One of my duties as the Mystery Diner is to recognize the hard work, the forward-looking attitude, the striving for improvement that is the hallmark of a successful restaurant.

In 2020, despite a year beset by pandemic, a nationwide economic shutdown, civil unrest and a dine-around bunch frequently reduced to just three members, several area restaurateurs excelled at their craft and made the list. In alphabetical order, here are the top 12 restaurants that have received a “Recommended” from the Mystery Diner and my friends the dine-around bunch for the year 2020:

Casa Nostra Mediterranean

405 Roy Martin Road, Suite 101, Gray, 806-5182

Casa Nostra is a superb restaurant in all respects. The restaurant’s décor and atmosphere makes for a serene and pleasant dining experience. The service gets high marks for being delightfully professional and unobtrusive toward each Casa Nostra customer. The food served is appetizing, delicious, prepared with attentive care and presented at table to best effect. Their special “VIP Dinners” have diners literally flying in from out-of-state to partake of them. Driss Yousfi, his wife Nadia and best friend Abdul Elmoumni are showing the Tri-Cities what true dining hospitality is. Though the restaurant was closed this past November, Casa Nostra celebrated their Grand (re-)Opening this December just in time for the holidays, and is already garnering raves from customers of both the in-town and out-of-town variety.

Hachimi Japanese Cuisine

3101 W. Market St., Suite 108, Johnson City, 328-0331

One of the best Japanese restaurants in the Tri-Cities is across a parking lot from Wal-Mart. Hachimi is an excellent place for business, family or romantic get-togethers. Supper for two at Hachimi Japanese Cuisine is an event and quite affordable. Zack and Karen are unmatched in their knowledge, skill and service in their craft. You will be impressed with the quality, freshness and presentation of anything you order from the menu. Beginning with that bowl of very good sipping soup that starts your meal, your trip to Hachimi will be a memorable outing.

Nova Sushi Bar & Grill

1337 Tusculum Blvd. Suite #20, Greeneville, 588-5424

Owners Nene and Nunu Thirakul give to Nova’s their personal brand of hospitality, so much so that Nova’s customer service is a touchstone for the rest of culinary Greeneville. The restaurant’s unique décor, the excellent service by the friendly and professional Hailey, and the kitchen’s virtuoso crafting of different entrees set Nova Sushi Bar & Grill apart from the rest of the competition.

Recently, I complimented owner Nene Thirakul on the delicacy and perfection of my Smoked Salmon Skin maki roll; I soon found that I was talking with its creator. This “hands-on” attitude from the top down is what makes Nova Sushi Bar & Grill so very well done, indeed.

Primo’s Italian Cuisine & Catering

100 Rocky Bottom Drive, Unicoi, 735-1100

You will not find a more pleasant place to dine in Unicoi, Tennessee, than Primo’s Italian Cuisine and Catering. The restaurant’s surroundings are pleasant and reassuring, the capable staff is friendly and thoroughly knowledgeable of what the kitchen staff’s culinary skills are capable of, and the food is positively scrumptious. If you need help in shooing away the trials of a too-busy day, and need to relax over a bite or two, then Primo’s in Unicoi can help you do just that.

Puerto Nuevo Mexican & Seafood Restaurant

8162 Highway US19E, Roan Mountain, 481-1412

The dine-around bunch and I really learned a lot about how different and delicious Mexican cookery can be, especially when the folks at Puerto Nuevo Fresh Mexican & Seafood Restaurant are doing the cooking. On the drive home, every member of our group was talking about how great the food was, how many new tastes and textures they had enjoyed, what a great job Ana did taking care of us all, and when we could all come back.

Rockin’ 4M Sausage & Grill

612 Lyle St., Suite 101, Johnson City, 328-3228

The dine-around bunch and I were very pleased with newly opened Rockin’ 4M Sausage & Grill. We each discovered a different aspect of Rockin’ 4M’s competence in the kitchen, all well done in every respect. Owner Lane Morehouse, his wife Stacy and the rest of Rockin’ 4M’s team have made a good start here, and can expect the dine-around bunch and I on their doorstep again very soon.

The Shamrock Beverage & Tobacco

300 W. Walnut St., Johnson City, 926-5211

Johnson City’s The Shamrock is flawless in fulfilling food orders for your inside dining enjoyment, or as a pick-up at the drive-thru window. Shamrock’s menu is online with updates and daily specials available on their Facebook page. You can depend on the professional team at The Shamrock to see that your food order is well-prepared from the finest ingredients, and ready to go when you are. After all, The Shamrock team has been doing it the right way for 91 years.

Smoky Mountain Bakers

500 Cloudland Drive, Roan Mountain, 957-4202 or 481-1004

There is no better way to enjoy a trip through the Tennessee mountains than a visit to Smoky Mountain Bakers in Roan Mountain, Tennessee. Breads, cakes, pies, cookies and the Mountain Empire’s best wood-fired pizza are just part of Smoky Mountain Bakers’ repertoire. In addition to their expertise with lunch and supper, Smoky Mountain Bakers also does a very fine breakfast until 10:45 a.m. Heading for the hills around here is not complete without stopping at Smoky Mountain Bakers, the high point of any trip in Tennessee’s High Country.

sweetFrog

3101 W. Market St., #110, Johnson City, 328-7253

If you are looking to chill out for real on something sweet, you would do well to visit Ms. Haven, the capable and very friendly lady who runs Johnson City’s sweetFrog frozen yogurt shop over on West Market Street. I can’t think of a better way to relax from your daily grind, cool off and have a sweet time doing it. Just be sure you watch out, or the Brain Freeze Monster will get you, like it got me. Mine was lurking in the Fresh Strawberry frozen yogurt.

Vega’s Fiesta Mexican Restaurant

1976 US Highway 11-E, Jonesborough, 788-3264

In an inspired move this past summer, Vega’s Fiesta solved the problem on how to offer sit-down dining to their customers by “going al fresco;” using their patio and pavilion out in back of their restaurant as their dining area. As the weather warms up, here’s hoping that Vegas’ Fiesta keeps their al fresco dining venue as an attractive, comfortable option for sit-down dining while fulfilling the requirements of social distancing with minimal bother. The wait staff is working hard to make sure their customers are greeted, seated and served in a timely and pleasant manner, and the menu at Vega’s Fiesta is compact yet varied enough to attract interest and guarantee return patronage.

Yamato Japanese Steakhouse & Seafood

509 N. State of Franklin Road, Suite 11, Johnson City, 232-8868

With construction underway on Johnson City’s new Publix supermarket, long-time landmark Yamato’s deftly avoided the bulldozer by moving into new digs just across the parking lot from their old location. Now up and running in the new location, owner Dan Lam (“Mister Dan” himself) and his capable team are accepting dine-in customers once more. Thanks to the move, Yamato’s customers can choose from some great dinner specials to mark the occasion. Stay tuned.

Whistle Stop Deli & Catering

110 Howard Gouge Road, Unicoi 743-0877

This is a superb place to stop in and have a bite. The sandwiches are prepared with care and uniformly delicious, with never a complaint in all the years Wanda Taylor and her team has been serving to Unicoi County. The bakery’s offerings alone would tempt anyone. Dining either al fresco or under cover in the nearby Whistle Stop pavilion is a real treat, especially with a CSX long-haul train rolling past on the main line tracks nearby.

From the dine-around bunch and me, thank you, dear readers, for all your kind assistance and guidance in 2020, and I’ll see you all in 2021.