By Larry Olmsted
I write on culinary topics for many prominent publications, and had a New York Times Bestselling food book come out this year, so eating out is always on my mind. As 2016 winds down, it is time for an annual reflection on my standout restaurant meals from the past 12 months. This is a tradition I started with my “10 Most Memorable Restaurant Meals of 2011,” and continued in every year since. There are still plenty of gems in those previous articles, and most, if not all, of the eateries covered are still very relevant to travelers.
One reason my lists are especially useful for travelers is because, unlike most publications, I don’t confuse “new” with good. If I ate someplace this year that I have already visited several times in the past time, that’s because the place is still great (like Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami or the Golden Steer in Vegas). If it opened this year but I loved it and think it has staying power, then it made this list. Also, my picks tend to be in actual travel destinations some of you will be visiting for business or vacation anyway, so unlike most food magazines, my choices are not all in Brooklyn (though one is, much to my own surprise). My favorites don’t have to be expensive or Michelin-starred to be great either, they just have to serve great food. Hype or trendiness doesn’t make a restaurant better or worse - what matters to me is the taste.
As the Great American Bites restaurant columnist for USAToday, the nation’s largest newspaper, I scour the country looking for the best regional and standout foods in every corner of the U.S. My other food media outlets take me all over the world, and as a result I spend a lot of time in restaurants. A rough calculus would suggest I eat out at least 250 times a year. Unfortunately, many of these meals are forgettable, or merely “fine.” The following are the coveted exceptions, my ten very best taste memories of 2016.
Darwell’s Café, Long Beach, MS: This was my most surprising meal of the year - go someplace with high expectations and it is easy to be disappointed, but go someplace someone recommended that you know nothing about and you might be awed. I was awed by Darwell’s Café, a true roadside joint that is literally on the other side of the tracks, just outside the Gulf Coast tourist towns of Gulfport and Biloxi. Charmed by the hideaway-you’ve-just-discovered-something setting, the whimsical art covering the walls, the amazing bring your own booze outdoor space with regular live music, and the super friendly staff, I loved Darwell’s before I ever tasted the food. Then I tasted the food: Wow! The menu is broad, very Southern, and ranges from BBQ to po’ boys, but the focus is on Cajun, Creole and fresh wild caught seafood of the Gulf of Mexico, including some of the world’s best shrimp, excellent oysters and blue crab. The signature dishes are the Darwell’s Sampler and the crab melt sandwich. The three-bowl sampler includes crawfish etouffee, shrimp creole and gumbo, and the crab melt is layers of fresh blue crab meat, ham and Swiss, served warm on thick grilled Texas toast. Everything is made to order all the time, and the place just serves up a great experience. I wrote this one up in details for my USAToday regional food column.