Each of the 20 years I have written this weekly column, I have always finished the year by listing the 10 most memorable meals that I enjoyed throughout the year. It’s one of my favorite things to do because it forces me to look back over the year and re-live some of the moments that made living life, worthwhile.
The list is never the “finest meals” I ate during the previous year, but the meals that stuck with me for one reason or another— whether it was the people I was with, the location, or maybe one particular food item.
10. (tie) F.O.B. Poke, Seattle—I traveled to Seattle in the first quarter of the year to visit the largest donut equipment manufacturing facility in the country. I spent an hour touring the manufacturing facility, and the next eight hours cooking and eating donuts. It was an all-day donut fest. I learned a lot about donuts. I ate a lot of donuts. Seriously, a whole lot of donuts.
Later that evening I was walking around downtown Seattle and wandered into a poke restaurant where I ate the most wonderful poke, I’ve ever tasted. I was probably still basking in the afterglow of the Chihuly museum, and overly stuffed with hours of eating deep fried bread coated with sugar, but that poke joint hit the spot.
10. (tie) Bavette’s—For the past 30 years, I have gone to Chicago each May to attend the National Restaurant Association Convention and Trade Show. It’s usually a solo trip, or with one of my restaurant managers. This year I took my wife and two children. My son is interested in the restaurant business, and the Chicago show is the perfect place to get a great overview of the industry.
Brandon Sodikoff is one of the hottest restaurateurs in the country. He has several concepts in Chicago that I frequent. My wife’s favorite is Bavette’s. The four of us had an excellent dinner. But it was the fact that we were all up there, together— at a time where I am usually popping from restaurant concept to restaurant concept, taking in all I can during the few days I’m in town— that made it special. I think it was also being with my son and talking about the restaurant business.
9. Crescent City Grill, Hattiesburg—It’s been almost 30 years since we opened the Crescent City Grill. The restaurant started out as a place called The Purple Parrot Grill, which was a small, sparsely decorated space located next door to the Purple Parrot Café. We opened both restaurants simultaneously on December 27, 1987. The Purple Parrot Grill was an afterthought, and sort of an insurance policy in case Hattiesburg wasn’t ready to support a fine-dining restaurant. Fortunately, both concepts were a hit, and after a few years more space opened up in our building and I expanded the casual concept and changed the name and theme to help with brand identity. The Crescent City Grill was born.
The menu we started out with looks nothing like the menu we have today. Our philosophy is to offer feature dishes every day throughout the year. The features that sell well, and receive the most positive feedback, are eventually placed on the menu, and the items on the menu that are the lowest sellers are removed. In mid-December we rolled out our best menu, yet. My family and I sat at a table in the corner, ordered all of the new stuff, ate until we were miserably full, and watched as others reacted to the new menu. I love this business.
8. Da Romano, Burano—Burano is a small island a mile or so north of Venice. It was an island that was founded on the lace trade, but I go there for one reason— the salt-crusted sea bass at Da Romano. I have eaten there several times since my first visit in 2011. Daniele is always our server, and he cracks open the salt-crusted sea bass tableside.
Any restaurant that has fed Ernest Hemingway and Keith Richards is a must in my book.
7. Community Center, Walter Anderson Museum of Art, Ocean Springs, MS—This might seem like a strange place for a meal, but my friend, business partner, and collaborator, Wyatt Waters and I led 40 people on a tour of Mississippi that ended up in Ocean Springs at the museum. Not only one of the highlights of that trip, but one of the highlights of the year, was being in the secret little room with Anderson’s son, John Anderson, and hearing about his experience the first time he and his went into that room after Walter Anderson passed away.
After visiting the room, Waters and I hosted a dual demo in the community center Anderson painted. Our group ate dinner and then enjoyed music from a brass funk band. It was a special evening that finished out a very special trip.
6. Tabella Italian Restaurant, Hattiesburg—OK, so this is my place, too, and I eat here all of the time. I believe it’s a good Italian restaurant, and one of the best Italian restaurants in the state. Though I have always wondered what my Italian friends would think of it. In February, I hosted our Tuscan friends, Annagloria and Enzo in Mississippi. One of the first meals we ate together was at Tabella. I was nervous. I have always felt like we nail it on the food, but these two Italians know food, and Annagloria would let me know if something wasn’t up to snuff.
They loved it! Two people who are usually very methodical in what, and how, they eat, devoured everything I brought to the table. The focaccia that we make every day got great reviews, as did our meatballs and our red sauce. It was one of the proudest moments in my 38-year career.
5. Bar dell’ Orso, Monteriggioni, Tuscany—Just outside the small, walled medieval city of Monteriggioni lies a bar that makes the absolute best pasta carbonara I have ever tasted (and I have tasted a lot over the past eight years). The place is nothing fancy, and one you would likely pass by nine times out of 10. But at lunch it’s packed with locals. Waters and I ate there with our friend Marina one a day when our group was taking advantage of their free day.
I have dreamed about that carbonara several times since then. Later that afternoon, Waters completed a painting of clothes hanging on a line in Monteriggioni, which turned out to be my favorite painting of the 32 he completed during the three weeks we were there.
4. Vinile, San Casciano, Tuscany—In the spring, Waters and I led three groups through Tuscany. In the month we spent there, we ate authentic Italian meals, three times a day (sometimes six or eight courses at each meal). Now don’t misunderstand. I love Italian food, especially real Italian food. Also, I make sure that when we are hosting guests on our tours, we always steer away from American food and soft drinks.
Though after a month, the meal at Vinile was welcomed like a long-lost friend. Vinile (the Italian word for vinyl—as in record albums), is in the middle of nowhere and is dedicated to hamburgers. Waters, Marina, and I ate hamburgers under the stars in the Tuscan countryside. It might have been the best hamburger I have ever eaten.
3. Blackberry Farm—I began visiting and writing about Blackberry Farm in the 1990s. My wife and I have spent several anniversaries there. This year marked our 25th anniversary. I love visiting Blackberry on my anniversary because we chose to get married in February. There have been several times it has snowed during our stay in the foothills of the Tennessee Smoky Mountains. This year we didn’t get any snow, but we got exactly what we wanted— a much-deserved rest in a very refined setting.
2. Doris Metropolitan, New Orleans—For three years I have vacillated between three New Orleans steakhouses. At one time, each of the three— Mr. John’s, Dickie Brennan’s, and Crescent City Steakhouse— have been favorites. Though, in my opinion, none can compare to Doris Metropolitan on Chartres Street near Jackson Square.
This year my wife, daughter, son, and I spent Father’s Day there. It was a memorable meal with my favorite people on the planet.
1. The Midtowner, Hattiesburg—I spent 10 years developing a breakfast restaurant concept. For more than 20 years I have wanted to open a Deep South-inspired meat-and-three café. This July, both dreams came true when we opened our newest concept, The Midtowner across from the University of Southern Mississippi on Hardy Street in my hometown of Hattiesburg. I wanted the place to feel and look like it had been open since 1948. More importantly, I wanted The Midtowner to be a gathering place for the entire community— the most Hattiesburg restaurant ever in Hattiesburg— young, old, black, white, rich, poor, guys with their name stitched on their work shirts, and college girls with Greek letters on their sweatshirts. We nailed it.
My son and I eat breakfast together a lot. It’s one of our “things.” The very first breakfast I was able to break away from the kitchen window and sit down with him to share a morning meal felt like 10 years of planning and developing coming together in one moment.