We’ve been kicked in the gut this year by bushfires, heavy rain, floods and a pandemic. Covid-19 hit us properly in March, locking down the entire country, forcing the closure of venues and then the rise of takeaway spin-offs. Even now, limitations are still in place and everything seems uncertain. But, somehow, the world has kept spinning through all of this – and despite the chaos, doom and gloom, we’ve seen some outstanding new places.

Bar Totti’s, CBD
It took approximately five minutes for the puffy flatbread at Totti’s in Bondi to gain cult-dish status when the restaurant opened at the end of 2018. So it makes sense that hospitality giant Merivale decided to bring the concept (and talented head chef Mike Eggert) into the city, opening Bar Totti’s on George Street in January. Eggert ditched the pasta served at the original, instead preferencing what he calls “choose-your-own-adventure” antipasti dishes – all of which are superb teamed with salty, charred flatbread pulled straight from the woodfired oven. While the antipasti menu changes regularly, expect plates of pickled octopus (we recommend really savouring the oil it’s served in), mortadella, chicken-liver parfait and burrata. And thankfully its topnotch desserts – tiramisu and Neapolitan ice-cream sandwiches – have made the Bar Totti’s cut as well. This is more than just an outpost of a popular diner – it’s an evolved, thoughtful venue in its own right.

Henrietta, Surry Hills
This neon-splashed Lebanese charcoal chicken diner, bar and takeaway shop (with a separate window for pick-ups) adds some fun to Surry Hills’ Crown Street strip. It’s the latest by restaurateur Ibby Moubadder, whose success has been simple: “I like to take a concept and elevate it,” he says. He did it with his almost-fine-diner, Middle Eastern eatery Nour (co-owned with Jorge Farah), and scrambled-eggs-with-an-edge cafe Cuckoo Callay (both just up the street) – and now he’s done it with chicken. Here it’s best eaten with your hands. “You’ve got to get your Lebanese bread and rip it open, put a lot of garlic sauce [toum], chicken, pickles and chips in, then roll it and eat it all together,” he says, and we agree. We’re also loving the san choy bow with lamb kibbeh (burghul, minced onions, finely ground meat and spices); the brisket-shawarma tacos with zhug (a Yemeni hot sauce similar to chimichurri); and the Middle Eastern-inspired cocktails.

Ho Jiak, Town Hall
Junda Khoo’s grandmother’s Penang-style home cooking informs the menu at Haymarket Malaysian diner Ho Jiak. But the restaurant’s latest outpost (there’s also a small outlet in Strathfield) is more expansive – Khoo’s taking flavours and dishes from regions all over Malaysia and putting his own spin on them. That has begat drinking-friendly dishes such as a soupless fried laksa; fried chicken dipped in salted egg-yolk aioli; and Khoo’s Malaysian take on salt-and-pepper squid. The most popular dish (and our pick) is the har mee bomb – prawn noodle soup inside a dumpling. On drinking: a tiki-inspired cocktail list has been compiled by Yoshi Onishi of nearby Bancho Bar, and soon enough there’ll be a 100-strong wine list with a focus on punchy flavours and acidity.

Jimmy’s Falafel, CBD
Even though it’s Sydney’s main thoroughfare, George Street is practically devoid of restaurants (I know, it’s crazy). Especially ones where, if we were allowed to sing and dance rather than socially distance, you’d find yourself sashaying to a fun soundtrack, courtesy of a live DJ. That’s the eventual plan for Jimmy’s Falafel, says chef Simon Zalloua. “We want people standing, having a drink and a dance.” Until then, you’ll have to plant your attention solely on his tasty food and the colourful room, which has booths, frosted-glass sconces and tourism posters of cosmopolitan 1960s Beirut. As the name suggests, there’s falafel, which is stuffed in pita (among other things) and served alongside meze plates including eggplant salad, hummus and silverbeet. At night, there’s also meat cooked on the charcoal grill, and a wonderful smoky scent permeates the air. As at Henrietta (see below), eating with your hands is encouraged and toum (garlic sauce) is liberally applied.

Little Lagos, Enmore
While Sydney’s established restaurants were launching takeaway spin-offs during the coronavirus lockdown, pop-up Nigerian eatery Little Lagos opened a full-blown restaurant. It was during a residency at Earl’s Juke Joint that Nigerian-born owner Ade Adeniyi realised finding his own space was something worth investigating. And now, we have what is Sydney’s first full-time Nigerian restaurant residing on Enmore Road. Adeniyi and his chefs are serving substantial, supremely tasty dishes like nothing else you’ll find in Sydney: jollof rice cooked in tomato, onion and capsicum; Nigerian meat pie; and ofada stew, a fiery dish from western Nigeria made with habanero, locust beans, eggs, fish and meat. All that incredible taste is complemented with a wine list put together by Pasan Wijesena of Earl’s Juke Joint and Jacoby’s tiki bar across the road.

Lonely Mouth, Newtown
Redfern and Randwick ramen purveyor Rara Ramen did Sydney’s vegan community a solid when it opened a plant-based version of its diner in Newtown, pretty much right as Covid hit. Hemp seeds, sunflower and soy milk are used in lieu of pork offcuts for a collagen-y, umami-laden broth, while seitan (hydrated gluten) stands in for pork chashu. We reckon Lonely Mouth has probably got the best name of any new restaurant in Sydney (roughly translated from the Japanese word kuchisabishii, it refers to the longing to put something in your mouth, even when you’re not hungry) – and it isn’t just for people who eat a plant-based diet. This is for people who like their ramen made without cutting corners.

Mimi’s and Una Más, Coogee
Mimi’s is Merivale’s magnum opus – a grand pastel-hued fine-dining restaurant on the middle floor of busy Coogee Pavilion. The CEO of Sydney hospo group Merivale, Justin Hemmes, said it was six years in the making, and the ambition is evident everywhere you look: its elegant fit-out, the impressive wine cellar, its menu of premium seafood and the smart outfits worn by the staff. And that’s before you even see the cart circulating the room peddling bumps of caviar and vodka poured from a bottle encased in a hunk of ice.

Its open kitchen is expertly run by executive chef Jordan Toft, whose menu draws from the Mediterranean but is guided by an ethos and ingredients that place it in a modern Sydney context. The dining room is well-manned with staff who deliver seamless warm, friendly service. Mimi’s is undoubtedly a special-occasion restaurant, with high-end booze and high-end delicacies – think mud crab, roasted whole John Dory deboned at the table, and blacklip abalone skewered on a bay leaf with pancetta. It means you can drop some serious cash, but it’s worth saving up for the outstanding experience.

For something more casual but equally as fun, sophisticated and delicious, hit up wine-and-tapas bar Una Más, also on the middle floor. You can stop by for a glass of vino curated by sommelier Marie-Sophie Canto, and a plate of, say, octopus grilled on the plancha, or fresh buffalo mozzarella dolloped on lemon leaves. It’s uncomplicated, easy-eating food set in an inviting room. If Mini’s is the once-a-year place, Una Más is the place you hit up regularly.

Pepito’s, Marrickville
Thanks to travel bans, it looks like we’ll be confined to Aussie shores for a long while yet. So a visit to Pepito’s is the next-best thing to a trip to Peru. Based on the “tabernas” (diners where you can eat home-style cooking, drink and hang out) owner José Alkon frequents when he’s in his Peruvian homeland, Pepito’s is serving Latin American cuisine and booze you’d be hard-pressed to find elsewhere in the city, while Peruvian punk rock is pumped from the speakers. Expect dishes such as leche de tigre especial – local seafood marinated in lime juice, garlic, chilli and ginger, and topped with deep-fried calamari. There’s also a street-food classic, ox-heart anticuchos, which are made by marinating the heart in chillies and spices and cooking it over charcoal; the dish is a staple in Peruvian neighbourhoods. The real highlight here, though, is the diner’s pisco menu – it goes beyond pisco sours and is doing what city bar Cantina Ok! has done for mezcal, educating patrons on how age and terroir transform the spirit’s flavour. Alkon has sourced a range of piscos from Peru, many of which can’t be found anywhere else in Australia.

Restaurant Leo, CBD
Federico Zanellato and Karl Firla are two of Sydney’s most exciting chefs. On his resume the genre-bending Zanellato lists Copenhagen’s Noma, Melbourne’s Attica and Sydney’s Ormeggio at the Spit, and Firla was behind hard-to-get-into Newtown fine diner Oscillate Wildly, which sadly closed last year. Now they have opened an elegant Italian eatery in the city’s Angel Place precinct with slick service, white tablecloths and everything made in-house (pastry, bread, pasta, pickles – the lot). The menu swings from lobster ragu with truffles to veal saltimbocca and borlotti bean soup. It’s just started serving dinner, and when the city’s foot traffic picks up, it’ll add Picco Leo, where you’ll get Roman-style handheld pizza slices, ciabatta sambos, Little Marionette coffee and a cocktail-forward aperitivo in the afternoon.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS
These aren’t new, but during lockdown these two fine diners were re-envisioned and reinvigorated.

Ormeggio 2.0, Mosman
Since 2009, owners and chefs Alessandro Pavoni and Victor Moya had built Ormeggio into one of Sydney’s best Italian eateries. Their new take is more casual, completely meat-free and, rather than offering individual dishes, it’s now shared plates. Seafood is the star, and there’s a gelato bar serving iced delicacies inspired by different Italian desserts. It’s as outstanding as ever and its waterside location is still enchanting.

Saint Peter, Paddington
This inventive Paddington seafood restaurant has emerged from lockdown with a new look, new vibe and new menu, and we’re into it. It now has a 12-metre Carrara-marble-topped bar running down the middle, with the kitchen on one side of the bench and diners on the other. The switch gives seafood maven Josh Niland and his crew more cooking space, and lets them transform the experience into a quasi-masterclass, offering ringside seats to these masters pin-boning fillets and taking perfectly aged fish skin and grilling it into pork-like crackling. Importantly, it means they can continue the journey of sharing their pioneering fin-to-scale philosophy.