I’ve been reading way too many restaurant obituaries lately. So instead of more obituaries, I’m writing love letters.
These ten restaurants came to life for me during the past year. (On top of ten more from some of my favorite professional eaters.) Some opened despite the odds, while others have managed to hold on despite those odds. Let’s hope they continue to hold on. Some have Michelin stars while others don’t even have menus. They all reminded me of the origin of the word restaurant—to restore, to take care of, to make feel complete. And during a sad and tiring year, they still brought more than a little bit of joy.
Sítio de Gente Feliz, Lisbon
This unassuming, mostly open-air spot in a suburb of Lisbon felt the restaurant we need now. The name means “place of the happy people,” and it’s hard not to be happy while you’re there. Chef-owner Miguel Gonçalves greets his guests casually, as if he’s invited them as friends to his own kitchen while he whips up some very good home cooking. It’s all made (and served by his wife, Joana) with lots of love, for a few dozen strangers and new friends at lunchtime each weekday. The daily-changing menu is heavy on animal protein, but with excellent seafood and vegetable dishes, this pescatarian was awfully happy too.
AlpINN, Dolomites, Italy
The passion project of Michelin three-star chef Norbert Niederkofler (St. Hubertus at the Rosa Alpina hotel) and the embodiment of his “cook the mountain” philosophy, AlpINN is a stunning “food space” at the top of the Kronplatz ski resort. It’s not just a lunch-break joint for skiers but a place to be one with the mountain (thanks to a striking design by Martino Gamper) and find out what it tastes like. In the before times, he was hosting high-flying four-hands dinners, like the one I attended a year ago with chef Virgilio Martinez from Mil Centro in Cusco, Peru; now he has scaled back to events with chefs from closer to home.
Spontan Vinbar, Trondheim, Norway
A ho-hum exterior hides this stylish little spot (whose name translates as “spontaneous”) with natural and biodynamic wines and creative selection of snacks, small plates and larger dishes. The cooking is definitely Nordic, with an emphasis on local, hyper-seasonal ingredients (meaning preserved and fermented foods in winter). Extra points for the relaxed but sexy decor and the great music.
Bar do Fundo, Sintra, Portugal
This beach bar turned restaurant on the Atlantic coast west of Lisbon is one of those places that has such a gorgeous setting, they’d have business regardless of the quality. So it was a nice surprise when I finally made it there and found great food and service. The light-filled restaurant is an outgrowth of the Costa brothers’ surf-shack sandwich bar. Now it’s a step up, aesthetically, and they focus on their grandmother’s classic recipes, heavy on fish like a perfectly tender tuna belly, and a traditional meaty Portuguese stew on weekends.
Ocaso, the Nautilus, the Maldives
My last hurrah of the before times was a trip to this ultra-luxurious resort in the Maldives, where the tagline is “a world of your own making” and the point is that you can get whatever you want, whenever you want. Among the three restaurants, Ocaso stands out for fresh sushi, Peruvian-Japanese dishes and various Asian curries, and it has a live-cooking teppanyaki grill—a throwback to festive birthday dinners of my childhood, when my parents would take the family to Benihana. But here there are tip-top ingredients and a winking attitude toward the whole thing: The night I tried it, a chef named Supaman put on an impressive show of knife juggling as he prepared the meal, before forming my fried rice into the shape of a heart—an endearing ending to my years of honeymoons for one.
Les Hauts de Loire, France
After a long day of flying, driving and getting lost in the Loire Valley, it was a sweet relief to check in to this Relais & Châteaux hotel. Even so, it was well worth gussying up a bit to head back down to the Michelin two-star restaurant, where all the pomp and circumstance of French fine dining was on offer. What made it great, for me, was the potager menu, in which vegetables were prepared with all the reverence usually reserved for animal protein. I suppose that technically, I ate a carrot, a beet, and part of an artichoke for dinner, but chef Dominque Pépin makes that feel like a treasure, rather than some consolation prize.
Due Cimini, Puglia, Italy
At the gorgeous Due Camini restaurant, within the lavish fantasyland resort of Borgo Egnazia Pugliese chef Domingo Schingaro had recently earned a well-deserved Michelin star. The dining room is rustic-luxe, with hand-hewn ceramics, natural fabrics and branches festooning the columns and ceiling. And the Mediterranean cuisine is light, flavorful and deeply satisfying.
Ale Wino, Warsaw
While the dining room and garden courtyard at this wine shop turned restaurant are pleasingly casual, chef Sebastian Welpa’s cooking is refined. I go whenever I’m in Warsaw for dishes like celeriac ravioli with cauliflower and brown butter, and marinated tuna with dill hummus and golden beets. The wine side is still going strong, with some 250 references, mostly from small importers and up-and-coming producers.
Laka Happy Bar, Gdansk, Poland
Again with the happy people and the happy places. One of Poland’s top food journalists pointed me to this casual spot across the river from the tourist centre of Gdansk. The vibe was relaxed, and the food was everything you (or at least I) could want on a lazy Sunday morning—a savory vegan shakshuka, or a brilliantly green, vegetable-forward hash with fresh eggs.
It was pretty brave for the Four Seasons Hotel Ritz Lisbon to open a high-concept restaurant this year, at a time when the hotel had barely emerged from lockdown and the usual tourists were nowhere in sight. But it was a good bet, given talent and precise technique of chef Pedro Pena Bastos, who had made his name at the destination-dining winery Esporão. Here, in this 12-seat dining room, his menu is divided into just 12 plates, each centered on a special ingredient. Think squid with hazelnuts, roasted seaweed butter and caviar, or Hokkaido pumpkin with chanterelles, pistachios and Indian cress.