What OpenTable staffers’ go-to restaurants reveal about today’s dining scene

The pandemic fundamentally altered the way we view restaurants and their role in our ecosystem, including for members of OpenTable’s illustrious content team. That doesn’t mean the magic of eating out has dimmed in any way; in fact it has enhanced and expanded the experience.

For some of us who aren’t as comfortable eating indoors still, restaurants have created outdoor oases; for some of us that clamored to get into hotspots, local joints where we gather with neighbors have taken on greater meaning; and for others, restaurants still promise the thrill of the unknown, a transportive experience to places that can’t be as easily accessed during uncertain times.

Read on for where OpenTable’s content team is eating right now, and discover the restaurants that called to them most in the last two years.

The restaurants that grow with you

OpenTable blog editor Aarti Virani sitting with a friend at a restaurant

In my early 20s, my friends and I lived for nocturnal New York City meals: Dollar slices, clumsily devoured on the street; stoopside samosa chaat from the Punjabi Deli in the East Village; Mamoun’s foil-wrapped falafel sandwiches, perfect for smuggling into a cab. Those open-till-whenever restaurants represented a city that, like us, wasn’t big on rest. 

I’m 38 now. Home base is across the Hudson, where I live with my husband and precocious six-year-old son. A Friday evening means a standing happy hour with a clutch of neighbors at White Star, a laid-back burger joint conveniently nestled against our condo building in downtown Jersey City.

For about sixty precious minutes every week, we escape our toy-strewn homes and dizzying to-do lists. We trade loud laughs and parenting war stories. And even though the kitchen is open till 9 pm, these days, we’re usually home by six. — Aarti Virani, blog editor

The restaurants that teach you something new

Various plates of food designed polaroid style showcasing dishes from the Philadelphia restaurant Sor Ynez including guacamole, salsa and chips

The things I look for in a restaurant aren’t what they used to be. I’m no longer vying for any seat in a cramped, hyped-up restaurant. Count me among those who remain COVID-cautious, preferring a well-spaced table in front of a wide-open window or, even better, outside. 

When Sor Ynez opened in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood with a sprawling, comfortable, stylish patio, it was the answer to my pandemic prayers. (I hear the inside is even nicer, but I couldn’t tell you. I’ve never dined there.)

Chef Alexis Tellez, a DACA Dreamer who came to the U.S. from Nezahualcóyotl, Mexico when he was a kid, introduced me to sikil pak, a velvety dip made from pumpkin seeds, habanero, and tomato. When I ordered it, it had been more than a year since I tried a dish I had never tasted before.

During a time when I’ve lost so many things that once made me feel like myself, Sor Ynez is the place where I feel most in touch with my lifelong love of restaurants. For a few hours, I can relax and feel my world expand again. — Joy Manning, brand editor

The restaurants that connect you to a new place

OpenTable content marketing special Bronte Schmit and photos of sushi at Ebisu, a restaurant in San Francisco

Growing up in Los Angeles, I’ve always had a hankering for sushi. This spring, I started a new adventure in the Bay Area. In an effort to get to know our new home, my partner and I set a goal to try a new restaurant in a new neighborhood each date night. Finding a sushi joint was at the top of that list.

After reading a few too many “best sushi restaurants in SF” lists, I stumbled across Ebisu. It’s a 30-year-old, family-owned restaurant that still has lines out the door.  After the first bite of sake toro (salmon belly) nigiri—which the chef insisted I order—I knew I’d be a regular. Ebisu’s special rolls combine different fish and styles I haven’t seen elsewhere.

Best of all, the restaurant is always teeming with energy. Sitting at the counter, I’ve often found myself chatting with others, sharing menu recommendations. The food is exceptional, but the intimate vibe reminds me of my favorite sushi spot back home—and why I know I’ll always be back again soon. — Brontë Schmit, content marketing specialist

The restaurants that embrace you

Photos of a yellow chicken curry and brown doughnut like savory balls at the Palo Alto restaurant Ettan

When I walk up to the host stand at Ettan, a vibrant Indian fusion restaurant in downtown Palo Alto, I’m greeted with a huge smile and warm hello from the hostess. Before the pandemic, I hardly noticed if the waiter didn’t make eye contact or smile. Today, this human connection is top of mind when I choose a restaurant, and it’s what keeps me coming back to Ettan.

While the hospitality and ambiance are reason enough to bring me back, the food always hits the mark at Ettan as well. Indian cuisine can be tricky for me; my spice tolerance is non-existent. When my in-laws are visiting, it’s a delicate dance between my spice tolerance and their preference for the spiciest dish. Ettan has always made that decision easy, identifying a mix of dishes with the spices dialed down and others that up the ante.

Ettan is where I most look forward to bringing out-of-town guests. I know no matter their needs, they—and I—will be welcomed with open arms. — Courtney Damji, senior content marketing manager

The restaurants that bring magic back into your life

Photos of vanilla ice cream topped with small pieces of anchovy and pinkish slices of mortadella topped with red peppers at anchovy bar

I’d been stuck at home like everyone else. Eating every meal off of the same set of white porcelain plates day after day. Friends and coworkers waxed nostalgic about sitting in restaurants, and I nodded in agreement over video chat, but I was fine. I didn’t miss eating in a restaurant the way others did. I didn’t miss being on someone else’s timetable or overhearing chatter about start-ups or paying a lot for food often as not I could make better at home.

As more and more people got vaccinated; we came to a detente—sensical and scientific or not—with the virus. Then coworkers came to town for our first in-person meeting ever, so I made a reservation at The Anchovy Bar. We saw each others’ non-pixelated faces, made real-life eye contact, and ate tiny fish with glee.

Some of the plates were small rectangles and some were wooden boards and some were cast iron crocks. None were plain white porcelain. The variety of flavors and company and venue came together in that magic everyone else had known to miss all along. — Molly Watson, principal, content strategy

The restaurants that are an extension of home

A composite image of three polaroid-style photos with Opentable brand strategist Marion Brewer eating food up top and two images of food below.

 

In my past life living in NYC and working in the food industry, I loved the thrill of trying the newest spot and experiencing a different combination of flavors, or a regional dish from a country I’ve never been to. But when it came to returning to a restaurant, a handful of small neighborhood gems were my favorites.

I was always in the mood to sit in the backyard of Carroll Gardens’ Frankies 457 Spuntino with a bowl of cavatelli and hot sausage; to drink vermouth and eat panisse at King in the West Village; to walk downstairs from my old apartment to Fort Defiance for my favorite martini and roast chicken. These places felt like home. 

Key word: past life. Brooklyn is not my home anymore, which is a strange sentence to type. A temporary pandemic move became a permanent relocation to Asbury Park, NJ, and while I still haven’t unpacked all of my boxes, I’m happy to report I’ve found my go-to restaurant.

Grand Tavern has a warm room with a homey, horseshoe bar in the middle, well-made cocktails, and a small, constantly-changing menu that always has a terrific burger with a seasonal flourish and some sort of local fish—an exciting discovery near my new home that reminds me of my favorite parts of the old one, and why I love going to restaurants. — Marion Brewer, content strategist

The restaurants that transport you

OpenTable content marketing manager Tanay Warerkar along with dishes at San Francisco Sardinian restaurant La Ciccia: a spicy octopus stew that's ready and a chocolate panna cotta

In the depths of the pandemic last year, when traveling seemed like an imaginary future, my husband and I found ourselves sitting in the charming, rustic backyard of San Francisco Sardinian restaurant, La Ciccia. Like most SF nights, there was a chill in the air, so my husband and I huddled close at our two-seat, perforated metal table, trying to soak in as much warmth from the space heater as possible. 

Then, the spicy octopus stew arrived. It was a jolt to the senses: the soothing, savory tomato sauce was an antidote to the cold; the octopus was tender, but retained some bite, a pleasing contrast to the smoothness of the stew. I imagined my husband and I sitting on a beach together, looking out onto the Mediterranean Sea.

That first bite of the stew at La Ciccia reminded me of the magic restaurants create everyday. They have the ability to transport you to places you never dreamed you’d be sitting in, a necessary escape especially when times feel hard. This is the kind of place you want to keep returning to, especially when a lot else feels impossible. — Tanay Warerkar, content marketing manager

The restaurants that are there when you need them

OpenTable senior content marketing manager Stefanie Tuder seen eating at NYC restaurant Han Dynasty along with a photo of pickled chili fish and cumin fries

Pre-pandemic me is not post-pandemic me—is it for anyone? As a former editor at Eater NY, I used to joyfully dine out at a new restaurant nearly every night. Suffice it to say, that’s not the case these days.

I’ve lost the desire to troll the reservation systems and vie for the hottest restaurants around. I still love a night out at the hot new spot when it works out, but what I want now is a place I can walk into or reserve the day before and not be boxed out. Somewhere I don’t feel the need to rush or look around the room to see who else is there. A table where I can connect with my dining partner and the staff. And bonus points if that place is within walking distance of my Upper West Side apartment.

Which leads me to Han Dynasty. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve ordered the wildly flavorful Sichuan delivery or sat in the grand, cavernous dining room. I think about the dry pepper chicken when I’m not eating it. But every time I want it, it’s there for me, and everyone I bring is happy, and that is what I look for these days. — Stefanie Tuder, senior content marketing manager

The restaurants that add meaning to a place

OpenTable content director Francesca Burke smiling at the camera.

After nearly 10 years of life in the Bay Area, my husband and I took a COVID leap and made the move back east during the summer of 2021. But it wasn’t until we found our new home at Brine in Newburyport that we were sure we could do it.

Nestled into a refurbished soda fountain on the main street of our New England coastal town, Brine had the makings of a local watering hole—dollar oysters, the best damn burger around, and a savvy wine list. Deep in the stress of a cross-country move, it wasn’t the Sancerre or the local haddock that convinced us we were making the right choice—it was just the vibe.

We still go back to Brine about once a week, now with our nearly three-year-old who will happily scarf pasta while watching an episode of Daniel Tiger to give her parents a break.

I certainly hope that the restaurant hangs in for the next generation, becoming a classic beat in the cadence of Newburyport life. But for now, in the ever-changing present where so little has seemed fixed for so long, we step inside and know it’s where we’re meant to be. — Francesca Burke, senior director of content

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