My Best Restaurants (Whatever That Means): Spilled Milk #40
10 restaurants that changed my life.
I did a podcast the other day. The producers asked me to share my “most salient culinary memories. In each episode, we talk to guests about the meals that have resonated with them throughout the years. We will dive into the meals of their childhood, the meals that are tied to their career success, and the meals that continue to inspire them and remind them of why they do what they do.”
Well, we never got to the list. The conversation took some detours. More about that when the podcast drops this fall.
People ask how I do it all. The truth is, I don’t. For a few dollars a month, you can support Spilled Milk and the team that makes it.
But I made a list and had to edit it. After many tens of thousands of meals out over the course of the last 61 years, I focused on places I dined in before I went off to college. I figured, if you don’t learn what to eat when you are a kid, when will you?
From the Russian Tea Room to La Fonda Del Sol, JG Melon to the 21 Club, the Rainbow Room to Windows on the World, I could name a hundred places I dined with my parents or friends as a kid that were just as seminal, just as meaningful or existential—but this group was what I wound up with.
I am just giving you Part 1 here. More to come.
I also recommend doing this for yourself.
Write down the food places that taught you about life. Some of mine are long gone, some are still open. Many have changed; a few haven’t.
1. Lunch, the Lobster Roll, 1965
I spent summers on the east end of Long Island as a kid. Our dads would all come out from the city every weekend on the Long Island Rail Road. Sunday nights, we would all see our fathers off as they took the 6 p.m. train back to NYC. My best friend David Saltzman, his mom and my mom would always grab dinner afterwards at Sam’s Pizza across the street from Dreesen’s Market or, if we were all really down for it, we would drive 20 minute down Montauk Highway to Lunch, the Lobster Roll.
Now in those days it was run by the Terry family. They made fresh pies for dessert, made gallons of clam chowder, fried puffer tails, cooked off bags of steamers and served superb lobster rolls. To me it was the most romantic of restaurants on a lonely sad Sunday: the perfect way to end a weekend and get ready for a new week. It was an emotional transaction that at its core is what all good dining experiences are made of.
2. Katz’s/Russ & Daughters, 1966
We know for sure that four generations of Zimmerns ate at both of these New York institutions. We have pictures and personal experience. I have eaten at both with my grandparents, parents and my son, and we think my great grandparents might have eaten there during a holiday, or a lucky day when they had two shekels to rub together. Who knows. But having my grandmother tell me while eating lunch that she sent her sons a salami during World War 2 while pointing at the sign is my first memory of Katz’s. And the smell. And I still go. And still love it.
R&D is a second home, I know the family, and my grandmother knew the current generation’s grandfather. Their food is a part of my life. But it was the first visit, when I was 5, holding my dad’s hand because it was so crowded that December before the holiday that I was scared being in the room. BUT, out of nowhere a man who is wearing what looked like a white lab coat whose fingers smelled of smoked fish stuffed a hamentashen in my mouth and my life changed. And it never was the same again. This is the food of my people. Born of struggle and now ironically the stuff of privilege.