This not-so-post pandemic year was a wake-up call for an industry in desperate need of an image makeover. Cooks and servers didn’t return to restaurants after shutdowns the way restaurateurs had hoped, leading to a shift in compensation structures, working conditions and, perhaps most importantly, culture to lure workers back. Supply chain shortages continued to plague the industry, yet amid all the upheaval and uncertainty, gains were made. Food halls and social houses established themselves in every corner of the city, and small chef’s tasting concepts wowed gastronomes. Two beloved institutions — Hunger Street Tacos and Black Rooster Taqueria — opened second locations, and both Shin Jung and Wa Sushi managed to resurrect themselves.
On the fast-food front, White Castle, Portillo’s and Chicken Guy were the more notable openings, while over at Disney, Space 220 took diners on an out-of-this-world culinary journey. It’s hard to say what 2022 will bring (apart from Edoboy, the Mongolorian, Susuru Juju, Kaya, the Foreigner, Norman’s, Jollibee, Knife Burger and Pigzza by Pig Floyd) so, for now, let’s celebrate another year of good eats gone by. Here, then, are the very best restaurants that opened in 2021.
No. 1: The Monroe
448 N. Terry Ave., themonroeorlando.com
Jason and Sue Chin, the power couple behind some of the most well-received eating houses in the city, opened their most accessible and, arguably, most fetching restaurant this year in the heart of Creative Village. The Monroe isn’t just a stunning sanctuary of midcentury modernity, it’s also the ideal platform for beloved chef Josh Oakley (Smiling Bison) to showcase his equally accessible and fetching modern comfort fare. Sure, his fried chicken is a tour de force, but pastrami-spiced corn dogs and jerk-spiced chicken hearts served on skewers with grilled pineapple are both approachably modern and feel-good finger food. The cocktail program, led by Shawn Newman (Bitters & Brass, The Guesthouse, Robinson Cocktail Room) is top-notch. That this Parramore restaurant is named for Dr. William “Monroe” Wells, the man who opened the historic Wells’ Built Hotel in the neighborhood back in 1926 for African American travelers, only adds poignancy to The Monroe’s selection as the Top Table of 2021.
No. 2: Deli Desires
715 N. Fern Creek Ave., delidesires.com
The buzzy Colonialtown deli by husband-and-wife tandem Hannah Jaffe and Nathan Sloan gave this city something it didn’t know it needed — bialys. They serve these non-boiled, malt-free cousins of the bagel in caramelized onion or smoked jalapeño and muenster varieties, with fillings ranging from gravlax to labneh to scrapple, the latter playing up the deli’s “unkosher” status. I developed a bit of an addiction to their “Big Mac” — a corned beef sandwich layered with lettuce, American cheese, pickles, onions and special sauce on a Martin’s sesame bun. Pair it with one of their house-made 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
Leave it to Amit Kumar, the boss man behind Aashirwad on Kirkman Road and Tamarind in Winter Park, to bring the bounty of Indian street food to the city. And, hey, why not? Millions on the Indian subcontinent rely on street eats for daily sustenance, and the mind-blasting array of options at BSK is downright dazzling. Of note: pani puri served on a miniature street cart; patthar ke gosht (marinated lamb grilled over a hot stone); and crunchy, tangy, spicy kale chaat. Larger plates, like tandoori pompano stuffed with basil, mint and lemon, will leave you ravaging the local catch with your fingers. Masala mules and Bombay old-fashioneds are crafted behind the slick bar, while shaved ice offered in a host of flavors makes an ideal Florida dessert.
No. 4: Four Flamingos, A Richard Blais Florida Kitchen
1 Grand Cypress Blvd., fourflamingosorlando.com
The winner of the No Loss for Words Award for Restaurant Names was a latecomer to our dining scene, but made an impact for its deft and playful creations envisioned by Top Chef: All-Stars champeen Richard Blais (in case the name of the restaurant didn’t make that clear). Blais follows in the footsteps of Norman Van Aken, Allen Susser and other Mango Gang alumni in presenting a very Floribbean menu that isn’t afraid to get playful — tuna tostones with a “yolk” fashioned from passion fruit; ice cold oysters with hibiscus-datil pepper “pearls”; and, hold up, foie and oxtail empanadas. The design piggybacks on the Hemingways reno of 2019, so the light, airy, window-filled interior remains (though a live lobster tank adds a bit of eye candy). There’s no real dress code, though if you wear pink, you’ll fit right in.
No. 5: Soseki
955 W. Fairbanks Ave., Winter Park, sosekifl.com
It’s been a busy year for Michael Collantes. Since opening his Filipino-American eatery Taglish in 2019, Collantes formed his own restaurant group (Taglish Collective); helped open Perla’s Pizza in Ivanhoe Village (before dissolving his partnership with co-founder Christian Ziegler); and expanded Taglish to the UCF corridor (it opens at the end of January). But Soseki, his 10-seat omakase concept in Winter Park, is where he and chef cohorts Tadateru Tokudaiji and Kevin Abanilla geek out with their instruments and exquisite ingredients to showcase their skills as gifted culinarians. The menu is seasonal, the dishes are creative, and the pairings courtesy of beverage director Benjamin Coutts only serve to enhance the whole experience. Coming in 2022: an expansion of the space (think sake lounge with elegant bar bites).
Honorable Mention: Camille
3201 Corrine Drive, exploretock.com/camille
Domu Lab’s rotating chef incubator program at the Neighbors inside East End Market is here to stay, but its first chef’s tasting concept, Camille, isn’t. This time next year, chef Tung Phan’s seven-course, seasonal menu of modern French-Vietnamese cuisine will be gone (possibly to a brick and mortar), so don’t waste any time — give Camille a try. I promise it’ll be one of the finest dining experiences you’ll have in this city. His duck and tapioca congee is almost worth the $120 price tag. 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 in Curry Ford, Pop’s Pizzeria, Space 220, Golden Hour, Modest Wine, White Castle, Portillo’s, Chicken Guy.