Today, we’re excited to announce the winners of the 2021 Eater Awards, celebrating just a few of the new restaurants that have made a major impact on the Boston-area dining scene over the last two years. (Eater did not announce awards in 2020 given the circumstances, so restaurants that opened in both 2020 and most of 2021 were considered for this year’s awards. Openings in the final couple of months of 2021 will be eligible next year.)
While pandemic-related challenges continue to plague the industry — from staffing shortages to supply chain issues to the simple fact that New England weather isn’t friendly to year-round outdoor dining — local restaurants and industry workers have shown incredible resilience and creativity over the last two years. Against all odds, there’s been an explosion of Boston-area restaurant openings in recent months (over 70 already just this season), each special in its own way.
This year’s Eater Awards highlight six standouts that transported us to another place: a bustling late-night eatery in Bangkok or an intimate Mexico City bar or an energetic coffee shop in Hanoi. They nimbly navigated ever-changing mandates and found ways to optimize business even when customers couldn’t go inside and even as many still prefer outdoor dining, takeout, and delivery. They brought us global tastes when we couldn’t travel; they brought us uncomplicated comfort as we emerged from isolation.
Please join us in celebrating the incredible winners of the 2021 Eater Awards.
Best New Restaurant
236 Washington St., Brookline Village
Opening just a few weeks before the world shut down, Mahaniyom has fortunately weathered the storm: The Thai tapas bar is one of the most exciting openings in recent memory. The Boston area is lucky to have a pretty excellent Thai food scene that keeps getting better, and Mahaniyom manages to differentiate itself with a menu you won’t find anywhere else in town. This isn’t one of those 100-item pick-your-curry/pick-your-protein menus, but on the other end of the spectrum, it’s also not meant to be strictly representative of a single region. Instead, the team is serving “flavors we miss, the flavors of home,” as they previously told Eater, and drawing inspiration from ran lao, casual Thai bars where people share some bites and grab some drinks.
As such, the menu is packed with small plates that pair well with booze: crab fried rice, rice-and-pork sausage, crispy chicken skin. And the booze isn’t an afterthought; co-owner Chompon (Boong) Boonnak is a longtime alum of Chinatown destination Shojo, which boasts an excellent bar. At Mahaniyom, he and the team are embellishing classic cocktails with Thai flavors — think Sazeracs with Thai tea-infused rye and daiquiris with pandan syrup. The black-light-responsive bathroom mural doesn’t hurt the vibe.
Best New Pop-Up
Various locations, including a long residency at Little Dipper, 669A Centre St., Jamaica Plain, Boston; expected to open in its permanent location — 611 Columbia Rd, Dorchester, Boston — early next year
Next year, Comfort Kitchen will finally open in its own space, a historic comfort station in the Upham’s Corner section of Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood. The building dates back to 1912 and hasn’t been used since the late 1970s; add pandemic challenges on top of that, and it’s understandable that the restaurant, first announced in mid-2019, isn’t up and running yet. But that’s not entirely true: The Comfort Kitchen team has actually been popping up around town extensively since early 2020, introducing eager diners to its global comfort food, meant to celebrate the flavors and ingredients of the African diaspora, touching cuisines from Asia to the Americas.
Most recently, Comfort Kitchen has settled in for a residency in Jamaica Plain, serving a menu inspired by the connections between Caribbean and South Asian cuisines thanks to the spice trade. Chef and partner Kwasi Kwaa’s dishes tell stories of sherry barrels fortified by hot peppers on Caribbean ships centuries ago, of curries spreading throughout Asia, of the growth of coffee as a Caribbean export. The Comfort Kitchen team has already achieved quite a lot working out of other people’s spaces; it will be thrilling to see what they can do once they put down roots in Dorchester.
Best New Cafe
Cicada Coffee Bar
106 Prospect St., Central Square, Cambridge
“Best new cafe” is perhaps misleading, because a cafe in the sense of a daytime coffee shop is only half the identity of this brilliant Cambridge newcomer. But coffee is at its root — an immense appreciation of Vietnamese coffee culture and the aim of providing a place where people can live in the moment, free from Wi-Fi and other distractions, possibly in the peaceful back garden and enjoying a noodle bowl or banh mi.
But when night falls and the lights dim, this cozy space — full of greenery and furniture that cofounder and chef Vinh Le refurbished by hand — becomes something even more special. Dinner service at Cicada, introduced in late 2021, is one of the most electrifying new meals in town, and with limited hours and seats, it’s sure to be one of the toughest reservations in 2022. The compact menu pairs Vietnamese flavors with a bold selection of natural wines. The spicy duck tartare and the oxtail with lemongrass broth are absolute must-tries.
Best New Bar
23A Bow St., Union Square, Somerville
It was very unlucky timing for Barra to open: This tiny Mexico City-inspired bar, located in a former juice shop space, debuted right at the end of February 2020, so pandemic mandates quickly put a damper on the vibe of what should have been a spirited new piece of Somerville nightlife, a place to drink sotol and other regional Latin American liquors shoulder to shoulder with neighbors. But founders Paola Ibarra and Yhadira Guzmán persevered, riding out months without indoor seating by finding a willing audience for to-go mezcal cocktails, guacamoles and salsas, and a concise menu created by Mexico City chef Sofía García Osorio. Later, the team was able to add a magical hidden patio nestled behind the building. Today, takeout and heated patio seating remain available, but indoor seating has reopened as well, allowing Barra to start building back up that ambiance from its earliest days.
Don’t go to Barra looking for a huge menu of generic tacos, burritos, enchiladas, etc.; this is the place to go for contemporary Mexico City cuisine and a deep list of unique spirits, from Mayan pox to Aztec pulque. Eager diners will find dishes like aguachile, featuring a raw fish of the day; tetela, triangular corn pockets stuffed with Oaxaca cheese and beans and served with a cactus salad and grasshoppers; and a banana-leaf tamal full of wild mushrooms and flying ant salsa.
Best New Bakery
La Saison Bakery
407 Concord Ave., Cambridge
Co-owner Soheil Fathi’s inimitable sourdough bread alone would be enough to win an award (place an order ahead of time or it’s unlikely you’ll get your hands on a loaf), but the fact is that everything at this Cambridge bakery is sheer perfection, and the hospitality of Fathi and co-owner Sarah Moridpour is unmatched.
While La Saison Bakery has its roots in Fathi’s hometown of Tehran, Iran, it’s actually American-style baking that influences much of his work; as a teen, he helped his mother deliver her brownies, cakes, and more to local pastry shops. She drew inspiration from baked goods of the United States, where she had family — they were a novelty in Tehran, particularly the brownies. Now, La Saison customers can taste treats like Fathi’s rich marbled brownies and fudge cookies, throwbacks to those early days. Relatives used to bring Fathi’s family Mrs. Fields cookies: “That’s the smell and taste of America to me, that brown butter,” he previously told Eater. It’s not all about American classics by way of Tehran, though: Fathi also draws from his experience as a high-end chocolatier. The luxurious chocolate cake is an essential addition to any special occasion gathering.
Best New Casual Restaurant
1024 Commonwealth Ave., Allston, Boston
Challenging times call for comfort food, and lots of new restaurants have really delivered over the past two years. Allston’s Fiya Chicken, which opened in fall 2020, is at the top of the list, adding exceptional Korean fried chicken to a neighborhood that, to be fair, already has quite a bit of exceptional Korean fried chicken. But Fiya Chicken has quickly gained a reputation as one of the absolute best places citywide for Korean fried chicken. Double-fried, the chicken is ultra-crispy and ultra-satisfying. The buttermilk and kimchi brined fried chicken sandwich, in particular, is one of the best sandwiches in the city; it comes glazed with a choice of soy garlic, spicy garlic, spicy Fiya sauce, or cider honey mustard. (Try the sweet and salty soy garlic, which complements the sandwich’s kimchi and pickle topping well.)
Fiya Chicken doubles down on comfort food and also offers pancake batter corn dogs stuffed with mozzarella, hot dog, or both, and coated with panko, potato, or ramen. What more could we need in 2020-2021?