Best Thing I Ate All Year 2021: Charlottesville’s Food Community Names the Year’s Best

Each December we celebrate the Charlottesville food year by asking chefs and others in the industry: what was the best thing you ate all year? Here are picks from 2020, 2019201820172016 and 2015. And, below are this year’s picks in our food community’s annual tribute to Charlottesville’s bounty. Meanwhile, check back soon for The Charlottesville 29 pick for 2021 Dish of the Year.

Jason Becton (MarieBette, Petite MarieBette)

Kapow Crispy Duck Basil at Pineapples Thai Kitchen. “At the beginning of the summer a new restaurant opened around the corner from our house called Pineapples and we stopped in to try it out. It was so good we came back the next day. We were planning on having our first pandemic staff meeting that week and on a whim I asked them if we could have it there, and they obliged. They made new customers out of all of my employees. Everything on the menu is delicious but for me the standout is the Kapow Crispy Duck Basil and it was the best thing I ate all year, so much so that I have pretty much eaten it every week since then.”

Mitchell Beerens (Lampo)

Chicken from Birdhouse. “Chicken from Birdhouse is the best thing I ate this year. They were just in time too considering it only just opened a week ago. The chefs finish the juicy rotisserie chicken in a blazing hot oven so that it has a nice crispy skin when it’s finished. I love that thoughtful finishing touch. The chicken is wonderful but don’t sleep on the celery salad, the posole, or the insane wine offerings.”

Tim Burgess (Bang!, Bizou, The Space)

Miso Sea Bass at Ten. “Honestly, is there a better dish than the Miso Bass at Ten? Pei Chang is such a pro, the standard set there is hard to beat.”

Andrew Cole (Lampo)

Celery and Olive Salad at Birdhouse. “It’s the simple elegance of this dish that makes me love it so much. It’s not trying to be anything that it’s not, and what is, is delicious. Perfectly balanced and just a joy to eat, much like everything else from Birdhouse.”

Ryan Collins (Little Star)

Raw Fish at Ten. “It’s hard to do a best thing I ate this year because work’s been so busy and hard to staff. Days off consist of dinner dates with my wife at places that are our favorite must-go places rather than new spots. I go to Ten with the munchies and Pei feeds me raw fish until I pop. Anything Pei gives me is my favorite thing.”

Jose de Brito (Café Frank)

Pain Au Chocolat from Cou Cou Rachou. “I did not dine out as much as I would have liked this year; most of my time has been taken by Cafe Frank’s kitchen, but one thing that stuck out in my memory was a recent purchase at the new Cou Cou Rachou bakery on Preston. It was a pain au chocolat. In my mind there is no good laminated dough if it is not extremely messy when you eat it, and it was a perfect tasty mess. I even took a picture.”

Rachel De Jong (Cou Cou Rachou)

Rotisserie Chicken and Collard Greens at Birdhouse. “The first thing that comes to mind is brand new. Rotisserie chicken and collard greens from Birdhouse, just opened over on Henry Street. Best greens I’ve had since living in Nashville, and I could eat that chicken every darn day. Cabbage is also not to be missed. Liz has put together an awesome wine list. So so happy to have a cozy, welcoming spot like theirs.”

Patrick Evans (MarieBette)

Crying Tiger at Pineapples Thai Kitchen. “We were thrilled when Pineapple’s Thai opened up within a block from our house. We had our staff party there just two weeks after they opened, and they have quickly become part of our weekly food routine. Everything we’ve had there has been wonderful, and I try to order something different each time. The Crying Tiger is especially memorable though.”

Craig Hartman (BBQ Exchange and Champion Ice House)

Tempura Cuttlefish at Ten. “I ate a lot of food this last year, but there is one dish that I am dreaming about. The flavor was explosive, the texture had such contrasting components: crispy, hot, cool, soft , and moist. It was Pei Chang’s tempura cuttlefish with a Korean chili and sesame cream reduction. It just hit every longing that I had at the moment. So damn good.”

Brian Helleberg (Fleurie, Petit Pois)

Dinner at Duner’s. “The team at Duner’s has treated me like family ever since I first worked there 35 years ago as a busboy and dishwasher. This summer, I appreciated that warmth and familiarity more than ever while dining there. I knew the food would be delicious with Hayden Berry back in the kitchen and it certainly was. But, in addition to Hayden, there were at least four others on staff who were there since my first day. That made me feel grateful and humble – two ingredients for any great meal.”


Christian Kelly (Maya)

Cold Fried Chicken Salad from Multiverse Kitchens. “The Asian influences, crunch, pow flavors of jalapeño and cilantro, light and layered. Harrison’s a badass for opening during a pandemic (maybe a little crazy too?). Well done chef, thanks for yummy food.”

Michael Lewis (Boylan Heights)

Tohoku Mussels from Public. “A flavorful, soothing, huge bowl with a spicy, ‘gluten free’ broth of chilis, scallions, and pickled daikon. Pairs perfectly with a dry martini from John. After a long weekend, and especially for restaurant people, love that they’re open on Sundays and Mondays.”

Kathryn Matthews (Iron Paffles)

Veal Sweetbreads at C&O Restaurant. “The veal sweetbreads from C&O Restaurant were special for many reasons. First, it was part of the first meal my husband and I ate in a physical restaurant since the beginning of the pandemic; but most importantly, it was purchased by my late grandmother as a gift to celebrate a recent achievement. The Marsala sauce was sweet and rich, teaming perfectly with the tender, succulent sweetbreads. The added butter-toasted brioche made for a truly decedent appetizer, fit for any celebration. I will never forget it.”

Michael McCarthy (Dr. Ho’s Humble Pie)

Vegetarian Plate at Sultan Kebab. “I have been enjoying the vegetarian plate from Sultan Kebab. Everything is so bright and flavorful. Yummo. I always want to branch out but find myself ordering the veggie plate every time.”

Kelsey Naylor (Basan)

Cloak and Dagger White Stout from Decipher Brewing. “So not necessarily a food, but beer is basically food right? I don’t know that I have the words to describe just how amazing this beer is. Ridiculously smooth, just the right amount of coffee, and way too easy to drink more than a few of these bad boys. They used Shenandoah Joe’s coffee and a ton of actual vanilla beans to make it, and I would almost be willing to fund their vanilla bean tab if it meant that they would brew this absolute unit of a beer again.”

Jenny Peterson (Paradox Pastry)

Summer Squash Pizza at Oakhart Social. “The squash pizza from secret pizza guru Todd Grieger. I have no idea what all was on it, but it was probably one of the most perfect pizzas I’ve ever had.”

Wilson Richey (Ten Course Hospitality)

Molasses Ginger Caramel from La Vache Microcreamery. “I’m not typically a big sweets guy, but I enjoy a well made dessert or pastry from time to time and we have so many good ones to choose from in this town. Maybe it was the difficulty of the last two years but something about that caramel just was other level for me this year. It was necessary. The very first one of these caramels transported me into the Fall and Holiday season and to a calm and warmth I well needed.”

PK Ross (Splendora’s)

Scallop Crudo at Broadcloth. “Best fancy pants dish I had this year was a scallop prep at Broadcloth. Scallop crudo (as chunks) with tomato and cucumber in a wee pool of buttermilk.”

John Shanesy (Belle)

Spicy Chicken Karaage from Basan. “I didn’t get out much to restaurants this year, but I did crush quite a few orders of these nuggies. Looking forward to see what this squad of ultra kind and very talented cooks do this year with the new spot.”

Susan Sweeney (Cake Bloom)

Hands on Breakfast at Guajiros Miami Eatery. “I first discovered Guajiros Miami Eatery in what felt like a truly endless summer building out our shop on West Main. Mornings started extra early to keep up with my weekly cake orders, while afternoons lingered well into night with paintbrush, sandpaper or measuring tape in hand, hustling to get our doors open while battling all manner of permitting roadblocks. One day, sensing low blood sugar and low morale, my sister sent me down to Guajiros insisting the Hands On Breakfast would set me straight. A Cuban cousin to the burrito, this delicious wrap features scrambled eggs, sweet plantains, rice and beans, pico and cilantro aioli. Like everything on their menu, I imagine this homey, but masterful combination being made for generations and fine tuned over the years transforming it from just food to the nourishment I was so deeply craving. Pro-tip: for more feel-goods, pair it with their tart and super refreshing Hibiscus Margarita.”

Angelo Vangelopoulos (Ivy Inn)

Ottobun from Otto Turkish Street Food. “I could eat an Ottobun every single day. Take your pick, the chicken and beef are both delicious, and be sure you have the ezme (red pepper sauce), fried eggplant and fries on it. So good.”

Julie Whitaker (Vu Noodles)

Breakfast Bread from Althea Bread. “I have many favorites, and one that comes to mind is Althea Bread. All of their breads are made with organic local Virginia grains. Our favorite is the Breakfast Bread. It is hearty and 100% freshly milled grains. We love it with butter and jam for breakfast.”

Tristan Wraight (Oakhart Social)

Cinnamon Buns from Belle. “Todd has brought in cinnamon buns and doughnuts from Belle kitchen many times this year, and they are absolutely delightful. Really fantastic. The cinnamon buns are dense and light somehow. And they have seriously deep shelf life, considering they aren’t pumped with preservatives. I swear I had a couple of ‘em hang out on my counter for four days while I kept chipping away at them, and they were bangin’. Belle kitchen is rad.”