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.

10 African-American Chefs You Need to Know About

In the USA, there are approximately 941,000 individuals employed as chefs. How many of these chefs can you name off the top of your head? You may have heard of famous figures like Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver and Wolfgang Puck. However, can you name any celebrity African-American chefs? 

Even though every one out of five chefs in The United States is African-American, according to the Bureau of Labor, Black cooks are socially isolated, discriminated against, and have a lack of representation in the media. While the Black Lives Matter movement continues to be a pressing topic in our current times, efforts are being made to bring attention to black narratives, specifically in the culinary world.

Despite facing many hurdles, African-American chefs have beaten the odds and created a platform for others, as well as continued to break racial barriers. In a time where representation is important for our society and the younger generation, take a moment to support such individuals by learning more about their background, passion, and get a taste of their cooking. 

Here are ten African American chefs who have made great names for themselves in the culinary world.

Carla Hall, Washington, D.C.

african american chefs
Top Chef Carla Hall works at Smithsonian National Museum for African American History

Born in Nashville, Tennessee, Carla Hall spent much of her career fighting for visibility in the culinary industry. She landed appearances on Top Chef, The Chew, Good Morning America and many more. She has authored three cookbooks centered around soul food, and one of them has received an NAACP Image Awards nomination.

Order Carla Hall’s award-winning cookbook

Hall believes food connects everyone and strives to communicate through her work and cooking. Hall is the Culinary Ambassador for Sweet Home Cafe at the Smithsonian National Museum for African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. There, she works to promote and connect the experience of the museum through the history of the food.

Leah Chase, Louisiana 

african american chefs
Chase had customers ranging from past presidents to freedom riders

Leah Chase is the nation’s preeminent Creole chef who brought New Orleans Creole cooking to international attention. After high school, she took a job at a French Quarter restaurant where it sparked a deep love of food in her. Alongside other numerous rewards, Chase was inducted into the James Beard Foundation in 2010. She received awards from the NAACP, National Council of Negro Women and Southern Foodway Alliance.

The late 96-year-old was the chief chef at her restaurant, Dooky Chase’s. It once was a hotspot for civil rights organizers to plan their course of action in the 1950s. Several famous figures, like Barack Obama and James Baldwin, have dined at Dooky Chase’s. If you’re craving classic, Creole cuisine, be sure to visit!

Todd Richards, Georgia

african american chefs
Todd Richards is a Georgia icon

The two-time James Beard Award semifinalist is a fixture of the culinary scene in Atlanta. Todd Richards worked at several fine-dining restaurants including The Four Seasons Hotel and the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead before opening his own – Richards’ Southern Fried in 2016. Here, guests can have a taste of unique spin on casual southern dishes like fried chicken tenders, mac and cheese, black eyed peas, and chicken and waffle wings.

Just recently, Richards released his first cookbook – Soul: A Chef’s Culinary Evolution, which includes roughly 150 recipes. Each page highlights the versatility of humble ingredients like onions, corn and tomatoes. It also aids in transforming them into delicious one-of-a-kind meals. Check out his cookbook below.

Order Richard’s cookbook filled with 150 recipes

Marisa Baggett, Tennessee

african american chefs
Baggett says expensive equipment or exotic ingredients aren’t necessary for good sushi

Marisa Baggett is the first female African-American to graduate from the California Sushi Academy. With her mission to share the art of making sushi, she has authored two cookbooks – Sushi Secrets and Vegetarian Sushi Secrets.

For three years, she worked at Do Sushi Bar and Lounge in Memphis, where she showcased her delicate skill in sashimi, nigiri-zushi, makimono and kaiseki. Though Baggett has since stepped down from her role, she is now focusing on sharing the art of sushi as a traveling itamae (Japanese chef) by teaching classes at markets, private homes and at events.

Get this kit to make your own sushi at home

Erick Williams, Illinois

african american chefs
Chef Erick Williams wan named one of “16 Black Chefs Changing Food in America” by The New York Times

Erick Williams was influenced by his great-grandmother’s Southern cooking and her insistence on connecting with anyone who sat at her table. He learned that sharing a meal is a universal expression of respect and dignity. The Chicago native is currently nominated for a James Beard Award for best chef in the Great Lakes region. 

Williams is the chef/owner of Virtue restaurant in Chicago. Since its opening in 2018, the restaurant has won Best New Restaurants in America for its twist on classic Southern American food. He also currently works on his personal goal of racial inclusivity and training young people of color in the industry.

Mariya Russell, Illinois 

african american chefs
Mariya Russell is the first African-American female to receive a Michelin Star

This Ohio native chef found her passion for cooking at the young age of 14. Since then, Mariya Russell’s love for food led her to receive a Michelin Star in 2019. That made her the first African-American woman to do so. Russell’s unique style of cooking is omakase, which flirts with Japanese methodology and fully controls a person’s dining experience. Anyone can immerse themselves in this experience at the previous restaurant she worked at, Kumiko and Kikko, where she served elegant seven-course meals.

Since winning a Micheline Star and stepping down from her sous chef position at Kumiko and Kikko, Russell has plans to use her platform to mentor other aspiring Black chefs. Be sure to follow her at @mariyaleniserussel on Instagram.

Rodney Scott, South Carolina

Rodney Scott specializes in whole-hog barbecuing in the Eastern Carolina tradition

Not many people can say that they have cooked a whole hog at the age of 11, but Rodney Scott sure can! Since his first hog, he has become one of the most famed pit-masters in the country. Scott has made appearances on TV-shows such as Parts Unknown, Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, and at countless food festivals.

In 2017, Scott turned his craft into a full-fledged restaurant called Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ, with locations in Charleston, Birmingham and (opening soon) Atlanta. Here, you can literally order a whole pig, or if you want something lighter, pit-cooked chicken and spare ribs. 

Dolester Miles, Alabama

african american chefs
Dolester Miles was named Most Outstanding Pastry Chef in America at the James Beard Awards

This world-class pastry chef engaged in her craft for over 30 years before winning her first James Beard Award. It’s safe to say that Dolester Miles is not only one of the greatest pastry talents in the South, but also in the United States. If you have one chance to try her baking, order the Coconut Pecan Cake, which is a nutty and tropical. However, Miles is versatile in her experience and can create any dessert from classic southern pound cake to traditional French dacquoise.

Mile’s inspiration for creating pastries stems from her mother, who taught her how to bake. When in Birmingham, Alabama, stop by the Highlands Bar and Grill to try her pastries.

A stand mixer is a must have for at home baking

BJ Dennis, South Carolina

BJ Dennis specializes in authentic Gullah-Geechee cooking

Many consider BJ Dennis the country’s leading ambassador of Gullah-Geechee cooking, which is a grain-based, hearty cuisine that is usually paired with seafood. To keep the African-Gullah culture alive, Dennis travels across the nation and cooks at pop-ups and events. He has also made appearances on Top Chef and Parts Unknown to educate viewers on the history and culinary techniques of the low country’s cuisine.

To learn more about Gullah-Geechee cuisine and to keep up with Dennis’ next pop-up event, check out his Instagram page.

Edouardo Jordan, Washington

Edouardo Jordan’s inspiration comes from his Sunday suppers and grandmother’s meals

Since the opening of his second restaurant, JuneBaby, Edouardo Jordan received Eater’s Best New Restaurants in 2017 and Food & Wine’s Best Restaurant of 2018. He also received a three-star review from the New York Times. Jordan was also a double winner at the 2018 James Beard Awards.

Eduardo explores his Southern roots and the cuisine of the African-American diaspora with JuneBaby’s celebration of Black, Southern food. He also celebrates the breadth of southern cuisine by showing the world that it can be high-brow and low-brow. Take the time to experience how food can showcase humble West African beginnings at Seattle based JuneBaby.

~By Virtual Marketing & Communications Intern, Laura Vo. Laura’s a Public Relations Major at Kennesaw State University and has a passion for supporting great causes like Go Eat Give.