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Editor's Note: This story is unlocked for everyone to read courtesy of the CRVA, our partner in nourishing culinary exploration for residents and visitors of the Queen City.

December 30, 2021

The best things we ate in 2021

Our staff shares the drinks and dishes that stuck in their minds this year

The candied apple dessert from Mariposa is delicious, but also a visual stunner. Photo by Peter Taylor

In 2021, a year dining out could no longer be taken for granted, every dish enjoyed at a restaurant was something special. Yet for our staff, there’s a dish and a drink that stand out as the best things we tasted in 2021. Here’s our list of those dishes, and where to find them.

Shannon Blair, Writer

The best thing I ate in 2021: Fennel lamb sausage cavatelli, Osteria LuCa
My husband takes me on a “holidate” each season, and I’m secretly hoping he takes me to Osteria LuCa. Ever since I enjoyed their fennel lamb sausage cavatelli and wild mushroom ravioli, I’ve been craving another bite. In fairness, it would be a treat for him too since he enjoyed the dining experience as much as I did. This time, we will definitely start with a glass of red, relying on bartender recommendations, since the selection of Italian wines is so vast.

The best thing I drank in 2021: Booze-free tequila
Oddly, my favorite drink of the year did not contain alcohol. I learned about Ritual tequila from the cocktail-innovating ladies at 86 Spirits when interviewing them for UP. Highly drinkable (without the fatigue or added calories that usually follow), this tequila alternative was delicious mixed with freshly squeezed grapefruit over ice, muddled with jalapño strips, and finished with a sprinkling of salt and sugar. Treat yourself to a Ritual sampler pack this holiday, which you can find at Total Wine.

Allison Braden, writer

The best thing I ate in 2021: N.C. trout, The Fig Tree
For my birthday this year, I went to The Fig Tree for the first time. It was a chilly March evening, a year after the pandemic began, and we sat bundled on the porch. The North Carolina trout nearly brought me to tears, but it wasn’t just the impeccable taste. The entire ’80s-style dining experience—quiet, luxuriously long, Miles Davis wafting into the night air—whisked me clear out of 2021, and that was the best gift of all.

The best thing I drank in 2021: Cocktails at Rumaway Cove
I loved everything on the cocktail menu at Rumaway Cafe, The Royal Tot’s pop-up at The Refuge. The classic tiki drinks served up tropical tastes, garnished to perfection, without sacrificing depth or balance. And there’s a sweet story behind these sweet drinks: The collaboration between the two small businesses came about when The Royal Tot faced opening delays, and the menu prices included gratuity to ensure that staff made a decent wage. The pop-up closed last month, but you can find more rum rations at The Royal Tot’s permanent location, just around the corner.

Ebony L. Morman, contributing writer

The best thing I ate in 2021: Salmon Brussels Sprouts Bowl, The Warmack
The pan-seared salmon and fried Brussels sprouts are covered with a homemade teriyaki sauce, and served over perfectly cooked rice.

The best thing I drank in 2021: Gap in the Clouds, Merchant & Trade
This memorable cocktail is a mix of vodka, earl grey syrup, lemon juice and orange blossom-infused aquafaba.

Travis Mullis, writer

The best thing I ate in 2021: Eddie V’s takeout
The best things I and drank this year helped bring my son into the world, or so I like to think. It was Valentine’s Day and my wife, Arianna, was due in 11 days. We were feeling lazy and decided to do something we never do: pick up a meal from Eddie V’s. It was the usual Valentine’s Day fare: beef tenderloin, lobster tails, asparagus, and potatoes au gratin.

The best thing I drank in 2021: Nicolas Feuillatte Champagne
We paired the above meal with a bottle of Nicolas Feuillatte Champagne, though my wife only had a few sips. About an hour later, Arianna’s water broke, and about twelve hours after that, Guillermo was born. It’s a night I will always remember, and further proof that a good meal enjoyed with the one you love can become a fond memory for a lifetime.

Kiesten Poland, social media

The best thing I ate in 2021: Mexican Street Corn Wings, Salud
These wings became my go-to this summer (and stayed the same this fall). Their wings are always perfectly cooked, but when topped with roasted corn, their homemade crema and cotija cheese, the result is delicious. Salud was always my go-to for natural wines, but now I’m known to pair my glass of vino with six wings.

The best thing I drank in 2021: Late Night Text, Haberdish
Just when you think an espresso martini can’t be put down, this drink came along and stole the prize- so good! It’s a perfectly balanced drink with the right level of heat, salty and sweet!

Peter Taylor, photographer

The best thing I ate in 2021: Candied Apple, Mariposa
The best thing I ate this past year was actually in December while on an assignment to photograph some dishes at Mariposa. Now, I have a rule about not eating when I am working — I’m here on a professional level, not a free meal level. But that rule sometimes gets bent a little. Pastry chef Rod de Sousa was talking so eloquently about his Candied Apple dessert and it was just beautiful. He invited me to try it, and I caved. It was an amazing plate. But hurry, as it probably won’t stay on the menu too long!

The best thing I drank in 2021: Old-fashioned, Dot Dot Dot
The old-fashioned is a classic cocktail, and Dot Dot Dot’s is hard to beat.

Kristen Wile, editor

The best thing I ate in 2021: Pork Can Can, Supperland
It took watching the pork can can head to another table at Supperland for me to turn away from the steakhouse-meets-potluck restaurant’s filet. The pork dish is a bone-in cut of both belly and loin, creating a contrast in fattiness among the slices. The wood-fired fat melts in your mouth, while the loin is meaty yet tender. This dish is a great one to share between a table with diverse opinions of how fatty their pork should be, but the best bites come when you double up — one cut of belly, one of loin — on your fork.

The best thing I drank in 2021: Bellmango juice, The Jugo Bar
The Jugo Bar brings its custom juice blends to farmers’ markets around the city each week, adding only fruit, vegetables, and cane sugar to their offerings. Flavors range from sorrel to carrot, with some unique combinations in the mix, including pineapple-cilantro-jalapeño. One sip of the Bellmango, however, and I was hooked. The sweetness of the mango pairs surprisingly well with the cool flavors of green bell pepper, an innovative combination I can’t get enough of.


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