What makes a restaurant outstanding? We think it’s one that has a vision – whether that is to push boundaries, give classics a 2019 spin or be the kind of place that locals can’t get enough of.

We raise a glass to front-of-house staff, the kitchen crew and the people working behind the scenes to make Sydney such an exciting place to eat and drink. And to everyone who followed Broadsheet Sydney to discover the places impressing us the most.

And if you missed Broadsheet’s Best Cafe Openings of 2019 and the Best Bar Openings of 2019, check them out.

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Cafe Paci
When Finnish-born chef Pasi Petanen opened his first restaurant in 2013, he won us over with his inimitable creativity. His dishes didn’t just push boundaries, they erased them altogether. But the hugely innovative Cafe Paci shut two years later, and in the years between then and now, Sydney’s dining scene has evolved into a hugely sophisticated beast. In the lead up to the opening of the Newtown reboot, we wondered: would Petanen be able to do it again? And would he jazz-hands his way into our culinary happy place?

Of course he has – this year’s most anticipated restaurant is singing. In fact, Petanen has made devilled eggs cool again, created one of this year’s prettiest dishes (chicken liver parfait piped into an almond-flaked choux pastry with caramelised onion), and reminded us that bread made with potato and molasses is fantastic. Add in vino authority Giorgio De Maria (Giorgio De Maria Fun Wines) – who has built an exciting list of mostly natural and biodynamic wines from small producers – and you have one of our fave restaurants of this year.

Lotus 2.0
It’s a year of reboots. Lotus reopened in the same spot it operated in until 2012, and serves a clever menu of contemporary Australian food and, from its sexy back bar, cocktails. Lotus was where Dan Hong cemented his reputation as one to watch, and the 2.0 version perfectly encapsulates the talent – and the evolution – of his cheffing skills.

He’s given a couple of the cult dishes from the original Lotus a 2019 treatment – the cheeseburger and the hot-fudge sundae for example – and, while they are tasty, we are even more excited by the newbies. The morcilla (house-made blood sausage) served with calamari, tomatillo salsa and a black-coloured sauce made with cuttlefish ink and sambal belacan (a Malaysian chilli paste) is outstanding (and Sydney editor Sarah Norris’s dish of the year), as are the roasted Balmain bugs with brown butter. May we suggest you get the fries and bread so you can mop up that wonderful sauce.

Take a Cantonese Haymarket dining institution, give it a 21st-century makeover and you get XOPP. Run by the son of Golden Century restaurateurs Eric and Linda Wong (who this year celebrate 30 years at the helm of the now-iconic Sydney institution), this spin-off has the energy you’d expect from a new generation trying to make a mark.

Leading the kitchen is head chef Zachary Ng, who wrapped up a decade at fine-dining Sepia when the restaurant closed in 2018. He’s turning out sharp renditions of Golden Century’s most famous dishes, such as live pipis with XO sauce (from which the new eatery takes its name), and salt and pepper calamari (a must order – it’s fabulous).

But this pretty Darling Square restaurant isn’t simply copying a successful format. Ng takes classics and familiar Chinese flavours and serves them alongside contemporary dishes created with alternate ingredients and techniques. For some of his most exciting creations, head to the bar. We very much like the XOPP prawn mantou roll with XO mayo and XO sauce.

When restaurateur extraordinaire Maurice Terzini (Icebergs, The Dolphin, Bondi Beach Public Bar) switched gears at his light-and-bright Bondi pizza diner Da Orazio Pizza + Porchetta, transforming it into the dark, intimate (and a little bit loud – usually in a good way) CicciaBella, he wanted it to be a place diners would linger for hours – rather than one where they’d just eat their pizza and leave. To help him in his mission, he enlisted pasta-whisperer Mitch Orr, who had just closed his lauded Rushcutters Bay diner Acme. “Broad beans on the table with a little olive oil takes a bit of courage,” Terzini told Broadsheet at the time. “Mitch has that courage. He’s the perfect chef for what I wanted to achieve.”

Of course, Terzini was right. That nerve shines through in everything from Orr’s starters, to his desserts. Take the peaches charred with lemon thyme – it seems so simple, but this dish is so memorable – the tang of the peaches especially shines when spooned through a lump of buffalo ricotta. Orr brought his penchant for melding Asian and Italian flavours along too – dashes of dashi, thwacks of kombu and sprinkles of wakame. Whether you live in Bondi or not, CicciaBella is made for repeat visits.

Mary's Underground
We love the ambition of this underground city fun house. Nowhere else in the city can you catch three energetic, nightly, live music performances while you eat roast duck and drink minimal-intervention vino created by the globe’s best natural winemakers. In fact, the wine list is one of the city’s best.

Candles and carpet give the room an air of the classic, but because it’s by the burger-slinging Mary’s crew, it’s got a bunch of swagger. Sure, it’s got a fancy dinner-and-a-show mentality, but the staff’s black stretch jeans and the towels slung over their shoulder with the words “Fuck Your Towel” reminds us not to take things too seriously. The food isn’t cheap – compared to, say, Rockpool Bar & Grill – but then again there’s no cover charge and the venue is supporting a roster of musicians and bands. Plus, we never finished a night conga-lining behind a barefoot tuba player at Rockpool.

An outside laneway table at this tiny, sexy Italian restaurant transports you to Rome. And as they do in that magnetic European city, we advise you to enthusiastically order bottles of wine and plates of handmade pasta – we particularly love the perfectly peppery spaghetti with cacio e pepe. If the Iggy’s sourdough with Cantabrian anchovy and liberal lashings of salty butter is on the menu, get that too – it’s a triumph.

The drinks list has been curated by the guys behind wine bars Love, Tilly Devine and Dear Saint Eloise so you can expect deliciousness, and the food is by Scott Williams (ex-MoVida, Bacco Osteria, so there’s real skill in the kitchen. The buzzing ambiance is brought to you by the throngs of Sydneysiders who have been loving this fun newbie.

Bar Vincent
This Darlinghurst eatery isn’t trying to be anything except a stellar neighbourhood diner. It serves unfussy European-inspired dishes made with only a handful of ingredients sourced from top-quality producers – a tomato, anchovy, capers and ricotta salad for example, and very excellent handmade pastas (the gnocchi with pork sausage, tomato and rosemary is exceptional). In fact most things are excellent here, like the calamari fritta (fried calamari). If it came with a balsamic mayo you would think you were eating the Sydney calamari benchmark – the calamari Sant' Andrea served at Fratelli Paradiso.

Owners Sarah Simm (Billy Kwong) and Andy Logue (Melbourne’s Pinotta and Scopri) change the menu daily but you can always expect to find oysters and – we love this bit – complimentary house-made bread. The wine list is noteworthy, with many of the more interesting drops available at other venues on this list. We’re surprised Bar Vincent isn’t being talked about more – it really is a lovely addition to Sydney’s dining scene.

There are no big-name chefs and no mega expensive fit out – just a guy with a love for Australiana kitsch. “I am not afraid to put a bit of cringe out in the world,” owner Grant Lawn told Broadsheet proudly in August.

Redfern’s Bush is proudly serving Aussie dishes and childhood nostalgia. The party pies are stuffed with curried kangaroo and the bread-and-butter pudding is scattered with hundreds and thousands. Decorations include stuffed marsupial toys, native flowers and twigs, and diners sit on tree stumps. The food isn’t all strictly Australian – an American-style cheeseburger is your standard meat, cheese, pickles and sauce affair, but the patty is encrusted with a layer of speck. There are only ever a couple things on the menu, but they’re all usually priced under $12. How excellent.

Kitchen By Mike
What a delight it was when Mike McEnearney announced the reprise of his canteen. It took the place of his fine-diner No. 1 Bent Street, bringing the democratic concept of the original Kitchen By Mike into the corporate end of town. During breakfast and lunch, diners, a diverse crowd (“Rich man and poor man line up together” McEnearney tells us) queue for salads, meat and puddings.

Come evening, things take a turn for the formal – but only slightly.Table service kicks in, and guests order simple, produce-forward dishes. Of course you must start with McEanerney’s glorious sourdough (served here with Pepe Saya butter) and order one of his nourishing salads as a side. From there a selection of proteins – lamb rump, flank steak, skewered quail – take centre stage. For a moment there we almost forgot what a game-changer the original Kitchen By Mike was when it opened in 2012, with its nutritious, canteen-style food that tasted fantastic. How wonderful to have a reminder.

The Gidley
It’s an exciting moment the first time you descend the stairs into this dimly lit restaurant. Once your eyes adjust, you see a bar unlike any other Sydney bar, with velvet-lined booths you can make private with curtains, and banquettes facing a galley-style bar. “I love hosting people at my house,” says bar manager Jono Carr (Archie Rose, Kittyhawk, Door Knock and Burrow Bar, “and it almost feels like the same thing. There is no bar to hide behind, no separation between us and you.”

The guys behind this one-steak-on-the-menu-no-phones-allowed restaurant also run the other one-steak-on-the-menu-no-phones-allowed restaurant in town, Bistecca. But this time the star is Riverine Black Angus rib eye (done three ways). While it’s not serving the best steak in town – even the guys who run it will agree – there’s something endearing about The Gidley and we’re glad it exists.

Honourable mentions
Ever since Keita Abe opened Chaco Bar in Darlinghurst, he’s had a dream to bring exemplary yakitori to Sydney. And now, with version 2.0 in bigger, slicker digs in Potts Point (which opened late in the year) we’re excited to see what he does with all that space.

Kuro is a lavish Japanese restaurant with big ambition. There’s a high-tech brew bar for coffee during the day (that at night lowers into a bar to create a dining table), a 10-seater no-waste restaurant serving a high-end degustation and – our favourite bit – a cocktail bar run by two top Japanese bartenders. The drinks are fun and unconventional.

Anastasia Drakopolous, who is a co-owner of Pyrmont fine-diner Lumi, decided it was time to open a solo side project. Petersham’s Noi is it and it serves attractively plated dishes with a mostly Italian bent. We’re fans of the playful miso-soil tiramisu.

On the 13th birthday of very excellent Surry Hills tapas bar Bodega, owners Elvis Abrahanowicz, Ben Milgate and Joe Valore decided to shut. We were sad, and then we weren’t because we learned they would combine two of their venues to create Bodega x Wyno. It’s now in one of Sydney’s greatest dining rooms and the exemplary snacks live on with new energy.

Check out Broadsheet’s Best Cafe Openings of 2019 and the Best Bar Openings of 2019. If you want to know what were our favourite restaurant openings of 2018, see here.