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Robert St. John

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

Big Apple Birthdays

June 5, 2024

BROOKLYN— Growing up I had relatives in New York. My maternal grandmother and grandfather lived here for 10 years or so. He worked on Madison Avenue for the entire decade of the sixties. My first visit here was as a three-year-old in 1964 during the World’s Fair. I don’t remember any of it other than a vague recollection of the song from Disney’s “It’s A Small World” which was introduced at the fair instantly becoming the king of ear-worm songs in the history of all ear-worm songs.

Subsequent visits to the city were uneventful in my memory, though I do remember being fascinated with automats. My New York memories mainly begin on July 20, 1969. I was sitting in Yankee Stadium with my brother and grandfather watching a game between the Yankees and the Washington Senators when legendary public address announcer, Bob Sheppard announced that America had just landed on the moon. The game stopped while the National Anthem was played. We watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon later that night in my grandparent’s apartment somewhere on the Upper East Side.

My paternal grandfather, Thomas St. John, had six brothers. They were all from the tiny town of Brooksville, Mississippi. One of the brothers had a son, a lawyer, who lived in Manhattan all his adult life. He ended up battling drinking and gambling addictions and removed himself from much of his contact with the family except for funerals, and a few phone calls back home when he’d ask me who I liked in a particular SEC football game.

Another of my grandfather’s brothers, Charles St. John, led a wild, alcohol-fueled youth in the 1920s, but was saved at a Billy Sunday crusade and went on to become the pastor at the famous Bowery Mission in New York. He wrote a book, “God on the Bowery,” starred in a MGM documentary, “This Is the Bowery,” and his sermons were carried by New York radio every Sunday.

There was a wealthy widow who lived in New Jersey named St. John (no relation) who listened to Charlie’s sermons every week and invited him to lunch every Sunday afternoon. When she died, she left all her estate to Uncle Charlie and it wasn’t too long before he started hitting the bottle again and ended up back in Brooksville, Mississippi. I remember him as a sweet old man but was never old enough to ask about his New York days.

My main history with New York deals with food. I have spent the past four decades mining the restaurants of this city for inspiration and doing research and development for my life’s work. This city is the widely recognized number one food city in the country. There are over 27,000 restaurants in the five boroughs. If one were to visit a different restaurant every day, it would take almost 74 years to visit all the dining establishments this city has to offer. That’s an embarrassment of riches for someone who eats, sleeps, and breathes the restaurant business.

I enjoy museums and live theatre, as well. But any trip I’ve made to this city over the past 35 years has revolved around restaurants and restaurant reservations. The schedule always starts with restaurants on the to-do list. Once those are secure the rest of the trip can be planned.

This trip is a birthday celebration of sorts. My son and daughter were born four years apart. However, their birth dates are only four days apart. In their childhood years each had a party and everything that goes with that. In adulthood we have decided to take a family vacation every year during the week that covers both of their birthdays. This year we chose New York since my son is in culinary school upstate.

He and his girlfriend took the train down and met our daughter, mother, and me at the Hoxton Hotel in Brooklyn. I am a huge fan of the Hoxton Hotel group as I have been staying at their property in Chicago for the past several years. The food and beverage in the Chicago hotel is operated by the Boka Restaurant Group in Chicago which is owned by a couple of my friends and was most recently voted one of the nation’s to 10 restaurant groups, and deservedly so.

Boka handles all the food and beverage duties at the Hoxton Hotel in Brooklyn as well. On the first night the Boka boys arranged a progressive dinner at the three concepts in the hotel Jaffa, K’Far, and the uber-popular Laser Wolf. We started with drinks and appetizers on the outdoor mezzanine at Jaffa where I ate the best hummus of my 62 years. For the second dinner we moved to Laser Wolf on the roof, with an amazing view of the Manhattan skyline and East River. There we ate all manner of excellent Israeli cuisine— kebabs and shishliks— cooked over coals, and the absolute best French fries I have eaten in my 62-year dining career.

The fries were just one of many side items served, but any side item— even one as basic as a French fry, maybe especially one as basic as a French fry, that undergoes a three day prep process of brining, steaming, par-cooking, freezing, and whatever else they can do in a 72-hour period to create French fry perfection— that goes through all of that deserves recognition. From this day forward I will know where I was when I ate the best French fry— and best hummus— of my life.

After two nights in Brooklyn, we moved into Manhattan for the final dinner of the birthday excursion at Le Bernardin. My son and I are on a mission to dine in all the Michelin three-star restaurants in Manhattan before he graduates culinary school. Le Bernardin was to be our third and final restaurant (Per Se and Eleven Madison Park were previous) allowing us to complete the trifecta of New York exceptionalism, until we learned Michelin has recently added another three-star restaurant— Masa— to that vaunted list.

Le Bernardin was exquisite and a perfect final dinner to an outstanding trip. Eric Ripert is the undisputed master of seafood. The eight-course tasting menu was filled with the most perfect and expertly prepared langoustines, sea urchin, and fish. I was raised an hour north of the Gulf of Mexico. I spent my summer fishing and swimming in those waters. I own a restaurant that serves over eight tons of filet’d finfish and over 20 tons of shrimp every year. I feel like I know seafood, and how to cook and prepare seafood. Dining in Le Bernardin and enjoying the most expertly prepared seafood I have ever tasted was a humbling, yet exceptional, experience.

As I write I am sitting in the hotel dining room waiting to have breakfast with the birthday boy. It’s one of thousands we have enjoyed together all over the world. I love this phase of our father-son-relationship. In the early years I enjoyed talking about our favorite superheroes, which magical power you could choose if you had your wish, or what the local football team looked like. But these days are extraordinary, as we talk restaurants, chefs, future concepts, and business.

It’s the same with my daughter, whose birthday we celebrated four days ago. She is an adult, a sweet and beautiful— inside and out— young woman. I loved all the early years with her— dolls and Disney. But these days there is more depth to the father-daughter relationship, today. The future looks so bright.

I am truly a blessed man. But the fruits of my blessing aren’t material things and monetary things, but spiritual and relational things. The things in life that truly matter— faith, family, friends, food, and fun. I look forward to celebrating both of my children’s birthdays in grand fashion, or as casual as we can— wherever we may be— for many years to come.

Onward.

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