Because of my job title, I'm often asked where I like to eat. My answer? Wherever my wife, Deanna, wants to go. Grabbing a bite together is often a big to-do (balancing schedules, babysitter, etc.), so, other than making a reservation, we keep it simple. Laid-back spots. Great food. A well-crafted wine list. That's her definition of a special supper (and I agree). Here are a few of our splurge-worthy favorites that get it right every time.
Hot and Hot Fish Club
Despite the restaurant's name, we go for the fall-off-the-bone braised pork shank, served with creamy Parmesan polenta (grits' Italian cousin). We pair this with glasses of Mapema Malbec (a delightful red from Argentina) for our idea of a perfect evening. Deanna won't leave before ordering Hot and Hot Doughnuts, fried to order and topped with chocolate or filled with espresso cream or Bavarian cream. If you have to wait a few minutes for a table, order a glass of wine at the bar (I recommend Gloria Ferrer's sparkling Blanc de Noirs from California) and munch on salty boiled peanuts or crispy sweet potato chips. 2180 11th Court South; (205) 933-5474.
Charleston, South Carolina
This is the spot for fresh fish and locally grown vegetables. I'm partial to the pan-roasted red snapper with lemon-kissed braised artichokes. Deanna prefers the sautéed triggerfish, a mild, white-fleshed jewel from local waters. It cozies up to braised navy beans and guanciale (gwan-chee-alley)―think bacon, only richer and more delicate. The smart wine list is packed with loads of surprisingly affordable bottles. Try the Miner Simpson Vineyard Viognier or MacRostie Chardonnay―both pair well with the fish. We also enjoy the "Vegetables for the Table" selections, especially the mustard-butter-glazed pan-roasted cauliflower (a restaurant specialty) and roasted beets with a touch of sherry vinegar. All the things we refused to eat as kids taste amazing at FIG. 232 Meeting Street; (843) 805-5900.
We don't fry chicken at home, so that's what I order here. Super-crispy batter-fried chicken thighs lean up against country ham and roasted-corn spoon bread. The "gravy" is a Louisiana hot sauce beurre blanc (aka butter sauce). Deanna, a true red meat lover, indulges in the prime tenderloin fillet. The tender grilled steak couples with grilled onion smashed potatoes and a roasted-mushroom-wine sauce. Don't miss the Celler Marti Fabra Seleccio Vinyes Velles from Spain. This robust, off-the-beaten-path red may be a mouthful to say, but it definitely delivers on flavor and value. 152 Courthouse Square; (662) 232-8080.
New to Wine? Check Out Olive Garden
My wife and our two young girls love Olive Garden restaurant. I feign indifference but always seem to be the first one in the car. The approachable, forward-thinking wine list makes this a great place to learn. Here's why: You know the menu like the back of your hand; the wine adds a new twist. Olive Garden's list (most sold by the glass) offers familiar labels plus a number of real Italian gems (Rocca delle Macie and Marchesi di Barolo, for the more initiated). You're encouraged to sample (for free!), so try a few new wines.
Treat Yourself at Home
Staying home can be special too. Prepare a much-loved dish, and then complement it with one of my favorite wines.
- Chateau Ste. Michelle, Indian Wells Chardonnay, Columbia Valley, Washington ($17.99)
- Frank Family Vineyards, Chardonnay, Napa Valley, California ($32.50)
- Rombauer Vineyards, Carneros Chardonnay, St. Helena Winery, California ($29.75)
- Seghesio, Sonoma Zinfandel, Sonoma County, California ($20)
- Casa Lapostolle, CuveeAlexandre Syrah, Las Kuras Vineyard, Chile ($25)
- Chateau Potelle Winery, Cabernet Sauvignon VGS, Mt. Veeder, California ($60)
"Three Special Restaurants" is from the Home for the Holidays 2007 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.