Today, we announce the winners of the 2021 Eater Awards, celebrating the new restaurants and pop-ups that made a major impact on all 24 Eater cities since January 2020.
Last year, Eater pressed pause on awards as the pandemic upended just about everything in dining. The industry still has a long way to go towards maintaining and regaining its footing, with labor shortages, supply chain issues, and inflation intensifying an already challenging era here on planet Earth. Nevertheless, people are returning to restaurants and bars once again to reclaim a semblance of our former community and participate in a reinvention of what the food industry can be.
There are still reasons to celebrate and to take stock of the triumphs, achievements, and innovations of those folks that have dedicated themselves to keeping us safe, fed, and engaged. Where in some years the task of choosing winners is made difficult perhaps because there are too few options, this time around there were so many brights spots over the past two years of this global health crisis, it felt impossible to sum them all up. So many folks deserve a reward, a rest, and to be celebrated for just getting through the day.
With that, congratulations to Detroit’s Best New Restaurant, Best New Suburban Restaurant, Best New Cafe and Community Space, Best Collaborative Food Experience, Best New Special Occasion Restaurant, and Most Innovative Pandemic Debut. Each winner receives Eater’s illustrious tomato can trophy to put on display.
Best New Restaurant
6568 Woodward Ave Suite 100, Detroit
In Detroit, it’s not uncommon to wait a very long time for a special restaurant to come along, and it’s even more rewarding when that restaurant proves to be truly worth the wait. Such is the case with Baobab Fare, a restaurant Eater has been following since Hamissi Mamba and Nadia Nijimbere first came on our editor’s radar in the summer of 2017 with a clear vision for a restaurant, cafe, and retail space serving East African cuisine from their native Burundi. Despite years of development and a pandemic, the husband and wife team, who started out their lives in Detroit as refugees, have created something truly original in the heart of Detroit’s New Center neighborhood. The warm and inviting atmosphere of Baobab Fare and its tightly curated menu with options like flaky samaki (fried fish), creamy vegan mboga (braised spinach and peanuts), and the ever-popular mbuzi (goat shank) have made it a destination for families dining in or, as the moment calls for it, taking out. What a treat.
Best New Suburban Restaurant
449 W 14 Mile Rd, Clawson
Metro Detroit is truly lucky to have gained a phenomenal new sushi bar during the pandemic in the form of Sozai. Chef Hajime Sato relocated to the Mitten in 2019, after years of impressing diners with his cooking in the sushi-plentiful city of Seattle. While at his West Seattle restaurant Mashiko, Sato dedicated himself to using sustainable seafood, producing what, at the time, was an entirely unique dining experience. Once again with Sozai, Sato has pushed the sushi conversation forward in the metro Detroit region. Sato’s style feels more adorned than other local sushi options, with seasonings and marinades added to items like surf clam that serves to brighten the flavor. At the same time, Sato’s restaurant maintains a welcoming and friendly atmosphere that makes customers feel at home in Clawson.
Best New Cafe and Community Space
9321 Rosa Parks Blvd., Detroit
The residents of Boston Edison were clearly hungry for a community space and the Congregation delivered, oh, about two weeks before the dine-in shutdown began. Nevertheless, this stunning, restored church complete with a pipe organ, has persevered thanks to ample outdoor deck and yard seating, plenty of coffee and wine, and snacks, too. Paramount to its success though is the Congregation’s ability to bring people together, whether through bar trivia and food trucks, a farmers market, or a casual conversation across a table while mooching Wi-Fi during one of this summer’s many floods and power outages.
Best Collaborative Food Experience
Taste the Diaspora
This sold-out menu organized by chef Ederique Goudia, Raphael Wright, and Jermond Booze captivated diners during its debut in February 2021 with shoebox lunches prepared by a collective of local Black chefs and farmers to celebrate the cuisine of the African diaspora in American cooking. Initially, a Black History Month project spanning four weeks of Creole, Caribbean, East African, and Southern cooking, Taste the Diaspora extended into several events throughout the year including a Juneteenth viewing of High on the Hog with a meal at Marygrove Conservancy a little over a year after the anniversary of the George Floyd uprisings. Don’t miss a chance to experience next February’s monthlong food and culture event.
Best New Special Occasion Restaurant
Oak and Reel
2921 E Grand Blvd, Detroit
Exceptional seafood is having a moment in Detroit and Oak and Reel is one of the gems of this trend in local dining. Chef Jared Gadbaw, a Michigan native, developed his craft and knowledge of Italian seafood while working at a two Michelin-starred New York restaurant before returning back to the Great Lakes region to establish his own restaurant in Milwaukee Junction. When a fall 2020 surge in COVID-19 cases disrupted restaurant operations again, Gadbaw quickly pivoted to providing customers with high-end pantry staples and groceries to keep their meals tasting great at home. Now, customers have a variety of options for trying Oak and Reel’s raw oysters and lobster ravioli, whether dining in-person of feasting with carryout at home.
Most Innovative Pandemic Debut
1018 Navahoe St, Detroit
While everyone around the world — not the least Detroit — was scrambling to find stability in an unpredictable, worldwide health crisis, the team behind East Eats was making lemonade out of lemons on a side lot on the east side. With a collection of geodesic domes, good food, and good company, East Eats established a true Detroit original where visitors could find community in a period when togetherness was in short supply and outdoor seating was a necessity. While the format has transitioned more towards pop-up dining, the good vibes continue. Note that Eats Eats is on a temporary hiatus but will hopefully return very soon.
Monica Williams and Brenna Houck contributed to this piece.