cheddar and chilli scone from Cafe Deco in April. Joké Bakare’s wonderful attasi bowls on a table plopped on the Gray’s Inn Road outside Catalyst in May. Hypebeast dumplings at Dim Sum and Duck in June. The shortest east London restaurant crawl of Brat, Smoking Goat, and Lyle’s for dessert in July. A meeting of legends at first Bake Street — with yakitori danger, kilishi, and majestic soft serve — then Cafe Cecilia, and a Francophone blow-out at Noble Rot Soho in August. Painterly majesty at Sessions Arts Club in September. Decatur’s Quality Wines pop-up, first frozen outdoors then warm in the shop in October. Tacos from Sonora in November. And the new Leather Lane essential of Prufrock Coffee followed by Balady lunch in December.
Anna Sulan Masing, food writer and Eater London contributor: Gosh. So many moments had so much joy and meaning attached to it — the meeting of friends, the joy of A Restaurant. I don’t have just one, sorry. Kiln with an American friend — being at the bar, feeling the buzz of the place, being able to show off London, the excitement of a friend from out of town visiting! Delicious too, of course.
P.Franco when Ben Chapman was cooking — again, that exciting buzz of hospitality. I do love the bar dining experience! One dish reminded me so much of home I almost cried. Both Kiln and here, I said to pal I was with “this is joy to me”. Bright, not long after being allowed to eat inside — just incredible hospitality and the menu had a lot of surprises. Singburi — in the comfort of a friend’s home with my sister and her wife. Truly exceptional food, best food in London.
Jonathan Nunn, food writer and Eater London contributor: A summer’s meal at The River Cafe which was perfect in every single way up to and including me not footing the bill.
Chris Cotonou, writer and Eater London contributor: I’m really, really loving Willy’s Pies, the delivery-only business started by chef Will Lewis. Every Monday, he releases a new menu using the freshest ingredients, and they sell out fast — only catering to certain areas in the city. I remember staying at a friend’s place in the East End so I could be within the delivery zone and ordering a pie with braised lamb shoulder, chilli and labneh. Everything about that pie, from crust to filling was perfect and I can’t wait to try more in the future.
Sejal Sukhadwala, food writer and Eater London contributor: I had excellent Indian vegetarian dishes at Manthan, Chourangi, Hyderabadi Spice, Shree Krishna Vada Pav and Madhu’s for an article; and the best falafel and sabich in the whole of north London at Pita in Golders Green (though if you do navigate their frequently-long queues, maybe get the red and green hot sauces from Taboon down the road first — they’re better.)
Emma Hughes, writer and Eater London contributor: A glorious birthday-slash-book-launch lunch outside the Garden Museum Cafe in early August with Anna Sulan Masing.
George Reynolds, writer and Eater London contributor: The best single bite of 2021 might well have been the fried courgette blossom stuffed with langoustine and ceps at The Climpsons Arch incarnation of Brat, which reminded me of the old French adage about ortolan — “one is bliss, two is gluttony” — and is probably the closest I will come to the diabolical interplay of textures, temperatures and varying stripes of richness that you only get when crunching down on a tiny songbird drowned in Armagnac.
The best meal of 2021 may well have been the virtuoso display that was the final night of the Decatur pop-up at Quality Wines Farringdon, in which Tom Zahir delivered an immaculate recital of every conceivable New Orleans classic (authentically lethal Vieux Carrés and all), before shrugging off a final, ultimate flex in the form of a Viet-Cajun shrimp boil.
But the most memorable dining experience of 2021 came in the depths of locked-down February, on the way to secure one of Mangal 2’s coveted mackerel pides. It was snowing; I had walked from Islington; I was appallingly underdressed. I found myself outside All Island Grill, which I had remembered seeing somewhere in Nick Bramham’s stories a week or so before. A few minutes later, I was back outside again, holding a plastic container of their curry goat; I was so cold I ate it with my gloves on, staining my fingertips with spices. A few months later I would be at Rochelle Canteen, celebrating the re-opening of restaurants (I presumed for good; it’s heartbreaking that that may no longer be the case.) That was a memorable, fabulous meal in its own right, too. But it’s that feeling of being very very cold, then very very oh-shit-my-lips-are-on-fire hot that I will remember as the strongest sign of what restaurants can do.
Feroz Gajia, restaurateur and Eater London contributor: In previous years I would have spoken about the meals that most excited me, a return counter meal by TāTā Eatery at Tayer and Elementary, a meal at the new The Sea, The Sea counter, or a meal at Chishuru. But comfort is how we all readjusted to being back in restaurants so probably the first meal back at 40 Maltby Street outdoors in the chilly winds of April; or one of two meals at Lighthaus that had some flawless dishes; or even the onslaught of food on the penultimate night of Pamela Yung’s time at the helm of Flor.
Daisy Meager, food writer and Eater London contributor: A long lunch at Cafe Cecilia was a highlight among many good meals. Port and tonic; bread and butter; fried sage and anchovy to start. Then there was gamey rabbit pasta and onglet swimming (in a good way) in peppercorn sauce. Exquisite chips! Ice cream with nuggets of crunchy, caramelised Guinness bread. Basically all the good things, in a gorgeous dining room, with wonderful company. And the meal was followed by a nap at home — the best sign of a good lunch.
Sean Wyer, writer, researcher and Eater London contributor: I once heard a story of a man who remembered what California was like in the 1960s, who used to tell his friends: “I don’t eat out often, but whenever I go somewhere that isn’t Chez Panisse, I just get sad that I’m not at Chez Panisse.” I didn’t sympathise at the time, but after a perfect evening with my partner at Chishuru in Brixton, I think I get it now.
Chishuru does not feel like Berkeley’s famous Chez Panisse, but it shares a number of the features that make it a great restaurant: a close attention to quality produce; an understanding that “special” does not have to mean ‘formal’; and an ability to make a cuisine with deep roots somewhere else (Nigeria, in Chishuru’s case) feel local.
When we asked chef Adejoké “Joké” Bakare about a yellow bottle behind the bar labelled “banana liqueur,” she gave us a full tour of the plantain-based spirit, which she makes in house, and of the spice, ehuru, which gives it a distinctly West African flavour. Chishuru made us feel warm, and not just because of that hearty digestif.
Angela Hui, food writer and Eater London contributor: I know, I know. I sound like a broken record when I keep mentioning the same place in these lists every year, but truly Singburi. I was lucky enough to have a small gathering in my garden with loved ones for my 30th birthday, sweating my tits off and eating an insane amount of takeaway Thai food on the hottest day of the year. Bliss. As for eat in? Probably the very boujee, very drunken and very bursting at the seams St. John meal. Revenge eating! Eating with a vengeance! Order everything twice! Yolo!
Lucas Oakley, food writer and Eater London contributor: I had a brilliant meal at Brat x Climpson’s Arch towards the start of the year. It was special for a number of reasons. One: because it was the first actual honest-to-God restaurant that I’d eaten at in months. And two: because it was during that meal — somewhere between the puffy anchovy flatbreads and the Basque cheesecake — that my partner and I became “official.” Saccharine? Yes. True? Also yes.
David Jay Paw, food writer and Eater London contributor: A six-hour marathon at Sessions Arts Club, starting off with dinner in their cosy booths, moving to the terrace for dessert, and ending with more drinks on the sofas.
Ed Cumming, writer and restaurant critic: Osip in Bruton.
Hester van Hensbergen, food writer and Eater London contributor: The first meal out after lockdown: Café Deco on a brisk, sunny, late April day, wrapped in a big coat but with bare legs and perched on an uncomfortable stool. The lunch was elegant and Alpine — the pure Anna Tobias form — with a plate-filling magic carpet of schnitzel at its heart, flanked by cold, bright things: lemony potato salad with chives, terrine and cornichons, and golden, buttery wine. Everything twinkled.
Shekha Vyas, food writer and Eater London contributor: I had a few “best meals” which I couldn’t really choose between! Trying Tasty Jerk’s jerk goat (always been sold out) for the first time in the park, after a two-hour drive/pilgrimage for it across London, on one of the hottest days of the year, a food crawl across Birmingham that involved some wonderful Malaysian food at Kopitiam and balti at Shabab’s, small plates of beef bourguignon and fondue at Lady of the Grapes, chicken tagine and pulled lamb shoulder at Le Méchoui du Prince in Paris...I could go on!