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Here are the winners in Howard Magazine’s 2021 Best Restaurants Contest

Restaurants didn’t have it easy during the pandemic. Yet, many continued to serve their community. As we emerge from COVID-19, chefs and servers are eager to welcome us back and bring food to our family tables. This year, more than 73,300 people voted for their favorites in 46 categories, demonstrating that it’s a great time to be a food lover in Howard County.

Editor’s note: Winners and honorable mentions were determined by popular vote. Readers were invited to nominate and vote online from March to May.

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This year, there were two big winners voted best in multiple categories:

Alexandra Eastman of Damascus sits with the chocolate brownie CrazyShake at EC Diner, which won numerous categories as voted by readers.
Alexandra Eastman of Damascus sits with the chocolate brownie CrazyShake at EC Diner, which won numerous categories as voted by readers. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

EC Diner

Best Breakfast/brunch, Crab cake, Dessert, Late-night dining, Lunch, New, Outdoor dining, Pandemic MVP, Place to take the kids, Value

10055 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City. 410-750-3300. ecdiner.com

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It takes heart — and chutzpah — to start a new business in the middle of a pandemic. When he opened EC Diner last year, owner John Kanellopoulos said: “This is a gamble we’re taking, but we love the food business, the people and the town.” Judging from our readers’ votes, it’s a gamble that paid off.

Readers called EC Diner not only “pandemic MVP” but also named it the top in a variety of categories: breakfast/brunch, lunch, crab cake, dessert, late-night dining, new restaurant, outdoor dining, value and place to take the kids. Taking over the former Double T Diner on Baltimore National Pike, Kanellopoulos and business partner Spiros Korologos kept the diner’s retro exterior while revamping the inside décor and menu. The team brought over dishes like lamb chops and “colossal crab cakes” from a sister restaurant, By the Docks Seafood Restaurant in Middle River. After any meal, a dessert from the in-house bakery is a must.

The exterior of Xenia Greek Kouzina.
The exterior of Xenia Greek Kouzina. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

Xenia Greek Kouzina

Ambience, Best overall, Bartender, Chef, Place to take out-of-towners, Server, Takeout

8850 Columbia 100 Parkway, Columbia. 410-740-2500. Xeniagreekcouzina.com

With its sleek décor and ambitious Greek offerings, Xenia has become a Howard County favorite for fine dining after opening two years ago.

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“The atmosphere is beautiful, comfortable and sexy,” said server Meredith BonGiorni, also voted “best server” in Howard County. “There’s nothing else like it” in Howard County. Guests have come from as far as Washington and Frederick for a glamorous escape to Greece.

“I love seeing people’s reactions when they walk through the front door,” said BonGiorni. Blue glass accents and blue lights pay homage to Greece, while wavy glass installations overhead call to mind the sea. “It takes your breath away.”

The love for this destination restaurant, named after the Greek word for hospitality, goes beyond just the cool atmosphere. Guests appreciate the imaginative cuisine, fresh seafood — “All the fish were swimming less than 72 hours ago,” says BonGiorni — and the almost obsessive attention to detail when it comes to cuisine and service. It begins as soon as guests enter, and someone holds the door open.

“Everything we do, we try to do the best,” said bartender Kristina Markman, voted “best bartender” by our readers.

Ambience: Xenia Greek Kouzina

Honorable mentions:

Cured | 18th & 21st

The Elkridge Furnace Inn

Ananda

Bakery: Decadent, a Coffee and Dessert Bar

Honorable mentions:

Kupcakes & Co.

Nothing Bundt Cakes

Touché Touchet Bakery and Pastry Shoppe

Bar food: Cured | 18th & 21st

Honorable mentions:

Xenia Greek Kouzina

Kelsey’s Restaurant, Irish Pub & Banquet Room

Frisco Taphouse

Barbecue: Mission BBQ

Honorable mentions:

Kloby’s Smokehouse

The Canopy

Cured | 18th & 21st

Bartender Kristina Markman is one of the award-winning staff of Xenia Greek Kouzina.
Bartender Kristina Markman is one of the award-winning staff of Xenia Greek Kouzina. (Kenneth K. Lam)

Bartender: Kristina Markman, Xenia Greek Kouzina

Asked for her favorite drinks to make, bartender Kristina Markman has no trouble rattling off a few: a refreshing cocktail with St. Germain, mint and lime. Then there’s the espresso martini, which she prepares with espresso vodka and a fresh-brewed shot of black espresso. But don’t forget about lemondrops and mojitos. The 31-year-old bartender and 8-year industry veteran calls Xenia the “nicest restaurant” she’s ever worked. “Everyone holds themselves to a very high standard,” said the Columbia native.“I love my job here.”

Honorable mentions:

Josh Eastman, Seasons 52

Cat Reed, Hudson Coastal

Brian Walsh, Frisco Taphouse

Best overall: Xenia Greek Kouzina

Honorable mentions:

Cured | 18th & 21st

EC Diner

The Iron Bridge Wine Co.

Kaydian Bennett and her food truck Bennett 5 Star Grill is the winner of best Black owned restaurant. Her specialty is jerk chicken made according to a secret family recipe.
Kaydian Bennett and her food truck Bennett 5 Star Grill is the winner of best Black owned restaurant. Her specialty is jerk chicken made according to a secret family recipe. (Kenneth K. Lam)

Black-owned restaurant: Bennett’s Grill

Various locations. 301-325-3280. facebook.com/bennettsgrillcolumbia

Authentic Jamaican food is the name of the game at Bennett’s Grill, a food truck voted readers’ favorite Black-owned restaurant in Howard County. Here, customers can pick up favorites like mac & cheese and spicy jerk chicken made from a secret family recipe. The key to great jerk chicken? “It’s definitely the seasoning,” says owner Kaydian Bennett, a Kingston native who started the food truck in 2008 after friends kept raving about her cooking. “I was just looking for something to do, and people love my food, so I figured I’d try it out.”

In the past 13 years she’s developed a strong local following. Before the pandemic, she says, “business was great.” It’s fluctuated in recent months, with many typical office customers now working from home. These days, the truck is parked in Clarksville most Wednesdays and Fridays; find the latest location on the truck’s Facebook page.

Breakfast/brunch: EC Diner

Honorable mentions:

Eggspectation

The Elkridge Furnace Inn

Xenia Greek Kouzina

Burger: SteelFire Kitchen & Bar

Honorable mentions:

EC Diner

Cured | 18th & 21st

The White Oak Tavern

Chef Akis Anagnostou is one of the award-winning staff of Xenia Greek Kouzina.
Chef Akis Anagnostou is one of the award-winning staff of Xenia Greek Kouzina. (Kenneth K. Lam)

Chef: Akis Anagnostou, Xenia Greek Kouzina

“I started when I was 10 years old,” said the fourth-generation chef and partner in the restaurant, now 38. His father owned a pastry shop in Rhodes, where Anagnostou helped make philo from scratch for the shop’s signature baklava. Anagnostou later became a pastry chef before being named executive chef at Xenia, where diners at Xenia can feast on traditional moussaka and spanakopita made according to his family recipes. Each recipe is redolent with memories from his homeland.“I grew up inside a kitchen, so for me cooking is everything,” he said. “It’s passion.”

Honorable mentions:

Dan Wecker, The Elkridge Furnace Inn

Chris Lewis, The Iron Bridge Wine Co.

Brian Thornton, Cured | 18th & 21st

Chinese: Hunan Manor

Honorable mentions:

Asean Bistro

Hunan Legend

East Moon Asian Bistro

Cocktail: Cured | 18th & 21st

Honorable mentions:

Xenia Greek Kouzina

The Iron Bridge Wine Co.

Mad Chef Kitchen & Bar

Coffee: Decadent, a Coffee and Dessert Bar

Honorable mentions:

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EC Diner

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Sidamo Coffee

Dunkin’ Donuts

Crab cake: EC Diner

Honorable mentions:

Xenia Greek Kouzina

Hudson Coastal

Cured | 18th & 21st

"The Mel" sandwich is corned beef, fresh turkey breast, Swiss cheese, cole slaw and Russian dressing served on your choice of bread at Mikey & Mel's Famous Deli, located at 8191 Maple Lawn Blvd. in Fulton.
"The Mel" sandwich is corned beef, fresh turkey breast, Swiss cheese, cole slaw and Russian dressing served on your choice of bread at Mikey & Mel's Famous Deli, located at 8191 Maple Lawn Blvd. in Fulton. (Barbara Haddock Taylor)

Deli: Mikey & Mel’s Deli

8191 Maple Lawn Blvd., Fulton. 443-663-3354. mikeyandmelsdeli.com

When Harley and Aaron Magden were kids, they frequently accompanied their father, Mikey, and grandfather, Mel, to meetings for their window and carpet businesses — many of which were conducted inside Cleveland delis.

When the charismatic Mikey Magden died in 2018 at age 66, the brothers decided to open Mikey & Mel’s Deli in Fulton in their father’s and grandfather’s honor.

“We wanted to re-create the kind of deli we would sit in for hours,” Harley Magden said, “with really big sandwiches, five-egg omelets, everything made from scratch.”

The deli, which opened last fall, already is known for its corned beef and brisket and generous portions. Just how big are those sandwiches? The ”small” size contains a full half pound of meat.

Honorable mentions:

Charter Deli

Jason’s Deli

Bonheur Patisserie & Deli

Delivery: Tino’s Italian Bistro

Honorable mentions:

Cured | 18th & 21st

Sushi King

HomeSlyce Columbia

Dessert: EC Diner

Honorable mentions:

Decadent, a Coffee and Dessert Bar

Xenia Greek Kouzina

The Iron Bridge Wine Co.

Fine dining: The Iron Bridge Wine Co.

Honorable mentions:

Xenia Greek Kouzina

The Elkridge Furnace Inn

Cured | 18th & 21st

Food truck: T & J Waffles

Honorable mentions:

Bennett’s Grill

Bullhead Pit Beef

Mike’s Gelato

Frozen treats: Scoop & Paddle Ice Cream Co.

Honorable mentions:

Soft Stuff Ice Cream

Park Ridge Creamery

The Snowball Stand

Happy hour: Cured | 18th & 21st

Honorable mentions:

Xenia Greek Kouzina

Sushi King

Mad Chef Kitchen and Bar

Avocado tartare appetizer with tuna, salmon and crab salad in a bowl, left, red rice base with salad, grill beef, edamame, kimchi, carrots, seaweed salad and corn in a bowl, right, at Blowfish Poke, voted "best healthful menu" in Howard County Magazine reader poll.
Avocado tartare appetizer with tuna, salmon and crab salad in a bowl, left, red rice base with salad, grill beef, edamame, kimchi, carrots, seaweed salad and corn in a bowl, right, at Blowfish Poke, voted "best healthful menu" in Howard County Magazine reader poll. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun)

Healthful menu: Blowfish Poke

12250 Clarksville Pike, Suite A, Clarksville. 410-995-9298. blowfishpokemd.com

In 2021, healthful eating doesn’t have to mean a steady diet of hard-boiled eggs and unadorned greens. Just ask the folks over at Blowfish Poke, which arrived last year to the Common Kitchen in Clarksville. Here you’ll find abundant options for poke, the traditional Hawaiian salad topped with cubes of raw fish — typically tuna — marinated in soy sauce and sesame oil. (Pronounced poh-KAY, the word means “cut into chunks” or “to slice” in Hawaiian.) At Blowfish Poke, the dish can come topped with your choice of protein, including tuna, crab salad, beef and tofu. The base, multi-textured greens of seaweed salad, edamame and cucumbers, is anything but boring.

Honorable mentions:

Sunset Raw Juice Bar

Xenia Greek Kouzina

Great Sage

House-brewed beer: Manor Hill Brewing

Honorable mentions:

Jailbreak Brewing Co.

Frisco Taphouse

Cured | 18th & 21st

Indian: Ananda

Honorable mentions:

Royal Taj Restaurant

Namaste Foodie

Chutney Indian Restaurant

Tino's Italian Bistro's Lasagna.
Tino's Italian Bistro's Lasagna. (Kenneth K. Lam)

Italian: Tino’s Italian Bistro

8775 Centre Park Drive, Columbia. 410-730-8466. tinositalianbistro.com

Lance Cook knew he was meant to run restaurants, but unfortunately his realization coincided with the 2007-2008 financial crisis. After his business plan was rejected by more than 100 banks, he says, he found one institution willing to fund his venture if he purchased an existing business instead of starting from scratch.

When Cook found Tino’s Italian Bistro, he knew instantly it was the right fit.

“The former owner had already incorporated things into his business plan that I wanted to incorporate,” Cook said.

For instance, both Cook and former owner Christopher Infantino donated 10% of the proceeds they received on some nights to charity. Under Cook’s management, Tino’s has contributed for causes such as housing, cancer research and animal welfare.

“I grew up in Iowa,” he said, “and if one family was struggling, all the other families around them joined forces to pick them back up. That attitude was engrained into me.”

Since Cook purchased Tino’s seven years ago, his customers have come to crave his recipe for lasagna and entrees with the restaurant’s cream-based Chesapeake sauce laced heavily with crab.

“It’s so good,” Cook said, ”I would drink it.”

At Tino’s, customers will find Cook overseeing the business. His wife, Nicole, has extensive financial experience and is the chief operating officer. Daughters Addison, 15, and McKenzie, 12, bus the tables and refill soft drinks.

Honorable mentions:

Aida Bistro & Wine Bar

Galliano

Facci Ristorante of Turf Valley (tie)

Facci Wood Fire Pizza Wine Bar of Maple Lawn (tie)

Japanese: Sushi King

Honorable mentions:

Sushi Sono

UMI Sushi

Blowfish Poke

Micky Kim, owner of Honey Pig Korean BBQ, displays a tray of various Korean BBQ, galbi, bulgogi and pork belly.
Micky Kim, owner of Honey Pig Korean BBQ, displays a tray of various Korean BBQ, galbi, bulgogi and pork belly. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun)

Korean: Honey Pig

10045 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City. 410-696-2426. honeypigbbq.com

Howard County’s reputation as a regional capital for great Korean cuisine has only grown in recent years, with new food halls, pastry shops, grocery stores and other businesses bringing a taste of South Korea to Maryland. While plenty of newcomers abound, one established restaurant has remained a favorite among Howard County readers: Honey Pig Korean BBQ, which has branches in Rockville, Germantown, Virginia and Texas and opened in Ellicott City in 2010.

As the name suggests, the restaurant’s specialty includes grilled meats. Prepared tableside, it’s an ideal and exciting way particularly for larger groups to dine. All meals start off with banchan, or small plates that include various types of kimchi and other zesty sides. Snack on them before, during and after the main event.

Honorable mentions:

Bonchon Columbia

Shin Chon

Kim Bob Na Ra

Late-night dining: EC Diner

Honorable mentions:

Xenia Greek Kouzina

Cured | 18th & 21st

Iron Bridge Wine Co.

Latin: El Azteca

Honorable mentions:

La Palapa Grill & Cantina

Ernesto’s Mexican Grill

Cilantro Neighborhood Cantina

Live entertainment: Cured | 18th & 21st

Honorable mentions:

Toby’s Dinner Theatre

Cazbar

Kelsey’s Restaurant, Irish Pub & Banquet Room

Lunch menu: EC Diner

Honorable mentions:

Xenia Greek Kouzina

Cured | 18th & 21st

Sushi King

New restaurant: EC Diner

Honorable mentions:

Bushel and a Peck Kitchen & Bar

Blowfish Poke

Mikey & Mel’s Deli

Outdoor dining: EC Diner

Honorable mentions:

Xenia Greek Kouzina

The Elkridge Furnace Inn

Hudson Coastal

Pandemic MVP: EC Diner

Honorable mentions:

Xenia Greek Kouzina

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Hudson Coastal

The Elkridge Furnace Inn

Pizza: Coal Fire

Honorable mentions:

Trattoria E Pizzeria Da Enrico

Tino’s Italian Bistro

Ledo Pizza

Place to take out-of-towners: Xenia Greek Kouzina

Honorable mentions:

EC Diner

Cured | 18th & 21st

The Iron Bridge Wine Co.

Place to take the kids: EC Diner

Honorable mentions:

Mutiny Pirate Bar & Island Grille

Blowfish Poke

Hudson Coastal

Seafood: Hudson Coastal

Honorable mentions:

Xenia Greek Kouzina

EC Diner

Cured | 18th & 21st

Server Meredith BonGiorni is one of the award-winning staff of Xenia Greek Kouzinai.
Server Meredith BonGiorni is one of the award-winning staff of Xenia Greek Kouzinai. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun)

Server: Meredith BonGiorni, Xenia Greek Kouzina

The Columbia resident and Howard County native, 34, has been serving for 16 years, all in Howard County. “I truly care about my guests and their experiences,” she said. “I try and always be a step ahead for whatever my guests need.” BonGiorni was hired last July to manage Xenia’s social media accounts and began serving a few months later.“Training was real quick because I was already comfortable already.” Today, she’s proud to be a part of a restaurant that she thinks of like a “jewelry box.”

Honorable mentions:

Amanda Curtis, The Iron Bridge Wine Co.

Celine Manneville, The Iron Bridge Wine Co.

Elaine Reese, Kelsey’s Restaurant, Irish Pub & Banquet Room

Sports bar: Looney’s Pub

Honorable mentions:

Mutiny Pirate Bar & Island Grille

Nottingham’s Tavern

The Ale House Columbia

Steak: Cured | 18th & 21st

Honorable mentions:

Xenia Greek Kouzina

The Iron Bridge Wine Co.

Stanford Grill

Sushi: Sushi King

Honorable mentions:

Sushi Sono

Umi Sushi

Blowfish Poke

Takeout: Xenia Greek Kouzina

Honorable mentions:

Blowfish Poke

Cured | 18th & 21st

Mikey & Mel’s Deli

Thai: Thai Aroma

Honorable mention:

Eattini Thai Kitchen

Value: EC Diner

Honorable mentions:

Xenia Greek Kouzina

Sushi King

Cured | 18th & 21st

Vegetarian options: Great Sage

Honorable mentions:

Xenia Greek Kouzina

Koshary by Misteka

The Iron Bridge Wine Co.

View: The Elkridge Furnace Inn

Honorable mentions:

The Turn House

Xenia Greek Kouzina

The Iron Bridge Wine Co.

Wine list: The Iron Bridge Wine Co.

Honorable mentions:

Xenia Greek Kouzina

Aida Bistro & Wine Bar

The Elkridge Furnace Inn

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