Bywater_American_Bistro_Chef_Partner_Levi_Raines_004_Cheryl

Chef/co-owner Levi Raines serves cobia escabeche and pan-roasted duck breast at Bywater American Bistro.

End-of-the-year reflections often focus on superlatives, and there was much to celebrate in New Orleans’ dining scene in 2018. But it also was a year when the restaurant world turned its attention to the treatment of its employees, and some are looking to take big steps toward real change.

In New Orleans, nonprofits such as Shift Change are working to create spaces safe from sexual harassment and violence. Local chefs are joining the national effort with organizations such as Fair Kitchens to create healthier work environments for employees including curbing drug and alcohol abuse. Restaurant owners also are starting to reassess how to support more sustainable careers in the business, from examining pay structures to offering health care and benefits.

Of course, the food we ate in 2018 was pretty remarkable too. Here are some of the year’s most notable dining accomplishments from 2018.

Best new restaurant: Bywater American Bistro

With her first restaurant, Compere Lapin, former “Top Chef” finalist Nina Compton garnered national accolades and received a James Beard Award for Best Chef: South in May. At Bywater American Bistro, Compton and chef/partner Levi Raines have knocked it out of the park. The menu showcases the kitchen’s talent working with regional ingredients and influences. Smoked ricotta agnolotti alone are worth a visit, and steamed red snapper served under a cloudlike cap of Crystal hollandaise was one of the best dishes I ate all year.

Runner-up: Saba

Familiar and yet distinct from his eponymous previous effort, Alon Shaya’s new venture in modern Israeli cuisine is reliably excellent. With steaming rounds of pita bread and a list of shareable salatim to delicate octopus cooked in shawarma spices and a harissa-coated roasted chicken, meals here always are a joy.

Best new dish: Longway Tavern’s Bolognese

At first glance, spaghetti squash and a meaty ragu might seem like odd bedfellows, but in this decadent rendition from chef John Sinclair, they are perfect companions. Pork and beef Bolognese rich with warm spice and sage is topped with creamy ricotta and delicate strands of squash. It’s a dish fitting for fall, but I’d order it any time of year.

Runner-up: Luvi’s pork, ginger and cabbage dumplings

Inspired by chef Hao Gong’s mother, who made them when he was growing up in Shanghai, the dumplings are served in a flavorful umami-rich soy broth at the Asian raw bar and small plates restaurant in Uptown.

Best architectural renovation: The Elysian Bar at Hotel Peter and Paul

It’s hard not to stare at the stunning renovation that’s taken place at the former Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Faubourg Marigny. The hotel’s four main buildings include a former schoolhouse, church, convent and rectory, the latter of which is home to The Elysian Bar. Executive chef Alex Harrell’s menu of highly shareable small plates can be enjoyed in several restored rooms, including a cheery sun room, an amber-hued bar that sits under a suspended bamboo ceiling or a charming courtyard framed by ferns and stained glass windows.

Runner up: Capulet

The Bywater warehouse restaurant-cum-event space has a lot to boast about, including soaring ceilings and wooden beams, exposed brick walls and a yawning rooftop deck with beautiful views of downtown New Orleans.

Hottest neighborhood: The French Quarter

Anyone who thinks the French Quarter is best left to tourists needs to take another look. With the opening of Cuban darling Manolito and the charming Longway Tavern, the historic neighborhood has never been hotter. Still to come are Justine, from La Petite Grocery’s Justin Devillier and Mia Freiberger-Devillier, Jewel of the South, from Manolito’s Chris Hannah and Nick Detrich, and Everywhen Bar, another Detrich project on North Rampart Street.

Runner-up: St. Claude Avenue

Restaurants like French bistro Saint-Germain and the Basque-style tapas hub Estano are good indications of what’s in store for this strip, which will add several new bars and restaurants in 2019.

Looking forward

While 2018 saw many restaurants open in New Orleans, several also called it quits. Riverbend favorite Dante’s Kitchen closed this summer, after two decades in business. The Magazine Street Po-Boy and Sandwich Shop closed its doors after 30 years, making way for new restaurant Molly’s Rise and Shine from Turkey and The Wolf’s Mason Hereford. And earlier this month, both Uptown’s La Thai and Central City food incubator Roux Carre announced their closures.