Every week for 17 years I have written this column, never missing a week. At the end of each of those 17 years I have compiled a list detailing my top 10 dining experiences for that year.
This is always one of my favorite columns because it gives me a chance to sit and reflect on the meals I have shared with family and friends over the past 12 months. It also gets me excited for what might lie ahead in the upcoming year.
10.) Stein’s Deli Run, New Orleans— I am a fan of true deli sandwiches. I vacillate between the Rachel and the Sam at Stein’s. Lately I have been eating the Sam (pastrami, Russian dressing, Swiss cheese, and cole slaw on seeded rye). It is sandwich perfection. One Sunday morning in June I loaded the family up in the car. We drove to the Magazine Street deli, ate lunch, and drove the 90 miles home, all for a sandwich. It was a great day and worth the drive.
9.) The Donut Quest of 2016— Chicago is known as the “Donut Capital of the World.” An Uber driver and I spent 90 minutes hitting the top five donut shops throughout downtown Chicago. I returned to my hotel with 28 donuts. I didn’t eat them all, but the winner was a cinnamon-sugar donut from the Donut Vault. It was 10 a.m. and I was toast for the remainder of the day.
8.) Seafood Feast in Big Sky, Montana— In September my wife and I were invited to my sister-in-law’s cousin’s lodge in the mountains of Montana. I was asked to host and prepare dinner one night, and so I had one of my seafood suppliers on the Coast overnight three ice chests filled with boiled shrimp, stuffed crab, stuffed shrimp, and 40 pounds of King Crab legs to the mountaintop. It was a blast. We ate jet-fresh seafood as we looked out across the mountain range 2,000 miles away from the Gulf of Mexico.
7.) Lunch in Acli Bar, Tavarnelle Val d’Pesa, Tuscany— There were 30 meals that I could have written about during my November trip to Italy. The first week I was leading a behind-the-scenes/underground tour group through Tuscany. The second week I was recovering and researching future trips. On the first full day, I hosted 27 people in a small auditorium above one of my favorite locals-only spots.
My friend Paolo was our host. I had cooked with Paolo’s mother and wife in their small restaurant kitchen a few years ago. His wife passed away in July, but his two teenage daughters helped serve our group. It was a meaningful and emotional experience.
We ate multiple courses of true, blue-collar Tuscan food. Paolo even hung an American flag in the hall to honor our group. It was a perfect meal.
6.) First Dinner with the Family at the New Purple Parrot, Hattiesburg— This was a huge year in our company as most of my time and energy went into an overhaul of our oldest restaurant concept. We updated the restaurant I first opened in 1987. It was a long, stressful, and ultimately successful undertaking. Once all of the work was done, I sat at a table with my wife and kids, surrounded by Wyatt Waters’ beautiful watercolors of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and ate one of the first meals from our new menu. It was a proud moment and I was happy to share it with the ones I love most.
5.) Lunch at La Locanda Pietracupa, San Donato, Tuscany— I have taken friends to Europe in groups of six or eight and have been “semi in charge” of their experience. I once co-hosted a group in England and France that was organized by someone else. In November I hosted a group of 27 people in Tuscany in which I was in charge of all of the planning, transportation, and reservations— basically everything. It was the first time I had done anything like that. The toughest part of the trip was organizing the arrival of people who were coming from different locations— by plane, train, and car— and meeting at the Florence airport at noon on the first day. Once everyone was together and accounted for, we had an elegant lunch at La Locanda Pietracupa in the Tuscan countryside 20 miles south of Florence. I exhaled and said a quick prayer in honor of everyone’s safe arrival and for good days ahead.
4.) Bavette’s Bar and Boeuf , Chicago— I am a big fan of the Chicago restaurateur, Brendan Sodikoff. I have been telling my wife about his concepts for years. She accompanied me this year on my annual trek to Chicago and we ate dinner at, what has now become her favorite Chicago restaurant, Bavette’s. It was like an out-of-town date night for us. The meal was great. The company was better.
3.) My Wife’s Golden Jubilee (50th birthday dinner), George’s, Alys Beach— We sat at sunset with our two children (plus a boyfriend and a girlfriend), and had an excellent seafood meal, al fresco, during what Walter Anderson called, “The magic hour.” It was perfect.
2.) Breakfast at Marchesi Pasticceria, Milan— Marchesi, is a bakery that has been in business since 1824, and is now owned by Prada. Marchesi serves fine pastries, breads, baked goods, and espresso, and is one of the most elegant and refined bakeries, anywhere. We sat and visited with our friends from Milan and ate Panatone (Italian Christmas bread). My wife said it was the best cappuccino she had ever tasted. It was a delightful moment between reunited friends who live 5,000 miles apart.
1.) Game Day Breakfasts w Harry— When I am an octogenarian, and left to sit in a rocking chair to reminisce over the course of my life, I am blessed that I will have many great memories and shared experiences to relive and revisit in my mind. Somewhere in the top 25 of that list will be the breakfasts I shared every Friday morning with my son, Harrison, during a magical football season that saw his team go undefeated during the regular season. I love football, I love breakfast, and I truly love being a father. We ate the same thing, at the same table, at the same time, every Friday morning during the season. We talked about life’s challenges, family, and football. It was one of the most enjoyable “dad moments” I have had in fatherhood.