Though it is still mid-December, this will be the final Power Rankings of 2015, and, as required by media law, that means it’s time to ditch the usual format — a list of restaurants ranked according to who has the most buzz that week — and instead take a wide-angle look back at the year that was. It feels fitting, in a way, since it’s what most restaurant critics do this time of year anyway. These aren’t the best restaurants of the year; they aren’t even all new. Instead, the places listed below are the ones that made the biggest waves in 2015. (This is no small point, but they are also all restaurants where you will surely enjoy your meal, too.)
1. All of Union Square Hospitality Group’s Restaurants
Nobody had a better 2015 than Danny Meyer. He kicked off the year with Shake Shack’s blockbuster IPO, opened Porchlight, reopened Untitled with Michael Anthony, found a new home for the Union Square Cafe, then had the industry’s biggest story of the year when he announced he’d move to a no-tipping policy at all of his restaurants.
2. Superiority Burger
The year’s most welcome surprise was just how excellent Brooks Headley’s veggie-burger counter spot really is. If this is the future of fast-casual, we’re in.
3. Mission Chinese Food
Angela Dimayuga and Danny Bowien straight-up killed it with their bigger, better Mission Chinese revamp, which debuted during the final days of 2014. As Adam Platt wrote in his three-star review, the menu here “is full of surprises, and the more corners you explore, the more your appetite tends to increase.”
4. Santina and Sadelle’s
Grub prefers Santina’s coastal Italian vibes to Sadelle’s gonzo approach to appetizing, but the hype that accompanied both of Major Food Group’s big New York City openings this year was nevertheless unmatched. That this ever-growing restaurant group largely delivered on those expectations is even more surprising, especially since 2016 is shaping up to be just as packed for their empire.
5. Wildair and The Four Horsemen
By now it’s probably no secret that Wildair is Grub’s favorite new restaurant of the year, the kind of place that’s great for just about any night you want to go out. But the other big natural-wine bar to open this year, the Four Horsemen from James Murphy and Christina Topsøe, has plenty of its own fans. And, per our own Adam Platt, they’re each “pound for pound, some of the best new restaurants in the city.”
The Williamsburg tasting counter opened last October, but it’s already wound up on plenty of critics’ best-of-the-year lists because it’s truly grown into its own over the last 14 months. It had some of the year’s most positive reviews, and José Ramírez-Ruiz and Pam Yung even earned a Michelin star for their efforts.
7. Fuku and Fuku+
Give David Chang credit: He unleashed his duo of fried-chicken-sandwich spots just as the fast-food favorite captured the Zeitgeist of 2015, launching a million trend pieces in the process.
There was, perhaps, no more divisive restaurant than this 13th Street pizza place, where the seats are uncomfortable, the lights are too bright, and the creatively topped pizzas are pretty awesome. For better or worse, the place became the poster child for new-restaurant hype, and it can hopefully fulfill its early promise.
9. By Chloe
Timing is everything, and this vegan fast-casual corner spot from Chloe Coscarelli and Esquared Hospitality opened as the entire city collectively desired more affordable, wholesome, not-exactly-healthy food options. The line still never really dies down, and — fittingly — two more locations are already in the works.
10. Little Park
When Little Park first opened in November 2014, the concept sort of sounded like a snooze: A hotel farm-to-table spot with a partially hidden cocktail bar tucked away behind the lobby. It might all have gotten lost in the shuffle, but Andrew Carmellini and his team managed to turn this into their most exciting, comfortable restaurant yet. More than a year later, Grub is still thinking about the first few bites of the restaurant’s knockout duck entrée.
11. The Polo Bar
Love it or hate it — either opinion is justified, really — the big surprise of Ralph Lauren’s handsome club restaurant is that it’s a lot better than it actually needs to be. Really, the ground-level bar, if you can get through the front door, is one of the most charming new places in the whole city to get a cocktail and some fried olives.
12. Gabriel Kreuther
It was the grandest opening of the year, and it largely delivered on its promise of luxe surroundings and thoughtfully executed fine dining. (And as people have pointed out before: If you’re not up for the full experience, the more casual lounge area’s where it’s at.)
13. Leyenda, Grand Army, and Bar Goto
This trio of bars represents the apotheosis of new, casual drinking establishments in this fair city. All three, owned by established industry vets, quickly carved out a niche for themselves with thoughtful, carefully made cocktails and food that, by and large, rises above the usual bar snacks.
14. Babu Ji
Co-owners Jessi and Jennifer Singh may have been newcomers to the city’s restaurant scene, but their six-month-old Indian restaurant on Avenue B was easily the sleeper hit of the summer, generating big crowds of happy customers.
15. Noreetuh and Oiji
Basically across the street from each other, Noreetuh and Oiji share some thematic traits, too. They’re both casual spinoffs from fine-dining vets — the former is a modern Hawaiian spot from Per Se alumni; the latter is a Korean spot from people who did time at Bouley and Gramercy Tavern — and they both win you over with their attention to detail and their fun, crowd-pleasing menus.
16. Dirt Candy
Dirt Candy 2.0, which opened way back in February, was a forebearer of some big trends for 2015. First, there’s the meat-free menu that spoke to this very vegetable-heavy year, as well as the then-novel no-tipping service model.
The Bowery got another excellent restaurant, care of the Pearl & Ash team and a chef who previously cooked under Daniel Rose in Paris. Given that pairing, it’s no surprise that the place specializes in excellent wine and modern bistro food, the kind of combination that’s hard to get tired of.
18. UrbanSpace Vanderbilt
It was a big year for modern food halls, and few were bigger than this behemoth that opened in late summer. That’s due to both its prime location — midtown, where the lunchers are both plentiful and ravenous — and a killer food lineup that features spots like Roberta’s, No. 7 Veggie, and Delaney Chicken.
A late arriver in 2015, this casual new LES spot actually only opened last month, but its ambitious menu and pedigreed team bode well for it making a name for itself in the coming year, too.
Until last week, the line on Michael White’s latest UES spot is that it’s a pretty good, albeit expensive, spot that treads in classically French dishes. The Upper East Siders will love it, said lots of people, probably. Ah, but then Altamarea Group CEO Ahmass Fakahany released what you might call a … misguided … open letter to Times critic Pete Wells, a tried-and-true move that rarely ends well for the restaurant owned by the writer. Time will tell if that has any effect on the restaurant’s long-term prospects, but, for now, maybe just go and enjoy all of the truffles.