For the past 20-plus years, my final column of the year is always a list of the top dining experiences I enjoyed throughout the previous year. Typically, it’s a pretty easy piece to write. For the past several years I have spent two or three months working in Italy. Over there, one can find a memorable dining experience around every corner and down almost every cobblestone street.
In a typical year, I spend a good bit of time travelling across the country doing research and development for our restaurants, or down in New Orleans eating my way through— what I believe to be— the nation’s second-best restaurant city behind New York.
But this has not been a typical year. Far from it. For the past 10 months, we’ve been dealing with a once-in-a-100-years pandemic of biblical proportions. Travel is virtually non-existent. Cities have been shuttered for large portions of the year.
Despite the unprecedented times we’ve been living in, there have been memorable moments. The following is a list of my top 10 dining experiences from 2020, submitted in the hopes that 2021 brings us one of our best years, ever.
10. First Dinner After Brigtsen’s Reopened
I have often written about Brigtsen’s being one of my favorite restaurants in New Orleans. Frank Brigtsen is a humble, down-to-earth true legend of Crescent City’s restaurant scene. His namesake restaurant stayed closed longer than most. As soon as it reopened, I made a reservation.
Brigtsen and I visited and commiserated about the state of our industry and the state of the nation that evening. Sadly, I believe that this global pandemic will hit New Orleans much harder than the devastating flood waters of Hurricane Katrina, if for no other reason that there were twice as many restaurants when this pandemic started as there were when New Orleans flooded after Katrina.
Though Brigtsen is a survivor. Anyone who has been in this business for as long as he has couldn’t be considered anything less.
The Butternut Squash and Shrimp Bisque at Brigtsen’s is— to my taste— the second best soup I have ever eaten (next to the late-great Paul Bocuse’s mushroom soup in Lyon). It would be on any last-meal list I ever compiled. The same goes for the crawfish cornbread with jalapeño and smoked corn butter.
9. BBQ Shrimp at Rosedale, New Orleans
If there were ever a New Orleans restaurant that felt like it was created especially for me, it would be Rosedale— hidden away, very casual, with excellent food, no frills, and great service. Susan Spicer is widely known for Bayona, and her longstanding contributions to the fine-dining scene in New Orleans that iconic French Quarter mainstay. But give me Rosedale, tucked away on a quiet street in Mid City.
The BBQ Shrimp dish served at Rosedale is the finest example of that New Orleans classic I have ever tasted. Period. End of discussion. It is so good that it will ruin you for all other future versions in all other restaurants going forward. But I have learned not to order bbq shrimp in another restaurant. Once one has tasted perfection, it’s game over.
8. Saint Germaine, New Orleans
Typically, a reservation at Saint Germaine is a tough get. The dining room seats less than 20 people and the menu changes daily. I have hoped to dine there for a few years, but my timing was off. On a lark, I checked to see if they had any openings several weeks ago, and got in.
What followed was one of the finest prepared meals I have eaten in a long while. The dishes were very subtle but extremely flavorful. There are serious skills in that kitchen. The Saint Germaine chefs cook with finesse, and maybe with the most finesse in the city.
Bonus: Saint Germaine is located on St. Claude with Red’s Chinese to the right and Galaxie Tacos to the left. The barbacoa tacos at Galaxie are a perfect example of culinary perfection in a simple dish. As a double bonus, parking is always easy as there are usually openings on the neutral ground.
7. Breakfast in Whitefish, Montana at the Buffalo Café
In September, my wife and I were suffering from cabin fever and took a road trip as far north as we could go without crossing the border into Canada and ended up in Whitefish. What a beautiful little town, nestled in the foothills of Glacier National Park.
When dining out in a new city, I make it a rule to only visit a restaurant once to make sure and fit in as many new experiences as possible during a visit. I ate breakfast on the first morning at the Buffalo Café and spent every other breakfast while I was in town at that small community diner.
The shred on the hash browns was the most unique I have ever seen, and I’ve been trying to recreate it at the Midtowner ever since.
6. Mexican Theme Night at Home During the Shutdown
One of the silver linings in this year has been that both of my kids came back home to live. My wife and I though those days were over.
At the height of the shutdown when everyone everywhere spent a few weeks locked in at home, my family started having theme nights for dinner. The Mexican-themed dinner we held sometime in April on our back patio will remain in my memory for as long as I will be able to remember.
There was nothing fancy about the dishes we prepared and served. It was just one of those meals when you look across at the people you are dining with and realize— in that moment— there is no place you’d rather be.
5. Superica, Atlanta
We are opening a Tex Mex concept and I have been doing research and development around that concept for over two years. Chef/restaurateur, Ford Fry is— to my thinking— the best Tex Mex chef in the country. His cookbook had just been released when we started the dining-around process and his restaurants in Atlanta and Houston gave us a great target for which to aim. In addition, Fry and his team were very generous with their time and advice.
4. El Tiempo, Houston
I visited this restaurant more than any other over the two-year research and development phase for our new Tex Mex joint. Of the almost hundreds of Mexican restaurants on our list, it was the best, time and time again.
3. Jackson Hole, Wyoming
I could fill up most of my top 10 list with the places we dined in during the brief stop in Jackson Hole on the aforementioned road trip. I fell in love with that town, and Grand Teton National Park. Beautiful.
2. Family Tastings for El Rayo
This new Tex Mex restaurant will be my 21st restaurant opening (19 as an owner). I have never had the luxury of sitting down with my wife and two children during the recipe-testing phase. My family sat down with our culinary team for six or seven recipe-testing sessions and had a blast. They gave great feedback and my son, who plans to go to culinary school after his undergraduate work is finished, gained useful knowledge for a future restaurant career.
1. Final Dinner at the Purple Parrot Café
The Purple Parrot was the first restaurant I ever opened back in 1987. In March, we served our last meal before the shutdown not knowing it would be our last meals ever served. In July we opened it back up for one week and had friends join us to give the old girl a proper sendoff. I saved the final reservation on the final night for my wife and two kids.
As I sat and ate, I thought back to 32 years of dining experiences held in that room. What an amazing run. Suprisingly, there was no remorse or bitterness. Just hope for a brighter future in the days ahead. That hope still remains. Here’s hoping 2021 is our best year, ever.