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 Carolinas 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.)
Choosing these winners is never easy — especially when covering establishments reaching across North and South Carolina enduring circumstances brought on by the global health crisis.
The 2021 winners encapsulate the restaurants that have had the most influence in helping to shape the distinct culinary culture of the Carolinas. We’ve broken the awards into categories of Carolinas Restaurant of the Year, Charlotte Restaurant of the Year, Charleston Restaurant of the Year, Mountain Restaurant of the Year, Beach Restaurant of the Year, and Barbecue Restaurant of the Year.
Congratulations to all of the winners.
Carolinas Restaurant of the Year
Sanford, North Carolina
Since opening in March of 2020 Sanford, North Carolina, Fonda Lupita has quickly risen to become one of the most talked-about restaurants in the state. Owner Biridiana Frausto assembled a team of family and friends (all women) to recreate the cherished recipes of her mother Lupita, offering the sort of homestyle cooking common on street corner carts and in kitchens across Mexico but harder to find here in the United States.
Flavorful stews of pork, chicken, beef, and more are transformed into quesabirria tacos, gorditas, and tortas. The weekend offering of menudo, a stew of beef, tripe, and hominy, often has customers lining up outside the door before the restaurant opens. Frausto has plans to move the restaurant to a larger space in 2022, but will remain in Sanford, the community where Frausto and her siblings were raised and where Fonda Lupita has helped put the town’s extensive Mexican-American heritage and restaurant scene on the map. — Matt Lardie
Charlotte Restaurant of the Year
Leah & Louise
This restaurant, inspired by the Mississippi River Valley’s foodways, commits to comfort and community in Charlotte’s Camp North End. Owners Greg and Subrina Collier hire people from the neighborhood, offer a nightly pay-what-you-can dish, and wow their guests with crispy chicken skins and ranch dressing, dirty grits, and slow-roasted cabbage with smoked sausage in a pork neck bisque.
No matter who walks in the door at Leah & Louise, they should feel welcomed in the dining room. “My purpose for creating Leah & Louise was to create a space for everyone,” Subrina told Eater last year, “There’s not a place in Charlotte where Black people can experience fine dining on the same level as white people that go to certain restaurants or other James Beard nominated restaurants and have the same experience — with people that look like them.” — Erin Perkins
Charleston Restaurant of the Year
When word of James Island restaurant Bar George landed in the media, the concept seemed a bit quirky — oysters and chili dogs? Sure. But when the restaurant opened for takeout and outdoor dining in May 2020, the addition of a Peruvian roast chicken was the comfort food many were craving, along with some creative hot dog combinations from co-owner Alex Lira. Chef Mason Morton has since joined the team, turning out delightful new menu items to keep diners guessing.
Once the dining room opened, customers could take in the funky interiors full of wood paneling, neon signs, pinball machines, and a yellow velvet couch — like chic bachelor pad from the 1970s, but with a better bar. The cocktail list ranges from a yuzu dirty martini to a shot of banana-flavored Jameson with a Miller High Life pony — it’s just a fun time at Bar George. And after a decidedly terrible past two years, isn’t that what we all need? — Erin Perkins
Mountain Restaurant of the Year
Sylva, North Carolina
Wedged into the far end of downtown Sylva, in western North Carolina’s mountainous Jackson County, Ilda’s Italian-Appalachian cuisine mashup and top-notch cocktail program has made it one of the most exciting new restaurants in the state and a driver in turning this small town into a must-visit culinary destination. Sylva native Crystal Pace returned to her hometown from New York City, bringing her husband (and Ilda chef) Santiago Guzzetti with her and convincing friend Antoine Maurice Hodge to also make the move down from the city to run the bar.
The menu infuses Southern-Italian style cuisine with ingredients and inspirations from the surrounding Appalachian mountains, like the gnocchi frito with country ham and red-eye gravy, and the spaghetti alla puttanesca with confit catfish. A staple of the menu is Karen’s meatballs, an ode to Pace’s stepmother Karen Martar, proprietress of the beloved Meatballs restaurant that previously occupied the space from 1983-2000.
Hodge’s cocktails, like the Smoky Mountain martini (North Carolina vodka, smoky olive juice, and smoked olives) are a draw unto themselves, and the expertly picked list of Italian wines helps to round out the experience. — Matt Lardie
Beach Restaurant of the Year
Wilmington, North Carolina
After a year away from the kitchen during the pandemic, Wilmington chef Dean Neff and his wife Lydia Clopton returned to the restaurant scene with a bang, opening Seabird smack dab in the middle of downtown earlier this year to rave reviews. As might be expected Neff’s expert seafood preparations shine, with dishes like swordfish schnitzel, smoked catfish and oyster Pie, and an Eastern cioppino filled with clams, shrimp, grouper, scallops, andouille, and served with plenty of bread for sopping.
Other standouts include the Fresno pepper sorghum pork ribs and a green goddess Wedge salad with fried local shrimp instead of croutons. There is an extensive raw bar menu, including “Seabirdies,” oysters grown especially for Neff by Matthew Schwab at Hold Fast Oyster Co.
Seabird also operates a morning coffee bar with pastries and breakfast items, and just started serving lunch as well. The seafood-friendly wine list has myriad options both by the glass and by the bottle, and the bar mixes up cocktails like the Hummingbird (End of Days Distillery white rum, muscadine simple syrup, and lemon) and the signature Seabird martini, made with Bombay Sapphire gin or Grey Goose vodka, plankton sea brine, and olives. — Matt Lardie
Barbecue Restaurant of the Year
Jon G’s Barbecue
Peachland, North Carolina
In Peachland, North Carolina, population 400-ish, some of the best Texas-style barbecue exists at Jon G’s Barbecue, just off of Highway 74. Garren “Jon G” and Kelly Kirkman gained immediate popularity slinging smoked meats via a food truck in neighboring towns and opened doors to an official brick and mortar space in June 2020 — only open on Saturdays.
Each week the spot plows through around 600 to 700 pounds of meat and half of this tally is Jon G’s juicy, perfectly smoked brisket that folks travel near and far for. “Lined up on a typical Saturday, right when we open, you’re looking at 100+ people in that first rush,” says Jon G.
Customers are known to bring a chair and cold brews to partake in “tailwaiting,” as early as 9 a.m as once it’s gone it’s gone. After experiencing the brisket, ribs, pulled pork, and housemade sausage links (there’s a Cheerwine link that’s divine), you’ll understand. And of course, the sides, like grits with “cowboy candy” (jalapeños), Mexican street corn salad, and mac and cheese, make for great side companions. The food truck pops up in Charlotte several times a month; keep up with its whereabouts via Instagram. — Jenn Rice