CNY’s best restaurants in 2020: Our critics pick their favorites

No one will argue that 2020 left a lot to be desired. But we still had to eat. So let’s give a huge thanks to all the Central New York restaurants that kept us fed and kept us happy.

We (Jared Paventi, Jane Woodman and Charlie Miller) visited well over 75 restaurants this year that had no choice but to adjust how how they served their fine food to us. The dining rooms were restricted to half of their occupancy. These trained chefs suddenly had to plate their creations into Styrofoam. And yet they did it, and they did it well.

Here are some of our favorites from the year:

Beer Belly Deli & Pub

Address: 510 Westcott St., Syracuse

Phone: (315) 299-7533

From Jared Paventi: We visited the Beer Belly Deli & Pub on Westcott Street just before Syracuse was placed in the orange zone this fall, where we feasted on beer-brined French fries, beer-infused mustard, beer-braised meat and, of course, beer.

The cozy little gastropub on Westcott Street offered us one of the best burgers we ate this year, made from its house chuck-brisket blend and then smashed on the flat-top grill.

Our November visit was spent in the outdoor courtyard on an unseasonably warm evening, which helped push it into our top five visits of 2020.

BulBul Middle Eastern Cuisine

Address: 7421 Oswego Rd., Liverpool

Phone: (315) 430-4786

From Jared Paventi: There were so many boxes full of food in our order from BulBul Middle Eastern Cuisine in Liverpool that we thought someone else’s order was mixed in with ours.

Copious portions of spit-roasted chicken in the gyro family meal for four could have easily fed six. The falafel, hummus and grape leaves all exceeded expectations for freshness and flavor, but it was the kubeh that delighted most. Seasoned beef and onions were battered in bulgur wheat coating and fried. Flavors of cinnamon, allspice and sumac warmed from within and left us wanted more.

Kitty Hoyne’s Irish Pub

Address: 301 W. Fayette St., Syracuse

Phone: (315) 424-1974

From Jared Paventi: I had only one place in mind when in-person dining restrictions were lifted in June. I wanted a restaurant where the tables, not the spirit or atmosphere, was sterile and COVID-19 did little to dampen the craic at Kitty Hoyne’s.

It was our first restaurant visit since the springtime lockdown and our first look at socially-distanced restaurant dining. The weirdness being back quickly dissipated by the familiar flavors of Reuben fritters, Irish poutine and shepherd’s pie.

The trip also gave us an early look at what restaurant dining would look like for the near future.

Saint Urban Wine Bar and Restaurant

Address: 124 Dell St., Syracuse

Phone: (315) 243-8509

From Jared Paventi: What we loved about dining in person at Saint Urban Wine Bar and Restaurant in Syracuse was the precision.

Everything, from the service, to the placement of elements on the plate, was deliberate and intentional. This extended to takeout in 2020. Chef-owner Jared Stafford-Hill put together weekly three-course meals to reheat at home with explicit preparation and plating instructions, doing every last thing he could to ensure the final product once it left his control.

It offered us an inside out look at the chef’s intent and made us long for the days of dinner inside Stafford-Hill’s little dining room off Westcott Street.

Social-From A Distance

Details: Follow @sarahthassler on Instagram to learn about future dinners when they are announced.

From Jared Paventi: In terms of overall experience, I have to choose the night where I reheated everything in my microwave. Social-From A Distance was the first of Syracuse chef and consultant Sarah Hassler’s Dining Inside Out dinners, which in April and occur every three to four weeks.

The theme changes for each dinner, but the process is the same: Register and pay per person online, pickup or take delivery of your box of ingredients, and tune into the live Zoom meeting where Hassler and guest chefs talk you through the preparation of each course.

She has incorporated social elements where friends in other areas can come and dine together in private breakout rooms.

The Foggy Goggle

Address: 1135 Toggenburg Road, Fabius

Phone: (315) 683-5842

From Jane Woodman: The most fun we had at a restaurant this year was certainly at The Foggy Goggle, way back in February. Watching nighttime skiers descend the hill under floodlights was interesting, but the restaurant added to the fun with constantly changing dinner options, unusually friendly service, and make-your-own s’mores for dessert.

We enjoyed everything from a not-as-weird-as-it-sounded pickle chowder and a take on Utica greens that swapped in Brussels sprouts to beautifully handled riggies, a wonderful and under-priced cioppino, and an excellent steak. The food was creative and so good we could imagine virtually any of our choices replated and offered in a fine dining venue.

Grotto Restaurant

Address: 101 S. Main St., North Syracuse

Phone: (315) 214-8911

From Jane Woodman: Another place we were lucky to find before things changed was Grotto, a cozy place that had such a following already that we should have found it earlier. Friendliness characterized this restaurant as well, but it was the food that places Grotto near the top of our wishlist for a return when we can safely dine in again.

From the surprisingly inexpensive and very interesting Cigar Old Vines Zinfandel to the finish of fruit pie and deep chocolate brownie, the restaurant hit a long series of high notes. Our crab-stuffed shrimp starter crowned a set of excellent beginnings, with crab also enhancing a starter version of risotto. Our mains were even better, including one of the best, cleanest-tasting chicken parmesans we’d ever had.

There was really nothing at Grotto we wouldn’t want to eat again, though if we had to choose a single dish, it would be the delectable short ribs, with their cheesy mashed potatoes and sweet roasted vegetables. Wonderful!

Moro’s Kitchen
Dining In: Moro's Kitchen

Even after the long ride home, baked oysters from Moro’s Kitchen were warm, and their flavor was delightfully complex. (Jane Marmaduke Woodman)Jane Marmaduke Woodman

Address: 8 Jordan Street, Skaneateles

Phone: (315) 685-6116

From Jane Woodman: We’d reviewed Moro’s Kitchen in the past, but this year, we wanted to see how well they would meet the challenges of translating excellence to takeout. They did a remarkable job, using a family-style menu of a broad range of choices.

We enjoyed everything we ordered from Moro’s, but the most impressive dishes were an oyster starter and a duck breast main. The oysters were so well packaged that they got home still a bit warm and delicious. We requested two different degrees of doneness for our shared duck with strawberry gastrique. The duck servings came home packaged separately and clearly labeled for doneness as well as extraordinarily flavorful.

The Horned Dorset

Address: 2000 Route 8, Leonardsville

Phone: (315) 855-7898

From Jane Woodman: If we had to choose a single winner for the year, Horned Dorset would be an easy choice. The delivery service from Leonardsville (60 miles from home) to various CNY drop-off locations is one of the silver linings of this pandemic. Horned Dorset did things a little differently, delivering freshly prepared food chilled, with simple instructions for finishing each dish. The result was fine dining at home so good that we’ve ordered from them five times.

On the reviewed occasion, we were delighted by the best gazpacho we’d ever tasted, pan-roasted scallops, a creamy polenta with savory tomato sauce, and a memorably delicious berry Charlotte. On none of the five occasions were we disappointed with anything from the Horned Dorset at Home menu.

Though the restaurant will shut down for winter after Christmas week, as usual, we were happy to learn that, when they start again, it will be WITH the delivery service that has made enjoying their offerings without the long drive possible.

Eva’s European Sweets
Hidden Gems of CNY: Eva's (outdoors)

Placki Hungarian Style: potato pancakes topped with a lightly spicy ground beef-tomato sauce made with peppers and onions topped with sour cream at Eva’s European Sweets in Solvay.Charlie Miller | [email protected]

Address: 1305 Milton Ave., Solvay

Phone: (315) 487-2722

From Charlie Miller: I visited Eva’s just to check out the outdoor eating area built mainly out of wood pallets during the restaurant shutdown. We ended up staying for dinner, and that was a good thing.

We started with mushroom croquettes because Ewa Zaczynski, the restaurant’s owner, said that’s what she would eat. These are two breaded crêpes stuffed with sautéed mushrooms and onions. They’re folded and pan-fried. Ewa tops them with a mushroom cream sauce.

Then she brought us Hungarian-style potato pancakes. Then a bowl of Hunter’s stew. Then some braised pork. Then a pick-your-own pierogi platter. In all, we plowed through five entrees, some unique cocktails that weren’t even on the menu.

San Miguel Mexican Bar & Grill
Taco Tour: San Miguel

Tacos de Pescado (fish tacos) from San Miguel on North State Street in Syracuse.Charlie Miller | [email protected]

Address: 2 Oswego St., Baldwinsville, below Sammy Malone’s bar/restaurant

Phone: (315) 303-4032

From Charlie Miller: This restaurant became so popular in its first five years that it ended up closing its Syracuse location and moving to a larger building in Baldwinsville.

I stumbled upon this place while following Central New York’s self-proclaimed taco expert around to his eight favorite places. When we visited in October, customers-to-be formed a line around the building into the street just to get a seat. The food was worth the wait.

Everything owner Kelly O’Connor Metrick serves at San Miguel is made in-house, right down to the chips and salsa to the syrups used for cocktails. (Speaking of cocktails, you MUST try the sangria.)

The fish tacos are different than most you’ll find in Syracuse. These were tilapia, and they weren’t deep-fried. They were so good that I’ve had them twice since the taco tour.


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Charlie Miller finds the best in food, drink and fun across Central New York. Contact him at 315-382-1984, or by email at [email protected]. You can also find him on Twitter @HoosierCuse.