Restaurant Reviews

Here's How We Chose the Top 100 Dallas Restaurants During a Pandemic

A perfect double cheeseburger from Sky Rocket Burger
A perfect double cheeseburger from Sky Rocket Burger Brian Reinhart
Twelve months ago, the Dallas restaurant scene was riding high on a wave of national recognition, including being named the “Restaurant City of the Year” in Bon Appétit. Our chefs were starring in splashy magazine profiles and raising funds for exciting new openings. Diners were falling in love with bold new dishes and enjoying great new neighborhood spots.

It all feels so long ago now.

The year 2020 left the entire national service industry struggling in survival mode as coronavirus shut down dining rooms and state and national politicians failed to provide needed small business assistance. A two-month loan program made the tiniest of dents in the yearlong pandemic, and Texas’ rainy-day savings stayed locked away for a somehow even rainier day.

Around this time last year, we published our annual Top 100 Dallas Restaurants feature. Since then, 12 of those 100 restaurants have closed either temporarily or permanently. The other 88 are struggling to stay alive.

We’re presenting our fully updated Top 100 list for 2021 in the spirit of helping all of these institutions outlast our current political crisis of inaction and the medical crisis that started it.

The purpose of creating a Top 100 is not to punish the restaurants that fail to make the list or to generate controversy about who’s better or worse, which is why our list is not ranked. (It is alphabetical.)

Instead, this is a celebration of the foods we love and the people who make them. It’s a tribute to the many small businesses that make Dallas a better place to eat and live. And it is a plea to support locally owned, independent restaurants as politicians do little to help them.

So let’s show our love for a huge, diverse spread of the city’s best food. And, until the world is safe again, let’s enjoy all of them through takeout; every restaurant listed here is currently serving food to go, through delivery or takeout.

It is my fervent hope that all of these businesses will still be around for next year’s list, and that we will still be around to eat their food.

How Are the Top 100 Chosen?

I visit every restaurant anonymously and pay with the Observer’s money or my own. In 2020, I made more than 140 visits to Dallas-area restaurants to compile this list, including more than 90 takeout meals after the pandemic began. Restaurants are qualified for this list based solely on my dining experiences. The criteria are deliciousness, service, atmosphere, distinctiveness (whether or not a similar experience can be had elsewhere), value for money and safety efforts made to protect both employees and customers.

I made a deliberate effort to reflect the full culinary diversity of our city, ranging from prestigious fine-dining temples to gas station momo counters. This included mapping the Top 100 to focus on geographic diversity, too.

click to enlarge Gimbap takeout from Damasita - ALISON MCLEAN
Gimbap takeout from Damasita
Alison McLean
This Top 100 list only includes restaurants that offer takeout or delivery options of cooked meals. If a restaurant is temporarily closed because of the pandemic, if it is temporarily following a different business model under a different name, if it’s only selling meal kits or if it allows in-person dining but doesn’t do takeout, I crossed it off the list.

A number of Dallas’ best restaurants fall under those categories and were removed. We’ll be back to visit those spots again when it’s safe later in 2021, and we dearly hope to include them again on next year’s list.

The Top 100 was not influenced by publicity materials, freebies or other publications’ reviews. No genre, cuisine or price point was given preferential treatment. Because of the nature of takeout and the ease of providing fake names over the phone, no restaurants attempted to influence the author with special treatment this year.

What Are the Rules?

The Top 100 restaurants are presented alphabetically, not in ranked order. Keep scrolling, because there are excellent restaurants whose names start with Z, including a lot of Dallas’ best pizza.

Restaurants must have been open prior to Aug. 1, 2020, to establish a track record of consistent quality. Newer restaurants and chefs will appear on future lists. Bars are included — if they serve food to go — because Dallas would be a worse place to eat without them.

I considered any restaurant in Dallas and Collin counties, as well as the portion of Carrollton that falls within Denton County. The cities of Denton, Arlington and Fort Worth, among others, are not included.

What’s New in This Year’s Top 100 Restaurants?

The only real new element is our adjustment for the coronavirus pandemic, including the requirement that food be available to go or by delivery. Occasionally, you’ll also see comments in individual restaurants’ entries about their specific adaptations to our current situation, including new menu specials, different service formats or safety measures.

The List is Alphabetical? So You Really Won’t Tell Us Who’s No. 1?

Sorry! Putting restaurants in a ranked order is always a comparison of apples and oranges, and this year, especially, we don’t need the extra drama. My goal is an uncomplicated celebration of great food and great people, and ratings or rankings would distract from the fact that I enthusiastically recommend every single one of the Top 100.

I Want to Get Takeout from Every Top 100 Restaurant and Document It. Do You Guys Want to Hear About It?

Yes, we do! First of all, get started by bookmarking the Top 100 list. Then feel free to let us know how your dining odyssey goes with the hashtag #DallasTop100. And if a restaurant stinks, instead of writing a one-star Yelp review, send your angry disagreements with our list to this author on Twitter.

Because of pandemic closures, we added 20 restaurants to the list this year:
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Brian Reinhart has been the Dallas Observer's food critic since spring 2016. In addition, he writes baseball analysis for the Hardball Times and covers classical music for the Observer and MusicWeb International.
Contact: Brian Reinhart