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Carolinas Food Writers and Photographers Name Their Best Restaurant Meal of 2021

What was your favorite?

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A white hand pours hot sauce onto a plate of oysters.
Oysters at St. Roch in Raleigh.
Anna Routh

In keeping with Eater tradition, our closeout of the year is a survey of friends, industry types, and bloggers. To kick it off in the Carolinas, Eater asked the group seven questions, ranging from the restaurants they frequented for takeout to the saddest surprises of the year. Responses are in no particular order, and readers are encouraged to leave answers in the comments.

Q. What was your best restaurant meal of 2021, either takeout or dine-in?

Matt Lardie, freelance writer and Eater Carolinas contributor, covering NC
This is hard to narrow down, but I’ll cheat a bit and say it was both the dinner AND brunch my husband and I had at St. Roch Fine Oysters + Bar in Raleigh. Chef Sunny Gerhart’s New Orleans-meets-North Carolina cuisine is stellar — the gator bolognese, the pickled shrimp toast, the bucatini and shrimp — I could go on. But hands down one of the best dishes I’ve eaten all year was the fried oyster hotcake — a griddled hotcake topped with perfectly fried oysters, chili crisp, runny eggs, spicy cane syrup, and whipped ricotta. It sounds insane but it’s DELICIOUS.

Marion B. Sullivan, food editor of Charleston Magazine
I had one dine-in dinner this year. It was at the Ordinary, and it was extraordinary.

Eric Ginsburg, independent journalist and Eater Carolinas contributor, covering NC
There’s a reason that St. Roch Fine Oysters + Bar and Poole’s are such beloved Raleigh institutions — my meals at both were flawless. My runner-ups are Hummingbird and Cortez Seafood, also in Raleigh.

Cele and Lynn Seldon, Seldon Ink
Again, Blacksheep. Chef Matt Wallace is putting together some amazing dishes, served in a unique prix fixe concept. Also, brunch at Camp, dinner at Oak Hill, and an impressive vegetarian dinner at Topsoil (all in Greenville) with Chef Adam Cook and visiting chef Matthew Raiford. Also the burger at Oak Steakhouse in Highlands. Chef Rob Masone’s whimsical and fun menu at Rock Hill’s Kounter. The smoking tuna poke was truly smokin’ and the Tuscan caesar in a mason jar was as fun as it was delicious. And don’t get us started on the chicken and waffles sushi or the “Spaghetto-O’s” and meatballs! Yum!

Kay West, freelance writer and Eater Carolinas contributor, covering Asheville
My first year in Asheville in 2019, Cucina 24 quickly became my favorite restaurant and the one I consistently took or recommended to all visiting friends. Through 2020, it was one my go-to for take-out when I craved pizza or pasta. When chef/owner Brian Canipelli re-opened for indoor dining, it was with a new model of a five-course family style dinner for the table. In June, for my first indoor dining experience since the pandemic began, I met longtime friends from Nashville I had not seen in nearly two years, and it was just the perfect way to be fabulously fed and catch up without ordering decisions interrupting the flow of conversation – or wine! It was like being in someone’s home.

Jai Jones, food writer and photographer
The cooking school experience at Wild Common. Led by executive chef Orlando Pagán and executive sous chef Zach Kimmel, it’s a unique chance to interact with the chefs and talk with them about how they developed the menu at the restaurant while learn tricks for cooking at home. This all while you enjoy a four-course tasting menu.

Kenneth Andrews, Eater Carolinas contributor
Pink Bellies sent the noods just in time! It had been oh so long since I had some of those garlic noodles and the dumplings came through with a ton of flavor.

KJ Kearney, founder of Black Food Fridays
I took some Houston based food bloggers to Gillie’s, and we ate through damn near the entire menu. We sat outside, the weather was cooperating, and content was made. It was a lovely time!

Hanna Raskin, editor and publisher of The Food Section
Dinner at Cucina 24 in May was the first meal that made me feel like I wanted to eat in restaurants again.

Dave Infante, editor of Fingers, an independent newsletter about drinking in America
Honestly not many standouts for me — lotta really solid stuff, nothing mind-blowing. If I had to pick something it would be the various pintxos at Estadio.

Jacob Pucci, food and dining reporter for The Fayetteville Observer
Either The Treatment at Fin & Fino in Charlotte, or the brisket sandwich from Lewis Barbecue in Charleston, washed down with several bottles of ranch water. Totally different ends of the spectrum, but delicious and memorable in their own ways.

Jenn Rice, freelance writer and Eater Carolinas contributor, covering NC
M Sushi. It’s like stepping into a different world when you walk into the restaurant. The wait staff and entire team are incredible, as is the experienced, whether partaking in the omakase or just ordering the entire menu a la carte.

I also don’t believe in saying one thing is “the best” over everything else so here are a couple more bites that wowed me this year: birria brisket tacos from Lawrence Barbecue; Aburi salmon roll at Kashin (drizzled in Kewpie sauce!); Italian sandwich from Union Special’s new Fayetteville St. location; pastor burger at Gym Tacos + Bar; shrimp scampi at Osteria Giorgi; Korean fried chicken at Soo Cafe; and the blue crab claws at St. Roch (addictive…!).

Maggie Ward, events and marketing manager of The Local Palate
A chef friend turned me on to a strip mall Chinese restaurant that rivaled any James Beard restaurant I frequented in 2021. At Old Li’s Restaurant on Savannah Highway in West Ashley, with a slew of friends at a few pushed together tables, we ordered fluffy sea oyster pancakes, sweet squirrel fish, crispy Peking duck, and the best dumplings I’ve ever had. Topped off with BYOB Champagne in plastic cups, it was a perfect meal fitting of a year when pretense was stripped away and quality food was all that counted

Erin Perkins, editor Eater Carolinas
Ramen at M Kokko in Durham — it was one of the first time we had traveled outside of Charleston since the beginning of the pandemic, and it was an unexpected find. Not to be “that person,” but it rivaled a lot of the ramen we had in Tokyo in 2019.

Stephanie Burnette, Eat Drink Carolinas
The yeast donuts at Stay Glazed in Asheville. The flavor combinations are crazy but somehow really work like carrot-curry-cheesecake, ube-everything seasoning, miso-maple.

The cacio e pepe topped with jamon at Lula Drake wine bar in Columbia with a little Chasselas picked by owner and som Tim Gardner.

Barbara Skidmore, Eater Carolinas contributor, covering SC and Savannah
The Grey Market — the double Grey Market burger with extra comeback sauce.

Melissa Howsam, editor-in-chief Raleigh Magazine
Mulino, hands down