Dining out in a nice restaurant is a treat. I feel blessed to work in an industry where people come to celebrate life’s special occasions— birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, retirements, and the like. To be even a small part of people’s lives during those times is an honor, and a responsibility that we never take lightly.
Dining out is a more common occurrence in our family these days. With a daughter off at college, we find ourselves eating dinners out of the home more often. We still dine at home a good bit (my 16-year old son ate an entire chicken pot pie the other night), but we also dine out. It’s my business.
Both of my kids— the aforementioned human garbage disposal, a junior in high school, and my daughter, a junior in college— have been eating in local, independent restaurants since they were born. Their mother and I never adjusted our travel schedule once the kids joined the clan. Their mom and I had dated almost five years, and had been married almost five when our daughter was born. We had seen the world as a couple. Now we wanted to experience it as a family. We took them out to eat very early, and made them select from the choices on the menu. From the age of four, we made them choose from the adult menu. Luckily the strategy worked and they both have sophisticated palates.
I grew up in a different era. We rarely ate out. My mother was a widowed art teacher and we didn’t have the resources to eat out often. But even had we been able to make dining out a several-times-weekly routine, the options were very limited in Hattiesburg, Mississippi in the 1960s and 1970s.
If it was someone’s birthday, my grandmother usually hosted a very formal dinner at her house. The food was amazing. She pulled out all the stops with sterling silver flatware and goblets, fine china, freshly pressed linen napkins, a fresh floral arrangement from her yard (it didn’t matter the season, there was always something blooming). The food was outstanding, so good, that a 56-year old man still spends an inordinate amount of time writing about those meals.
My grandfather on the other side of the family always wanted to go to a catfish house on his birthday. I loved that because I could order fried shrimp. As much as I loved my grandmother’s leg of lamb, roast beef, fried chicken, and turkey— as a 10-year old boy— I would have traded them all for an order of fried shrimp.
During my youth, fried shrimp sat at the pinnacle of the dining-out food pyramid. Whether we were eating at a local catfish house, one of the two or three local independent restaurants (Captain John’s Seafood House was my go-to), or dining in New Orleans or on the Mississippi Gulf Coast— I never even needed to look at the menu— I wanted fried shrimp. Period. End of order, and don’t forget the ketchup.
In the mid-1980s, I began dining in restaurants for business research and development of my restaurant concepts. I spent a five-year period in the late 1980s and early 1990s eating almost nothing but fine-dining food. I was set to open, and later had opened, my first restaurant— The Purple Parrot on December 27, 1987— and I was learning all about the fine-dining food scene, and teaching myself how to replicate those dishes. I was eating in fine-dining restaurants all over New Orleans and the Florida Panhandle. Eventually, I began creating my own dishes, but still went back to the well for inspiration. After 10 years of eating like that, I started craving “real” foods, and would search out a good fried chicken joint, and think nothing of driving 90 minutes to have lunch.
Today, approaching my 30th year as an owner, and my 38th as a restaurant guy, I feel I have come full circle. I don’t eat as much for R&D these days unless we have a new concept in the works. I eat for pleasure and the communal act of sharing a meal with someone— my wife, kids, friends, co-workers. I just like dining with other people and sharing that experience.
These days, if it’s my son and me, we eat steak. Period. No question. And we’ll drive for a great steak. He is the cleanest eater in the family, but he loves steak. My wife and I are diverse eaters. She and I have been doing this for 30 years. We’ve eaten all over the world together. She spent her early years in El Paso, and, locally, always opts for Mexican. If we are in a fine-dining restaurant— one of mine or out of town— and she usually goes for fresh fish. My 20-year old daughter is a mama’s girl and has developed her mother’s love for Mexican cuisine, but was also eating at Commander’s Palace in a high chair at six-months old and perfectly behaved, so she’s a pro wherever we go.
We prefer to all eat together whenever we are all together, though lately our number has dwindled to three. My wife and I eat lunch together almost every day, and have for decades. I consider myself a blessed man for having been able to pull that off for three decades.
When it comes to my dining out these days, it just depends on the circumstance. If I need to investigate a new dish or concept, that’s what we do, and that dictates where we go. If we’re travelling abroad, I do my best to eat what the locals eat and stay away from tourist traps and Americanized versions of local food. In the U.S. I have favorites and a diverse set of “go-tos” in Chicago, San Francisco, and New York. In New Orleans, I keep a list of “need-to-get-tos” and a review of places I have been, along with lists of restaurants that I recommend when asked (and I’m asked a lot).
While dining out in a fine restaurant, I always go for the feature or something new from which I might learn the use of a new ingredient or technique. Again, if I’m with my son, we eat steak. If I’m in a white tablecloth restaurant anywhere near the coast, I order fish or oysters— and the more exotic and elaborate the preparation, the better, if I’m doing R&D.
Last night Wyatt Waters and I were down on the Mississippi Gulf Coast at a book signing. We have been listening to a John Lennon biography on audiobooks as we tour around the state with this our newest coffee table cookbook. Maybe it was the audiobook that took me back to childhood memories of the Coast, or maybe it was a genuine craving, but half way through the signing at Pass Books in Pass Christian, I developed a deep desire for fried shrimp. No matter what any of the book buyers suggested, or restaurants they recommended, I was going to eat fried shrimp.
People expect someone who owns a fine-dining restaurant to eat that type food all of the time. Nothing could be further from the truth. People at the book signing asked, “Where are y’all going to eat?”
I responded, “Who has the best fried shrimp on the Coast?” They often would try to steer me towards fresh fish options. “We sell over eight tons of fresh fin fish every year at our restaurants. I can get four to five fresh Gulf varieties that were swimming in the Gulf last night year-round.” The same goes for oysters and crab meat. I’m blessed that it’s all available to me on a daily basis. “I just want some fried shrimp.”
Once Waters and I left the bookstore, I drove west one block and stopped at a restaurant called Bacchus. We walked into the restaurant, were seated at the bar, and the owner recognized us and walked over to greet us and inform us of the nightly features. “Do you have friend shrimp?” I asked.
“I don’t even need to see a menu. I would like fried shrimp.” He might have disappointed, he might have just been busy, but he looked as if he had the thought, “Isn’t this St. John dude supposed to be some type of gourmet guy? What’s up with the fried shrimp?”
His fried shrimp were excellent. They were huge and they were breaded— not battered. I have never cared for battered seafood, whether I’m in England or an American fast food place, batter tends to hold grease on the inside.
I felt like a kid again.
Want to know why I wanted fried shrimp? Because fried shrimp are good.
It was a go-to as a kid, and it was my go-to last night.