The Internet is in the midst of year-end list madness. There’s even a great blog that makes lists of lists. Let us prolong the season a bit here, where Food Republic editors and contributors weigh-in on the year in dining out. Read more of 2013 in review: Top 25 Vegetarian Recipes, Top Travel Destinations For The Food Alone, Top 15 Quotes Of The YearTop Bars And New Booze .

Matt Rodbard | Contributing Editor

Cardamom Hill (Atlanta)
Cardamom Hill, a year and a half old restaurant located in a strip mall in Berkeley Heights, was the backdrop for an astonishing late lunch I enjoyed in April. I meet chef-owner Asha Gomez, a James Beard Awards semifinalists and shooting star on the ATL scene, cooking so beautifully with the flavors of her native Kerala, a region located on the Southwest shin of India that is known for tropical fruits like coconuts and bananas, as well as a version of fiery pork vindaloo that one foodie message boarder referred to as the “real shit bro.” Kerala is a bit of a culinary backwater (I had to Wiki it on the cab ride over from the airport). So it was doubly astonishing that this restaurant is found in suburban Atlanta.

As I'm given a tour of Gomez’s cooking I find out that it is indeed the real shit. I sample perfectly fried sweet potato fritters with tamarind sauce and something she calls railroad beef curry — a slow-simmered mound of fragrant meat piled atop yogurt rice and green bean carrot thoran wrapped in a banana leaf. And then we get to the fried chicken and waffles, which is the Lowcountry staple that I had traveled to Atlanta to explicitly not eat. Fried chicken is wonderful, but having reviewed New York City restaurants in the years 2009-11, I had pretty much had my life max of dusted and crusted birds. But this plate of day-brined, exotically spiced golden brown chicken tenders is perfection with the coconut oil, a ton of garlic and spicy mango sauce mixing with spiced maple syrup. Best fried chicken in the U.S.A. I’ll put my fists up over this one.

Tryne Till Knorr (Malmö, Sweden)
After a Swedish food writer friend tipped me off, I found myself at Tryne Till Knorr (translation: Nose To Tail) on a chilly Sunday night in late summer and had the most outstanding meal during my trip to Scandinavia. And if you travel prepared, eating events in Scandinavia are typically pretty much always outstanding. There was a pickled cabbage wedge served with a perfectly cooked egg and Gruyère, while a later course of roasted skin-on beets with yogurt and raspberries bridged summer and autumn. The Swedes geek hard for natural wines and the man in charge of the bottles poured me a really nice Chenin Blanc from Loire Valley producer Gaelle Berriau. The restaurant had been around only since spring when chef-owner Robin Eriksson opened with his girlfriend Agnes in a former flower shop in the city’s Old West neighborhood. Now, it’s a must-visit.

Hanjan (NYC)
Though chef Hooni Kim opened his modern Korean joomak in late 2012, I had my first big boy meal sometime in early 2013 — and have been back about 10 times since. And when I say big boy, I mean that I was probably a little drunk when I showed up. And I was likely with a few people in a similar way. And we ordered a lot of the menu. But this is the crowd Kim intends his flavorful, well-proportioned, bite-by-bite cooking to sate. I would usually go for his wok-toasted ddukbokki (rice and fish cakes) bathed in a robust gochujang-based sauce, haemul pajeon (textured squid and scallion pancakes that rise vertically into space) and silken tofu topped with sizzling pork belly. There would be an order of jokbal (pigs feet) if it were late, and a bowl of spicy ramyun if it were later. I never made it for his week-long gamjatang special, but we’ve got all winter to make that happen.     

Paul Qui, Ed Lee, Stuart Brioza, Brian Caswell dinner (Phu Quoc, Vietnam)
It was all Top Chef. Four chefs visit a steamy market in the morning to shop, and Instagram, for a few hours and then head to an outdated hotel kitchen to cook a dish or two for 40 hotel guests, a member of the media (me) while using dull knives and fueled by jetlag, plenty of Saigon beer and a shitload of high-octane fish sauce. The results were, all things considered, pretty spectacular. Paul Qui grilled prawns in a “sweet and sour” tamarind and tomato sauce, as well as a coconut curry soup that brought together grilled cobia, turmeric and fish sauce. Edward Lee found some pork at the market and built a fish head soup that sort of resembled a Malaysian laksa. Beer, bourbon, lime and pineapple married well with the pork, shrimp and herbs. He added grilled squid strips at the last minute because, why the fuck not. Stuart Brioza was pumped up with some papaya he had spotted at the market, and built a salad with shiso, chrysanthemum leaves and ripe avocado. Brian Caswell made something with fish that I forgot to write down because I had dosed myself with rum and Dramamine for a boat ride that would start around 2 a.m.

Honorable Mentions: Nightingale 9 (NYC), Nightwood (Chicago), Serpico (Philadelphia), Mission Cantina (NYC), Spiaggia (Chicago), the mackerel place with the bicycle on the door in Itaewon (Seoul)

George Embiricos | Contributing Editor

Betony (New York City)
It’s easy to fail to live up to the intense amount of hype that accompanies major restaurant openings in New York. This certainly isn’t the case at Betony, the elegant spot from Eleven Madison Park alums that opened earlier this year. There are all the makings of fine dining here, without the stuffiness normally found in extravagant city establishments. From the superb house-made milk punch and classic cocktails to the foie gras bonbons to golden crispy chicken and succulent short rib, my two dinners at Betony – in the same week, mind you – topped my list in 2013.

Cheesesteak Tour (Philadelphia)
Any day beginning with a text message at 9:30 AM that reads, “Cheesesteaks?” is bound to be interesting. My friend and I set out to sample Philly’s finest hoagies one weekend this fall, with our stops including city mainstays Geno’s, Pat’s and Jim’s Steaks. Four cheesesteaks, two-and-a-half hours and several waist sizes later, our mission was complete (we still somehow managed an afternoon stop at Federal Donuts). Our personal opinion: Jim’s > Geno’s > Pat’s. Let the debate begin.

Hattie B’s Chicken and Waffles (Nashville)
Every now and then, an article regarding the addictive nature of food will surface in a scientific publication or online article. I was always quick to roll my eyes at claims that food can be addicting…until I first tried the Nashville specialty of hot chicken. The breasts and thighs heavily (secretly) spiced were singlehandedly enough to cause my freshman 15 in college. And sophomore 15…You see where this is going. Weekend brunch at Hattie B’s for their hot chicken and waffles combination during my university’s homecoming festivities was the highlight of a very memorable trip.

Sushi Dojo (NYC)
I’m in constant search of quality, affordable sushi in New York, and East Village newcomer Sushi Dojo is an absolute godsend. From the hip hop music playing in the background to the American chef behind the sushi bar, purists are sure to raise an eyebrow upon entering. Until the fish is served, that is. The chef’s omakase features an incredibly fresh and unique selection of sushi, generously doled out starting at the relatively meager price of $40. I still dream of the o-toro’s buttery marbleization.

Carbone (NYC)
While I tend to approach the city’s “scene-y” restaurants with an abundant amount of caution, it’s hard to not get caught up in Carbone’s shtick. A celeb-studded crowd straight out of a Hollywood premiere, waiters in maroon tuxedos and a $50+ veal parm are usually not keys to my restaurant heart, but they play off each other oh-so-well at the Torrisi team’s latest hit. My birthday dinner was a raging success, and I have, well, waiters in maroon tuxedos and a $50+ veal parm to thank for that.

Honorable Mentions: Red Farm Steak (NYC), Al Forno (Providence), Chez Sardine (NYC), Serpico (Philadelphia), Ichimura at Brushstroke (NYC)

Jess Kapadia | Associate Editor

Do I get to name a meal I cooked? Great. I made a three-course lobster feast for a friend’s birthday: fried lobster schnitzel, yuzu-infused lobster rolls and possibly the single best thing I’ve ever cooked: spaghetti in a creamy lobster sauce enriched by the guts and head contents — that stuff basically melts into the greatest lobster sauce for pasta, ever. And my friend previously didn’t eat lobster guts.

Guisado's (Los Angeles)
Guisado’s in LA’s Boyle Heights neighborhood wins for best Mexican food of the year. Their handmade tortillas are soft, thick and pillowy, with a strong masa harina flavor that stands up to meltingly tender and unapologetically spiced braised barbacoa, chicken tinga and carnitas. The big winner: the rajas tacos, which were the special of the day.

New York Taste (NYC)
Normally I wouldn’t call a taste-around a meal, but somehow every year New York Taste gets more amazing. This year I was especially prepared to sample all 70 or so of New York chefs’ signature dishes — I fasted for like, two days. I took a friend who’d just gotten dumped. Suffice it to say, he found his appetite, flirted hardcore with one of the PR girls organizing the event and even got wasted on apple pie moonshine. I on the other hand, politely slurped down about five of the fluke ceviches served on lime halves.

Sushi Dojo (NYC)
Two words: Sushi Dojo. If you live in or anywhere around New York, you need to make a reservation to sit at the bar for the best omakase I’ve had in years…for $85! What!? Do it: you’re not going to find two kinds of live uni (Japanese and Californian) and Pacific oysters as big as your face at the Tokyo Garden in your strip mall. This NYT 2-star rated experience, with one master sushi chef hand-preparing each piece, placing it on the banana leaf in front of you with long silver chopsticks and explaining what it is and where it came from, is 1000% worth the wait, travel and dough.

The Meat Award goes to Ludo Lefebvre. We hung out (with his lovely wife, of course) at the Made In America event at the Four Seasons Hualalei on the big island of Hawaii, where 5 of LA’s top chefs cooked, demoed and….well…chilled (cheeled). Ludo built a fire on the beach and tossed on racks of Wagyu ribs, then smothered them in kimchi butter and presented them as an appetizer. How did I eat six courses by Josiah Citrin and Nancy Silverton after that, you ask? I do not know.

Honorable Mentions: Bestia (Los Angeles), The Chef’s Counter at Harlow (NYC) Grand Tasting, Meatopia (San Antonio, TX), Toro (NYC), Jess Kapadia’s sad but prolific studio kitchenette (Upper West Side, Manhattan)

Richard Martin | Editorial Director

Fish & Game (Hudson, New York)
This long-awaited next-step from Zakary Pelaccio, who built a mini-empire in Manhattan under the name Fatty, is an ingredient-driven, set menu restaurant two hours north of NYC in Hudson. No, this maestro of Malaysian flavors didn’t tune in, turn on and drop out; he simply wanted to exploit the territory around his adopted home in upstate Columbia County. So he teamed with his wife Jori Jayne Emdi — who sort of divulged her alchemist manifesto on Food Republic a few years back — and theatre producer Patrick Milling Smith, and together, the three have created a culinary escapist’s fantasy in an exquisitely designed space, where the menu changes with the frequent turns of the seasons. I recently ended a dazzling meal here by watching Pelaccio melt raclette over apples in the hearth that’s the dining room’s main attraction, then headed up to the wine room to discuss what he tells me is the most ambitious natural wine list anywhere. Fish & Game is the destination restaurant to add to your list of must-tries in 2014.

Barley Swine (Austin, Texas)
I’ve been going to Austin since back in the days when Migas con hongos was my order at the late, lamented Las Manitas on Congress. But since, say, the turn of the century, every time I return there’s a new hot spot that has nothing to do with Tex-Mex or barbecue, which is the tourist-brochure version of this extremely exciting dining scene. This year’s revelation, for me, was Barley Swine, where Bryce Gilmore plates fresh ingredients in artful displays and coaxes vibrant flavors out of seemingly ordinary-sounding dishes (like “duck, barley, broccoli, sesame”). The casual, convivial atmosphere and young crowd give hope that a younger generation really does revere good food.

Estela (NYC)
I never had the chance to try Ignacio Mattos’ much-hyped cooking until he opened this cozy place on Houston Street with my buddy Thomas Carter, who has introduced me to more great wine than just about anyone I know in the past few years. My first few experiences here reminded me of seeing an amazing new band that nobody else knows about — like when I caught Franz Ferdinand at Piano’s or Arcade Fire at Bowery Ballroom back in the day. It’s not long before everyone else catches on and you have to share your find with the masses; that’s my theory for why every critic in New York City is name-checking this spot in year-end lists, rhapsodizing over the beef tartare and citrus-and-spice–laced scallops and Old World–leaning wine list. They’re telling everybody else that they knew about Estela first, you know, back before they got big.

Chicago Dinearound
I didn’t have much time in Chicago, so I decided to go hard. Off the plane on a cold February afternoon, I ran to Au Cheval to try their vaunted burger. The snow began falling, the pretty waitress instructed me to go with the fries instead of the salad, I ordered a beer, and I was off on the type of culinary journey that I’m now convinced only Chicago can offer. For “dinner,” I started at the then-just-opened Sumi Robata Bar, then we set off for Fat Rice — where my companions and I sampled half the menu and reveled in the weird but perfect Portuguese-Asian mashup. From there, it was off to Trencherman for barrel-aged Malört and pickle tots with chicken breast bresaola. Completely sated, we soldiered on and made our way to Aviary, where we sampled Next’s “The Hunt” snacks and cocktails until time disappeared.

Luksus (Brooklyn, New York)
I’ve lived in New York City long enough to get seriously jaded when I have to discuss my reservation with a guy who, once I’m in the clear, escorts me through a secret door to a hidden place that’s dimly lit and playing obscure krautrock or avant jazz over the soundsystem. At Luksus in Greenpoint, which is behind a secret door at the far end of the minimalist beer bar at Tørst, chef Daniel Burns erases any trace of pretentiousness once you sit at the counter facing his tiny kitchen, or at one of the few tables along the opposite wall. Sure, he’s touted as a vet of Noma and The Fat Duck and Dave Chang’s test kitchen, but all he’s doing is translating his vision to the plate, which might include super-slow-cooked egg mingling with foraged plants, but whatever, it tastes great. And he does it with a smile on his face. The experience only gets deeper when you order the beer pairings; the folks at Tørst are sourcing ale and lagers that you’ll be hard-pressed to find even amid the glut of craft beers on shelves at your local market, and Burns and his team play with the combinations in witty fashion.

Honorable Mentions: Carbone (NYC), Betony (NYC), Curate (Asheville, NC), Painted Lady (Newburg, OR), Aska (NYC)