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Revealed: Time Out New York’s 2021 Best of the City award winners

The greatest events, parties, restaurants, bars and cultural institutions in New York this year

Edited by
Will Gleason
Written by
Adam Feldman
,
Will Gleason
,
Shaye Weaver
&
Amber Sutherland-Namako
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As the saying goes: “New York is back!” While that statement may have become a bit of a cliché over the last 12 months, there’s no denying that a sense of revitalization, reawakening and return could be found across the five boroughs this year. As vaccines rolled out and bars and dance floors finally reopened, the city got a certain energy and excitement back that has been heartwarming to see. Not surprisingly, New Yorkers have eagerly returned to the city’s world-class restaurants, museums, cultural institutions, galleries and clubs. Once there, they were met by plenty of mind-bending innovation, creativity and can-do spirit. For this year’s Best of the City Awards, we wanted to highlight some of that local brilliance—from speakeasy comedy clubs to bars hidden in the subway and life-changing theatre. Want to feel pretty great about the city you live in? Read on... 

Disagree with our choices? You can still vote for your beloved venues in our Love Local Awards. Support your favorite today!

Food & Drink

  • Restaurants
  • Korean
  • Hell's Kitchen

Kochi was one of NYC's most excellent new restaurants when it opened with cuisine inspired by the Korean royal court in 2019. Its November launch date, however, kept it off of most of that year’s best of lists. But it kept serving chef Sungchul Shim’s excellent tasting menu outdoors throughout the trying months that followed, eventually earning a 2021 Michelin star. It still has a fantastic tasting menu that includes courses like charcoal grilled Spanish mackerel, braised short rib and bibimbap outside and in its small but lively open kitchen-facing dining room.

  • Bars
  • Cocktail bars
  • Long Island City
  • price 2 of 4

Dutch Kills opened in 2009 with tremendous pomp and it’s still exceptional 12 years later. It has bespoke drinks and a studied cocktail menu, both considered down to the custom ice, à la minute frozen cocktails, throwback style, a free jukebox and food by Troppo Stretto. Every bottle behind the bar is adorned with a tag listing its price and details like ABC and tasting notes for sipping transparency. The detail-oriented bar has seen some changes over the years, but always retained its spirit. Its most notable shift was the addition of outdoor seats last year, which brought the speakeasy-adjacent operation out into the sunshine.

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  • Restaurants
  • Lower East Side

Being that Dhamaka is already on our list of the best restaurants in the world, and that it’s been racking up accolades ever since, it might not come as a surprise that it’s New York City’s best new opening of 2021. The lovely dining destination from Unapologetic Foods (which continues to open exciting new spots) serves excellent Indian dishes mostly unseen in other area restaurants. The oft-photographed paplet fry, gurda kapoora and goat neck dum biryani are among Dhamaka’s many can’t-miss dishes. 

  • Restaurants
  • East Village

Yes, Sidney’s Five is also a full-service restaurant with fantastic food like fresh-shucked garlic-herb charbroiled oysters and an incredible andouille corn dog. But its long bar is great enough to stand on its own. Do not be fooled by the retro decor: Sidney’s five is particularly prescient about NYC’s incoming drinking trends, including the dedicated martini menu it introduced before others followed suit more recently. Stay for dinner after your expertly made drinks to enjoy a sweet surprise: complimentary chocolate covered strawberries that come with your check. 

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Best Street Food Spot: NY Dosas
  • Restaurants
  • Street food
  • Greenwich Village

Thiru Kumar’s been serving his award-winning dosas to New Yorkers for more than two decades. You’ll find his excellent eponymous dish, one of the best street foods in the world, at Washington Square Park Monday through Saturday. Pair your delectable dosa with a side of sambar in the colder months; the steamy stew will warm up the chilliest picnics.

Exactly what we wish every cafe would be, The Boogie Down Grind in the Bronx has coffee, tea, espresso drinks, boba and matcha for alert hours, and beer, wine and bubbly for fun times. It also offers pastries, soup and sandwiches, including a grilled cheese with add-ons like tomato, bacon and cheese. Nab a spot in the chic brick-lined space’s window, the cozy corner or in its outdoor dining area. 

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  • Restaurants
  • Williamsburg

One of the best new restaurants of 2020, Kokomo has continued to impress with its Caribbean-inspired food, ever-updated cocktails and stylish, verdant spaces replete with vibrant flora inside and out. It simply always seems to stay ahead of the curve, having recently updated its menu with hearty winter bites, added more electric heaters to its sidewalk seating area and crafted a rummy hot chocolate in anticipation of the incoming cold temperatures.

Culture & Entertainment

In this riveting journey to hell and back, Lucas Hnath put his own mother’s account of her abduction by a violent criminal onstage in a recording of her own words, lip-synched by the breathtaking Deirdre O’Connell under the carefully taut direction of Les Waters. Although Dana H.’s 2021 Broadway run was too brief, it’s a miracle that a show this strange, this scary, this haunting and haunted, ever made it to Broadway at all—and O’Connell gave a performance that no one who saw it will ever forget.

  • Theater
  • Tribeca
  • price 2 of 4

Soho Rep isn’t the last word in downtown experimental theater: Better than that, it’s often one of the first words, championing major voices at key points in their careers. Its astounding list of alums includes Richard Maxwell, Young Jean Lee, Adam Bock, Annie Baker, Nature Theater of Oklahoma, David Adjmi, Lucas Hnath, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Anne Washburn, Aleshea Harris and Jackie Sibblies Drury (whose Fairview, which premiered there, won the Pulitzer Prize). And Soho Rep’s low ticket prices, including 99¢ Sundays, help keep some of the city’s bravest, boldest and wildest theater within the reach of all New Yorkers. 

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  • Art
  • Midtown East

When haters were pessimistic about NYC's ability to rise out of the ashes of its shutdown, creators of The Locker Room fired back with its "New York is dead. Don't come back" show, featuring the work of 30 NYC-based artists who locked themselves down for a month of creation. It was a launching point for The Locker Room, which opened in the middle of the pandemic in August 2020. The gallery/music studio/venue space's mission? To capture and support the "tidal wave" of creativity that is springing from this difficult period in NYC. More than ever, NYC needs art galleries whose heart is all in for NYC and its creatives.

  • Museums
  • History
  • East Harlem
  • price 1 of 4

By and for New Yorkers, the Museum of the City of New York is a constant recorder and interactive space for all of us to discover, learn and celebrate the city we live in and the people who have made it the best place in the world. From a current exhibition on NYC's effect on the music of the 1980s to its "New York Responds" during the pandemic, the museum's programming is one of the best because it evolves and grows with the city, reflecting its complicated yet beautiful culture.

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NYC has its share of awesome movie theaters, but this one takes the cake. Born out of our need for entertainment outdoors during the shutdown, Skyline Drive-In is the ultimate movie destination with the best views in town—the East River and Manhattan skyline (hence the name). The massive outdoor space fits cars of all shapes and sizes, and better yet, you don't need a car to attend a movie screening—there are chairs up front you can rent out—and there is a proper bathroom and concession stand with all the traditional movie snacks. Movies span from classics to new releases, so there's something for everyone. 
  • Bars
  • Beer bars
  • Ridgewood
  • price 2 of 4
This Ridgewood staple has proved necessary these days—its big backyard vibes, musical and film offerings and food vendors place it on the map as one of the best nightlife venues in the city. It was there for us when we couldn't be indoors with its perfectly large outdoor space for great drinks and there for us as a safe and inclusive space to enjoy its beloved dance party Mister Sunday among other nights. It also changes with the seasons, bringing the huddled masses cozy yurts in the winter and even a sauna one year
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  • Things to do
  • Bushwick
Tiny Cupboard, a DIY rooftop comedy club, emerged in 2019 when Amy Wong and Matt Rosenblum started producing music, comedy and experiential performances there. But when the pandemic hit, it turned into a rooftop comedy club when it was needed the most. Since then, it's become a huge comedy hotspot with its new pink comedy church and The Mushroom, which is said to be the smallest comedy room in NYC. Like many venues in Bushwick right now, it's becoming a big and influential part of its scene.

City Life

It was a major blow to the vendors, founders and loyal shoppers of the Hester Street Fair when it lost its lease last year on its namesake address. For a year, New Yorkers were mourning the loss of one of the city's great street fairs, one they could always count on for unique, locally made goods. When it rose from the ashes like a phoenix to pop up at The Seaport this year, it was a celebration of resiliency and New York strength. Plus, it was just freakin' good to shop at a good street market again.

After another year that saw New Yorkers spend more time outside in parks and green spaces than ever before, it was hard to narrow it down to just one space in the city deserving of the accolade of “Best Park of the Year!” However, this narrow waterfront park, found at the easternmost edge of the East Village and Lower East Side, takes the cake thanks to the impassioned “Save East River Park” campaign which attempted to stop the city from executing a plan to address sustainability concerns by razing much of the existing park and covering it with eight feet of fill to build a new park. The impassioned community response shows just how vital this public space is in the lives of many New Yorkers.

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  • Art
  • Art

Artist Maya Lin installed a literal forest of trees in the middle of Manhattan (in Madison Square Park) to get the message across that climate change is behind the dying off of vast tracts of forests. It was pretty hardcore—the trees she installed were all bare and reached as tall as 45 feet. Visitors to the park will be able to walk through the grove and commune with the ghostly figures and listen to a soundscape of extinct and endangered animals that were once native to NYC as well as historic clips of Lenape elders and contemporary voices introducing the name of each animal in Lenape languages. It was one of the most creative and startling artworks we saw this year.

Party Time

  • Things to do
  • City Life
When dance parties were not totally possible, the Park Avenue Armory threw the most epic one. SOCIAL! The Social Distance Dance Party by Christine Jones, Steven Hoggett and David Byrne had audience members dance in their own socially distanced spotlights to a curated playlist and mixed by New York City DJ Natasha Diggs. The drill hall was transformed into a party with an instructional voiceover by Byrne, who spouted moves choreographed by Yasmine Lee. It was a "communal moment of cathartic release in an anxiety-ridden time," according to organizers. Bravo!
  • Things to do
  • City Life
A 30-foot-wide and 13-foot-tall "alarm red" powder-coated metallic stage, dubbed "Red Stage," became the center of some seemingly impromptu street parties and gatherings this past June. Created by artist Rashid Johnson and Creative Time, the "people's platform" at Astor Place played host to a series of artist-curated takeovers, performances, workshops, a day of intimate conversations between poets and activists, reading groups and sound baths with herbalists and a day of civic joy, music, and political education. It was a tremendous way to bridge the gap between art and the people.
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It's been around since the 1970s, but Atlantic Antic was the best city festival of the year. We missed it last year in all its glory—10 blocks of artisanal hawkers, live music from diverse local talent and a delicious variety of food vendors. This year felt different after a year without the city's biggest street festival. New Yorkers could finally celebrate and be out with their neighbors. It felt good.
  • Art
  • Art
Japanese Artist Yayoi Kusama is a favorite among New Yorkers, so it was no surprise this highly-anticipated major showing of her work at the New York Botanical Garden was massively attended. Kusama and the NYBG did not disappoint. "Cosmic Nature" was the art exhibition we needed this year—its whimsical and larger-than-life nature pulled us outside of ourselves (and our homes). With installations across the entire garden, from Narcissus Garden to the interactive "obliteration greenhouse," it most definitely deserves the top spot as the best art exhibition we saw this year.
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NYC nightlife continued to exist in somewhat of a limbo this year (the vibes last summer being, famously, off) but the party was raging on at queer hyperpop club night sksksks. The brainchild of Brooklyn-based DJ David Chan, who spins under the name THELIMITDOESNOTEXIST, the party created a safe space for an LGBTQ+ crowd. Combining pop and techno, the event brought extremely online aesthetics to a very IRL event and also fostered a sense of community solidarity through the availability of fentanyl test kits, Narcan, ear plugs and face masks. The next event will be held on December 10.

Sustainability

  • Attractions
  • Parks and gardens
  • Governors Island

Governors Island has long provided a green escape for New Yorkers during the summer months, but for the first time since being taken over by the city, NYC’s very own island paradise is now open to the public all year round. (Don’t miss its first-ever winter village! Or its soon-to-open luxury spa!) Now, it's expanding its commitment to sustainability outward with an upcoming Center for Climate Solutions which will help prepare NYC and cities around the world for climate change through interdisciplinary research, development and education at a single exciting new hub. (Picked by expert judge Ben Furnas, Director of the NYC Mayor’s Office of Climate and Sustainability)

From pop-up reading rooms and art studios to chalk murals, the events under this program, put on by the organisation Street Lab, transformed city streets and other public spaces into vibrant community hubs of artistic expression, learning and fun. The ongoing events activated city streets in ways that connected neighborhoods and uplifted city residents with a special focus on areas of the city that were hit especially hard by the Covid-19 pandemic. (Picked by expert judge Ben Furnas, Director of the NYC Mayor’s Office of Climate and Sustainability

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  • Things to do
  • City Life

Has there been one specific new bike lane in the city that has elicited such anticipation and excitement as the one that was finally unveiled on the Brooklyn Bridge of this year? After years of struggling with a confusing mess of pedestrians, cyclists and copious real-time engagements in the same lane on the 19th Century city icon, cyclists finally got their own space this fall to fly across the East River between Brooklyn and Manhattan. With more New Yorkers cycling than ever before, the new bit of vital infrastructure didn’t come a moment too soon. (Picked by expert judge Ben Furnas, Director of the NYC Mayor’s Office of Climate and Sustainability

Special Awards

  • Things to do
  • City Life

Yes, there were local innovations that more directly addressed the important issues of our day like climate change, community health and safety. However, there may not have been an innovation that so directly altered New Yorkers’ day-to-day existence as the long overdue replacement of paper MetroCards on the subway with a new contactless payment system. Who knew the time saved by tapping a smartphone instead of buying a MetroCard from the (we’ll just say) less than reliable machines would be so cherished. 

When NYC nightlife was still waking up from its year-plus hibernation, one person who did an oversized amount of that reawakening was the DJ Ty Sunderland. His enormously successful outdoor parties, Ty Tea at 3 Dollar Bill in Bushwick, brought people dancing outside when many were first reentering the scene early last spring. Meanwhile, showing true land/sea versatility, his Gayflower boat parties—including Lady Gaga- and Britney Spears-theme voyages, provided plenty of memorable moments in the New York Harbor.

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  • Things to do
  • City Life

We love Billion Oyster Project for its herculean effort to return enumerable (you try counting to one billion) live oysters to New York Harbor in an effort to lessen the effects of climate change, but also for how easy they make it for the average New Yorker to help. For one, you can simply slurp oysters at one of the many restaurants that helps those shells return to the sea. Two, you can bring your own bivalve detritus to BOP’s new Williamsburg collection center. Or three, you can volunteer for any number of frankly fun endeavors to bring Billion Oyster Project’s mission into fruition. 

  • Bars
  • Chelsea

Though it’s hard to imagine an even more fun NYC subway experience, La Noxe made it so when it opened its subterranean bar adjacent to the 28th Street station last year. Ring a bell at street level for access to the lushly textiled one-bedroom apartment-sized space that serves cocktails that most couldn’t shake in a place twice this size, plus an improbably robust snack menu.

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