The 5 Best Meals of 2021

The best restaurants from around the U.S. you need to go to right now.

This year, I had the opportunity to travel all around the United States, and to Mexico and the Caribbean. As always, one of my main goals while traveling, is to sample the local food, and review the best places to eat. So, here I am sharing with you some of my best meals that I ate in 2021.

Now, there were a LOT of wonderful meals to choose from, so this was a tough pick. I want to recognize all the amazing chefs, restauranteurs and kitchen staff that are trying to make it in the business during this tough pandemic year. Across the country, I heard the same story again and again. Labor shortage, supply chain issues, low inventory, higher prices, and struggling establishments. Still, these five restaurants managed to create the most memorable dining experiences that I would cherish forever. And I hope you get to check them out for yourself too.

The Grey, Savannah

You may have seen it on Netflix (Chef’s Table), you may have read the new book (Black, White, and The Grey: The Story of an Unexpected Friendship and a Beloved Restaurant), but until you have dined at The Grey, you haven’t really experienced chef Mashama Bailey’s culinary passion. Located at what was once a segregated Greyhound bus terminal in historic downtown Savannah, this modern American restaurant is a testament of the new south. Of course, there is great upscale southern cuisine to go along.

Their winter village outdoor yurt made a nice alternate to indoor dining, allowing for safe distant dining (each yurt seated one party). These were decorated with colorful quotes by famous Black artists. The Sunday brunch included a high tea with tea sandwiches, fresh baked pastries (my favorite was the cardamom French cruller), champagne and tea, each served in beautiful floral ceramics. All that followed by 3-course lunch options. I had chilled shrimp cocktail and whole fried flounder with collard greens and southern grits. Menu changes daily.

Tip: Make sure to reserve your table at The Grey months in advance, as they tend to sell out.

Ardovino’s Desert Crossing, New Mexico

This may be one of the most unusual locations for a fine dining restaurant. Once I crossed over the border from El Paso, Texas into the sleepy small town of Sunland Park in New Mexico, there was Ardovino’s Desert Crossing. Overlooking the Mexico border, the historic estate has been in the same Italian family since 1949. It has been an inn, restaurant, gambling parlor, event venue, farm, and more. On Saturdays, there’s a Farmers Market selling organic and pesticide-free produce, beef, pork, lamb and goat, fresh-baked breads and salsas fair trade coffee, and fresh-squeezed juices. During the day, they have food literacy, cooking demos, kid’s activities and gardening tips. You can eat outside under the shade of pecan trees and feel the warm desert breeze.

And for dinner, there is made-from-scratch Italian meatballs, risotto, pizza, pasta, and juicy steaks, made with locally sourced and organically grown ingredients. The menu changes weekly, but every dish is delectable. The 40-day dry aged ribeye got applauds from even a non meat eater like me.

Insider Tip: Stay the night at a refurbished vintage trailer at Ardovino’s Roadside Inn’s 35-acre resort for the ultimate glamping experience.

Octagon, Bluffton

Located at the luxurious Montage Palmetto Bluff, South Carolina, Octagon is known for its contemporary Carolina cuisine. Chef de Cuisine Daniel Vesey created a 11-course “Taste of the South” menu, and director of beverage Robert L. Smith carefully paired wines and beers to match. Some highlights from the menu included: May River oysters with green apple sorbet, hot honey glazed quail pops, shrimp and grits, deconstructed Lowcountry boil, and melt-in-your mouth chicken and dumplings.

Black truffles in dessert changed my entire perspective!

The dessert was a white chocolate mousse covered with black truffle (and made to look like one), with layers of caramel and blackberry. Earthy, sweet and savory – it was like nothing I have ever tasted before. Live music by Alan Price in the background also made it a memorable evening.

Travel Tip: Book a weekend getaway at the vibrant 20,000-acre Montage Palmetto Bluff community. 

red fish best seafood

Redfish Grill, New Orleans

I don’t typically consider Bourbon Street area of New Orleans to be the city’s epicurean center. Sure, its great for a daiquiri, a slice of pizza, and a bustling nightlife. But for a good meal, I would advise walking a few blocks away to a nice chef-driven restaurant. On Thanksgiving day, though, I had a feast at the Red Fish Grill in the French Quarter.

Serving Thanksgiving lunch buffet, the very casual and friendly restaurant offered one of the most delectable seafood spreads I have ever had – almost 35 dishes to choose from! There was a chill bar with fresh oysters on the half shell, peeled shrimp with housemate cocktail sauce, and tuna ceviche served in mini ice cream cones. For entrees, there were stations serving whole turkey, carved ham, redfish and grits, a variety of salads, and all the fixings. And the desserts were aptly placed in a separate room (they needed their own special display). New Orleans bread pudding, pumpkin cheesecake, chocolate cake, and lemon tarts, were all worth being thankful for!

Other notable mentions in New Orleans: Asian-fusion tapas at Mister Mao and Chef Nina Compton Compere Lapin.

Garden Room, Atlanta 

II found this bar/ restaurant to be the most fun atmosphere to celebrate with friends or family. The Garden Room is located at the St. Regis Hotel in Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta. The ambiance is colorful and cherrie, with a greenhouse-like enclosure adorned with twinkling lights and floral-themed art. And the fun food and drink selections also go with the enchanted garden theme. My husband and I had a delectable spread of The Fruits of the Sea (chilled seafood tower), with New England oysters, king crab and Maine lobster, paired with a bottle of Veuve Clicquot champagne. We also ordered sharable small plates, and went back at another time for their black truffle pillows with wild mushrooms.

For dessert, the forbidden green apple mousse is a must! There’s also has a great selection of caviar and cocktails, so its definitely worth visiting for a special occasion.

Tip: Reserve a table at The Garden Room at least 3 months in advance, but if you show up early, you can also get a seat at the bar.

You Don’t Want To Miss This Fireflies Festival in South Carolina

Growing up in India, I was fascinated by fireflies wandering around my backyard on warm summer nights. Over time though, I have seen fewer and fewer fireflies, not just back home, but even in the U.S. Many of my friends agree that they don’t get to see as many fireflies now that they used to. Increased light pollution, use of pesticides, and even mosquito repellants, have decreased firefly populations in urban areas.

But the good news is that there is an amazing firefly festival in South Carolina, where you can see thousands of fireflies at one place.

There are over 2,000 species of fireflies found in the world, but only three species of synchronous flashing fireflies are in North America. Every year, Congaree National Park is home to thousands of synchronous fireflies for approximately two weeks between mid-May and mid-June. During this time visitors can experience an awe-inspiring and rare display of synchronous flashing. 

Congaree national park South Carolina
Boardwalk at Congaree National Park. Photo by Sucheta Rawal.

Congaree National Park

Congaree National Park is located near the state capital of Columbia in central South Carolina. It has one of the highest temperate deciduous forest canopies remaining in the world, boasting old growth bottomless forests that are ideal habitats for fireflies. You can hike the many trails and boardwalks in the park, canoe or kayak on the Congaree river, and even camp overnight. The UNESCO biosphere reserve is an important bird area and one of the best places in the world to see fireflies.

photo of fireflies
Fireflies through a camera lens. Photo by Fred Huang/ Flickr.

Why do Firefly Synchronize?

Firefly flashing is a sophisticated form of animal communication, especially when there is a higher concentration of fireflies gathered in an area. During mating season, the male firefly hover two to four feet higher than the females, sending information such as sex and species to other fireflies. Female fireflies typically view male displays from a stationary location and respond with their own species-specific flash pattern. The exchange of light displays between male and female fireflies, called a photic dialog, occurs between two fireflies, but sometimes more than one male can court the same female. This photic dialog continues until male and female meet and ultimately mate.

Flashing typically begins shortly after sunset and lasts for approximately one hour before the display dissipates. Smaller displays can also be viewed shortly before dawn.

Fireflies at night
Fireflies soon after sunset. Photo credit: National Park Services.

Planning Your Visit To The Firefly Festival

In previous years, approximately 2,000 people visited Congaree National Park every night to see the rare firefly synchronization. But since the 2020 pandemic, the park is allowing only limited viewing through a lottery program. This also helps protect critical firefly habitats and provides a safe and enjoyable experience to visitors.

Only 25 vehicles, plus a few researchers and campers are allowed inside the park during the firefly festival. The night I visited, there were no more than a handful of people on the trails and boardwalks, which made it very special. I could hear the stillness of the night and see the fireflies up close, without having to rub elbows with other viewers. I could even hear the owls!

Since the firefly synchronization takes place only for 10 days in a year, it is hard to plan your visit too far in advance. If you book a camping site inside Congaree National Park between mid-May and early June, you have a good chance of seeing the fireflies. Check back on the Congaree National Park’s website about the next lottery announcement and firefly festival dates. Often times, Columbia Food and Wine festival takes place around the same time, so plan to spend some extra time in the city.

Fireflies festival
Fireflies at night. Photo by: Vic McCord, National Park Services

How To Take Photos of Fireflies

Taking photos of tiny flashlights that blink for 1-2 seconds in the dark, can be especially tricky. Point and shoot cameras won’t even come close. I used my iPhone on tripod and set it to long exposure. Nothing! My video recording did display the lights, but it wasn’t very good quality. You really have to know what you are looking at to get context.

If you have a DSLR or a manually adjustable camera, you may be able to take some photos by following these photography tips. Note that the park may not allow photography, unless you have prior permission. The light emitted from the phone screen (not just flash) can be disorienting to the fireflies.

The best thing, though, is to enjoy the magical moment with your own eyes!

Columbia South Carolina
Walk along Congaree River in Columbia.

Things To Do Columbia

Congaree National Park is located about 30 minutes from Columbia, so unless you are planning on camping in the park, book a hotel room at The Graduate or Hotel Trundle in town. There are lot of fun things to do in Soda City, including the newly opened Reconstruction Trail, The Columbia Museum of Art, Soda City market, historic homes and gardens, the state house, and much more.

Socially Distanced Food and Wine in Columbia

Large gatherings have seem to become a thing of the past. Most conferences, festivals, events and weddings are now cancelled, as the pandemic looms. It was surprising then, to discover that the city of Columbia, South Carolina held a socially distanced Food and Wine Festival in August 2020.

“We decided to host the festival despite COVID for two reasons,” says Chase Heatherly, one of the organizers. “First, Columbia Food and Wine Festival operates with the primary goal of recognizing and supporting the local food and beverage talent in the Columbia, SC region. In the time of COVID where restaurants and hospitality partners are struggling more than ever, we felt that if it could be done safely, we needed to recognize our local talent and connect them to potential patrons who can support them during this difficult time. Unlike most food festivals, participating chefs were reimbursed for their food costs so participating in the events were not a financial burden for them. Secondly, CFWF is only in its third year of operation (founded in 2018). Given the infancy of the brand, we felt that it was important to host some level of programming under the festival brand even if it was not the initial schedule and offerings we planned pre-COVID,” he adds.

Clearly, businesses in the south are drastically impacted because of the lockdown, and are facing economic difficulties. The restaurant industry, in particular, has received very little relief (if you do own a restaurant and would like to find out about additional support you may be entitled to, you could take a look at this RRV loan guide to see if you’re eligible for this extra finance). So, to be able to support the community, while have a fun evening out, sounded like a good idea.

checkpoint
Temperature screening check point at the streets leading to festival grounds.

Gathering in Summer 2020

There were two main events during the Columbia Food and Wine Festival. First, was a socially distant dinner held on the grounds of two of Historic Columbia’s properties. Normally, each of the event venues could accommodate approx. 400 guests, but they were reduced in capacity to less than half. Also, the organization took several safety precautions. There was a temperature check point on the street and PPE handed out to each guest. Everyone had to wear a mask until seated at the table. Even though the event was held outdoors, people kept distance and obliged to face covering mandates.

A second registration table for each zone had color coded stickers you could pick. Red meant ‘keep distant’, yellow ‘be cautious’ and green signified ‘serve me as usual.’ These were cues for other guests and servers to keep the acceptable distance from you.

Hampton Preston mansion and gardens
The gardens at Hampton-Preston.

The Grand Dinner

I sat at the Hampton-Preston Mansion and Gardens, a beautiful historic home with three acres of well appointed gardens filled with native and exotic plantings. I strolled through the pathways and enjoyed the warm evening sun in the garden, before settling down for dinner.

A cocktail station dedicated to each zone offered a house drink, especially prepared by local mixologists.

Tables were 6+ feet apart, and each tables had no more than 6 seats, so you need not interact with fellow diners. There was a pre-set four-course dinner. When purchasing tickets to the festival, you could pick which of the four zones you wanted to sit in, based on the menu preference. We started with a refreshing Caprese tower prepared by Chef Nelson De Hoyas of Halls Chophouse; followed by a delicious seafood Cioppino by as seen on Masterchef, Daniela Savone. The third course included a charred octopus over ricotta gnocchi by Chef Josh Rogerson from Saluda’s. Finally, we had a ricotta cream filled cannoli by Brian Glynn of Village Idiot Pizza for dessert. Overall, the food was “ok” in terms of quality and taste. Given the hot and humid climate of Columbia, the cannoli cookie was soggy, and featured table wines served warm. Still, it was nice to be outside in the garden and be part of a “normal event.”

sunday brunch
Salmon and corn ceviche for brunch appetizer.

Sunday Brunch

The next morning, I return to the same venue for a second event as part of the Columbia Food and Wine Festival. Sunday brunch was a lot less crowded and my husband and I had an entire table to ourselves. There was a simple mimosa, Columbia craft beers, and a house cocktail for drinks. Mixologist Andy Haddock from Terra restaurant (a must for dinner) created Blood and Sand, a lively cocktail with Oban 14 single malt, Cherry Herring, Punt e Mas vermouth and orange.

A three-course brunch included salmon appetizer, pork sandwich and a flaky Latin style camembert and honey pastry. Chefs Javier Uriate (formerly of Hendrix), David Grillo from Cantina 76, and Charley Scruggs from Terra, did their best in putting forward unique dishes, but you really need to visit their restaurants to enjoy their best cooking!

Columbia food and wine festival
Husband and me at Columbia Food and Wine Festival dinner.

In Conclusion

I felt CFWF made a great effort in putting together this event despite the circumstances. Many people still don’t feel comfortable leaving their homes, let alone attending a large gathering. I felt completely safe at the event, knowing all the precautions they had taken.

The participating chefs were grateful to the guests for attending, and reinforced how they had been impacted by the pandemic. To be able to cook and serve people, made them feel normal again. They encouraged us to dine in or take out from their restaurants.

The chefs came from different background which explains the variation in the dishes served. Columbia has a rich southern food tradition with staples like pimento, BBQ, grits, crawfish and seafood boils. I would have liked to see more southern and Lowcountry inspired dishes in the menus. Nevertheless, you should make it a point to taste these dishes when you visit Columbia, aka Soda City!

Soda city market
Saturday morning at Soda City Market.

More Flavors

If you missed the festival, or plan to attend next year, make sure to check out other things to do and eat in Columbia. You can truly see the melting pot of cultures at the weekly Soda City Market, a street event held every Saturday morning. Here you can shop for fresh produce, olive oil, cheese and baked goods, as well as try flavors from all over the world. Local vendors serve Brazilian cassava bread, Thai curries, Spanish paella, Mexican corn, Belgian waffles, Jamaican patties, and Louisiana grits, to name a few.

Market on Main is a vibrant gourmet food market in downtown Columbia, where you can grab coffee, ice cream and lunch. Check out the City Market Development for other sit down dining establishments. Finally, hit a few pimento cheese spots (my favorite was Di Prato’s pimento cheese sandwich). Columbia has claim to one of the oldest recorded pimento cheese recipes, first written in a fundraising cookbook in 1912!

Mann-Simons site
The Mann-Simons Site was home to the same entrepreneurial African American family for nearly 130 years.

Southern History

Columbia has several sites that offer an authentic portrayal of this Southern city’s past – including slavery, the Civil War, progress during the reconstruction era, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement.

A walking tour is a great way to orient yourself and discover the many historic buildings around downtown Columbia. Stroll the peaceful walking paths of the South Carolina State House and visit the African-American History Monument. Historic Columbia offers historic home tours where you can enter the Woodrow Wilson Family Home (The Museum of Reconstruction) and the enterprising African-American women owned Mann-Simons Site, among others.

Columbia museum of art
Black is Beautiful exhibit at The Columbia Museum of Art.

The Columbia Museum of Art recently went through a major, multiphase renovation to offer a more inclusive collection. The current blockbuster exhibit – Black Is Beautiful, features the photography of Kwame Brathwaite. Here you can see photos of the Grandassa models (that promoted African-inspired fashion and black nationalist beauty principles) taken in Harlem in the 1960s.

Outdoor Adventures

Besides great food and American history, there are also spectacular natural sites in Columbia. Rent a kayak or boat from Better Boating on Lake Murray, located only 30 minutes outside the city. You will see many lake houses around the shoreline, passing through Dreher Island State Park.

Congaree national park
Walk along the boardwalk to see interesting landscapes at Congaree National Park.

Congaree National Park has the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States. Explore the wilderness, canopy of champion trees, and marshlands walking along the wooded boardwalk or one of the trails. You can spend as little as an hour, to an entire day hiking, fishing or canoeing at the 26,000-acre Congaree National Park.

Hotel Trundle downtown Columbia
Trendy lobby of Hotel Trundle in downtown Columbia.

Southern Hospitality

To experience true southern hospitality with a sustainable twist, stay at Hotel Trundle located in the heart of the Main Street District. This eclectic, 20s-era Art Deco style boutique hotel is filled with local art and photos in a lofty environment. The historic building was restored to support the community and the city. Not only will you enjoy spacious room and the tastefully decorated common areas, but you will also be within walking distance to most attractions in downtown Columbia.