Searching for Tony Bourdain

Foie gras taste on a Big Mac budget

best of the best

The 2012 Michelin Guide is out for Chicago. There were a few changes this year, mostly expected (L2O losing 2 stars, Avenues closing, Moto and Courtwright’s joining the club), but one unexpected and displeasing to most people in the city: Next, the revolutionary second project of Alinea’s Grant Achatz, was denied any rating at all.  The rumor is that because of the place’s popularity and innovative methodology (instead of reservations, diners must buy tickets, and the restaurant’s entire theme changes every few months), getting in was impossible.

The restaurant’s Facebook page begged to differ: they posted a few hours ago with this comment: “It seems that the Michelin inspectors, while famously anonymous, are also famously luddites…. did they not see the daily sales on Facebook?” Can’t say I blame them. There will be controversy until the next guide, when Next (and the sister bar next door, The Aviary) finally gets the rating it deserves.

In response to the Michelin guide, I’d like to offer this: a list of my favorite restaurants in America. These are in no particular order, and a couple will be self-explanatory, but I’ll explain anyway:


1072 N. Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago

I sing the praises of this West Town gastropub as often as I can. Chef Brian Jupiter, who’s come to recognize me by sight, served me what was unequivocally the greatest meal of my life. This western-lodge-style gastropub and bar, which focuses on wild game and a huge selection of oysters, is both a neighborhood hangout and citywide destination. In my opinion, the place deserves at least a Bib Gourmand rating for its value and amazing quality.


777 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota

This is one of my all-time favorites. A neighborhood casual place made famous by Travel Channel host Adam Richman and owned by James Beard-award-winning chef Alex Roberts (owner and executive chef of Minneapolis landmark Restaurant Alma), this is my idea of comfort food: slow-cooked meats by the pound, served family style, with soul food or southern side dishes. The slow-cooked pork is wonderful, but the chicken was better than I expected. Desserts were spectacular, and the coffee drinks we took with us were wonderful. And for both of us to stuff ourselves to the gills, we spent less than $50. The next time we’re in the Twin Cities, we’re going back to Brasa. If the Twin Cities had a Michelin Guide, this place would warrant at least a Bib Gourmand, if not a star.


2241 Brooklyn Road, Jackson, Michigan

This is my favorite Italian restaurant in America. Owned by a former second-grade teacher (who taught my brothers) and her husband, this little place on the side of a county highway in my hometown is pure Italian: simple Italian food, relaxed atmosphere, well-priced, and friendly. The owner, who I’ve known literally for almost three decades, greets everybody at the door, and most of the waitstaff either attend or teach at my high school. The tuna melt is to die for, as is the pizza and the blue crab ravioli.

Juan’s Flying Burrito

2018 Magazine Street, New Orleans, Louisiana

Situated in the middle of New Orleans’s Uptown district, near the Garden District, is this burrito joint and bar. It sits on the first floor of a building that housed MTV’s “Real World” when it filmed in the city. I love New Orleans and its food with a fierce passion, but this place is special because it was the home of the best burrito I’ve ever eaten. And to make it better, the margaritas are as thick as milkshakes.

The Shed

7051 Highway 57, Ocean Springs, Mississippi

Until recently, I claimed this as the best barbecue on the planet, until a Chicago barbecue joint stole that honor. Nonetheless, the atmosphere makes me think of it fondly. Started in an old corrugated utility shed, this roadside barbecue joint and blues venue has some of the best ribs in America (and they have the awards to prove it). After ordering at the bar, diners sit outside at community picnic tables until the server emerges from the kitchen, yelling your name until you flag her down. The potato salad, packed with bacon, is the best I’ve ever had.

GT Fish and Oyster

531 North Wells Street, Chicago

Chef Giuseppe Tentori (who also owns Michelin-starred restaurant Boka) got a Bib Gourmand rating for this awesome oyster bar and seafood restaurant in River North this year. Their Wednesday special, half-off all oysters after 10:30 p.m., lured us there for our 18-month anniversary this summer. The oyster selection is spectacular, and the drink menu is deadly and wonderful. I’ve heard great things about the clam chowder, which is on my list of things to try this winter.


1856 West North Avenue, Chicago

Best barbecue on the planet. Or at least that I’ve tried. Chef and pitmaster Charlie McKenna, who won Memphis in May a few years back, opened this Carolina Lowcountry-style place in Wicker Park last year, to nothing but rave reviews. The pulled pork is to die for, as is the tri-tip (or so I hear), and the cornbread is the best I’ve had since New Orleans. Thanks to his success, Charlie’s recently joined the fleet of food trucks in the city with the Lillie’s Meat Mobile.

Daryl’s Downtown

151 West Michigan Avenue, Jackson, Michigan

This is my favorite restaurant in Jackson, my hometown. Chef Daryl Haskins, former of The Common Grill, opened this southern-style restaurant about a decade ago and hasn’t looked back since. Everything on the menu is wonderful, including the poppyseed bread and the jalapeno-cheddar cornbread (flash-fried just before serving). He is a very large man, with ambition and passion to match. I try to visit anytime I’m in Jackson.

Nichole’s Fine Pastry

13 8th Street, Fargo, North Dakota

Whenever I needed shelter from the harsh North Dakota winters during my 2 and a half years in the city, I went here. I’ve sung Nichole’s praises more times than I can remember, but it’s worth recalling how much I loved this little shop in the middle of downtown Fargo. The coffee is excellent, as are the pastries and the house-made gelatos. I’ve also eaten lunch there, and the reuben I had was one of the best sandwiches I remember eating. The friendly staff and welcoming, casual vibe made this a place I took friends and M and I visited frequently when she visited.

The Bozeman Trail Steakhouse

675 East Hart Street, Buffalo, Wyoming

This is beef country; of that much I can be certain. While moving from California to Fargo, I stopped here in need of food that wasn’t fast food. This is a real western lodge next door to a Motel 6. It is the location of the greatest burger in America. Order the bison burger (the meat is from 60 miles away), medium-rare, with American cheese. Enjoy.

Mickey’s Dining Car

36 7th Street West, St. Paul, Minnesota

Everything about this old-fashioned, never-closed diner in downtown St. Paul, is as authentic and as perfect as it gets. Movies filmed here, Food Network celebrities have taken over the place a number of times, and I’ve been a half-dozen. The patty melt, pancakes, biscuits and gravy, over-medium eggs, and the hash browns (oh God, the hash browns–cooked in lard) are all spectacular. If there were a Michelin Guide for diners, this place would have three stars.

The Hotel Donaldson

101 Broadway, Fargo, North Dakota

Chef Tim Fisher has a winner here. I suffer from fine dining exhaustion most of the time (I’d rather eat in a t-shirt and jeans than a suit), but I’ll make an exception for this wonderful restaurant on the first floor of the city’s flagship art-centric hotel in the heart of downtown Fargo. Tim’s local menu, daily lunch specials (the e-mails are torture to read), and impeccable service make this one of my favorites. The rack of lamb, elk tenderloin, orecchiette with duck and foie gras meatballs in an apricot demiglace, and desserts (one of which, the trio of chocolate, is the photo at the top of this page) are among some of the culinary highlights of my life. If there were a way The HoDo could be in the Michelin Guide, I’d easily give it 2 stars.

Cafe Spiaggia

980 North Michigan Avenue, Chicago

Chef Tony Mantuano’s more casual, cheaper sibling to Michelin-starred Italian powerhouse Spiaggia is a bastion of quality and authenticity. Tony is one of the people in Chicago I’d trust most with Italian food, and he does it well here. The two restaurants share a kitchen, and therefore, quality is closely controlled and food is always fresh. I can vouch for the game hen, the gnocchi in a wild boar ragu, the trout, and the cannelloni as some of the best Italian food I’ve ever known. Perhaps the real highlight at this Magnificent Mile spot, however, is the dessert. Specifically, the gelato. The stout gelato. Yes, that kind of stout. The people at Guinness should be scared.

seafood and poboys

2207 Veterans Boulevard, Kenner, Louisiana

James Beard once said, “Too few people understand a really good sandwich.” This place doesn’t have that problem. Set next door to a McDonald’s near Louie Armstrong International Airport in this suburb of New Orleans, this is the real thing. Gulf oysters, caught that morning, fried, and put on a loaf of french bread, “dressed” (lettuce and remoulade–no tomato because it slides off the bread), qualify this as the greatest sandwich I’ve ever eaten.

As my dining adventures continue, this list will grow and change. But I look at each of these places fondly, not merely because the food was good, but because the people were kind, the experiences were memorable, and the moments in my life when I experienced these places impacted me in a very real, deep way. So to all of these places I’ve listed here, a huge thank-you. Even to the places far away from Chicago, I promise you, we’ll meet again.


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