We eat for a living, but what were the best things we ate this year?

This time last year, we were prevented from having Xmas with our families, there was an air of uncertainty about a possible January lockdown, we were annoyed with the Tories for breaking all their own rules, and the restaurant industry was on its arse. Erm.

Last year we didn't do a "best dishes of the year" article because we'd had barely a chance to eat in any restaurants all year - cook at home boxes had been the saviour for many restaurants (and us). This year we have done our best to make up for that by eating out as much as we have been able to.

Here are the Confidentials editorial team's favourite things we ate in 2021.

Lamb At The French Restaurant One Of Kelly Bishops Dishes Of The Year In Manchester
Lamb, that's good - at Adam Reid's The French restaurant in Manchester Image: Confidentials

It doesn't matter so much where, but who.

In a year that began locked down and mournful, I want to give honourable mentions to some takeaways that brought greedy joy to my heart in the bleak months. Nell’s, Yara and Sam’s Chop House delivered some beautiful meals while my wine rack was packed by the likes of Grape To Grain, Cork of the North and Knoff. I also really appreciated the Eat Well marketplace. Back in April, new openings like Ramona and Society made it feel like Manchester was coming alive again. But it was May onwards when we really started to ramp up the eating. 

Repeat visits to my longtime favourites Erst and Tast confirmed they’re both still marriage material. My two favourite new restaurants of the year were The Embassy and The Sparrows in which I enjoyed long overdue catch-ups with friends over dishes like seafood rice as black as my teenage goth heart and dainty dumplings full of butter and love. I also had an amazing birthday dinner at The French (pictured) where the whole menu worked so beautifully as a whole that it would be impossible to brandish any one dish above the others - props to chef Luis Balboa Coñoen for going above and beyond to make two sugar-free desserts for my diabetic partner. 

I was also one of the lucky few who got to try Terry Huang’s Omakase menu at Umezushi (twice!) and both times it was an absolute dream come true filled with familiar flavours and ingredients you would struggle to find elsewhere in Manchester like aged sea bass, nattō and sea urchin. Creamy stracciatella cheese with heritage tomato, grassy olive oil and fresh wood-fired pita was impressive at Ramona’s Firehouse. A pickled herring sarnie at Platzki made me effervesce with delight and fresh seafood by the bucketload at Easy Fish Heaton Moor was an easy win to impress my ma. Iberico pork with clams and rice at Baratxuri at Freight Island had me and a pal stunned into silence (remarkable in both our cases) and salt cod at Cibus was a  standout dish I shared with Gordo that shut him up for once. Mary-Ellen’s Xmas menu at The Creameries will stay with me for a long time and some humble Jerusalem artichokes at Elnecot reminded me what a destination dining spot it really is. Further afield, I was privileged to enjoy breathtaking meals at Rogan and Co and Heft in Cumbria.

There’s no single best dish here, they’re all winners in different ways but the best thing about dining out this year for me was spending time with my family, my partner and my friends. A great meal is not just about what and where but who. 

I know, it's a cop-out but I've made everyone else pick one. Kelly Bishop, Editor @keliseating

Go to our new restaurant directory Confidential Guides to choose your next restaurant to visit and choose the people you visit with wisely.

Mussels From Benvenuto For Best Dish Of The Year 2021
These suckers have firmly musseled their way into my 2021 highlights reel Image: Confidentials

Cozze Crema, Benvenuto 

Considering I only moved back to Manchester in July after four years living in bonnie Scotland, all I seem to have done for those five glorious months is stuff my face with incredible nosh and consume way too many tequila-based tipples. I’m not complaining though, as scrolling through a camera roll full of breakfast flat-lays and cheese-pull slow-mo videos is an incredible way to kill some time on the train into work every morning.

Anyway, after much deliberation, and a toss-up between a local hole-in-the-wall Italian spot and the uber-fancy Tast on King Street, I have decided that my dish of the year for 2021 was the super simple Cozze Crema from Benvenuto. A cosy, unassuming spot with no airs and graces, and a giant picture of the Sicilian village where the owners were born donning the walls, this little Italian gem knocked my socks off with authentic flavours and fresh ingredients. An honourable mention does have to go to Tast’s cod fritters with honey and lemon foam though.

The Cozze Crema is simply mussels cooked in a cream and white wine sauce, with far from subtle hints of garlic, shallots, and parsley. Although this may seem like a basic staple in most European restaurants, the sauce on these steaming shellfish was particularly memorable due to its thick, slurpable texture and buttery smoothness – it was begging to be mopped up by a hunk of hand-torn porous bread. The kind of dish you don’t mind getting all over your hands, sleeves, and the surrounding tablecloth, this slice of seafood bliss will be used as a marker for all other mussels I consume going forward.

Some other fab things that I devoured from July to December include a hefty Batard focaccia sarnie filled with roasted porchetta, cavolo nero, and sourdough stuffing, a sticky-sweet wad of croissant loaf French toast with poached pears from Trove, and a particularly spicy tantan ramen from Tokyo Ramen with koji fried chicken, seasoned eggs, and lime. If I had to choose one thing to wash all this down with again and again, it’d have to be Cocktail Beer Ramen + Bun’s #6 signature serve with tequila, charred corn husk syrup and lemon champagne acid, although I’d probably be constantly wasted if I drank this with every meal. Ellie-Jo Johnstone @elliejoj

Benvenuto Ristorante, 96 Mill Lane, Denton, Manchester M34 7RU

A Scallop Dish From The New Menu At The Bull And Bear Manchester
Gordo's dish of the year was a scallop at Bull & Bear Image: Confidentials

Roasted hand-dived Orkney scallop with pickled Crown Prince pumpkin and smoked butter sauce, The Bull & Bear 

Stating the obvious, it’s been a weirdly crap year or at least half of it in the restaurant industry. We’ve only been dining out for a handful of months, and it takes time for even the best gaffs to open well after 18 months of opening and shutting. Yes, they have protected the NHS, but at a terrible cost to themselves.

So we could be forgiven for expecting a poor crop of meals whilst the industry finds its bearings trying to reopen for the umpteenth time. I’ve eaten several dinners at Michelin starred restaurants along with numerous just-as-worthy places not on Michelins rather myopic coverage. What they have shown me is the amazing resilience the industry has.

Kevin Tickle has opened Heft, (lovely experience, but oh my… his cheese and onion pasties!), the team at Erst are on fire (as is the rest of Ancoats, the coolest place in the UK for food and booze) with Mana holding its own with a well-regarded star.

The footballers have finally found a great partnership with Tom Kerridge and his team in the Bull and Bear restaurant. A young chef with oodles of talent and a front of house operating like top surgeons wear impressively huge smiles.

I really do believe that Manchester has completed the hard yards over the past couple of years and is about to consolidate, along with the rest of the region, as one of the world’s top foodie destinations.

Oh yes, Editor, what was your question? My favourite dish? The scallop at The Bull and Bear. What a fabulous dish, delivered with the assuredness of a forty-five-year-old industry Michelin trouper. The reality is that Chef Connor Black is a 25-year-old with a palette as refined as Emma Raducanu’s return. It’s a dish that balances like a goat on a sharp rock 11,000 feet up in the Alps. It’s as fresh as the air whistling around its willy, with a personality more assured than that handsome goat’s beard. Measured on the Gordo scale of how-many-times-does-a-dish-spring-goat-like-to-mind, this one beats the lot. 

Chef Black is my tip for the future; he’s a natural successor to Rogan, smiles more than my pal Mark Birchall and is as innovative as Lord Dyson. But with Scallops.

The Bull & Bear 4 Norfolk St, Manchester M2 1DW

Guinea Hen From The Barn At Moor Hall Best Dish 2021
A year of great meals kicked off with Guinea hen from The Barn at Moor Hall Image: Confidentials

Guinea hen with confit leg, celeriac puree, pickled leeks and morels, The Barn at Moor Hall 

This year it would be hard to beat my first meal “out” - a gorgeous lunch on the terrace at The Barn at Moor Hall - for my most memorable dish. Though the food was indeed wonderful, the pure emotion of being allowed back in a restaurant was even more affecting. After months of restrictions, the breath of spring air across tables laid with proper napkins and heavy cutlery, with wine glasses sparkling in the sun was the kind of tear-jerking moment that would give Strictly a run for its money. Beef tartare, mushroom ragout and honey parfait were all sublime but my standout dish was the Guinea hen; perfectly cooked tender fowl, with a cool creamy swish of celeriac puree and a sharp blast of pickled leek for contrast. Paired with immaculate staff and jolly company, my re-entry into the world of dining could not have been better.

Despite everything, 2021 was destined to be a year of great meals for me, with all four seasons happily represented, even if I did have to fit them all into the latter six months or so. A boozy wine-matched birthday treat at A Perfect Match in Sale was a spring highlight, while a thrill ride of esoteric tasting dishes - including the infamous Norwegian brown cheese - at OSMA Kitchen and Bar gave midsummer's eve an appropriately pagan vibe. The Moor in Heaton Moor was my gateway drug into autumn with the most perfect venison while The Black Friar was winter on a plate (and glass) with a pudding sent from heaven. Maybe 2021 has been pretty rubbish, but the food, not so bad at all. Lucy Tomlinson @hotcupoftea

The Barn at Moor Hall, Prescot Road, Aughton, L39 6RT

Bacon Sandwich From 3 Hands Deli Deansgate Mews
Far from your basic bacon butty Image: Confidentials

Bacon sandwich, 3 Hands Deli 

I won’t go on about how much my life has changed this year. You don’t care that I’ve gone from working for a large corporate company to becoming one of the small editorial team at Manchester Confidential. I don’t mean to brag but I’ve gained a suitably (un)impressive 50 new Instagram followers since the big move - largely down to my new foodie lifestyle. Thanks to which I’ve also gained a couple of chins, but that sort of thing can’t be helped. During this time I’ve gushed over a wild black big pork chop from A Tavola in New Mills, fallen in love with a fish (specifically a scantily-clad turbot from Baratxuri at Escape to Freight Island) and lamented over a big bowl of smoky beef goulash from The Spärrows.

How pleased I was to be appointed the title of Chief Oyster Taster in September with my search taking me all over the city from San Carlo on King Street West to Street Urchin in Ancoats, from Erst to Three Little Words and back again. Now I can think of few things better than a sweet Carlingford oyster after work and no, I haven’t changed, you have.

Despite slurping up molluscs at every opportunity and taking my tastebuds on a Mediterranean cruise whenever I leave the house, there is only one place I have been drawn back to week after week. So much so that my “best dish” is really more of a “favourite place to eat” because the offering at 3 Hands Deli up off the beaten track on Deansgate Mews changes regularly. Whether it’s a Sicilian apple cake made with Red Moon apples with flesh such a shade of crimson that they appear to bleed when you take a bite, or frangipane tart made with feijoa fruit native to New Zealand but grown down in Cornwall near to the Eden Project. 

I learn something new every time I step foot in the tiny space that’s shared with Holy Grain sourdough bakery. A match made in fermented dough heaven, because the only thing better than cake made with vampire apples is a sandwich built on this bread. Ham, cheese and lamb carpaccio are options more than adequate, but my humbly favourite filling is precisely six rashers of Trealy Farm Charcuterie bacon with lashings of Fruits of the Forage Damson Breakfast Sauce. Not too sweet but perfectly tangy with salty hog and smoked butter that takes this basic bacon butty to new levels of porcine perfection. Sophie Rahnema @sophieshahla

3 Hands Deli 255 Deansgate, Manchester M3 4EN

A Chilli Parfait From The Things Palace Mackie Mayor Supper Club In Manchester Made By Chef Lorcan Kan
Chill parfait at Mackie Mayor was Davey's dish of the year Image: Confidentials

Chilli oil parfait, Things Palace x Mackie Mayor 

I’ve been lucky enough to eat some incredible food this year for which I’m very grateful. Having spent most of the previous year ordering Deliveroo from the holy trio of Rudy’s, Sugo and Blue Panda and eating it wearing pyjamas, walking into Dishoom on "Big Monday" and wolfing down a sausage and egg naan in roughly five bites and four dips of chilli jam, incense in the air and yolk streaming down my wrist, was a fitting return to eating out.

3 Hands Deli deserves a special shout-out. Its lunch deal (£5.50), soup of the day and a sourdough cheese toastie, is the best of its kind in the city. I’m excited to revisit Gladstone Barber & Bistro in the new year for dinner too. The lunch menu and atmosphere there caught me completely off guard and there’s so much ambition and excitement bursting out of the place. It’s all coming from a place of serious warmth, the wholesomeness of a grandparent’s kitchen with the creative eye of a painter.

When it comes down to the single best thing I ate all year, it has to be the bonkers chilli oil parfait at the Things Palace x Mackie Mayor pop-up. Simple yet complex, challenging yet comforting, sweet, creamy but with a warming spice. I can vividly remember the atmosphere of shared apprehension, the first bite and then smiles washing over the room as if a switch had been flicked. An epiphany in dessert form. Davey Brett @dbretteats

Things Palace x Mackie Mayor, 1 Eagle Street, Manchester M4 5BU

Mullet Bouiallbaisse At The Moorcock In Norland
Mullet boullaibaisse got Neil's legs a-quaking Image: Confidentials

Grey Mullet Bouillabaisse – Moorcock at Norland 

Empathy has been in short supply of late. It’s a given that it’s not decking the halls of Downing Street. Snouts in the trough rather than pigs in blankets, with cheese and wine to follow, is a festive menu that’s hard to swallow. And Hospitality? Begging for a few crumbs. Again. It’s a relief, then, to reflect on the joy it has given us against the odds in those moments when you could almost believe in the PM’s promised "sunlit uplands".

You don’t get much more upland than the Moorcock at Norland, high above Sowerby Bridge. Sunlit it wasn’t on my last visit. Reight siling it down instead as we trudged across the moors. Worse was to come a month later when Storm Arwen uprooted the heavyweight grill central to chef Alisdair Brooke-Taylor’s culinary ethos. A subsequent 36-hour power cut meant stalwarts huddling over candles and log-burners, yet the food offering miraculously still shone.

Touchstone, yardstick, benchmark, call it what you will, but the Moorcock menu continues to surprise. Like other forward-thinking establishments, it de-emphasises meat and any fish is mega-sustainable. On our sodden visit we loved a mackerel tartare with preserved chestnuts and radish, a combo I’ve never encountered before, but it was bettered by my favourite dish of the year, starring the under-rated grey mullet. Chunks of the line-caught fish were cooked en papillote with fennel and preserved lemon, both of which scented it marvellously. Loosely dubbed a "bouillabaisse", it was a far remove from the Provencal stereotype and cost a hefty £18, but it resonates even now.

Let it not be thought, though, that I banished the pleasures of the flesh from my irregular 2021 restaurant visits. At Baratxuri, Manchester Food and Drink Awards Restaurant of the Year, who could resist the Galician Xuleton, giant bone-in rib steaks from 10-year-old Capricion de Oro oxen dry-aged for a minimum of 45 days and then seared in the asador? 

It was splendid at their Escape to Freight Island outlet but exceptional when we ordered it at the Ramsbottom original, eating al fresco because of Covid rules. There was a raft of on the day prices, dependent on weight from £51 to £80. We asked for the £60 for three of us. We were just charged the £51 for a serving that was ample. It arrived simply with padron peppers and dressed tomatoes.

The menu description uses the word malty. Not a word I’ve used about steak, but now I’m a convert. The dish was stupendous. Well rested, the charred beef had a slight chew to it but was intense in flavour, the salt enhancing this rather than distracting.

Featherblade is a different beast altogether, a slow-cooked constant on the Kala menu. For once I eschewed if for a newcomer on the £42 three courser. The whole guinea fowl came with a £16 supplement but would easily have fed two. Our bird, encrusted with fennel and caraway seed, the moist apricot stuffing lubricating the legs, came boned and ready to slice, a pool of pickled pear puree a neat enhancement for its succulent interior.

Finally on the bargain £27 for three courses menu at the Freemasons at Wiswell in the Ribble Valley there was a starter of wild boar Bolognese, hand-rolled beetroot rigatoni, pickled walnuts, aged parmesan. A triumph of affordable ingredients treated ingeniously. Neil Sowerby @antonegomanc

Moorcock Inn Moor Bottom Lane, Norland, Sowerby Bridge HX6 3RP. 

Potato Gateau At Vero Moderna In Salford
Potato cakes and gorgonzola in Salford, magical Image: Confidentials

Potato Gateau, Vero Moderna

So it could be the plaice outside Albert’s Schloss during that twitch of freedom after the blanket bans of these Covid years. It could be the plaice again at Kala when we were allowed to dine inside. Thyme and a plaice you might say. It certainly might be the pierogi at Platzki, so daintily packaged, pretty as a picture, delivering a variety of flavour and texture. If I could choose the world to write about it would be a seafood platter the size of a whale and with a price to match enjoyed with my son in Botafumiero in Barcelona. It's generally been a fishy year so right up there in my favourites of 2021 must be the Royal Sea Bream at Hawksmoor

But for me, the winner was Mr Potato Head. I was wandering around on my bicycle through that entertaining part of the city that is Chapel Street, Salford. Feeling noshy I popped into one of my favourite places over the Irwell featuring one of the most entertaining city restaurateurs, Bepe of Vero Moderna. There was a special on of potato gateau. Yep, a potato cake in English. It was a revelation, yet so simple and so familiar and comforting too, chunky as hell. Baked spud, pancetta, salami, bonded with egg white and spiced with a gorgonzola sauce. It helped fill the belly and it helped lift the mood and it's something we could all cook at home very easily. It’s great when you’re blindsided by a dish. The delight is in the pleasant surprise; it always is, whatever the circumstance, that's a universal truth good food, artfully crafted, delivers time and again. Jonathan Schofield @jonathschofield

Vero Moderna, Chapel Street, Salford, Manchester M3 5JF. 

Read next: The most talked about new Manchester restaurants and bars of 2021

Read again: Auld Lang Dine: where to eat in Manchester on New Year’s Eve

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