It must have been odd for the waitress to see a 10-year-old boy seated at a table by himself. I don’t know what drove me to do this.
I ordered a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and made sure I had enough money left over to leave a tip.
I know it’s weird for a young boy to go to a restaurant by myself. But it set the stage for my lifelong obsession with restaurants.
I experienced the other side of restaurants during high school when I worked for a couple of years as a dishwasher and then a busboy at the Machus Red Fox. It was a very fancy restaurant famous for being the last place Jimmy Hoffa was seen alive.
I’m not a trained restaurant critic but like to evaluate restaurants whenever I try a new one. My wife and I have our date night every Thursday night and try new ones as often as we can. Just last week we went to a mediocre Mexican restaurant where the margarita’s tasted watered down and the salsa was bland.
When I lived in Orlando, I finagled a gig where I did restaurant critiques for a small local paper. It was fun to try new places and write about them. Of the several ones I did, there was never a time I gave a scathing review. I told the truth of my experience and the food and service I experienced.
Here are the restaurants I’ve enjoyed over the years for multiple reasons — mostly tasty food, good service, and memorable experiences.
Silas – Southfield, Mich.
This was a small, very busy Italian place my family frequented often while I was in high school. I loved the lasagna — a saucy dish served on a metal plate with a cheese melted on top. The pizza was good, too. The owner always remembered us, and the same busboy was there for probably 30 years. Unfortunately, it’s closed now but I was able to share it with my kids when we were in town for Christmas many years ago.
Original House of Pancakes – Wilmette, Ill.
This restaurant started in the Chicago area and has become a small national restaurant chain over the years. One of their first locations was close to my home in Wilmette, Ill. They had a German pancake that was light and delicious. You put powdered sugar and lemon on it. This was one of my first experiences with restaurants and is hard to forget.
Italian Restaurant – Orlando, Fla.
For the life of me, I can’t remember the name of this restaurant a friend recommended. It wasn’t in a great location – just a place in a strip mall east of Orlando. What made it special was a couple of things. One, we got salads with our meal, but it had marinated squid in the salad. I didn’t like squid at the time and the waitress noticed I wasn’t eating it. The chef came out, sat down at our table, and asked me, “What can I cook for you?” After a few suggestions, he made me a salad with a grilled portobello mushroom. Two, we heard Andrea Bocelli for the first time and fell in love with his music.
La Scala – Orlando, Fla.
Named after the famous opera house in Milan, Italy, the owner of this restaurant used to be an opera singer. We had a great meal with a Caesar salad prepared tableside with real anchovies mashed into the side of the wooden bowl. What was really great was hearing the owner sing opera to the entire restaurant while we ate dinner. It was very romantic and a great celebration of our anniversary.
Tommy’s Subs – Morrison, Colo.
This is a place nearby that I like to stop at for a special treat. The Philly Cheesesteak is great, especially with their blend of peppers that come on the side. I especially like the bread they use. Every sandwich I’ve had here has been a hit.
Three Fat Chefs – Orlando, Fla.
As I mentioned earlier, I was a restaurant critic for a local area newspaper. I was invited to do a critique of this restaurant that had taken over an old Long John Silver’s location. The theme was Icelandic food, whatever that was. But the meal I enjoyed is one of my favorites of all time. I had steak with a couple of scallops on top of it. The steak was perfect, and the scallops were tender and delicious with a great sauce. The wine and the dessert were also outstanding.
Hotel St. Regis – Detroit, Mich.
My sister worked at The Hotel St. Regis and could invite someone for dinner when she was the overnight on-call manager. I had Steak au Poivre (pepper steak) which was cooked tableside. As a bonus, Aretha Franklin was in the restaurant that night. She and her manager stopped by our table on their way out and chatted with us a bit. One of my brushes with greatness.
Deli Planet – Orlando, Fla.
This was a casual sandwich shop not too far from my house. The owner, Michelle, was a master at running the store and remembering her customers. She had several sandwiches I loved – like the Buffalo Chicken Bomber and my all-time favorite, the Mother Shrimp. It’s no longer in business but was great while it lasted.
Angel’s Diner – Orlando, Fla.
When my parents came to town my dad always insisted on going to this 50’s-style diner. The food was very good but what was remarkable was their cakes. They were probably eight inches tall with multiple layers. They included a scoop of chocolate frosting with their slices so you could a good hunk of frosting with every bite.
Salerno’s Pizza- St. Charles, Ill.
I lived in St. Charles during my sophomore year in high school and Salerno’s was a family favorite. Nestled on the banks of the Fox River, they baked the best pizza I’ve ever had. The crust was stout, and the taste was incredible. I have driven out of the way over the years to have a meal here. I even ate a couple of slices just hours after having four teeth pulled in preparation for getting braces. Yes, I was a little obsessed.
The Parthenon – Cleveland
This was my first experience with gyros when I lived in Cleveland during junior high. This restaurant would cook fresh pita bread on the grill and then slice the lamb/beef mix off the spit, and then serve it super-hot with the onions and tzatziki sauce. I’ve never had a better gyro.
Alfredo’s Pizza and Subs – San Bernardino, Calif.
This place had very good pizza and each meal came with big chewy rolls and garlic butter. I took a date there and she into a food coma after dinner — she fell asleep while we watched a movie. Was a fun date otherwise.
Italian Restaurant – Fured, Hungary
I spent a summer in Fured during the summer of 1987. We found an out-of-the-way restaurant that served normal food, something we weren’t used to during our time in Hungary. We were able to get spaghetti during a time where much of the food was a bit odd to us.
Upstairs at the Pudding – Cambridge, Mass.
My buddy Johnny had a brother who worked here and arranged for us to get a free meal. I ordered gazpacho as an appetizer and as a joke asked the waitress to microwave it because it was cold. I ordered a peach cobbler for dessert and it was so beautiful, I took a picture of it. This was before taking pictures of food was a thing. It’s now called UpStairs at the Square (just across the street from Harvard).
I doubt I’ll ever be a professional restaurant critic. And I think a lot of us are critics in the back of our minds. Yelp and Google give us a place to flex our critic’s muscles.
I’d be interested to read about your favorite restaurants of all time. Put them in the comments below.