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Robert St. John

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


September 8, 2021

I am a regular. Always have been, always will be.

If I am in town, I regularly eat breakfast at 7:00 AM at table number 19 in our breakfast-lunch café, The Midtowner. I am here every morning along with the usual cast of morning regulars. Restaurant concepts such as these thrive on regular customers. Some come in every other morning, others on weekends only, several are here every morning. I am in the latter group.

I have been a morning regular at other restaurants most of my life. Before I opened this breakfast-lunch café, I spent my mornings at the bagel shop downtown. Back in the late 1980s when I opened our first restaurant, I would grab a cinnamon roll at a short-lived cafe every morning. In the early days of the first restaurant— when I spent four years working 90-hours a week in the kitchen— I ate a large pepperoni pizza at midnight when I got home. The people at the pizza delivery place knew me, and knew my order by heart. One of the most memorable times I spent as a morning regular was at a French bakery run by a French pastry chef located across the street from my office. That was a great 10-year period when I was able to eat croissants every morning that were as good as any I have eaten in Paris.

One of the highlights of my week these days is the breakfast I share on alternating Saturday and Sunday mornings with my childhood friends— and Midtowner regulars— Mike and Carolyn. I grew up with them both. I’ve known Carolyn just about as long as I’ve known anyone on the planet except my brother and mother, and Mike and I went to elementary school together. Carolyn works a late shift on alternating weeks, and she and Mike show up at 7:15 a.m. as soon as Carolyn gets off. There is never a lull in the conversation on those mornings. That’s how it usually works with longtime friendships from childhood. I love that.

I have always valued my childhood friendships. My friends and I grew up in a time, during the late 1960s through 1979, that was a special and unique period in Hattiesburg Ms. Most of our fathers grew up together and, in the mid 1960s, purchased houses in what was the “new part of town” They all had kids around the same time, so my friends and I— sons and daughters of parents who were friends— grew up within a few blocks of each other and walked to school every morning. It was a different day and time. There were no video games, no streaming videos, and only three channels on our televisions, so we spent our days outside, on bikes, and in the woods.

I was telling a friend the other day that I can’t imagine having a better childhood. Not because I was surrounded by a lot of material things or because my family had a lot of money. Neither of those is true. I came from a single-parent home that survived on an art teacher’s salary. What I had were deep and meaningful friendships with people I still care about. Deeply.

I ran into Susan, one of our childhood friends, in one of the restaurants the other night. She lives in Houston and was here visiting for her mother’s birthday. I told her to join Mike, Carolyn, and me for breakfast this Sunday. She said she would love to. Then I started thinking that maybe I should call some of our other childhood friends to join us for breakfast while Susan was in town. We really don’t get together, as the entire group, very often. Hardly ever more than eight of us have even been in the same room at the same time since we graduated high school, 41 years ago.

The thing about childhood friends that you grew up with is that the bond is so deep that one can not see another for a decade or more but everyone picks right back up where they left off in an instant. It’s been my experience that most friendships made later in life don’t have that type of deep connection.

So, I started texting all of the friends our age whose cell numbers I had and invited them to an early breakfast at the Midtowner before Susan’s flight was scheduled to leave. Everyone said, “Yes,” and almost everyone made it that morning at 7:30 AM. There is a time in our lives when half of that group— I being chief among the sinners— couldn’t even wake up before 11 AM. I woke up at 4:00 AM this morning anticipating the breakfast and looking forward to the fellowship.

The discussion was lively. It was exactly what the host of a dining party would want— energetic discussion, people moving chairs from one end of the table to the other to talk to each other, and just the right amount of old war stories combined with what-are-you-doing-these-days reports.

Halfway through the meal, I took a break from my eggs and bacon, pushed back from the table, and took in the scene. It was at that moment that I once again reminded myself what a wonderful childhood I had back then. Looking from the outside, a stranger might believe that I grew up under challenging and unfortunate circumstances— my father died when I was six, my brother and I were raised by a single mom, three people living off of an art teacher’s salary, I had to work full-time beginning at 15-years-old if I wanted any spending money or a car— but I never once looked at things that way when I was growing up. Not because I am some type of self-actualized, zen-filled being. No. It’s because I had a supportive family, and I had close, loving, and caring friendships.

The challenges I had in my early life prepared me for the life that lay ahead. These friends, and others, stood by me through the good times and the bad. Because that is what friends do. It’s what we still do.

We all turn 60 this year.

My grandfather used to say, “A rich man has his first dollar. A wealthy man has his first friend.” He also said, “You can judge a man’s wealth, not by the size of his bank account, but by the depth and breadth of his friendships.” I feel like a rich man today. Not because I have a bunch of money in the bank. I don’t. But— because I have a wealth of friendships from as far back as I have memories. And for that I am truly grateful.


This week’s recipe: Breakfast Casserole Number 1

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