For the 18 years this column has been published, the final entry in December has been an end-of-the-year list of my top-10 favorite dining experiences throughout the past year. Compiling the list is one of my favorite things to do each year, as it forces me to go back and remember meals shared with family and friends. It makes me so happy to do this at the close of every year, it’s probably an exercise I should practice on a monthly basis.
10. R&G Lounge, San Francisco—I long for great Chinese food back home. Whenever I am in a town with a substantial Chinese restaurant community, I do my best to take advantage of it. While on a daytrip to San Francisco, I took my friend, Steve Murphey, to my favorite Chinese joint. We sat at the bar and— as usual— ate way too much. The salt and pepper crab is a thing of beauty.
9. An Undisclosed Recording Studio, Florence, Alabama—Watercolorist, friend, and collaborator, Wyatt Waters, and I were invited to Muscle Shoals, Alabama to watch our friend, musician, singer, songwriter, Mac McAnally, at work in his recording studio as he put the finishing production touches on his new album, Southbound, which benefits the charity Extra Table. I have dreamed of hanging out in a recording studio since I was a young, teenage subscriber to Rolling Stone magazine. McAnally brought in hot dogs from a local place called Bunyon’s. There wasn’t really anything special about them except for the spicy slaw that dressed the bun. But, in that moment, and in that company, in those surroundings, they were some of the best things I have ever tasted.
It didn’t hurt that McAnally asked Waters and me to come into the recording booth and sing backing vocals on a track that made the album. Fueled with Bunyon’s hot dogs, we nailed it.
8. The Franklin, New Orleans—As we did over a dozen times in the past year, my wife and I walked from our apartment in the Marigny to this small, corner, neighborhood restaurant for a quiet dinner— just the two of us. I love this place. The steak frites is my go-to, and when they have lamb spare ribs, I always double up.
There is something very “local” about the feel of that place. It speaks to me.
7. Every meal eaten on the A Mississippi Palate book tour, All Across, Mississippi—Wyatt Waters and I completed our fourth book this year. On the resulting promotional book-signing tour that took us all over the state, we ate well and we ate often. I told myself before the start of this tour that I wanted to slow down, soak it all in, and enjoy every conversation with people who came to the bookstore, the meals, the booksellers, all of it. But most of all, I didn’t want to take the time spent with my best friend for granted.
Our first book was such a whirlwind of craziness that it was all over before we could even catch our breath. On subsequent tours, we never seemed to get out in front of the schedule enough to appreciate the blessings surrounding a successful book release. Not this time. Even though we were swamped by a very tight schedule, I feel like we milked every minute of it. My New Year’s wish for everyone is to be able to work alongside their best friend in a successful undertaking. Shared success is so much more rewarding than solo success.
6. La Gramola, Tavarnelle Val d’Pesa, Italy—Waters and I have led over 100 people, on four separate trips, to Italy over the past year. There are so many meals and events that are memorable on those trips, but occasionally one or two will stand out in the crowd. I always take our Tuscan visitors to a small local restaurant, La Gramola, run by a local married couple, for a pasta-making lesson. We return later that night to eat the pasta they have made.
On one particular night this past April, the food was piling up, and the wine was flowing, and two members of our group of 32 decided to lead the group in an impromptu singalong. Gene manned the upright piano in the corner, while John sang an enthusiastic rendition of Jerry Jeff Walker’s version of the Ray Wylie Hubbard tune, Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother. Our group, most of whom were strangers to each other a few days earlier, joined in. To my surprise— or maybe not— these people from different parts of the country, and different backgrounds, knew every word to the song. They sang loud, and they sang proud.
The other Italians dining in the restaurant seemed to enjoy the spectacle. Our local friend, Marina, was amazed that everyone joined in without advance notice. For an encore, Gene and John— along with the entire group— sang an unrehearsed version of David Alan Coe’s You Don’t Have to Call Me Darlin’. The television film crew was there filming episodes for our series Palate to Palette, but we operate on a shoestring and can’t afford to purchase the song rights. Hopefully, through creative sound editing, we’ll be able to broadcast a portion of that meal, with video footage of the singalong. It was one of the most unique dining experiences I have ever witnessed.
5. Lunch at La Petit Grocery, New Orleans—There is nothing monumental about this lunch with just my wife and me. We had been in New Orleans for a few days and were about to head home. I can’t really remember what we ordered (though I always live on the appetizer side of the La Petit menu, along with the sides), but every time I have searched the recesses of my brain for memorable meals in 2017, this one keeps popping up.
I guess I am just grateful to have spent almost 30 years with the love of my life, and am so grateful that even seemingly mundane and routine meals for no reason, or special occasion, can still be memorable.
I love you, Jill.
4. Brightsen’s, New Orleans—The St. Johns took a low-key Spring Break this year. We just hung out— the four of us— in New Orleans and on the Gulf Coast. My kids had never eaten at Brightsen’s, nor had they met my culinary idol, Frank Brightsen. We all visited, and Brightsen told the kids stories about a life in the restaurant business. My son would tell you that was the meal where he ate the absolute best mashed potatoes he has ever tried. Overall, it was a very, very memorable meal.
3. Easter Lunch at Annagloria’s villa, Tavarnelle Val d’Pesa, Italy—In advance of our Spring Italian Palate tour, I flew my wife, kids, and two of their friends, over to Tuscany where we spent their Easter break. Our friend Annagloiria invited us to Easter lunch at her house. It was a huge affair, and felt 100% Tuscan. There were at least 30 people and six or eight courses, and a meaningful meal with family and friends.
2. Dinner at Barbara and Alberto’s apartment, Milan—After our December tour group departed Milan and returned home, Wyatt Waters, his girlfriend, my wife, and I were invited to dinner by our Milanese friends, Barbara and Alberto. The minestrone was as good as I’ve ever eaten— light, flavorful, and unlike mine, without tomatoes. Our hosts passed around a plate of bresaola (Italian cured beef, and my absolute favorite antipasta) and pecorino, and we had panatone with zabaglione for dessert. The meal was simple, uncomplicated, authentic, and delicious. It was a real, Italian home-cooked dinner, and as good as the food was— and it was excellent— the dinner-table conversation and company was even better.
It was one of those dinners where you are enthralled with the conversation on your end of the table, but regret that you’re missing what is being said on the other end.
The defining moment for me was when Alberto gave one of the most heartfelt complimentary toasts from a friend I have ever received. Alberto spoke of our friendship and of our two families. He spoke about how we met years ago and our mutual love for each other’s countries and culture. It was genuine, warm, personal, and one of the most meaningful meal moments I have ever experienced
1. Lunch at La Laconda, Pietracupa, Tuscany—On the Easter trip with the kids, my daughter caught a 24-hour stomach bug. While my wife nursed our daughter in the villa, I took my son and his girlfriend out for lunch. We went to one of my top-three restaurants in all of Tuscany. It’s a simple, but refined, place in a very small, out of the way village, that most people would pass up 99 times out of 100— that would be their mistake. Laconda Pietracupa is run by two brothers-in-law who work the dining room floor, and two sisters who man the stoves. It has excellent Italian food as the chefs have a very light touch. I always take our guests there for their first Italian meal after landing, because it sets such a great example of what is to come.
This meal was different though. It was with my son and his girlfriend, and is probably notable because it was the first time I really felt as if I was in the company of an mature, young man. He was just 15-years old at the time, but something about the situation and the conversation was different than it has been in the past.
He and I have shared thousands of meals together, but this was the first time I felt as if there was another adult at the table. The food was great, the setting was sophisticated, but it was the company that made meal.