From cheesesteaks to fried tofu, these were our favorite parts of a difficult year.

By Maria Yagoda
December 16, 2020
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To make it through this year, we've clung to our comforts. While projects like sourdough bread-making, gardening, and buying obscene amounts of spices certainly helped, it was the food lovingly made by others that so often sustained us on days we couldn't even bear the thought of boiling water.

Independent restaurants are barely hanging on, and it's going to get worse this winter as indoor dining goes dark and inclement weather foils outdoor seating. In the absence of meaningful government action, beloved neighborhood restaurants will continue closing in droves.

So, as 2020 staggers to an end, we're looking back at all of the beautiful things we ate this year, brought to us by restaurants that need our support now more than ever. Below, find our very favorite dishes of the year, 2020 edition.

Cheesesteak from Frizwit (Philadelphia, PA)

"Friends and I had spent the morning scrubbing down every surface of Francie—our friend's newly-constructed restaurant that was in a state of limbo, awaiting the official word that it was go-time for indoor dining in NYC. It was tedious work and we were happy to do it for the sake of helping our pal—but I was also in it for the Frizwit. Ari Miller, the chef-owner of Musi in Philadelphia, had hauled up a few dozen of his meticulously crafted, gloriously sloppy, soul-and-sense satisfying cheesesteaks to Brooklyn to feed to the crew, and I could barely contain my glee. Miller put his heart and soul into sourcing and crafting the ultimate version of this classic sandwich, getting frizzled steak from Primal Supply, hoagie rolls from Merzbacher's, charring endless onions, and devising a beer cheese sauce to weaken all knees. I'd have stuck my bare hand into a backed-up grease trap if it meant getting to have more Frizwit in my life, but luckily all it takes is a trip to Philly. They're available for pickup and delivery from Musi, Thursday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., and I'm fully planning on hopping on the next Amtrak train that departs after I get vaccinated." Kat Kinsman, Senior Editor

Korean Fried Tofu from Miss Kim (Ann Arbor, Michigan)

"Every time I eat tofu, I hope it will magically turn into the Korean fried tofu from Miss Kim in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The cubes are shatteringly crisp on the outside, custardy on the inside, and blanketed with a sweet and spicy chili glaze. It's the kind of dish you immediately regret not ordering two of and the kind you will never want to share." — Khushbu Shah, Restaurant Editor

Gaeng Rawaeng from Nari (San Francisco, CA)

"Pim Techamuanvivit and her team at Nari in San Francisco cooked my favorite meal of 2020. On a marathon visit there in February, I experienced the dance of her delicate and punchy food, with dishes like Pla Haeng, a crunchy trout-and-shallot topping for crisp cubes of Asian pear, and Chili Jam Clams, tiny stir-fried Manila clams gripped with flecks of fiery red chili and Thai basil. While over-ordering savory dishes is encouraged and the not-too-sweet desserts—especially the seasonal fruit sorbets—are not to be missed, to fully understand Pim’s genius, be sure to try one or two curries, like the Gaeng Rawaeng, a whole Cornish hen bathed in turmeric and lemongrass-scented curry and served with impossibly flakey house-made roti. Here, humbly presented, lie the most brilliant flavors, layered expertly and served generously." — Mary-Frances Heck, Senior Food Editor

Pierogies from Baba's Pierogies (Brooklyn, NY)

"This isn't the first year I had Baba's Pierogies, but 2020 magnified my appreciation for them. The freshly pan-fried potato and farmer's cheese pierogies brought me warmth and comfort on some otherwise difficult days." — Sarah Crowder, Visuals Editor

Curried Lentil Soup from DarSalam (Portland, OR)

"The best thing I ate from a restaurant this year was a dish I ordered when things were hardest for my family. My dad was hospitalized with cancer, and we were on our first night of quarantining after a close relative tested positive for COVID-19. I was far from home, hunkered down at an Airbnb in Portland, Oregon. I needed comfort, fast. On a tip from a colleague, I ordered dinner for my family from Ghaith Sahib’s Iraqi restaurant DarSalam, which, in the face of incredible odds, has opened two new locations in Portland during the pandemic. Our appetites, suppressed by stress and worry, came back once the food—an array of tender, spiced kebabs, vibrant salads, and pickles— was on the table. But the best thing I ate (both that night and all year) was the curried lentil soup. It was a simple but luxurious dish, the lentils puréed to a thick but silken consistency, and their earthy, comforting flavor brightened with lemon juice and a turmeric-forward spice blend. We ordered (and consumed) four quarts of it that night, and I’ve ordered it again, since—it’s the ultimate hug-in-a-dish. Definitely what the doctor ordered to counterbalance 2020." — Karen Shimizu, Executive Editor

Jerk Chicken from The Islands (Brooklyn, NY)

"I like to go on long bike rides around Brooklyn, partly for exercise, partly to look for treats. One super-hot August day I was biking around Crown Heights and happened upon The Islands, a popular Caribbean restaurant. I ordered jerk chicken and lemonade and started eating it standing up on the sidewalk. They weren’t set up for indoor or outdoor dining, but one of the employees saw me out there baking in the sun and devouring the giant plate of chicken they give you, and was like, 'Do you want to sit in the shade, buddy?' He got a chair from inside and opened a patio umbrella and cleaned off a little plastic table and invited me to sit. I didn't want to be a hassle for them, but he insisted. So I sat there for a while, eating chicken and rice and beans and scrolling through bad news on my phone. It was by far my best workout of the year, and probably my best lunch, too." — Ryan Grim, Executive Digital Editor

Cornbread from Virtue (Chicago, IL)

"It’s only natural that my favorite dish of the year is bread, given how much bread I’ve consumed in 2020. Though my own sourdough game has been pretty strong ever since I brought my starter back to life, there are two breads I’ve eaten from restaurants this year that I can’t stop thinking about. First is the cornbread from Virtue in Chicago. Chef Erick Williams’ take on cornbread is just the right mix of savory and sweet, and it comes topped with a perfect pat of honey butter. The second, which I'm giving a close honorable mention, is chef Evan Funke’s sfincione from Felix in Los Angeles, which is so light and airy you’d think you were biting into a rosemary-flavored cloud." — Nina Friend, Associate Features Editor

Rice Paper Clam Pizza from Di an Di (Brooklyn, NY)

"I'm lucky to have an arsenal of phenomenal neighborhood restaurants that have carried me through this horrible year, and Di an Di is my MVP. I visited the Greenpoint Vietnamese hotspot a few days before the city shut down in March, for one last blow-out feast of vermicelli, rice paper pizza, and crunchy fried imperial rolls. Thankfully, Di an Di has remained a constant for me throughout the pandemic, by way of pick-up and delivery. But one dine-in-only dish that I never stop fantasizing about (and can't wait to eat again on their patio) is the super-crispy rice paper clam pizza, topped with peanuts, succulent clam, and bright herbs. It's served with glam golden scissors, begging to be shattered and then devoured." Maria Yagoda, Restaurant Editor, Digital

Hot Dogs from WürstBar (Jersey City, NJ)

"During a brief respite of COVID-19 cases in the Northeast, we picked our one outing to eat outside at a local restaurant. I’d been eyeing WürstBar for a while from afar (see: their Instagram), and as soon as we sat down to local beers and ciders and a large serving of Philly cheesesteak poutine, I knew we’d made the right call. Tempted by every sausage and hot dog mashup on the menu, we went with a sample of four, including chorizo covered in guac and cilantro mayo and a classic beef frank with bacon and jalapeño pineapple relish. They also serve burgers, chicken sandwiches, fried cheese curds, and fries with 12 dipping sauce options. The frozen Oaxaca Old Fashioned, though, really brought it home and tasted like a glimpse of life before lockdowns. The meal was a bright spot in many months of uncertainty. They do delivery and pickup in the area, too, so if you’re local or passing through in the coming year it’s absolutely worth the stop." — Megan Soll, Associate Editor

Chicory Salad from LaLou (Brooklyn, NY)

"This year, I found myself eating at LaLou's backyard patio whenever I needed to escape my apartment to enjoy a glass of wine and some olives in what I feel is the epitome of a neighborhood restaurant. It's quite impossible to go wrong with anything on Jay Wolman's menu, but the grilled chicory salad with hazelnuts and fennel is one I kept coming back for––the perfect balance of acid, crunch, and, you know, 'health.'" — Associate Restaurant Editor, Oset Babür

Dilly's Cheeseburger from Dilly's Corner (New Hope, PA)

"Every summer, my family heads deep into Bucks County, PA, to tube down the Delaware River, pick berries, and stuff ourselves silly at Dilly's Corner, an old-school burger stand down the road from the river. As with everything under the sun this year, our 2020 Dilly's visit was 'different.' People lined up in masks, and the scent of sanitizer mixed with the typical sizzling burger perfume. But once we claimed our food and sat down at those picnic tables, we all felt the quiet joy of a tradition uninterrupted." Adina Steiman, Deputy Digital Editor