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Robert St. John

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

Not Just Another Dinner

February 24, 2021

This column is written in the afterglow of a special weekend.

I just spent the past few days with my wife, daughter, and son— just the four of us— hanging out together in our apartment in New Orleans. We did, as we usually do, with most of our trips and planned most of our activities around eating and restaurant reservations. But unlike most research-and-development restaurant journeys with us, the food, service, and atmosphere were all secondary to the company.

Family always comes first. But this time it was different.

Our son had been away at college for several weeks, and our daughter is about to graduate and start a career. This visit seemed different. I feel blessed that we have always been a close-knit family—from the time they were born, until the time the four of us traipsed around Europe for six months, even during the post high-school years—but there is something about hanging out with your kids as young adults that is singular and very unique.

The days of discipline and manners correction are over, for the most part. Despite the age differences, and wide disparity of personal interests, we have so much in common and there is never a lull in the conversation. Having a dinner with your grown children is sort of like having dinner with friends you have known for many years but have also changed their diapers. There’s so much more history from which to draw with grown kids, and so much of the conversation is understood before it is spoken. So much so that everyone ends up speaking in a non-cryptic version of familial conversational shorthand.

Our restaurant reservations took us all over the city into different styles and types of cuisines but the highlight for me was when the four of us ate raw oysters in Cooter Brown’s, the longstanding dive bar at the Riverbend. We had reservations at Alon Shaya’s, Saba, later that evening but I wanted us all to have oysters on the half shell— which we all love— and our usual oyster go-to, Pascal’s Manale is now closed on Sunday. My son is a die-hard fan of Casamento’s and had never been to Cooter Brown’s. He was impressed.

The oysters were great. The company was better. In my wilder days in the late 70s and early 80s I hung out in Cooter Brown’s for the beer. It was nice to be back with my kids sharing a large tray of oysters with my family.

I have always believed that oysters taste better in a dive bar. I worked in a beach version of a dive bar in the Florida Panhandle before I started opening restaurants on my own. There is a different energy when people are in an extremely casual atmosphere. Throw in a vacation and things begin to loosen up even more.

I lived in Destin, Florida on two separate occasions. Both stretches covered the relaxed off-season and the busy tourist season in full swing. Prices changed in the off-season so business could be sustained by locals and a staff could be retained in the off months. The food was the same, places just charged more during the tourist season.

I have known several restaurants that thrived in vacation destinations but fell flat when they moved ashore and away from the holiday vibe. People are more forgiving when on holiday. Wallets are looser and attitudes are more pardoning. As soon as a vacationing family arrives back home, standards change. It’s hard for a vacation-oriented restaurant to bring the laissez-faire attitudes and service standards into the hectic and sometimes monotonous world of everyday life.

Something was different about that short visit to the oyster bar and I can’t quite put my finger on it. But if I could bottle it and save it, I would. We’ve enjoyed tens of thousands of meals together as a family. This one sticks out to me. The oysters were cold, salty, and just the right size. The atmosphere was as casual as a dining atmosphere can be. But it was my wife and kids— in that exact place and time— that made everything a magical and memorable moment.

Hanging out with your grown-up kids is like visiting the best parts of yourself. The four of us have shared so much through the years and experienced so much life together. Though I don’t know if we have ever been as completely and totally “in the moment” as we were in that place and time, and for that I am grateful.

I am blessed.


This week’s recipe: Bloody Mary Oyster Shooters

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