This year not so after the pandemic was a wake-up call for an industry in desperate need of a makeover. Cooks and waiters did not return to restaurants after closings as restaurateurs expected, prompting a change in compensation structures, working conditions, and perhaps most importantly, culture to attract workers back. Supply chain shortages continued to plague the industry, yet amid all the turmoil and uncertainty, profits were made. Food halls and social houses were established in every corner of the city, and the tasting concepts of little chefs wowed foodies. Two beloved institutions, Hunger Street Tacos and Black Rooster Taqueria, opened second locations, and both Shin Jung and Wa Sushi managed to resurrect.
On the fast food front, White Castle, Portillo’s, and Chicken Guy were the most notable openings, while at Disney, Space 220 took diners on an out-of-this-world culinary journey. It’s hard to say what 2022 will bring (aside from Edoboy, the Mongolorian, Susuru Juju, Kaya, the Foreigner, Norman’s, Jollibee, Knife Burger, and Pig Floyd’s Pigzza) so for now, let’s celebrate another year of good food that’s gone by. . . Here, then, are the best restaurants that opened in 2021.
No. 1: The Monroe
448 N. Terry Ave., themonroeorlando.com
open in may
Jason and Sue Chin, the powerful couple behind some of the city’s most well-received eating houses, opened their most accessible and possibly most attractive restaurant this year in the heart of Creative Village. Not only is the Monroe a stunning sanctuary of mid-century modernity, it is also the ideal platform for beloved chef Josh Oakley (Smiling Bison) to show off his equally accessible and inviting fare in modern comfort. Sure, their fried chicken is a tour de force, but pastrami-spiced corn dogs and jerk-spiced chicken hearts served on skewers with grilled pineapple are an accessible and modern treat to feel good about. The cocktail program, led by Shawn Newman (Bitters & Brass, The Guesthouse, Robinson Cocktail Room) is top-notch. The fact that this Parramore restaurant is named after Dr. William “Monroe” Wells, the man who opened the neighborhood’s historic Wells’ Built Hotel in 1926 for African-American travelers, only adds to the shock of The Monroe’s selection as the best table of 2021.
No. 2: Deli Desires
715 N. Fern Creek Ave., delidesires.com
opened in february
Husband and wife Hannah Jaffe and Nathan Sloan’s bustling Colonialtown deli gave this city something it didn’t know it needed: bialys. They serve these non-boiled, malt-free bagel cousins in caramelized onion or smoked jalapeño and muenster varieties, with fillings ranging from gravlax to labneh to scrapple, the latter highlighting the deli’s “unkosher” status. I developed a certain addiction to their “Big Mac,” a corned beef sandwich layered with lettuce, American cheese, pickles, onions, and special sauce on a Martin sesame bun. Pair it with one of their homemade sodas and it’s easy to see why Deli Desires draws long lines.
No. 3: Bombay Street Kitchen
6215 S. Orange Blossom Trail, bombaykitchenorlando.com
opened in march
Let Amit Kumar, the boss behind Aashirwad on Kirkman Road and Tamarind in Winter Park, bring the bounty of Indian street food to town. And, hey, why not? Millions in the Indian subcontinent depend on street food for their daily sustenance, and the mind-boggling array of options in BSK is downright dazzling. Highlights: pani puri served on a miniature street cart; patthar ke gosht (grilled marinated lamb on a hot stone); and crispy, tangy, and spicy kale chaat. Larger dishes, like basil, mint, and lemon stuffed tandoori vine will leave you tearing up local catch with your fingers. Masala mules and Bombay old-fashioned mules are made behind the slick bar, while shaved ice offered in a variety of flavors is an ideal Florida dessert.
No. 4: Four flamingos, A Richard Blais Florida Kitchen
1 Grand Cypress Blvd., fourflamingosorlando.com
open in december
The No Loss for Words award winner for restaurant names was late to our food scene, but made an impact for his clever and fun creations imagined by Top Chef: All-Stars Champeen Richard Blais (in case the name of the restaurant is not clear). Blais follows in the footsteps of Norman Van Aken, Allen Susser, and other Mango Gang alumni by presenting a very Floribeño menu that is not afraid to have fun: tuna tostones with a passion fruit “yolk”; frozen oysters with hibiscus and date pepper “pearls”; and, wait, foie and oxtail empanadas. The design is piggybacked on the 2019 Hemingways Reno, so the light, airy, window-filled interior remains (though a live lobster tank adds a bit of visual appeal). There is no real dress code, although if you wear pink, you will be a perfect fit.
No. 5: Soseki
955 W. Fairbanks Ave., Winter Park, sosekifl.com
opened in march
It has been a busy year for Michael Collantes. Since opening his Filipino-American restaurant Taglish in 2019, Collantes has formed his own restaurant group (Taglish Collective); helped open Perla’s Pizza in Ivanhoe Village (before dissolving its association with co-founder Christian Ziegler); and Taglish expanded to the UCF corridor (opens late January). But Soseki, his 10-seat omakase concept in Winter Park, is where he and chef cohorts Tadateru Tokudaiji and Kevin Abanilla feast on their exquisite instruments and ingredients to showcase their talented culinary skills. The menu is seasonal, the dishes are creative, and the pairings, courtesy of Beverage Director Benjamin Coutts, only serve to enhance the entire experience. Coming in 2022: an expansion of space (think a sake lounge with fancy bar bites).
Honorable mention: Camille
3201 Corrine Drive, exploretock.com/camille
open in october
Domu Lab’s rotating chef incubator program in the Neighbors within East End Market is here to stay, but its first chef Camille’s tasting concept is not. This time around next year, Chef Tung Phan’s seasonal seven-course menu of modern French-Vietnamese cuisine will disappear (possibly to a brick and mortar), so don’t waste your time, try Camille. I promise you that it will be one of the best gastronomic experiences you will have in this city. Their tapioca duck congee is worth nearly $ 120. Almost.
Other notable 2020 openings:
The Pinery, Hampton Social, Hall on the Yard, Milkhouse, Jalapeño’s Mexican Eats, Gatlin Hall, Shin Jung, Maguro Sushi, Shanghai Lane, Ten Ten Seafood Grill, Tajine Express, Ziggie’s Pizza (formerly Perla’s), Wa Sushi, Soupa Saiyan 3 , Hunger Street Tacos at Plant St. Market, Black Rooster Taqueria at Curry Ford, Pop’s Pizzeria, Space 220, Golden Hour, Modest Wine, White Castle, Portillo’s, Chicken Guy.