Today we announce the ninth annual Eater Awards, celebrating the chefs and restaurants that truly made an impact over the past 12 months. These are the establishments that have taken the food world by storm. Thank you to everyone who voted last week, and congratulations to the winners of the Readers’ Choice and Editors’ Choice awards.
Read on to learn more about this year’s best of the best.
Restaurant of the Year
Chef Christina Nguyen and Birk Stefan Grudem
Each transcendent meal at Hai Hai is an adventure through sweet, salty, spicy, tart, funky and savory flavors. When it first opened chef Christina Nguyen joked about her flavor approach was all about the more: more fish sauce, more herbs, more lime juice. Eating here feels like a year-long taste vacation in and around Vietnam. From the other-worldly Balinese chicken thigh to the Hanoi sticky rice, these are dishes to order two by two, one to eat immediately and another to bank as leftovers. One in the fridge is money in the bank.
As the year progressed, Hai Hai, which opened in late 2017, came into its own with the addition of brunch and a sweeping, stunning patio. This is a rare spot for congee for weekend breakfast and the cocktails are built for day-long sipping.
Nguyen and Grudem had already proven their restaurant prowess with the beloved Hola Arepa in South Minneapolis, but Hai Hai takes our expectations for their work even higher. Who knew that was even possible? Then again, who knew that a vintage stripper pole would make a darling addition to a hip restaurant? Only these two can see and deliver their delicious vision.
Readers Poll Winner: The Bungalow Club
The Longfellow located restaurant reborn in the old Craftsman location has been charming the neighborhood from day one with elegant Italian dishes from chef Andrew Kraft, delicious cocktails and a stunner of a wine list.
Chef of the Year
Alarcon went from working the line with the chef collective at Lyn65 and helming a few pop-ups to opening not one, but two Mexican restaurants that beguiled Twin Cities dinners with Popol Vuh and Centro. On each menu, there are dishes that are singularly mind-blowing. Take the nopales tacos at Centro. Tender strips of cactus paddle are served with a soft peanut, black sesame and roasty chile salsa that is un-put-downable. On Popol Vuh’s opening menu, the esquites, off-the-cob elote was a dish of summer elegance. A deep well of sweet, crunchy corn luxuriating in a creamy/tart sauce.
Alarcon and his team had just days between the wood-fire stove installation and the opening of Mayan-cuisine focused Popol Vuh, but they mastered the power of the fire to create flavor of every item kissed by the flames. Along with those rising flames, Alarcon and his team elevated exceptions for what Mexican cuisine can be - moving far away from fried tortillas and cheese into a world of subtlety that celebrates the country’s regions into the rightful world arena it belongs.
That this chef opened not one, but two restaurants to such success and still managed the tightrope walk of Minnesota’s expectations while busting through boundaries of fine dining is nothing short of extraordinary.
Reader’s Poll Winner: Ann Ahmed
Ahmed has been charming the whole of Golden Valley with her astounding transformation of a Perkins into the beautiful Lat14. Her Southeast Asian menu packs plenty of flavor into a focused menu.
Design of the Year Award
In Bloom is remarkable in its warmth. All the raw elements of this corner inside the Keg & Case food hall remain bare: gray, brick walls, exposed beam ceiling, but before the room feels cold or utilitarian, it’s balanced by thoughtful delicacy. White metal twists like growing vines separating the restaurant from the food hall, and edging along the precipice of the upstairs private dining space. There’s a twisty himmel fixture that cradles an air plant above the lounge. Curved copper lights stagger above tables. Crushed lavender velvet lining the seats look like something stolen from Prince’s closet. Smooth leather bar seats afford views of the subtly gothic wallpaper behind the bar. A stunning installment cascades into the dining room, lightbulbs like calla lily blossoms wink every so lazily in pastel shades, bathing diners in complementary luminescence. And at the heart of the entire room is the massive fire where everything is prepared. Each element of cold and hard is balance by something graceful, growing and blooming into a spectacular dining room.
Reader’s Poll Winner: Centro
Northeast’s new taco spot with the sweet decor was the hard work of the restaurant team and Shea Design. Brightly colored doors are hung above the counter and a giant cross-stitch floral mural acts as a focal point.
Bar Program of the Year
Marco Zappia is a national treasure. In the regions of his brilliant brain cocktails are carefully broken apart, tinkered with and put back together in a new whole we, the parched public, have never experienced before. Each drink that is produced behind the bar at Martina is an Instagrammers dream. The limes are scored, the glasses all seem built to catch the perfect light — peacock feather garnishes! However, to take these drinks at their rakish charm alone would be a mistake. It’s Zappia who took it upon himself to painstakingly build flavors in vermouth so that each element complements various ingredients on the food menu. He also made a better-than-ever version of Campari for a total knockout negroni. The drinks and all of the ingredients are given a doctorate-level of study before being carefully placed together to create a delight for drinkers. The zero-waste program also means that if there’s a straw in a drink, it’s something reusable and an element that makes sense in that glass - be it metal or in one memorable circumstance, hallow bamboo. Martina’s menu also sports a few no-proof drinks that are every bit as cared for as the alcoholic ones, a welcome respite for non-drinkers sick of syrups with a side of pandering.
Zappia has long been a part of the Twin Cities drinking scene, but Martina was his first full solo-run show and the results are worthy of a standing ovation.
Reader’s Poll Winner: Parlour Bar Saint Paul
This West 7th outpost of the popular subterranean bar brings all the classics from that location and adds some boozy milkshakes to the Saint Paul mix.
New Restaurant Worth the Drive
The serenity of dining inside Martha’s Daughter belies the revolutionary path chef and owner Nyanyika Banda is carving. Banda has acclaimed New York restaurants WD-50, Empéllon Taqueria and Mission Chinese on her resume, but she made her name in the Twin Ports hosting popular pop-ups inside the Red Herring Lounge, hardly a bastion for fine dining. However her tacos and ramen gained a ravenous following. When the Original Coney Island closed at 107 East Superior Street in Duluth, she made the decision to put down more permanent roots and open Martha’s Daughter.
The restaurant sports a full bar, and a tasty drink menu to pair with the globally-inspired dishes. The menu hops from peanutty noodles to coffee roasted chicken tacos over to a bratwurst. It’s deeply comforting eating for a city by the big, cold lake.
From the moment the restaurant came together, though, Banda began extending a hand to lift up other women and people of color. The restaurant is also a culinary arts center, supporting artists, and fostering community.