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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.


October 30, 2006


I receive a lot of e-mail about the fine-dining restaurants I visit. I eat out often. It’s my occupation and my hobby. So far this year I have dined at eight of the top restaurants in New York and others in Atlanta, New Orleans, Chicago, San Francisco, and the Napa Valley. I love foie gras, crisp white linens, and overly solicitous service. But what I love even more are “joints.”

I love a joint. You know the place. At first glance, it might not look like a restaurant one wouldn’t even want to step into, much less dine in. Typically, the atmosphere has accidentally evolved over the years. Nothing is contrived. The food is above average and mostly consistent. The wait staff is blasé, but efficient enough to take care of your needs. They know you by name by the second visit and know what you will order by the fourth. The place is clean in all of the places the count and is usually run by a family, or co-workers who have worked together so long that they consider themselves family. A joint is usually located in what a realtor would consider a B or C location, but it wouldn’t have the charm if it were located anywhere else.

A joint is a nice respite from the sterile, themed, corporate environment of so many just-average restaurants that are no different than the one down the road at the previous interstate exchange.

All hail the joints of the world.

A joint is full of character and is usually operated by characters. At our restaurants we strive hard to offer top-notch service and superior food. We spend hours training our wait staff and kitchen staff. Not so the joint. The typical joint appears to have handed a server a pencil and pad on their first day on the job and told them to “get out there and take an order.” Yet it works.

Most joints specialize in one particular food item. It is that food that has put them on the map. It might be one individual dish or it could be a broad category of food such as steak or barbeque. It might even specialize in a particular meal period such as breakfast or late-night dining.

There are joints with good food, bad food, and excellent food. They key is to find the ones with excellent food and put them into your dining rotation.

The one universal characteristic of a joint is that it is casual. A joint wears its casualness as a badge of honor. I love casual. It is Casual Friday every day at my office.

The other day at a speaking engagement, I was asked which restaurants— other than my own— I frequent most often. The audience seemed surprised by the answer I gave. They were all joints. They are places where the food is above average to excellent in its category, the service is friendly and efficient, and the atmosphere is casual and proud of it.

In Hattiesburg, when I want barbeque I go to Leatha’s on U.S. 98. They have beach towels for curtains, but the meat is tender, the smoke ring goes to the bone, and Bonnie takes good care of me.

If I want catfish, I go to Rayner’s on U.S. 49 North. It’s nothing more than a cinder block building but they’ve been frying catfish for over 40 years and it shows. The cole slaw is good, and the service is friendly.

When I eat steak I go to Donanelle’s on U.S. 49 South at the North Gate of Camp Shelby. When speaking of Donanelle’s, my friend said, “It ain’t much to look at, but the steaks taste great.” Donanelle’s is the quintessential joint. They serve steak, ribs, yellowfin tuna, and that’s about it. If you want a salad, your dressing choices are: Ranch, ranch, or ranch. No apologies. The rib-eye steaks are highly seasoned and marinated just like I like them. They are cooked over live charcoal, and my son can watch while they cook.

I love steak and eat it often. I visit the chain-operated steak restaurants occasionally, but I usually have to wait 30-45 minutes before I am even seated. I can leave my house, drive the nine miles to Donanelle’s, eat dinner and be home before I would have finished my salad at any of the near-the-interstate-exchange restaurants. If the food is good, I am always willing to give up atmosphere and a few of the finer points of service.

Do you have a favorite joint? If so, e-mail the name, address, and any pertinent information. I am compiling a list of The South’s Greatest Joints and would love to add your favorite to the collection.

Robert’s Marinated Steaks

6 Ribeye steaks (12-14 oz.), USDA Choice or Certified Black Angus
1 /4 cup Steak seasoning (recipe below)
3 Tbl Lemon pepper seasoning
1 cup Dale’s Steak Marinade
1 cup Stubb’s Beef Marinade (or other meat marinade: Allegro, etc.)
2 Tbl Garlic, minced
1 Tbl Liquid Smoke
Freshly ground black pepper

Heat grill to a medium-high heat. Rub steaks liberally with dry seasonings and pat them making sure the seasoning adheres to the steak. Set aside.

Mix the remaining ingredients together in a bowl. Place the seasoned steaks in a gallon-sized Ziploc bag (no more than 2 steaks per bag) and pour enough marinade into the bag to cover the steaks halfway when they are laying flat. Squeeze all excess air out the bag and seal. Allow the steaks to marinate in the refrigerator, lying flat, for no longer then two hours. Remove steaks from refrigerator 30 minutes before grilling.

Place steaks on the grill and immediately pour a little of the excess marinade on top of the steaks and sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper. After the steaks are turned (and you should only turn grilled items once) add a little more of the marinade. Yield: 6 steaks

Steak Seasoning

1 /2 cup Lawry’s Seasoned Salt
1 /3 cup Black pepper
1 /4 cup Lemon Pepper
2 Tbl Garlic Salt
2 Tbl Granulated Garlic
1 Tbl Onion Powder

Combine all and mix well. Store in an airtight container.

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