A meal is worth remembering because of the good company, exquisite taste, price, quantity, artistic flair or unexpected offerings. Splendid settings turn the ordinary into something special. So do smart people who use food to catch and keep our attention in surprising ways.
At year’s end, I recollect the source of some of my most memorable calories, from places that charmed and amused me.
Fava’s, Georgetown, Ky.: What began in 1910 as a from-scratch ice cream and candy shop survives today as a locals’ favorite for catfish, country ham and other grub served in hearty portions with reasonable prices (as in under-$10). Look for just-baked pies with perfectly peaked meringue too. The diner with booths is big on retro photos and life-sized art, downtown in a city of 33,000 that is 15 miles north of Lexington and home to the world’s largest Toyota manufacturing plant (one-hour, weekday tours are free; see visittoyotaky.com). favasofgeorgetown.com, 502-863-4383
Good Food Low Carb Café, Madison: First came the Good Food carts downtown, then the opening in 2017 of this pleasant little restaurant in an ordinary strip mall, near the outskirts of town. Healthy eating is your only option, but choices are creative, tasty and pretty. That means an assortment of wraps, soups, salads and more. Fathead Flatbread crust starts with almond flour. Zoodle bowls – thin strips of squash – are a substitute for spaghetti in pasta dishes. goodfoodmadison.com, 608-630-8400
Hansen’s Sno-Bliz, New Orleans: I’m a sucker for America’s Classic designees, the James Beard Foundation’s lifetime achievement award for much-loved regional food businesses. Only five or six places nationwide earn the honor each year, and they tend to be far removed from fine dining. That’s the deal with this third-generation enterprise: The petite menu, inside a humble and weathered box of a building, is all about finely shaved snow cones. Many syrup flavors are wild – like cream of nectar – and condensed milk is a popular add-on. Sno-Bliz, in business since 1939 and six miles southwest of the French Quarter, is near the Mississippi River and open spring to fall. snobliz.com, 504-891-9788
Imperial Lamian, Chicago: Just north of the Chicago River and lively Loop performance district is fast-moving culinary theater from the open kitchen of this Asian restaurant. The specialty is dim sum, a fun assortment of made-by-hand and fresh-as-you-watch steamed buns and dumplings with complex meat and veggie fillings. Watching a chef rhythmically pull dough into noodles seems magical too. These are meals made for sharing. Add a Flaming Fu Manchu cocktail, a mix-on-fire of liquors, juices and cashew syrup. imperial-lamian.com, 312-595-9440
Matt’s Place, Butte, Mont.: Here’s another America’s Classic winner, in a simple clapboard building that began business in 1930 and is best known for the Nut Burger (not for vegetarians; the beef patty is topped with a mix of Miracle Whip and chopped peanuts). Ice cream is churned by hand on the premises. Watch it scooped from a seat at the horseshoe-shaped counter. Carhop service is another option, and no other drive-in in Montana is older. 406-782-8049
Short Stack Eatery, Madison: How can you not love a restaurant with a conscience? Inside and out is evidence that environmental sustainability, local farmers and close-to-home social justice issues matter to this State Street breakfast specialist. College kids love it, in part because business hours include 6 a.m. Saturday to 9 p.m. Sunday nonstop. Count sweet potato oatmeal among the pancake choices. In the popular Bloody Mary are 25 ingredients, beets to serrano pepper. shortstackeats.com, 608-709-5569
Sushi Grand, Mackinac Island, Mich.: You can expect many things from the legendary Grand Hotel: bountiful buffets, savory-sweet-complete afternoon tea service, pecan-coated ice cream balls atop pools of saucy fudge. But sushi was pretty much non-existent on the island until the hotel’s sixth dining spot opened in 2016. Now sushi rolls, sashimi and seaweed to spicy crab salads on a small but smart menu satiate appetites in an imitate, casual setting that is a short walk downhill from the hotel. grandhotel.com/dining/sushi-grand, 906-847-3331
Tabasco Restaurant 1868, Avery Island, La.: Here is where America’s best-known hot sauce is produced, and tour guides tell the story. Cooking classes show what to do with the hot stuff and its many spinoff products (sauces, marinades). A big gift shop entices with samples of Tabasco-spiked pop, ice cream and other to-go products. And the restaurant, whose name includes the year Tabasco was created, serves standard Cajun fare: red beans and rice, étouffee, jambalaya, sampler combos. tabasco.com/visit-avery-island, 337-359-9560
Tortoise Supper Club, Chicago: Loop lovers have classic and nouveau supper club fare as a dining option before theater curtains rise. Open since 2012, the genteel dining room is decorated in hues of red, and the business is a repository for significant Chicago artifacts. The Tortoise is open for lunch too (provolone-meatloaf sandwiches, grilled octopus pitas). Grasshoppers arrive with chocolate straws and a minty cookie; the ice cream drink is concocted in the kitchen, not behind the bar. Jazz musicians perform on Friday and Saturday nights. tortoisesupperclub.com, 312-755-1700
Voodoo Doughnuts, Portland, Ore.: Portlanders are so very proud of their coffee shops, especially since the birthplace of Starbucks is just up the road (in Seattle), and they also claim to have the best doughnuts around. Dozens of doughnut shops exist, each trying to outdo the next, in a city where the formula for success means thinking outside of the box, with a whiff of outrageousness. That’s exactly the case here: Inside bright pink to-go boxes are 50 kinds of doughnuts, some a little naughty in name (a single Tex-Ass is the size of six average glazed doughnuts). The Voodoo Doll, with raspberry filling, comes with a pretzel stake. Find the Voodoo all over town, food cart to brick-and-mortar buildings. voodoodoughnut.com, 503-241-4704