Tom's Top “n”
About this blog
This is a purely “for fun” project. Why “Top n” and not “Top Ten”? Well, I already have more than ten, and “n” can be any number. Besides, a 1–10 ranking doesn't make much sense with the variety that I'll post. There are no stars, either—just descriptions of places that I've liked the most. Below the main section is a “quick tips” listing of other places that I'd recommend and a short bonus list of some favorite food markets.
Review sites on the Web offer democracy and safety in numbers but suffer from anonymity. Professional reviews offer experience and sophistication but suffer from unrealistic expense accounts and the need to please editors and advertisers. I've got a limited budget and an ordinary, receptive but not trendy palate—and at least you know from this site who I am. I've traveled a fair amount over a more-than-fair number of years, but thankfully have never gotten to the platinum-flyer league. So after 5 or 10 hours on an airplane, there's no way that I'll go to the same chain restaurant that's a block away from my home.
The common thread here, besides good food, is uniqueness—a combination of menu, place, history, ambience, and experience. I'll let you know at the start of each listing what my own connection is, so you can add as many grains of salt as you like. Postings will be in random order, most recent on top, so hopefully you'll have a reason to come back from time to time. Locations are all over the map, but if you find yourself landing near one of these, I hope you'll give it a try. Bon appétit!
The Berghoff, Chicago IL
My history with the Berghoff goes back further than any other place in this listing—all the way back to college days even before I could legally enjoy their great beer! I was commuting every other week from Champaign to Chicago for clarinet lessons. Between the train and the “El” ride to my teacher's house in Evanston, this was always my lunch stop. Only two blocks down the street from the Art Institute and Symphony Hall, it frequently was my dinner stop as well.
The Berghoff's own history goes back much further yet—both preceeding and
surviving Prohibition. Everything about this place reflects its German immigrant heritage,
from the menu to the dark wood paneling and decoration to the serving staff, who when I first
visited were all male, formally attired and Teutonically efficient. Returning for several
business trips in the early 2000s, I was delighted to find the interior unchanged, although
the ambience was more relaxed and the menu had been expanded and updated for more modern tastes.
Thankfully, though, many of the authentic German specialties remain. There was a brief scare
in 2006, not only for me but for thousands of Chicagoans, when the Berghoff closed its doors
seemingly for good. I have no idea what business or family matters caused this, but they
were quickly resolved as the Berghoff re-opened not only with the original restaurant and
bar but also with a separate downstairs lunch-only cafe and a catering company. Hope they
keep it going for another hundred years.
Cold Spring Tavern, Santa Barbara CA
Our choice of weekend activities near Vandenberg AFB in the late 1970s came down to a simple question: “North or south?” (San Luis Obispo or Santa Barbara) One of the best reasons to head south was the Cold Spring Tavern.
Located in a side canyon just off route 154, the Cold Spring originally provided lunch and fresh horses for stage coaches headed from Los Olivos to Santa Barbara. Today, customers arrive in equal numbers of Mercedes and Harleys. On the site are the original 1870s tavern, a separate historic cabin (now a gift shop), an outbuilding with the “facilities,” and a more recent bar/pub/dance hall structure. On weekends there is live music either inside the bar or outside in front for the eclectic crowd to simply relax and enjoy a beer or two along with tri-tip sandwiches. Yes, the namesake spring is still running, with a scenic waterfall next to the pub.
My favorite part is the main tavern itself. Who would expect
to find a cozy gourmet restaurant in this rustic, out-of-the-way setting? Chefs have
changed over the years, but the menu just keeps getting better—think venison
sausage, sautéed duck breast, rack of lamb, and more. My favorite, still on
the menu after many years, is the Cold Spring Chicken with almond-raisin stuffing
and sherry cream sauce. Gone, though, is their unique stuffed trout; thankfully I wrote down
the recipe years ago and still make a reasonable facsimile at home. This place has
been featured on many travel and food shows, for good reason. If you're anywhere
near the Santa Barbara area, don't miss it!
7ème Vin, Paris FR
In English, the name would read “7th Wine,” the number meaning 7th arrondisement, or district, where this wine bar is located. It's just up the street from the École Militaire, on the way from my (budget) hotel to the Mètro station. Looked good walking by, and turned out to be an almost daily favorite on two summer trips in 2005 and 2006.
How bad is my French? Well, I got as far as “Bon soir,
monsieur” when the owner handed me the menu in English! (I ordered
in French, anyway, which he remembered on later visits.) The menu was actually hand-written
on a large chalkboard that was simply moved from table to table as guests were seated.
Listed on it were small dishes as typically French as the nearby Eiffel Tower. Among those
I remember are an elaborately garnished country-style paté, shrimp in a tomato sauce topped
with puff pastry, seared scallops Provence style, tomato & anchovy tarte with salad, and
the obligatory escargots bourguigonne. There may be
hundreds of similar places in Paris, but this is the one I'll certainly re-visit on
any future trip.
The Mediterranean, Boulder CO
When one of my Air Force friends and his wife retired to Boulder, I became a regular visitor and big fan of that city. This place was always on our agenda for at least one meal and often more. My friends have since moved to Tucson, but another friend is still in Denver and I'll drive up here any time I get that near.
“The Med,” as it's known to everyone locally, is in the heart of the
downtown area, a block off the Pearl Street mall. It can get really crowded, especially
on weekends when the university is in session, but it's more than worth the wait. The
name says it—great hot and cold tapas, great paella, great pizza, great entrées
from a variety of cuisines, all changing seasonally with the freshest available ingredients.
Over many visits, I've probably had all-of-the-above, all excellent. In good weather
there's also seating on a nice open-air patio, but even in the worst of winter this
place provides a welcome bit of Mediterranean sunshine along with the cuisine.
Walt's Wharf, Seal Beach CA
I was introduced to Walt's in the mid-1990s by faculty colleagues at Cal State Long Beach. This turned out to be the place for celebratory dinners and the place to take any important visitor to our campus. It's also a pleasant place for a relaxed, moderately-priced lunch, which I still manage to do occasionally throughout the year.
As in most seaside California towns, Seal Beach's Main Street has plenty
of good places to eat. Walking by Walt's, you might not even realize how special this
one is unless you get there when the line waiting to get in snakes down the block.
(Go early!) As soon as you enter, you get the idea—to the left is a massive
wine refrigerator and just beyond the hostess stand is an even more massive wood-fired
grill. Seafood, of course, is the main attraction, but owner Walt Babcock also happens
to own a winery near Buellton on the Central Coast that produces varietals which not
coincidentally compliment the menu perfectly. (Many other wines are also available.)
Decor is dated but appropriate—there's a sometimes-noisy downstairs bar and a
quieter muraled dining room as well as an upstairs dining area.
I'd make a menu recommendation, but in fact my friends and I have had many different
dishes and all have been excellent.
Bohemian Cafe, Omaha NE
When I was stationed in Omaha for three years in the early 1980s, this was an anytime favorite. Their online menu appears now exactly as it did on paper back then, a very good sign in today's always-changing restaurant scene.
This area of the Midwest was the destination for many Czech imigrants
in the 19th Century; famous composer Antonin Dvorak wrote his “New World”
symphony while visiting relatives just across the river in Iowa. So it's not
surprising that on Omaha's South 13th Street there are many Czech business names,
with the Bohemian Cafe in the middle of them serving a clientele of long-time regulars.
I visited Prague years later, and the Bohemian
is as home-style authentic as it gets, both in ambiance and food. (My favorites were the
jaegerschnitzel and sauerbraten). Whether you're stationed there or just visiting
for the College World Series, this is a must. Ahoj—pivo,
Imperial Dynasty, Hanford CA
Sadly closed in 2006 after over 100 years in business, the Imperial Dynasty still warrants an “in memoriam” entry here. Yes, Hanford is out in the middle of nowhere in California's San Joaquin Valley, but it was a regular dinner stop for me and my friends on the way to Yosemite (with an overnight stay at nearby NAS Lemore) during the 1970s and 80s.
This has to have been one of the most
unique—perhaps even incongruous—restaurants that
I have ever visited. Third-generation chef/owner Richard
Wing had been personal cook to General George C. Marshall,
WWII Army Chief of Staff and later Secretary of State.
Back home, he brought his now-international cooking skills
to a little place founded by Chinese immigrants in the late 19th
century. Who would ever expect to find world-class
escargots (and much more) out
here? By all accounts, anyone who had ever heard of the
place—including many who were rich and famous enough
to fly in by private jet! As disappointed as I am to be unable
to visit again, I'm just glad to have been there "back in the day."
The Hitching Post, Casmalia CA
I was introduced to the Hitching Post in the early 1970s on trips to Vandenberg AFB; stationed there later for four years, this was a frequent dinner spot. Since then, I make sure that any trip to the Central Coast includes a re-visit.
It's all about the steaks. They advertise “world's best,” and for once I tend to believe the ad. What's the secret—locally-raised beef, perfect seasoning, red-oak-fired grill, all of the above? I don't know, but they keep turning them out right every time, and customers keep coming back.
Actually, it's about the place, too. It's a ramshackle barn-like historical landmark, divided into a reception and bar area with a large main dining room and four side rooms for the frequently-overflowing crowds. The center of attention is of course the grill, open for all to watch. Although Casmalia is an easy drive from nearby Santa Maria, it's a tiny place seemingly in the middle of nowhere. You'll need directions from their Web site.
Central Coast locals can get very partisan
about their steak houses—sibling Hitching Post II in
Buellton (featured in the movie Sideways), the
Far Western in Guadalupe, Jocko's in Nipomo, and others—but
I'm firmly in the original Hitching Post camp.
Flagstaff House, Boulder CO
After promising ourselves to visit the Flagstaff House for many years, it's ironic that my friends from Boulder and I finally got there in 2007 after they had moved to Tucson! (It was worth the wait.)
Like The Fort 50 miles south in Denver, Flagstaff is located on a hill overlooking the city of Boulder, with a wonderful view at sunset. And like The Fort, it's a special experience. The draw here, though, is the food and service—almost everything in the European-inspired sequence was included. A small pre-appetizer (amuse-bouche) is served on their signature “rabbit butler” tray (which you can buy); a larger appetizer is followed by an irresistable selection of fresh breads and a sorbet refresher. The main course dishes (we each ordered a different one) were tasty and superbly prepared, if a bit more complex than was really needed; a selection of light desserts followed. We also shared one (optional) larger, truly decadent dessert, and almost didn't finish it with three people! The final surprise was a take-home gift for each of us—a beautifully-wrapped miniature poppyseed/blueberry loaf cake. For this class of dining, it's at the top of my list.
Author's note: the following paragraph contributed by Mark Gonske on 10/13/09, after a birthday dinner for his friend Linz the evening before:
“Wow! I have never had a dining experience even close to this!
Absolutely spectacular service from the handoff of the birthday card
to the maître d' to put on the table along the the flowers I'd already
ordered in her favorite color, to the custom printed menus with ‘Happy
Birthday Linz’ printed in the headers, to the ‘chef's compliments’
between course dishes, to the stained glass looking sugar sculpture
with 'Happy Birthday' on it, to bringing my car keys to the table with
the car parked running at the front door. Linz was happy!”
The Proud Bird, El Segundo, CA
During the four years I worked at Los Angeles AFB, the Proud Bird was invariably our celebration-lunch spot. Since then, I've always tried to time any drive up to the LAX area so that I can visit again.
Under corporate ownership, the menu is mainstream
American, well prepared and reasonably priced. Yes, it can get crowded
and slow at times, but there's a reason besides proximity to so many
corporate offices—the aviation theme simply tops anything similar I've
seen. Located right next to the final approach to LAX's southern-most runway
(25L), the dining room offers a full-window view of incoming planes.
In between landings, you can peruse their substantial collection of
actual aircraft, mostly of WWII vintage but also including a Korean War-era
F86 Sabre and Russian MIG-15. Walls are filled with historical photos,
and even as you approach the beautiful garden-like entrance you'll see a P-40, P-51, and Navy
F4U gull-winged Corsair. Sadly, many of these proud birds are now in dire need of
fresh paint. Check it out on full zoom with the satellite view of
Google maps. Into the wild blue yonder...without ever leaving the ground.
Domaine des Hauts de Loire, Onzain FR
This was a once-in-maybe-a-lifetime splurge on the last night of a 2005 trip to Paris and the Loire valley. (Onzain is near Blois, in the heart of chateau country.)
Elegant. Peaceful. Warm and friendly. Everything that I'd imagined, and more. The main building is a country mansion dating probably from the 19th century but designed in a very classic turreted French style, with extensive, immaculately-maintained grounds surrounding it. Upper floors and outbuildings have been converted into deluxe accommodations; the first floor houses reception, restaurant, and a traditional salon for pre-dinner appetizers and after-dinner cognac. (I recommend accompanying the cognac with Beethoven string quartets on the iPod.)
With a room in one of the outbuildings, I could
sit on a small private front patio, sipping complementary champagne
and watching one of the sous-chefs
picking fresh ingredients for dinner from the large
potager (literally, “soup
garden”). Yes, dinner lived up to expectations—an
eight-course tasting extravaganza! They must have known that
guests would be as wide-eyed as I was—there was even a
beautifully-printed souvenir menu so that diners could follow
along with each course. I won't even attempt to translate
it all here; suffice it to say that it finished with
“Carré de chocolat «Oricao» au praline a l'ancienne,
lait réduit au rhum roux.” You could spend
a lot more money in Paris (or London, or New York), but I can't imagine
how you'd top the experience here.
The Ahwahnee, Yosemite NP CA
I first visited Yosemite in 1975 and have returned many times since, mostly tent-camping in prepared sites in the Valley. The historic Ahwahnee Hotel was always a place to walk by and gawk (perhaps drool) at the Great Lounge and the massive restaurant with its view of Glacier Point. In the early '90s, I finally had the chance to experience dining there.
The Ahwahnee's most exclusive dining event is called the “Bracebridge Dinner,” an elaborate Olde-English Christmas entertainment tradition started in the 1920s by famous photographer and Valley resident Ansel Adams. Since tickets to the Bracebridge could only be obtained through a year-in-advance lottery, we opted for an earlier date still within the holiday season.
This was the first time that I had seen
Yosemite in winter, and the weather cooperated with
picture-perfect snow. With regular campgrounds closed,
my friends and I rented a tent-cabin which mercifully
had a heater. Yes, we remembered to take the mandatory
jacket and tie for dinner. Serving times were scheduled,
and the seating was banquet-style at 8-place round
tables. I honestly don't remember what dishes were served,
but I do remember that the quality was superb and the
Longfellow's Wayside Inn, Sudbury MA
Like Gadsby's Tavern, the Wayside Inn was a side benefit of my East Coast business travels in the 1980s. My Boston destination was always the Route 128 high-tech area to the northwest of town, which provided good opportunities for historical sightseeing and dining in the vicinity.
“Listen, my children, and you shall hear / Of the midnight ride
of Paul Revere.” Yes, it's that Wayside Inn, immortalized in Longfellow's
Tales. Established in 1716, it still offers both lodging and dining; an
Air Force friend of
mine and his wife honeymooned here and encouraged me to visit. The setting is still
authentic, but menus of course change
over time; my only current guide
is their Web site listing, which appears to offer appropriate and reasonably-priced fare as
I remember. Of all the historic venues in this area (Concord, Lexington, and more),
this is my favorite.
The Fort, Denver CO
One visit with friends, last year. This is the sort of place that you can drive by many times and think, “That really looks interesting; I've got to try it,” but then wait until a suitable occasion. Happily, I provided the occasion.
Yes, it looks like a fort. No, it isn't, really—but it's a very carefully researched and authentically constructed mid-20th century re-creation of a mid-19th century frontier outpost. Strangely, the adobe design seems as if it's located about 200 miles too far north, which fortunately doesn't spoil the effect. It's been featured in many travel and food magazines and shows, and it even has a helicopter pad (not exactly authentic!) for VIP guests to fly in from downtown Denver (we drove).
Sitting on a bluff overlooking the whole city, the main
dining areas are located to take advantage of the view (best at
sunset). More private rooms and shops surround the courtyard
(with bonfire). The menu combines historical research with modern
preparation, featuring buffalo, elk, and quail as well as local
beef, lamb and much more. Appetizers and desserts are as unique as
the setting; service is top quality. For me now, just about any
visit near Denver would be occasion enough to return.
The Prado, San Diego CA
For many years, a day-trip or weekend for me in San Diego has always included a visit to Balboa Park and lunch at the Prado.
Normally, I would not have much faith in a
corporate-run restaurant in the middle of a major tourist
attraction, but this one is different. Located in the ornate
Spanish Colonial-styled House of Hospitality, it overlooks
a beautifully-landscaped ravine and offers both indoor and
outdoor seating with large separate garden areas that are
frequently used by wedding parties. The menu is very much in
character with the setting,
leaning toward the Southwest. I particularly remember the opening
pesto-cheese flatbread with chipotle hummus dip, along with
tasty appetizers like empanadas and crabcakes. There is also
a bar menu for quick snacks or times when the restaurant is
overflowing. Great interlude or finale for a pleasant day
Fauchon, Paris FR
Fauchon is world-famous; for me it was a must-see that quickly turned into a favorite, frequent lunch stop.
Primarily an ultra-high-end pastry shop and
deli, Fauchon also offers an upstairs seating area for
enjoying your selections on-the-spot.
Sample offerings: salmon terrine; chicken breast with
lemon vinaigrette, cherry tomatoes stuffed with guacamole,
tabouleh with herbs, and molded ratatouille; mango
and shrimp salad with basil and Thai spices. (And of
course an incredible selection of pastries!)
Weather permitting, order to-go and dine on a park bench
across the street, surrounded by flower stalls next to the
Madeleine church. Perfect compensation for all those
hours on the airplane!
The Ramos House Café, San Juan Capistrano CA
I've always enjoyed San Juan Capistrano, so I probably found the Ramos House soon after it opened in 1995. I've been going back ever since—it's my first pick for a celebratory weekend brunch when visitors are in town. (They close at 3:00 PM and all day Monday.)
The food is American with a Southern accent, but the concept is wonderfully European—top-notch chef designs a unique setting and inventive menu, then stays home to cook it personally for crowds of appreciative repeat customers.
Start with the setting: an 1881 pioneer house which is also the chef's home. Seating is outdoors only, under the shade of a huge tree and a patio cover. Hidden only by a partial screen of vegitation, Amtrack trains roll by to stop at the depot across the tracks. Jeans & tees or even Farmer John overalls are the uniform for young, friendly servers. And the herbs and produce on your plate were growing nearby until this morning!
Then there's the menu: a sample of what I've enjoyed includes
basil cured salmon with herb sauce and toast points, cinnamon apple beignets,
banana maple pain perdu with toasted almonds and brandied cherries, and
spicy crab cake salad. Even the long titles don't do justice to how
the many components of each dish work so beautifully together.
If I had to pick my overall #1 favorite, this would be it.
Gadsby's Tavern, Alexandria VA
On business trips to Washington (mostly 1980s) I always tried to add time for sightseeing and visiting friends. Gadsby's became a place for special dinners; it would be my first destination if I visit the area again.
Yes, George Washington did dine
here, as did many other founders of our country. The menu
(trusting the Web site more than my memory) is now designed for modern
tastes, with an occasional nod to history. But the decor, furnishings, and
period-dressed staff—are authentically Colonial. On one
occasion, a strolling singer honored without hesitation
my colleague's request for a popular tune of the time: “Anachreon
in Heaven.” (With Francis Scott Key's later words, we now
know it as “The Star-Spangled Banner”!)
Radio Maria, Champaign IL
Last year, I visited Champaign for the first time in many years. (I was raised there and graduated from the U.of I.) Somehow, I didn't find anyplace to eat but the chains. This year I was back again and discovered the revitalized downtown. Of several good-looking restaurants, Radio Maria appeared to be a winner—and it was!
The menu is the standout here—eclectic,
inventive, and beautifully prepared. Being a tapas fan, I went with
that list, although there were plenty of regular lunch and dinner
selections. My choices: fire roated pear with shaved fennel,
orange zest dressing, and manchego shavings; coriander crusted
duck breast with five-spice apples and mango vinaigrette; peach
apricot pistachio tres-leches cake with caramel sauce and
cinnamon cream. Wow! Sounds complicated, but everything worked;
service was top-notch, too. The separate dining room and bar area
are housed in a former commercial space, stripped to the rafters
and simply (again eclectically) decorated and furnished.
My mid-week early evening visit was quiet, but I'm sure that
with entertainment on the weekends, this place rocks!
Santa Maria BBQ, Santa Maria CA
This isn't actually a restaurant, it's a tradition—and traditionalists maintain that the "authentic" version is prepared on-location by members of civic groups in the Santa Maria area. I was lucky enough to enjoy this several times at Vandenberg AFB in the mid-'70s.
If you don't run across an authentic banquet,
don't despair—Santa Maria style BBQ is served
at restaurants and weekend parking-lot fund-raisers up and
down the Central Coast and beyond. The centerpiece is beef
tri-tip, seasoned with salt, pepper, and garlic salt, grilled
over a red oak fire and served with fresh salsa (not BBQ sauce!).
Barbequed pinquito beans (grown only in the Santa Maria Valley)
are the must-have side dish; garlic bread, salad (I remember
it being cole slaw) mac'n'cheese, and (in season) strawberry
shortcake frequently round out the menu.
It's easy enough to prepare this at home, as I've done many times—the
following link will give you all the needed information.
L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, Paris FR
My sole foray to a truly Famous Chef restaurant; I visited the Paris original in 2005 and its Las Vegas twin the following year. Note that the Ateliers (workshops) are Robuchon's "casual" offering (pricy but not outrageous); his flagship venues are out of reach for anyone I know.
Everything is about perfection here—ingredients,
preparation, and presentation. The small plates are ideal for
sampling (they also have larger plates and a full tasting menu),
and the featured counter seating is great for solo diners
and twosomes who enjoy watching the open-kitchen show. (There are also tables.)
Dishes I tried include langoustine fried in a thin wrapper
with basil and olive oil,
a perfectly-cooked lamb chop with thyme, and an over-the-top “chocolate
sensation” dessert. The room is ultra-modern, all black (including the counter
and the cooks' uniforms) with red accents. The servers seemed to genuinely
enjoy discussing the menu with diners, which really enhanced an already-unique experience.
Little Rhein Steak House, San Antonio TX
The Little Rhein opened in 1967, the year I arrived in San Antonio. Over the four years that I lived there, it became the place where I'd take visitors or go occasionally myself for a special meal. I've returned on two recent visits; it's as good as ever.
Steaks are almost the entire menu—they are very good, as you'd
expect. Side dishes are fine, but all are priced separately. The added draw here
is the building—dating from 1847, it was built
by German settlers in Texas Hill-Country style, with locally-quarried stone.
The amount of kitch on the main dining room walls may be a bit over-the-top, but
the service is strictly white-tablecloth. There's also an intimate lower level
room (minus the kitch), and terraced outdoor seating leading down to the
famous River Walk, between the Arneson River Theater and the Hilton Palacio
Del Rio. All in all, a pleasant escape from the surrounding Tex-Mex/BBQ
Bella Saratoga, Saratoga CA
From the mid-'80s to the mid-'90s, I was travelling frequently to San José, both on business and to visit several friends in the area. Bella Saratoga was often our “nice dinner out” spot, and a recent re-visit confirms my memories.
Fresh warm focaccia and a tasty house-made cheese spread set the stage for the excellent Italian specialities to come. My personal favorite has always been the salmon ravioli, but I don't remember anyone ever ordering a dish they didn't rave about. Saratoga is one of those small towns, like Los Gatos, which has maintained and capitalized on its original charm while being swallowed up by the Silicon Valley megalopolis—the restaurant is housed in a restored Victorian, with period furnishings and cozy rooms. If you can avoid rush hour, it's well worth the drive from anywhere in the South Bay.
Update from a business trip, 7/15/09. My colleague's one-word
reaction: “Wow!” Nice to have confirmation.
Here are some more places that I've enjoyed (and think you will, too), but which won't get a "top n" writeup for one reason or another. Arranged in alphabetical order; I'll add listings as I find new places or remember old ones.
Short list: just some places that I've found to be especially useful in some way.