Anyone who is anybody writes about Chez Panisse, the French Laundry, Le Cirque, Spago, Il Bulli, Taillevent, and other such star-marked (or crossed) temples of gastronomy – the big-time (or small-time) restaurant reviewers yap, yelp and yammer, with cool critiques. Call that syndrome “big moments in the life of a major league gourmand.” I’m susceptible too. Isn’t it grand to be grand with grand cuisine? But today let’s turn the page and give you some big moments in the life of a major league eater who has dined off the track.
These are personal eating experiences recalled over a period of many years. What I ate was great, but the occasion or the company made these experiences outstanding. Forget the stars, the toques, the forks or what have you. Just give these a checkmark in your restaurant notebook.
Years ago my brother-in-law, whom I had never met, lived in Houston. Shortly after my wife and I married, her sister invited the newlyweds down for a few days to kick the tires and check me out. I apparently hit it off as a new relative and each day brother-in-law Max chose a new restaurant to take us out to lunch or dinner. “You San Francisco types will be surprised at the great food we have down here,” he said. So for almost a week we ate in French, Italian, Chinese and other assorted “Houstonized” restaurants. They were all OK – nothing to get excited about – but Joan and I praised them anyway. When we had one more day in Texas, Max ran dry. He couldn’t come up with a place he thought would please us. We sat on the patio having a beer when his wife, Joyce, had an idea. “Well,” she started, “I’ve wanted to mention this all week, but Max nixed it.” Then, turning to him she asked, “Why don’t we go to your brother’s place in Fulshear?”
“They wouldn’t like it,” Max replied.
“Sure we would,” I said, being a good houseguest. “What’s your brother’s place?”
“Barbecue,” Joyce answered. Max was silent. “Dozier’s Barbecue. You might like it. It’s not fancy, but it’s good.” An inspired choice.
Opened in 1957, Dozier’s Barbecue was at a rural crossroad in a tiny town named Fulshear. It had a gas pump, some picnic tables and a smokehouse. Max’s brother fixed us up with some ribs, smoked with his signature pecan wood. It was sensational. Even today, when I think about barbecue – and I do often – I think about Dozier’s. It’s still there.
Cathay Pacific Airways
I was fortunate enough to fly Cathay Pacific Airways first class from Hong Kong to San Francisco back in the sixties. The 747 left Hong Kong in the evening. After a good meal with a French vintage burgundy and a movie, I fell asleep. In the middle of that short night flying east over the Pacific, I awakened and turned on my overhead light. In a moment the flight attendant, an elegant young Chinese woman with a stylish, asymmetrical hairdo, was at my side.
“I see you are awake Mr. Beyl. Are you hungry?” I was. “How would you like a nice bowl of wonton noodle soup?” I would.
She set up my tray table with a dragon-embroidered placemat, a porcelain chopstick holder with ivory chopsticks, a curved porcelain spoon, and a small saucer holding a few green chilies into which she poured a bit of soy sauce. Fifteen minutes later my sky angel reappeared with a large, blue and white Chinese bowl. It steamed with a rich broth in which swam a mountain of tiny noodles, thin-skinned, shrimp-filled wontons, bits of chicken, and a few chopped scallions.
I tucked a linen napkin into my open collar and slurped my soup. It was magnificent. Then I turned out the overhead light and slept like a baby.
At least once a year since the early fifties I make a pilgrimage down Highway 1 to Big Sur for an afternoon at Nepenthe, the iconic restaurant perched more than 800 feet on a bluff above the Pacific that’s synonymous with Big Sur and the laid-back, bohemian lifestyle.
There, I discharge my batteries. I say “discharge” because my batteries are usually overcharged. I like to detach all the wires, sit on the Nepenthe terrace, look south to the Santa Lucia Mountains on the left and the Pacific Ocean on the right, and have a bloody Mary. Then – always following the same routine – I order the Ambrosia Burger. And that does it for me.
The name Nepenthe derives from the Greek meaning “no sorrow.” I like that. I’m an optimistic guy and avoid sorrow like I avoid poison oak.
Nepenthe’s origins go back to the 1920s when a homesteader built a small log cabin on the bluff. Later, Orson Welles bought it, intending to spend his honeymoon there with bride Rita Hayworth; however, the famous pair never honeymooned there. In fact, no one remembers them ever coming to the Big Sur property. Bill and Lolly Fassett purchased the Welles-Hayworth cabin in 1947 and two years later opened Nepenthe on what may be the most glorious meeting of land and ocean on this planet. Members of the Fassett family still own it.
Over those many years Henry Miller, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Salvador Dali, Jack Kerouac, and thousands of tourists and hippies have all stopped at Nepenthe to dream, meditate and celebrate. In 1965, Mararishi Mahesh Yogi was carried across the Nepenthe terrace on a platform covered with flowers. When I go there to discharge my batteries, a platform with flowers isn’t necessary.
On the second floor in Boston’s old Faneuil Hall, an ancient marketplace near the city’s waterfront is a 180-year-old restaurant named Durgin-Park. Many years ago I went there for lunch, sat at one of the communal tables, and ordered rare roast beef for lunch. “Bone-in Yankee Cut?” the waitress asked me. Absolutely. I was a skinny youngster then. A few minutes later a guy with a ponytail and a three-day beard sat down across from me. After a few minutes the waitress returned with an enormous hunk of magnificent rare roast beef for me. My tablemate looked at my plate and said, “Roast beef.”
Now, I don’t really know what went wrong. Maybe she didn’t like the guy, but she returned after a bit with his order – a thinly sliced mound of OK-looking roast beef and a few vegetables.
“I want what he’s having,” he said pointing to my plate.
“He’s having the Yankee Cut. You’re having the Poor Man’s Roast Beef,” she said.
“Bring me one,” he said.
“I can’t take that back now,” she said pointing to his plate.
“Just leave it here.”
He ate the Poor Man’s Roast Reef, and then he ate the Yankee Cut.
By that time I was on my Indian pudding – corn meal and black molasses – with vanilla ice cream.
“And, I’ll have one of those too,” he said next time the waitress came by. And he did.
Harry’s Cafe de Wheels
The meat pie is to Australians what the hamburger is to Americans. More than 30 years ago on a vacation in Sydney, I discovered the joys of the meat pie at Harry’s Cafe de Wheels. Before writing this at 10:45 one morning, I made a call to David Ellis, a writer friend in Sydney, and woke him up at 3:45 the next morning his time. I wanted to know if Harry’s Cafe de Wheels was still there. “Well, it was yesterday when I went there for a pie,” David replied sourly.
I’m glad of that because Harry’s Cafe de Wheels is a Sydney institution – a pale pea-green food stand set up in a small caravan, or house trailer as we would call it. A sign on the caravan reads “We Serve Snappy Snacks.” What Harry’s serves are pies with peas. Hot meat pies with a large spoonful of cooked peas plopped on the golden brown crust. A squirt of catsup tops it off. Harry’s sits next to the Woolloomoolu navy docks in Sydney and is open most of the night. Sailors and other revelers from nearby King’s Cross drop by for pies and peas. I did. The iconic food stand opened in 1938 and is included on the New South Wales National Trust Register.
Sir Scott’s Oasis
The best steak I ever had was not in a New York or Chicago steakhouse as one might expect, but in Montana where I go fly-fishing. My buddy and fishing guide Vince Gordon takes me to Sir Scott’s Oasis in Manhattan, Mont. after a day on the Yellowstone or Madison rivers. We like to relive the day’s catch-and-release fly-fishing over a steak dinner.
Manhattan is a small farming community of about 1,500 residents. The Oasis is Manhattan’s superstar restaurant, and steak fans come from all over the Gallatin Valley in southeast Montana to dig in. In fact, they come from all over the country to try those sensational steaks.
The restaurant originally opened in the 1960s. Scott Westphal, who began working for the former owner when he was 16, took it over in 1980. Scott serves only USDA prime and choice beef with some age on it. It’s corn-fed “finished” in Greeley, Colo. then shipped to Manhattan – remember that’s Manhattan, Mont.
Ernest Beyl is a regular contributor to Northside San Francisco and is a restaurant collector.