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Gage & Tollner
Photograph: Courtesy Lizzie Munro

NYC's 12 best new restaurants of 2021

Including under-the-radar sushi, splashy revivals and marvelous second acts.

Amber Sutherland-Namako
Written by
Amber Sutherland-Namako
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At this time last year, we didn’t know which exciting, surprising and splashy spots would emerge as 2021’s best new restaurants. But back then, we didn’t know a lot of things. We didn’t know when indoor dining would return, or what would be required to partake, or whether our favorite “temporarily” closed venues would ever come back. Neither, of course, did the hospitality professionals who took a chance on a return to something, or at least the notion of this new normal that keeps being bandied about. 

I was talking to a restaurant owner the other day who opened his first independent venture months before NYC’s hospitality shutdown. The place went on to survive the months that followed and become about as critically acclaimed as anywhere can, with the bookings to match. I asked him how recent history hadn’t warned him off opening the new place so soon. How did he go from feeling good to bad to hopeful in such quick succession? He said that opening a new restaurant is always a little frightening, but, essentially, the only way to keep going is to just not stop. 

Nobody here stopped. They kept going out of force of necessity, determination and more than a little optimism in a time when that sentiment has been tough to dredge up. These are the best restaurants that opened in New York City in 2021. 

The best new restaurants in NYC, 2021

  • Restaurants
  • Lower East Side

Dhamaka opened last winter, made it to our list of NYC’s best new restaurants by the spring, was named one of our best restaurants in the world over the summer and won a Time Out Best of the City Award this fall. It's been a triumphant journey for Essex Market’s crown jewel, which spotlights dishes from what Dhamaka calls “the forgotten side of India.” Chef Chintan Pandya has expertly calibrated spices and amplified flavors to make menu items like the vibrant gurda kapoora served with heat-slaking pillows of pao, comforting goat neck dum biryani and the practically viral paplet fry (if you’ve seen one table-top snapshot, it’s likely this delicious little fish) essential not only to Dhamaka, but to eating in NYC in 2021. 

  • Restaurants
  • Downtown Brooklyn

Brooklyn restaurant darlings Sohui Kim, Ben Schneider and St. John Frizell are hit makers from the shores of Red Hook to the banks of the Gowanus Canal, having between them built local favorites Fort Defiance, The Good Fork and Insa from scratch. At Gage & Tollner, they had an apparent head start via the space’s august history as a beloved, century-old chophouse, and a landmark designation that helped preserve its dining room’s gilded beauty. All that got delayed in light of its original March, 2020 opening date, but G&T finally opened its doors once more this past April. Now, the chops are back in force, along with excellent cocktails (including a dedicated martini menu), outstanding fried chicken and this year’s best new restaurant desserts. 

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  • Restaurants
  • Midtown West

Everything about Sushi 35 West is enchanting. It’s a little hard to find in that speakeasy-fashion that people seem lose their breath for: Easy to miss through a nondescript service entrance, up a narrow staircase and into an incongruously charming seating area. The interior is lined with white brick walls and appointed with exposed pipes, bright lights and two round patio tables with four folding chairs between them. The only window in the place looks into the decently-sized kitchen, where its owner-operators prepare skillfully sourced fish with elegant knife work and the occasional touch of a torch, all served on plastic trays. (It turns out the owners previously worked at NYC’s best sushi restaurants, including Masa.) Sushi 35 West’s quality-to-price ratio (many sets hover around the $20-$30 range and its most expensive item is a 35-piece omakase for $110) is unmatched in its category, and it is a truly exuberant jaunt to share with friends. 

  • Restaurants
  • Financial District

A surprising number of luxe restaurants with price tags to match opened this year, and Saga’s the most stunning of them all. It follows chef James Kent’s Crown Shy, which itself was NYC’s best new restaurant in 2019. The two share an address at 70 Pine Street, separated by several dozen stories. The sensational Saga experience starts with welcome cocktails on its 63rd floor terraces, which boast some of the most cinematic skyline views money can buy: $245 per person before additional drinks, tax and tip, to be precise. Dinner here can last more than three hours across spaces: Back inside for the Moroccan-leaning menu’s multiple courses of clever preparations of fluke five ways, black bass with lobster, clams and scallop in a coconut bisque and peak-form dry-aged duck; then to another terrace for tea; then back to the table for dessert and a whimsical candy dish filled with marvelous, house-made confections. It all amounts to the most exciting new thing in fine dining. 

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  • Restaurants
  • Chelsea

Chef Ayesha Nurdjaja follows the perennially popular Shuka with another juggernaut that’s high-energy and comfortable at once. Shukette’s seasonal Middle Eastern menu begins with a punnily titled spread section (“When you dip, I dip, we rip”) including a great hummus with perky shatta and a subtle salt cod with a pop of serrano chili heat. Pair them with just-baked breads from the “Rip this” category, but pace yourself for larger plates. The fish in a cage is a winner, wonderfully finished with herb pistou, and the kebabs are smashing, but one of Shukette’s most magnetic items is its toum. The silver-dollar sized dollop of cumulus whipped garlic is positively peerless and would be magic even with just a bit of pita and a splash of wine at the bar, should a space ever open up. 

  • Restaurants
  • Greenpoint

Nura is ideally calibrated for the NYC dining zeitgeist of 2021. It’s sprawling space can accommodate an un-crowded 80, the best seats in the house are cozy and cocoon-like with attractive partitions between them, and chef Jackie Carnesi’s brief menu is cannily crafted to call you back even when you think you’ve tried it all. To start, the bread basket is crucial. Garlic coriander naan and Parker House rolls are baked in a tandoor oven and served with yogurt with haraasa and za’atar, poblano hummus and cultured leek butter. The grilled prawns with a mezcal, habanero, urfa biber and pomegranate sauce is terrific, too, the purée seemingly destined to scale and sell by the bottle. Likewise the cherry chipotle barbecue sauce that coats za’atar baby back ribs. And Nura’s cocktails are worth a stop of their own, and there’s plenty of room at the large horseshoe bar to sip them. 

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  • Restaurants
  • East Village

Executive chef Shenarri Freeman’s irresistible southern-fried lasagna–breaded, deep-fried cylinders of pasta, pine nut ricotta, spinach and red wine Beyond Meat Bolognese–has been gathering crowds to this plant-based southern soul food restaurant since it opened at the end of March. It’s a star plate, with dynamic textures inviting bite after bite, but the rest of the menu shines, too. The smoked grits with oyster mushrooms, corn kernels and crispy garlic and shallots and palm cakes with chickpeas on a bed of chipotle aioli slaw also inspire repeat trips. Cadence’s narrow space only seats about twelve at it’s gleaming chef’s counter (there’s room for 18 more outside), so prepare to wait your turn to come back for more. 

  • Restaurants
  • East Village

Four friends conceived Time Out Best of the City Award winner Sidney’s Five during last year’s doldrums, and the result is Edie Ugot, Kai Woo, Walker Chambliss and David Lowenstein’s fantastically jubilent restaurant and bar. Darling details like a trio of mini martinis to start and complimentary chocolate-covered strawberries with your check bookend visits here. Fill the time between with fresh-shucked garlic herb charbroiled oysters, hearty fish and chips and a delightful andouille corn dog with pepper jelly and Carolina mustard in the retro, rec room-chic space. 

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  • Restaurants
  • East Harlem

NYC fine dining doyen Yannick Benjamin previously worked at Le Cirque and Jean-Georges before opening Contento as managing partner and beverage director in June. Also a sommelier, Benjamin curated a studied wine list to pair with Chef Oscar Lorenzzi’s Peruvian-influenced menu items like the nicely balanced ceviche clasico, duck liver mousse with chicha morada gelée and short ribs over udon noodles in peanut sauce. Contento’s handsome, exposed brick space is lined mostly in earth tones with a few swipes of brightness and has a focus on accessibility. Benjamin and business partner George Gallego positioned the dining room’s tables and a portion of the bar at a height suitable for wheelchair users such as themselves. 

 

  • Restaurants
  • Midtown East

This year’s best restaurants share a quality surprisingly sometimes overlooked in the hospitality industry: Fun. Executive chef Sol Han’s Little Mad is buoyant. Its dining room looks cool, with polished, industrial design elements, and feels warm by way of its inviting atmosphere and the literal heat emanating from the lively open kitchen. There, they prepare what’s still the most exciting new appetizer in the city, a beef tartare under a chartreuse, seaweed-based dome that you shatter with a wooden hammer presented tableside. It’s a lilting way to set the evening’s tone with taste and texture that delivers on its aesthetic promise, and the ideal start to Han’s wider Korean-American menu.

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  • Restaurants
  • Mexican
  • Greenwich Village

Yuco opened in June with the bold stated goal “to be the single most innovative Yucateco restaurant in the world.” With that aim, Chef-partner Christian Ortiz and sous chef Jose Hernandez’s banner mole is made with rare Yucatán chiles sourced by Ortiz and takes about a week to prepare from start to finish. The successful result is served, in one instance, with impeccable oxtail and fresh heirloom-corn tortillas. This, and other favorites like the Wagyu steak tacos are available à la carte and on Yuco’s $95 and $225 tasting menus. The cocktails are also meticulous, and co-owner Trent Walker’s wine program is thoughtfully designed to offer pours from some super-luxe bottles seldom seen by the glass. 

  • Restaurants
  • Park Slope

Chef Eric Huang opened his Queens-based, takeout and delivery-only ‘underground’ fried chicken operation last year. The waitlist for the former Eleven Madison Park sous chef’s buttermilk-brined, Tianjin chili and Szechuan peppercorn-spiced fried bird, which landed on our list of NYC’s best fried chicken spots before too long, ballooned. Pop-ups followed, and then, over the summer, Huang introduced on-site service Saturdays and Sundays only, right in his family’s long-running but recently dormant restaurant space on Union Turnpike. You can still get three pieces of the famed chili fried chicken and three sides for $35, just like when Pecking House first got clucking, plus sandwiches, wings and duck drumettes in the restaurant’s throwback, somewhat solarium-style space. Go before the end of the year: Huang tells me that after December 26, he’ll be planning Pecking House’s next move.

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