Carolina Dine Around - December 31, 2021

A Round Up of Round Ups

Matt Lardie says the fried oyster hotcake at St. Roch Fine Oysters + Bar was part of his best meal of the year
Matt Lardie says the fried oyster hotcake at St. Roch Fine Oysters + Bar was part of his best meal of the year (Anna Routh Barzin)

By Robert F. Moss

Champagne at midnight, a plate of Hopping John, silly plastic glasses shaped like the digits of the upcoming year: the end of December requires all sorts of time-honored traditions, like food writers looking backwards and penning their “year in review” recaps.

Here at the Southeastern Dispatch, we decided to do something a little different for the last Carolina Dine Around of 2021: a “review of the year in review,” our meta-study and analysis of 2021 recaps. There’s quite a lot of them to digest, too.

So let’s dig in.

Surveying the Scribblers

By the end of December, a lot of us are tapped out after buying all those Christmas gifts and elaborate holiday meals. Eater Carolinas always saves a few bucks at the year’s end by emailing food writers and photographers from around the Carolinas and asking them to contribute, pro bono, their picks for the “Best of” in a bunch of categories as well as predictions for the upcoming year. The editor cobbles the responses together into a half dozen features with headlines like “2021 Takeout, Delivery, and Outdoor Dining Standouts” and “Insiders from the Carolinas Name the Best New Restaurants for 2021”—not a bad business model.

Considering they came from a bunch of food writers, the picks for Eater’s Best Restaurant Meal of 2021 are surprisingly short on descriptive detail about the actual dishes. (Did nobody have anything “lovingly kissed with smoke” or “meltingly tender with a bright touch of acidity”?) Regular Southeastern Dispatch contributor Matt Lardie came through strong, though, with what sounds to me like the best of the best plates: the fried oyster hotcake at St. Roch Fine Oysters + Bar in Raleigh. He describes it as “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.” So good it made him shout.

Over in Charlotte, the contributors to the Unpretentious Palate also compiled a list of the “best things we ate in 2021.” Of these, the one that sounds best to me is editor Kristen Wile’s pick of the Pork Can Can at Supperland: a bone in cut that includes both belly and loin cooked over a wood-fired grill. “The wood-fired fat melts in your mouth,” Wile writes, “while the loin is meaty yet tender.”

Want to know what the youth in Charleston are eating these days? The staff of the Charleston City Paper looked back at their best bites and sips of 2021, and smashburgers and bourbon cocktails are the headliners along with diverse fare like lumpia, butterbean cassoulet, and samosa chaat.

Up in Columbia, the staff of the Free Times tallied their top meals of 2021, too. “In true Columbia and Free Times fashion,” editor David Clarey noted, “it’s an eclectic list, ranging from barbecue, corn sorbet to a sub sandwich.” That’s not exactly how ranges work, but the round-up includes a beet salad, a “life affirming” waffle in a cup, and a smoked bologna sandwich called The Hobo.

In With the New

Eater also surveyed Carolina writers for their “Best New Restaurants for 2021,” and the names were all over the map. With three nods each, the most-chosen picks were Seabird, the new seafood restaurant from Dean Neff and Lydia Clopton in Wilmington, and Berkeley’s in Charleston, which features hefty old school sandwiches and red sauce pasta.

It doesn’t always require a team to create a round-up. All by himself, Drew Jackson of the News & Observer recapped “the top Triangle restaurant openings of 2021,” and the patterns reveal that, in the Triangle at least, 2021 was a year of downscale comfort food. The newcomers’ specialties include burgers, tacos, wings, deli sandwiches, fried chicken, and loaded cheese French fries. Only two new arrivals could be categorized as fine dining: Osteria Georgi in Chapel Hill and Tesoro in Carrboro, both of which specialize in fresh-made pasta.

The bucatini alla Amatriciani is one of the fresh pasta dishes at Osteria Georgi in Chapel Hill
The bucatini alla Amatriciani is one of the fresh pasta dishes at Osteria Georgi in Chapel Hill (Anna Routh Barzin)

In a rare feat, Charlotte Magazine assembled a list of the “25 Best New Restaurants in Charlotte, 2022,” apparently sending its staff into the future in time machines to visit restaurants that have yet to open. Actually, all 25 opened between between Nov. 1, 2020, and Nov. 1, 2021, and in stark contrast to the scene in the Triangle, the Queen City is hopping with new fine dining options. The new arrivals include high-end steakhouses (Steak 48, Epic Chophouse), a French brasserie (La Belle Helene), upscale sushi and Japanese grills (Prime Fish, Mizu, Konnichiwa), cheffed-up comfort food (Supperland, Kounter), and even a “world-to-table” restaurant (Mariposa), whatever that means.

The Charlotte Observer one-upped (actually, four-upped) Charlotte Magazine, offering 29 picks for “the hottest new restaurants in Charlotte that opened in 2021.” Because I have nothing better to do with my time, I collated the two publications’ lists, and only 12 restaurants made both. So I guess it’s possible to be one of the hottest restaurants in town but not one of the best (and vice-versa.)

Popularity Contest

Not every story in 2021 was about newly-opened restaurants. Charlotte Magazine also published its recap of its Most Popular Charlotte Food Stories of 2021, and nostalgia was a notable theme. Among the magazine’s ten most-read food features were three from Kathleen Purvis: her farewell to Price’s Chicken Coop, her look at the city’s century-old Greek restaurant tradition, and, in the number one spot, her salute to half-century-old Gus’ Sir Beef.

Until Next Time . . .

So that’s it. Our Round up of Round-ups and the last Carolina Dine Around of the Year. Now it’s off to have a big bowl of Hopping John with a little bubbly and ring in 2022 in style.

Next week we might round up the best predictions from all the “looking ahead to 2022” pieces that Carolina newspapers and magazines turned out this month, too. But who knows what the future holds?

About the Author

Robert F. Moss

Robert F. Moss is the Contributing Barbecue Editor for Southern Living magazine, Restaurant Critic for the Post & Courier, and the author of numerous books on Southern food and drink, including The Lost Southern Chefs, Barbecue: The History of an American Institution, Southern Spirits: 400 Years of Drinking in the American South, and Barbecue Lovers: The Carolinas. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina.