The year saw a lot of travel for me. And when you put keys in my pocket or a plane ticket in my hand, you may as well be handing me a fork or chopsticks. travel is indicative of food and libations, and I consumed many of both all over the country this year. Here is my summary of the “best of” experiences from my year of eating and drinking. I’m not really a fan of ranking, so these are in no particular order.
Garbage Plates at the Tattooed Moose, Charleston, SC
This may be one of the most ludicrous dishes I’ve had in quite a while. The monstrosity starts with Fries cooked in duck fat (!), before topping those with scrambled eggs, ham, peppers, onions, which is then smothered in duck gravy and sprinkled with diced parsley (you know, to class it up a little). A towering hulk of a plate lugged over to your table by adorable tattooed waitresses. It’s like an $11 cardiac arrest. Best paired with PBR or another equally rot-gut breakfast beer.
Aviary Cocktails, Chicago, IL
Working at the Aviary for the brief stage I did there was perhaps the most rigid and militaristic experience I’ve ever had. If the Bazaar by Jose Andres was like going to space camp, Aviary was like boot camp in space. I don’t think I’ve ever been yelled at like I was there. But in the end, when I sat in the dining room and sipped on what I’d just learned to make, you suddenly understand why they are so strict. Flawless cocktails made with the highest degree of care and impeccable service.
Twinkie Cocktails with Joe Fee, New Orleans, LA
A bunch of us were in New Orleans for Tales of the Cocktail, the annual mecca for bartenders and professional drinkers, when I was introduced to the owner of the amazing Fee Brothers Bitters company, Joe Fee, while imbibing at the illustrious French 75 at Arnaud’s. It was late in the evening and we were all belligerently inebriated when an exceedingly excited Joe Fee announces “Twinkies were re-released today!” And bolted out of the bar only to return with a twelve pack of the tiny snack cakes. “Hey Jon, lets get Chris Hannah to make us some cocktails out of these!” And that is when we began pestering the famed bartender with (terrible) recipes involving the disgustingly sweet treat. “These may taste like shit,” said Joe, “but I just love watching them muddle twinkies!”
Double Crown, Asheville, NC
My new favorite spot on the Westside of town, the Double Crown looks like a bar that has been open for 45 years, what with the old photos, cluttered back bar and abundance of Mardi Gras beads. It feels as though you just walked into an ancient dive bar in some forgotten ward in New Orleans. It’s also great to see a “dive bar” in Ashevile that knows how to make a proper Sazerac.
Bailey and Kato’s BBQ, Nashville, TN
Hands down, the best Barbecue I have had on the eastern part of the country. Bailey and Kato’s is located in an old house in East Nashville. Stupidly good short ribs, insanely cheap and tucked just off the beaten path. A fair warning though, I have eaten there twice, and the first time I got horrible food poisoning. But again, that was the first time. It was so good that I came back for more just three days later.
The Bazaar by Jose Andres, Los Angeles, CA
I spent some time working and learning at the Bazaar last January. What a great way to start the year! I described the Chef’s tasting that I was given at the end of my stage in Underbelly Journal as follows: “I have never experienced such an onslaught of such wicked, perverse and delectable consumables. …not so much a meal, but an experience. It is not your average affair, but a joyous twisted fantasy delivering a delightful sense of unease, guilt, and bruises that may or may not be permanent. And they just keep it coming until you look like you are going to die, but you still want more.”
The Asheville Cocktail Explosion! Asheville, NC
The local cocktail scene exploded this year, and it was amazing to see! We saw the downtown scene open several legitimate cocktail bars, Imperial Life, Top of the Monk, MG Road, and Bull & Beggar. Suddenly, when you ask for an Old Fashioned, you will most likely get an actual Old Fashioned; sugar, bitters, booze and a peel of a lemon. Not the ridiculous full slice of orange, zombie cherry and club soda topped bourbon disaster that you’d receive had you ordered it two years ago. Praise god! Mad props to Cynthia Turner, Donnie Pratt, Jesse Ratliff, Kala Brooks, and Charlie Hodge for getting so many great programs up and running!
The Fremont Diner, Sonoma, CA
We were bombing around wine country in my rented, bright red, mid-life crisis mobile (a Ford Mustang Convertible) when we saw a little shack off the side of the road with a brightly colored paint job and a giant covered patio. Already buzzed up from bubbles from our 11AM meeting at Gloria Ferrer, we decided some barbecue and fried chicken might be just what the doctor ordered, and it did not disappoint. I have had Ed Mitchell’s BBQ before, but I would throw the gauntlet down and say straight up, that Fremont was the best pulled pork barbecue I have ever consumed in my life. And the best part? Vinegar sauce.
Seven Sows, Asheville, NC
I cannot tell you how happy I am that Seven Sows opened in Asheville, and I think 90% of the reason for that excitement is that there is finally a place in town that directly targets the adventurous eater. Is there a market for pigs head meatloaf, frog legs and chicken liver? Apparently so, and I, for one, could not be more stoked about that.
Gin and Tonics at the City Museum, St. Louis, MO
There is nothing special about their gin and tonics. At all. It is more the fact that you are able to sip the Bombay Sapphire and Seagrams tonic combo for a mere $6 immediately before jumping on a ten story slide or climbing through a rebar tunnel before arriving at a hollowed out jet suspended six stories in the air in the middle of St. Louis. If you have never been to the City Museum, you are missing out. The worlds largest indoor/outdoor playground for kids and adults. I cannot stress this enough: THE MOST FUN I HAVE EVER HAD.
Fernet Tasting at Billy Sunday, Chicago, IL
It is not every day that you get to taste three ancient Amaros, several of which have not been manufactured for more than 25 years. But at Billy Sunday in Chicago, they boast an entire book full of Fernets, and the best part is that they do flights! The inky black deliciousness just tastes like history. And history is delicious, herbaceous and bitter. Fernet Gancia, Fernet Milano, Fernet Cora and Fernet Valdoglio. All simply stunning.
Darjeeling Station, Asheville, NC
When I was still behind the bar at M.G. Road, we were revamping our menu when Erin Hawley brought this cocktail forward. Remy Martin Cognac, Kraken Rum, Darjeeling Tea infused Syrup, and Orange Bitters. One of my favorite things woking with Erin was her understanding of Sugars and how to pull out their silky textures. The drink is a perfect marriage of sugars and rich, complex, herbal flavors and spices with just a touch of tanin. I still make this one at home on a regular basis.
Mud House St. Louis, MO
Mud House is nothing too special. A humble coffee shop with cute and exceedingly friendly servers. But their breakfast has become one of the most reliable and wonderful things about St. Louis. Fresh ingredients, wonderful coffee, and damn, can they cook an egg! To me, there is no simpler or better ingredient than a really well prepared egg. They’re quaint courtyard patio has become one of my favorite breakfast spots in the country.
Rarebit, Charleston, SC
Walking into the front door of Rarebit, it feels as though you walked into the lobby bar of a Howard Johnson Hotel circa 1963. The colors, the rock faced wall, the old school bar stools, even down to the copper Moscow Mule mugs! Add to that a great restaurant and a stellar cocktail program and you have a very happy Jon on your hands. And did I mention that after dinner service, their menu reverts back to a breakfast menu for late night? Fantastic.
Don Taco at Smiley’s Flea Market, Asheville, NC
Tucked away in the back corner of Asheville’s Smiley’s Flea Market is a treasure trove of good mexican grub. Between the meat market (where you can get awesome Menudo and Chicharrons) and the amazing latin american grocers, it is a full days worth of entertainment. But a particular shop is one I have raved about before, Don Taco. All I really need to say about this is that they are one of the few taco shops I’ve been to in town that makes their tortillas from scratch, and that makes all the difference.
Bouchon, Napa, CA
My friend Lindsay and I were visiting the tasting room of Cornerstone Winery in Napa when I had the wild hare to ask about the likelihood of getting a reservation at the famed Thomas Keller restaurant which just so happened to be located across the street from the tasting room. “Let me check on that for you!” Said the brand ambassador who was taking care of us. Through some strange sorcery he was able to get us a table at the beginning of their dinner service. Boudin Noir, and Lamb Sausage, and Mussels… oh my! Hands down one of the best meals I have ever consumed and made even better by the sheer surprise of it. The whole experience further reinstated my belief that there is nothing better than sharing amazing food with even more amazing friends.
Alembic, San Francisco, CA
I had just spent the last few hours wandering around Golden Gate Park. Having found what might be the worst Indian Food Truck in the world, I decided to meander back towards Haight Street. A little peckish from the lack of food I had eaten (I only got three bites into their “curry” before tossing it in the bin), I stumbled upon a dingy looking doorway with a street sign boasting lunch specials. I only went in because the font on the logo looked cool. I was greeted with the most immaculate bar. Between the “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” (Gin, red bell pepper juice, onion juice, crystal hot sauce, garnished with a cinnamon toast crouton), which was way better than any bloody mary I’ve ever had, and their delicious duck hearts, I was quite impressed. I went back nearly every night I was in town after my hosts had turned in for the night. My last night there, while talking to a fellow barfly I discovered that he happened to be the head chef at Mission Chinese, the restaurant I had reservations to eat at before my departing flight. Alembic is a perfect bar, with such good things going on.
Riverside Tiki Bar, Chimney Rock, NC
I debated whether or not to even include this in my year end summary because it is so wondeful, and I do not want to destroy it by making it more popular. The tiki bar does not serve tiki drinks. It has, however, become my favorite summer drinking establishment in North Carolina. River access, a swimming hole, swimming pool, a poolside dive bar (the best bet is a bottle beer and a shot as I might question the cleanliness of the taplines), sub-par, but apperpo bar food, and a whole days worth of people watching. My favorite is the regular that always shows up wearing Harley gear, riding a Ducati, with a pet parrot on his shoulder. Priceless.