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What Shocked and Delighted Eater Editors in 2023

Irish strawberries, hibiscus-dusted popcorn, a good slice of layer cake, and other things that surprised out while dining out this year

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Three chefs working a kitchen.
Chefs in the kitchen at Warlord in Chicago.
Chris Peters/Eater Chicago

Throughout this week, we’ve been taking a look back at the year in eating, the good and the bad and delightfully extraneous. To close out the year, here are the things that Eater editors were pleasantly surprised by in 2023 — from unexpected award wins to the welcome re-emergence of nostalgic trends.

What was your pleasant surprise of the year?

I was skeptical of Warlord, the much-hyped restaurant I’d heard described as a “loud and awkward” “sexy slaughterhouse.” But then I went, alone during a trip to Chicago. The place was a goth dream: cavernous and dark, with pillar candles dripping into puddles; indeed, extremely loud, blasting the kind of grinding metal I actually tend to like; definitely a little slaughterhouse, with fish heads on hooks above the fire and racks of meat hanging in a glowing fridge. Conditions that would have been less than favorable with a companion were ideal for solo dining. At the bar, facing the open kitchen, I took my time with a glass of wine, a hunk of charred maitake, and a block of fatty, aged salmon that was served with a slice of cantaloupe and a steak knife. I revisited my early-20s dreams of moving to Chicago but settled on a pleasant conclusion: This was the kind of escapist meal that makes vacation so nice. — Bettina Makalintal, senior reporter

I love that a good slice of layer cake is on so many menus. I’ve had the cake at Gertrude’s and at My Loup, and there’s also a slice of cake at Claud’s, Gage and Tollner, and Hags. So much of my experience with layer cakes is dry wedding cake with dense, flavorless buttercream, so it’s lovely to have my mind changed about how good a slice of cake can actually be. — Jaya Saxena, correspondent

There are so many brand collaborations these days that it’s understandable to feel some fatigue — why can’t a product stand on its own anymore? So it was a pleasant surprise when some of these partnerships yielded items I’d like to be available permanently. I’m thinking in particular of the Ruby x Bjorn Qjorn hibiscus-dusted popcorn. — Monica Burton, deputy editor

About 10 years ago I stumbled across a bistro on the Lower East Side that felt like it had been transported from another time. The entire space was smaller than the kitchen at most restaurants. The kitchen itself was just a sliver of land behind the bar, barely big enough for the cook to turn around in. It was a French restaurant, and a sign hung near the entrance proudly informed diners that no, they did not have any ketchup, don’t even ask. I was devastated a few years later when the place closed. I’ve thought of it many times over the years, wishing I could go back for another glass of wine and steak frites at the bar. So I was shocked — and ecstatic — a few weeks ago when I learned that Le French Diner is not only closed, but thriving. A true Mandela effect moment, I have rarely been happier to feel like I’m losing my mind. — Jonathan Smith, interim senior editor

While the Beard Awards were, once again, kind of a mess, I was pleasantly surprised by some of the wins. Seeing République pastry chef Margarita Manzke finally take home the award for outstanding pastry chef; seeing Ototo take home an award for its sake-focused list; seeing LA take home two national awards (see previous); seeing the first ever outstanding bakery award go to a tortilleria (Yoli Tortilleria in Kansas City, Missouri); and a bunch of other firsts. Hopefully next year’s winners are as exciting. — Hillary Dixler Canavan, restaurant editor

I traveled to Ireland for the first time in June and I remain absolutely gobsmacked by its strawberries. I knew that there would be good butter and great fish and chips, but I was not prepared for Wexford strawberries: I purchased a basket from a woman who grew them in her backyard and traveled to Belfast’s historic St. George’s Market to sell them. They were tiny, perfect little jewels that were juicy and bright red all the way through. I think it’s possible I will never have strawberries this good again. — Amy McCarthy, staff writer

As part of the Eater College Dining Plan, we collected restaurant guides from student journalists and other local authorities on campuses all over the country. As someone whose college diet consisted primarily of cheesesteaks and Wawa coffee, I was blown away by the options available to student diners today, not only in major cities but in smaller college towns as well: a tasting menu outside the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo celebrating foraged and hunted ingredients on the Big Island, a burgeoning group of Iraqi food trucks and restaurants at the University of Montana, the 158-year-old creamery inside Penn State serving school-themed flavors, and so many other things I would have gladly eaten during late-night cram sessions had I been so lucky. — Nicholas Mancall-Bitel, senior editor