You could say this was a year of destination dining. The year’s best meals happened everywhere from the intimate back room of a taqueria to the extravagant opera set of a steakhouse dripping with chandeliers. And chef Bruno Davaillon’s Bullion, the restaurant designed like a bar of gold, was still on the horizon. (Our restaurant calendar ends October 1.)
In tandem with distinct settings, we had chefs who took us places with their food. It was a year of new vistas. We fell in love with saffron-laced paellas, smoky baba ghanoush, and deliriously good carnitas. Chefs embarked on spirited trips to Guadalajara and Lebanon, paying tribute with an attention to detail that could only come from true love. They spoiled us with wine lists from Macedonia and Turkey, from the Greek isles, Anatolia, and Galilee. We found a world of flavors in small plates.
Whether from their roots or their imaginations (and at times both), the restaurateurs in this list transport you places. This year’s crop of restaurants is fully immersive, offering experiences—and emotions—rather than meals. They make you dream in new ways. Let’s take a journey.
Restaurant of the year
Stephen Rogers and Allison Yoder have done something extraordinary with their refined Mediterranean small plates at Sachet. The second restaurant from the couple behind Gemma snuck in on the tail end of my dining cutoff and cinched its spot, already smooth and polished, delivering experiences I won’t soon get over. In the first weeks, I found myself at the counter for a post-theater four-course meal that had me entranced by the flavors and stunned by the coherence. I could have eaten there five times in as many days, and each subsequent visit I was impressed anew. All I wanted was to come back.
The menu is designed to show off the brilliance of carefully constructed dishes. Nothing big or overwhelming—food to savor, and presented as such.
You want them to teach you to make the spelt ciabatta, soft and tangy, baked in a wood-burning oven from Tuscany. (Vegetables are roasted in the slowly warming oven in the morning.) I couldn’t keep my hands off the tapas-style meze, wanting to nibble and graze spicy carrot tabbouleh or compressed cantaloupe and Turkish cheese. They excel at taking something you might toss off and turning it into something you delight in explicitly, precisely, delicately. With pasta, they take care with various grains, so finicky in their textures, for spelt fusilli with goat ricotta salata and watercress pesto (and the best use of sun-dried tomato I’ve had); squid ink spaghetti twined with lobster, white wine, and star anise; or casarecce with a Turkish lamb ragu.
The wine list, the most progressive in the city, introduces you to varietals you’ve never heard of—Agiorgitiko and Xinomavro, not Pinot. It’s here I learned to drink ouzo as a digestif. But it’s the coherence and variety in the dishes, the ever-renewed nuances, that’s remarkable: each dish, though part of a whole, made as though it might be the only thing you’d ever eat. With simple intelligence and sufficiency.
As at Gemma, everything about the place is absolutely focused. Sophisticated, with an old-world integrity of ingredients, the flavors the primordial emphasis. As at Gemma, the service, courteous and lovely, makes it simply a pleasant place to be. An after-the-theater spot. Or just a drink-and-something-light kind of spot. It doesn’t hurt that every bite that passes your lips is perfect—or that the general manager is one of the city’s best sommeliers.
“I could have eaten there five times in as many days, and each subsequent visit I was impressed anew. All I wanted was to come back.”
And then there was the evening of the Secreto Ibérico, the Iberian hog nourished from gorging on acorns, its meat sweet and delectable as steak, served with crispy papas bravas. The whole dorade with caper berries and acqua pazza. And the Catalan-style lamb stew, its rich meat melding with saffron, meeting salt-cured black olives’ pungency in something delicious, like a pot of the richest honey. This, I now know, is what they mean when they say ambrosia. Rogers and Yoder have created an elegant something or other where you’re swept up by the flavors. But they also have a gift for cultivating an intimacy that extends.
On a night that ended with yo-yos, orange zest-infused Tunisian doughnuts dusted with cardamom and drizzled with orange-scented lavender honey—not fancy, per se, just extraordinarily good—the servers began to gather near 11 pm, sitting communally as the evening wound down for a casual meal of small plates. I watched them. I knew: they are the luckiest people in Dallas.
Two revolutionaries, talented chefs, set out to do modern Mexican in a way we hadn’t had before. They succeeded. My first inkling that something special was going on came early, when an evening at Revolver stood out as one of the most memorable meals of the year.
It seems like somebody’s dream, the intimate Purépecha room in the back of Regino Rojas’ taqueria, its name evoking a tribe indigenous to his native Michoacán. Gilt-edged plates and white roses take you back in time—to somewhere outside of time, really—with nostalgia and an exotic mystery. A gramophone gently plays Mexican ballads. Against this backdrop, with seating limited to three tables, Rojas and chef Hugo Galvan host intimate tastings five days a week that expand your sense of what is possible for Mexican cuisine in Dallas.
Plates in the style of Mexican modernist restaurants like Mexico City’s Pujol tantalize with avant-garde leanings. Gracefully, you’re served a cream of chayote and calabacitas. A taco bears lobster in guajillo butter. Duck with a carmine lake of mole rojo has membrillo and other daubs and dabs on the plate. There is tableside guacamole in a stone molcajete. Comfort and the pull of the ancient work in tandem with what Galvan might have done when he worked at Flora Street Cafe.
Meanwhile, in the front, true to its name, they make tacos that are the best in town. Pliant, soft disks of fresh masa are hand-pressed in front of you, elevated through the touch of a hand. They hold grilled rib-eye carne asada, duck breast, or a generous tentacle of octopus under a jalapeño salsa.
The front presents a graffiti-forward look. But it’s abundantly clear, even there, that an octopus taco is meant to be seen as an objet d’art. And even there, you are drawn to Revolver’s particular romance. You want more Mexican ballads. You want more of those marvelous tortillas.
With Montlake Cut, Nick Badovinus wrote a love letter to his childhood in Puget Sound. With Town Hearth, he glories in opulence. His steakhouse seduces with its theatricality. The minute you cross the threshold, with white gladioluses and Champagne magnums, you are entering someone else’s imagination.
It is bold, its menu dripping with decadence. There is prime meat. Boutique carcass-hung, dry-aged beef from a family farm in Alabama. Or dry-aged behemoths, wood-grilled, sliced for sharing, with so much accumulated intensity of flavor along the edge and near the bone it makes you go weak at the knees. I have never craved steak like I crave the steak here.
This place of big flavors and animal proteins, this steakhouse gone Fellini, is a throwback, too: king crab carbonara, fried oysters Rockefeller, the sheer cheek of dry-aged beef chili cheese fries with crème fraîche, ostentatiously premium poutines, and a fabulous napoleon billowing with peanut butter mousse—a scarcely veiled reference to the King.
You feel Badovinus as the nerve that runs through it, the restaurateur who will not balk at hand-stringing a ceiling full of chandeliers to underscore the dichotomy at the center, of extravagance and primal need. When you’re halfway into the night, wine flowing, Aviation cocktails coming, rock music blasting, you don’t care whether it’s the unbridled ambition of a chef auteur or the magnum opus of a city that dreams of steak, lobster, and speed.
José is throwing a party and everyone—and especially everyone in the Park Cities—is invited to the splashy place with a fountain topped by a golden piña, the heart of an agave plant. It’s an in-town getaway with addictive fried calamari dusted with chicharrón and bartenders well-versed in mezcal and top-shelf tequila. This is where the pretty people play.
There is a little mercado by José’s host stand with embroidered purses and painted skulls, a taco truck on balmy evenings, a glorious bar, and a black-and-white mural, a pieced-together artful rendition in hand-painted tile inspired by photos from trips to a city that owners Megan and Brady Wood are enamored of—Guadalajara, in the Western-Pacific area of Mexico. Here, enchiladas are suave though traditional, fine touches show the kitchen’s credentials, and even the tamal de rajas—a lovely mess of poblano rajas and onions—has impeccable balance. The ceviche del mar is as fresh and judicious as the beautiful halibut’s garnish of butter-caramelized pineapple. You want these. Just as you want the half avocado crowned with house-smoked salmon, the chile relleno cascading seafood, and the glorious, charred, street-style elotes.
“The ceviche del mar is as fresh and judicious as the beautiful halibut’s garnish of butter-caramelized pineapple.”
And, my god, the carnitas. How they coax so much flavor from tender shreds of pork surrounded by pickled radishes and cured white onions, with a serrano-tomatillo sauce cutting the richness of hidden pockets of fat, is a question that still torments and tantalizes me. (I later thought I’d have a more apt description if they hadn’t left me so misty-eyed.)
Already, the weight of the day feels lighter. The evening is long. You have a glorious frozen margarita in your hand and the prospect of other good things to come. José doesn’t need piñatas, poppers, or streamers. They’ve got the food.
Mirador is everything the Headington Companies and the downtown world want: posh, stylish, avant-garde, chic. Walk your way up to the penthouse at Forty Five Ten, taking in the glamour of an expensive European department store, and find yourself in a jewel box with a plunging view of downtown.
The menu matches its surroundings. Compositions with the studied architectural simplicity of high fashion, of Chanel or Dior, seem to argue there’s nothing wrong with pretty—in the flavors, the precise plates.
I’ve never so much loved chicken paillard as the one served here with sunchoke purée and arugula. Or the frisson of the exotic, like the notes lingering in the scent, in tuna crudo with ginger, marinated gooseberries, and lime. A plate of foie gras torchon and rhubarb served with warm, buttery-rich brioche was modern, artful, and still classic.
“The delicacy with which Mirador does things, the subtle touch of sophistication, feels like a breath of fresh air.”
Meanwhile, petits fours from the pastry kitchen might include tiny madeleines with a kiss of lemon or little apricot pâte de fruits. For dessert, a fragile and beautiful pavlova whose meringue longs to be shattered.
The delicacy with which Mirador does things, the subtle touch of sophistication, feels like a breath of fresh air, dainty as the salads you can pair with a flute of bubbles. At tea time once, over Earl Grey, I had exquisitely silken deviled eggs topped with caviar and whipped ricotta toast with a sprinkling of toasted nori, while below me a gyroscope sculpture undulated in the valet circle.
Executive chef Josh Sutcliff is young but talented. I’d seen him as a line cook under Bruno Davaillon at The Mansion, seen him rise to prominence at Matt McCallister’s FT33 and Filament. At Mirador, he’s devised something stunning, not just a luxe spot for an après-shopping lunch.
When the Adolphus remodeled, they unearthed marble floors and reopened ballrooms, aiming for opulence and a return to something iconic. Meanwhile, the main floor’s central Spanish-inspired restaurant offered butterscotch leather and rattan chairs, bronze sconces and gleaming white subway tiles, an all-day spot for basking in Moorish-Spanish luxury in modern minimalist digs.
There are many ways that City Hall Bistro cast its spell. I can still see and taste dark squid ink pasta rich with aioli and garlicky squid, a midnight-deep dish that exerted a gravitational pull. Ditto sea urchin risotto: couscous pearls in a creamy bowl with sea urchin and shaved truffle petals. These were as irresistible as the serrano ham flatbread’s béchamel scented with cumin.
“I can still see and taste dark squid ink pasta rich with aioli and garlicky squid, a midnight-deep dish that exerted a gravitational pull.”
I would come for pan con tomate in the morning, loving the simplicity of tomato on toasted bread. Or for a happy hour bite of savory atayef pancake stuffed with duck confit. Paellas come out in shallow pans with a gorgeous nether layer of crispy socarrat. The chef’s daily paellas were wild cards of creativity. They might come fragrant with saffron or studded with spicy house chorizo, or perhaps with plump oysters burrowing into black rice.
The exciting wine list has a Slovenian Chardonnay by the bottle, a Peloponnesian white. It’s thoughtful not only in its quartino-size pours that feel generous in their ampleness, as opposed to a glass, but also for its uncommon and lovely turns—a Grecian semi-sparkling orange wine and sweet wines exceptionally matched to the desserts.
The ideas and execution carry through all the way to the saffron gelato that joins olive oil caramel to accompany warm Spanish churros with a savoriness that you can’t quite pin down. You’ll just have to keep trying.
In a year with what felt like a million seafood openings, Lovers Seafood & Market smoothly sailed in with its breezy Cape Cod look and duo of restaurant mavens (Lynae Fearing and Tracy Rathbun) at the helm.
The sleek place took over a beloved fish market and upped the ante, Fearing and Rathbun ensuring that it shared sourcing with their neighboring Shinsei. New arrivals several times a day, six days a week, meant a daily rotation of fish, prepared to your liking. Which in turn meant happy moments with halibut with a passion fruit reduction, Great Lakes walleye, or sweet, pristine snow crab claws dipped in lemony aioli. And when Copper River salmon came in season, chef Aaron Staudenmaier (formerly of Jasper’s and Abacus, now at Whiskey Cake) did it justice like no one else in town, sending out a slab so perfect it nearly brought me to my knees.
Lovers finds a sweet spot, with its upscale, modern takes on the traditional. There’s a gorgeous raw bar and a tight, welcoming, neighborhood feel. You’ll find excellent crudo and a top-notch tuna poké, but also beautiful execution in Cajun roasted chicken with Granny’s sour cream whipped potatoes or a blueberry buckle that could grace a country windowsill. And I have suggested that the brunch crab cakes Benedict be considered for sainthood.
At first, I didn’t know what to make of Sassetta, the flirty, modern Italian date-night spot. It fulfilled Headington Companies’ hopes for an all-day, European-feeling spot, where you might have pastries at the counter and an Aperol spritz later that day. With its swanky Design District location and “Look at me!” art, I wasn’t sure I could take it seriously.
I quickly learned that an evening there could be a golden interlude, caught impromptu, with friends happily propped on elbows, leaning on marble tabletops, talking and reaching for morsels. It’s easy to love a space that is modern and fun, with cream-colored orb lights, a cheeky retro vibe, and a happily gold-accented bar, where they shake up any number of likable cocktails.
It’s easy to love a place where pizzas come out blistered and chewy, topped with taleggio and burnt honey or lemon zest and clams. Where a tuna crudo with fresh favas, Marcona almonds, and green strawberries—locally grown and in season—was so lush I mopped the plate with a torn crust. (And the flavors of a green harissa lamb tartare served with sourdough toast made it, too, a signature I would return to repeatedly.)
Where nobody is surprised to find themselves fighting over the last silky spoonful of budino, Italy’s dense and decadent answer to a pudding cup. I learned, in fact, that we have not had too many bright flavors, too many Castelvetrano olives or too much guanciale. That Sassetta is a rather nice answer, in fact, to a question you can ask more than once.
“Rodriguez makes the best ceviche I’ve had. Creamy, served in a turquoise blue bowl, people practically panted for more. “
At first glance, it’s just a taco stand on a street corner in a changing neighborhood. But I knew from the start that Taquero was special, legs kicking at the stool that was pulled up to the single counter at the window in the evening breeze. Before Fino Rodriguez, the man behind it all, even handed me the soupy, cilantro-spiked pinto beans, I knew. Taquero is brilliant and delicious—and personal.
The Olmeca is a glorious thing (“It’s like a quesadilla with meat in it,” the helper taking orders said), a blue corn tortilla with a freight of steak and Oaxacan cheese oozing juices. Shaggy pieces of the tenderest lengua are a revelation with cool, fresh tomatillo salsa. Chicken achiote is robed in tangy sauce and sweet roasted pineapple. These are unassuming street tacos, astonishingly simple and good. If they seem better than they should be, there’s a reason. Rodriguez helped develop the menu for Mr. Mesero before lighting out on his own, making fabulous things with tiny price tags in a style that felt like home.
Rodriguez makes the best ceviche I’ve had—his recipe, like many things, hailing from his home region of San Luis Potosí. Creamy, served in a turquoise blue bowl, it was a fleeting special for a while, but people practically panted for more. Drink the jamaica (hibiscus blossom) agua fresca; nibble the raw jalapeño that gives it a little heat. There’s a sense of ownership in every detail and a camaraderie that forms at the counter, people eyeing what comes off the grill, planning the next lunchtime visit. You feel lucky, sitting there. Every time.
There are little surprises. Fried Brussels sprouts that have startling tart fried hibiscus blossoms that jive with the sweet caramelized pineapple. Griddled tripas are delicious. Still, I wondered about putting the all-weather, outdoor, cash-only spot on the list. Then I realized that I’d spent six months asking people, “Have you been to Taquero?” That I still dreamed of the next visit. And that each time I found the charm of the first evening and the innocence of those who have not—not quite yet—grasped how special they are.
Chaouki “C.K.” Khoury and Marc Mansour tapped into their Lebanese roots to open a stylish Deep Ellum spot that seriously upped our modern Mediterranean game. Suddenly, Friday night could mean a sophisticated dessert of toasted wheat shreds with orange blossom water and clouds of strawberry-scented hookah smoke.
From the start, I loved Zåtar’s arak cocktails that might pair the anise-y liquor with house-pressed blackberry juice, served—if the table is feeling flush—in a traditional Lebanese pitcher. I also loved their Lebanese wines that make you dream of the sunbaked Bekaa Valley. I’d get lost in little plates of strained labneh, olives, muhammara, and lush hummus spooned in an attractive spiral, in a room that itself began swirling with people here to commune over a beautiful array of small-plate meze.
It wasn’t always perfect. But once the kitchen hit its stride, it sent out dishes you find nowhere else, like kibbeh: ground meat, well-seasoned and wrapped into a beggars’ purse into which they’ve tucked sour cherries and walnuts. A soul-soothing, richly scented lamb pilaf, warmly spiced with cardamom and cinnamon and mounded with slivered almonds and pine nuts, was a glorious, comforting dish on a cold night.
Sunday brunch begs for a Lebanese breakfast, light spilling in through open patio windows over little baskets of pita—fluffy puffs still warm from the oven, tucked into linen—and a spread of anise-scented waffles with carob molasses or arak-flambéed shrimp over a garbanzo-bean purée, more savory than any grits.
Everywhere you look, it’s a mix of the modern and the traditional, a blend of earthenware jugs and the postindustrial Deep Ellum look. That’s the balance they achieve so well, in a place where the inventive menu includes meat-topped flatbreads and lamb mac and cheese. Khoury and Mansour—young, dynamic—don’t even seem to try. They embody it.