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Best of dining in the worst of years: Our critic's picks for top new restaurants of 2020


Melody Baetens   | The Detroit News

Although it may not seem like it, good things did happen in 2020. Babies were born, songs were recorded, votes were cast, marathons were run and, yes, restaurants opened. 

It was a tough year for bars, bistros, diners, cafes and those who work in them; that's an understatement. Even as the industry struggled with state-mandated dining room closures, customer tantrums, supply chain problems and staffing issues, some remarkable places managed to make their debut in Metro Detroit in 2020. 

Let me make one thing clear: every restaurant that opened in 2020 deserves some recognition. Launching a restaurant is difficult, but doing so in a pandemic with construction delays end ever-changing regulations from the state government adds another layer of difficulty. 

In addition to new players, I also think it's worth noting the restaurants that changed concepts in 2020. We saw Mr. B's Gastropub in Royal Oak go from a large, pub-grub menu to a more focused chef-driven experience with its new moniker Alchemi. In Ann Arbor, chef Allie Lyttle transformed the Standard Bistro and Larder into Lala's, a more casual and eclectic concept. We also saw one of 2019's hot restaurants, Birmingham's Pernoi, morph into the more-relaxed Casa Pernoi over the summer. 

Some of my favorite meals in early 2020 were from new locations of old favorites, like the third outpost of Ima in the Cass Corridor and the second location of Jose's Tacos in Eastern Market. 

While I wasn't able to review many restaurants this year — I wrote five reviews in 2020 before the pandemic blasted in — I'd still like to tell you about some of my favorite new ones that opened over the past 12 months.

The majority of these were experienced as carryout only. While I may also consider a restaurant's atmosphere, service and various philosophies when creating a list like this, for 2020, I think it's fair to just judge the food. 

Here are my favorite new restaurants that opened in Metro Detroit this year, in no particular order. 

Olin Bar & Kitchen: This new downtown Detroit restaurant already had my attention when it debuted this fall with paella, bravas and a bevy of cheeses and oysters. Then they added a soft pretzel walk-up window where you could get salty, braided Bavarian treats with loads of dipping options — so fun. As the fall went on and dining rooms closed again, Twist, the pretzel walk-up window in Parker’s Alley became a hot spot for to-go cocktails downtown. Sometimes Twist offers the short rib burger from Olin’s main menu. The upscale bar burger that hits all the right notes — meaty and savory with creamy cheese and a warm, soft bun — is likely the best burger I had all year. The flavor-packed Parmesan fries stayed crispy and remarkable even in the carryout container, too. Open for carryout dinner Tues.-Sun. as well as brunch Sat.-Sun.; order online. 25 E. Grand River, Detroit. (313) 774-1190 or olindetroit.com.

Oak & Reel: This was easily one of the most anticipated restaurants of 2020, and it did not disappoint. Michelin-starred chef Jared Gadbaw and his team brought back to life a long-empty building in Milwaukee Junction where, when it first opened in September, he was serving a fixed-price chef's dinner. It showcased his deft for Italian seafood dishes like octopus with grilled polenta and succulent scallops, plus house-made pasta and a simple, but memorable, crostini dish with heirloom tomato, thinly shaved prosciutto and soft Italian cheese. I can see Oak & Reel joining places like Selden Standard and Lady of the House as hip, must-visit restaurants in the city. For now, Gadbaw's carryout offerings include provision boxes with ingredients and cooking instructions, plus holiday meals, pantry items, sauces and fresh-made pastas to cook at home; open for dinner Thurs.-Sun. 2821 E. Grand Blvd., Detroit. (313) 270-9600 or oakandreel.com.

Michigan & Trumbull: Pizza has been a comfort this year, and this is my favorite new pizzeria. Michigan & Trumbull debuted in January in Corktown, but the concept started in a Pittsburg food hall a few years ago. With crisp edges, loads of cheese and quality toppings, theirs is an fantastic example of Detroit-style pizza and I'm glad to see it being sold in the town for which it's named (sorry, Pittsburgh). I particularly love the McLovin, a white pizza with seasoned ground beef, onion, sesame seeds, iceberg lettuce and mozzarella and cheddar cheeses. I also recommend anything with their super-craveable vodka sauce, like the Long Drive Home with mozzarella, parmesan, sausage and banana peppers. The family-owned business supports local organizations with the monthly "good corner," donating a portion of sales from select items and some food to an area nonprofit. Open for curbside carryout and delivery for lunch and dinner Wed.-Sat. and dinner Sun. 1441 W. Elizabeth, Detroit. (313)-63-PIZZA or michigantrumbullpizza.com.

Bunny Bunny: Another restaurant with a focus on paying it forward, this new regional Chinese restaurant opened for carryout only over the summer. I loved what this chef team, Justin Tootla and Jennifer Jackson, did when they were at Ferndale's Voyager restaurant and everything I've had from Bunny Bunny has been just as exciting. The biang biang lamb noodles were rich in spice and flavor with cumin lamb and a stew of peppers, tomatoes and leeks with fresh cilantro on top of a bed of thick, slippery jumbo noodles. I'm far from a heat hound, but I really enjoy the peppery kick in these dishes. The menu is always changing, too, which makes things interesting. (Please bring back the bao buns!) Bunny Bunny has made it their mission to donate a portion of their profits to area groups like the Bear Hug Foundation for at-risk youths and the Association of Chinese Americans. Open for curbside carryout for lunch and dinner, Wed.-Sat. 1454 Gratiot, Detroit. (313) 974-6122 or bunnybunnydetroit.com.

Sloppy Chops: This new Detroit restaurant has big flavors, big portions and big plans. While I wish everything wasn't called "sloppy" — sloppy prime beef burger, sloppy steak bites, sloppy house salad — it's the taste the matters, and all of the above were items I'd go back for, especially the steak bites with peppers and onions, served a bed of golden, buttery rice. Expect more of the "Sloppy" brand in Detroit in 2021 when Sloppy Crab opens downtown on Jefferson. Open daily at 2 p.m. for call-in carryout. 13226 W. McNichols, Detroit. (313) 646-2900 or sloppychopsrestaurant.net.

EastEats: Billed as a "dining experience" EastEats is a cute cluster of plastic domes in an empty lo in the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood. The food (cooked in an on-site trailer) is mostly juicy small bites like tacos with Asian influence as far as the flavors go, plus sides like fried rice and miso soup. You pay an all-inclusive flat fee in advance when you reserve and each person gets to try five items (you can order more for extra fee). The servers come around in waves with wrapped items and you can say yes or no to each dish. This eliminates the process of ordering and paying the bill, which means fewer interactions with the friendly staff, which all wear masks, even outside. It's not cheap ($45 per person for five small items, including gratuity) but that's not stopping folks from selling it out in advance. This inventive, vegan-friendly and COVID-safe project will continue into 2021. Open select days for dinner and brunch. 1018 Navahoe, Detroit. easteats.us.

La Palapa Del Parian: One of my favorite newer restaurants in this area is colorful and friendly La Palapa Del Parian in Springwells Village. You may be familiar with their fleet of food trucks called El Parian. For their first sit-down restaurant they're serving a huge menu that's got something for everyone, from huevos rancheros and breakfast tacos to an entire menu of tortas, all served on sturdy bread with a touch of sweetness and with a side of salchipaps (a Latin American street food of French fries, hot dogs and sauces). Open for carryout for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. 1633 Lawndale, Detroit. (313) 749-7143 or facebook.com/LaPalapaDelParian.

Campestre Chicken: The charcoal-roasted rotisserie chicken is the star at this new downriver restaurant, was one of my favorite finds of the summer. The juicy, well-seasoned, smoky chicken that is marinated with Peruvian spices is served as whole, half or quarter chicken meals, or inside tacos, burritos and quesadillas. Open daily for carryout lunch and dinner. 3419 Fort, Lincoln Park. (313) 914-7522 or campestrelp.com.

More: Newly opened Latin restaurants to try in Metro Detroit

More: Adventures in pandemic carryout: Highlights from our restaurant critic

Cucina Lab Torino: It seems to me Troy doesn't need another restaurant or even another Italian restaurant, but chef and caterer Elisabetta Balzola does bring something special to her new open-kitchen dining room. She doesn't have a set menu, instead you choose from what she's cooking that day; although she can cater to dietary needs and preferences. While dining rooms are closed she does have a weekly carryout menu, and she asks for one to two  days notice when placing your order. I suggest the buttery, spongy focaccia and the pasta with ragu. The kiwi-sized arancini with a golden brown breading are fantastic, too. We ate every crumb. Open for carryout Tues.-Sat. 3960 Crooks, Suite 200, Troy. (248) 525-9098 or cucina-lab.com

More: Italian chef opens Cucina Lab Torino, an intimate kitchen in Troy 

Flavors of Jamaica: While feeling anchored at home, it was nice to have a taste of the Caribbean from this new Pontiac restaurant that was formerly a pop-up. Chef Reniel Billups pushed through opening in early April, when the pandemic was still new and we weren't sure how long we'd be staying at home. If you read my stories you know I'm already a fan of the macaroni and cheese here, but I also like a similar dish, the rasta pasta, with a peppery jerk sauce, peppers, onions, jerk chicken and cavatappi noodles with a portion so big you could eat it for three meals. Open for carryout lunch and dinner, Tues.-Sat. 406 N. Telegraph, Pontiac. (947) 999-0169 or flavorsofjamaicarestaurant.com

Honorable mentions: Ivy Kitchen & Cocktails in Detroit, Matt & Mo's Italian Beef in Hazel Park and Tov Bagels (Ashe Supply in Detroit and Ferndale Project in Ferndale). 

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mbaetens@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @melodybaetens