Restaurant dining and travel have both been heavily impacted by the coronavirus pandemic and COVID-19. Skip take-out or fast-food delivery for the holidays, and instead consider giving a gift that tackles both these issues. By shipping complete, contactless meals from America’s most iconic restaurants, your recipients can relive the thrill of the good old days of travel and eating out, virtually and vicariously, while staying safe at home.
Maybe in past years someone you love would have made a December trip to Miami or Las Vegas or New Orleans? That is off the table right now for most people who have been following the news and CDC recommendations, but that doesn’t mean you can’t recreate the experience of the most special and coveted eateries in those top tourism destinations, iconic spots like Commander’s Palace, Joe’s Stone Crab or the Golden Steer. But surprisingly, while there are more mail order fine food options than ever before (see this earlier piece I did on Eating Well at Home During the Pandemic and this one on Bringing the High-End Steakhouse Experience to Your Kitchen), most of them just ship individual dishes, ingredients or specialties, not meals. Barbecue is a perfect example – you can order ribs or brisket from many of the most famous pilgrimage smokehouses across the country, but try to find one with sides and you’ll be shocked how few good options there are.
By complete dinners I mean multiple courses like appetizer, entrée and dessert, maybe sides as well, all of them things a particular place is famous for. For instance, lots of famous steakhouses will ship you a steak, but only the Golden Steer, Las Vegas’ most storied independent steakhouse – and famously Frank Sinatra’s favorite – will ship you a complete dinner, down to the white tablecloth, cloth logo napkins, recipe for signature cocktails and even a Spotify playlist to get your Rat Pack vibe on. When I spread out the tablecloth and folded the napkins and turned on the tunes, it wasn’t just a delicious dinner, for a couple of hours we were transported for a brief respite out of pandemic induced stay at home sheltering and to a happier virtual place.
I’ve done the work so you don’t have, rounding up the nation’s best options for gifting complete special dinners at home.
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Joe’s Stone Crab, Miami Beach, FL: In 1913 Joe Weiss opened a small lunch stand on Miami Beach called Joe’s Restaurant. Eight years later he discovered the then unknown local delicacy, stone crab claws, and the rest is history. More than a century later, Joe’s Stone Crab is one of the country’s most iconic eateries, a true destination dining spot and for many the highlight of a trip to Miami. The restaurant is very large, but so popular that two plus hour waits are routine, and because Florida’s crab season runs from mid-October to May, this is a winter specialty ideal to enjoy fresh at the holidays. Like other classic seafood centric grand eateries (New York’s Oyster Bar, etc.) Joe’s has a huge and varied menu, but besides the signature claws, served with signature mustard base dipping sauce, the special things regulars come for include the standout rendition of the less common Manhattan (red) clam chowder, the famed cole slaw, famed creamed spinach and even more famous award-winning Key Lime Pie, another South Florida specialty that many units think is at its very best at Joe’s.
The restaurant has several food shipping packages and a la carte options, but none make a better luxury gift the “Joe’s Goes Classic,” which runs right through dessert and combines all five of these signature dishes. It is offered in four serving sizes (dinner for 2,4,6 or 8) and four stone crab claw sizes (Medium, Selects, Large and Jumbo), 16 permutations in all, from $285-$1450.
Commander’s Palace, New Orleans, LA: The winner of seven James Beard Awards, Commander’s Palace is one of the nation’s most legendary eateries and has been a culinary landmark in this foodie beloved city since 1893. In addition to all the many other traditions born here, one has been finding extremely talented chefs and cultivating them to greatness. Over the years, the kitchen has been helmed by Paul Prudhomme, Emeril Lagasse and Tory McPhail, while Commander’s now has its first ever female executive chef, Meg Bickford.
Commander’s Palace offers two different 3-course meals shipped nationwide, each available for two or four people. The entrée options are the signature Spiced Sugarcane Lacquered Quails (whole, $179/$299) or the famous Shrimp & Grits ($169/$289), featuring wild caught shrimp cooked with cognac atop Creole cream cheese grits. Both options are accompanied by the restaurant’s famous turtle soup or seafood gumbo, garlic bread and a whole, delicious pecan pie.
The Golden Steer, Las Vegas, NV: A personal favorite of mine, stepping into the Golden Steer is like stepping into a nostalgic museum – or movie set. Detached from any casino and the longest running great steakhouse in a city enamored of steakhouses, the Steer is a true Las Vegas icon. Visitors who have sought out the red leather banquettes, tableside Caesar salads and cold shellfish towers include Joe DiMaggio, Muhammad Ali, Bette Midler, Mario Andretti, even the King himself, Elvis Presley. But the most famously loyal customers were dedicated Rat Pack regulars Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, both of whom had personal booths, which you can dine in today.
The Golden Steer is Old School in all the best ways, but just broke new ground when it launched its dinner shipping service yesterday – literally. The family owners tested dishes from the menu to see what would work the best reheated at home, and chose to pair a giant dry aged, bone in, USDA Prime grass fed Tomahawk steak for two (uncooked) with vacuum packed sides of stuffed twice baked potatoes, a perfect choice since many home cooks freeze these for later use, and creamed corn, a steakhouse staple, that simply blew me away when I tried it and loses nothing in transit. Through its new online store, the Steer ships many of tis famous steak cuts both a la carte and as 3-month subscription packages (also great gifts), but the dinner is called “The Steer Setup” and is one of the better values in the genre, $195 for two. In addition to the top shelf 36-ounce steak, potatoes and corn, it is meticulously packaged with separate seasoned maître’ d butter for topping the steak, and even au jus sauce. The care and packaging is way above industry standards, and while I have found the major shortcomings in mail order gourmet food to be directions that are lacking in clarity – or in many cases nonexistent – the Steer package comes with no less than three detailed sets of instructions just for options for cooking the steak, indoors or out, even a reverse sear method. It also comes with recipes for house signature cocktails, the white tablecloth, the embroidered cloth Golden Steer logo red napkins and Spotify playlist to make this a “night out” without leaving home.
Katz’s Delicatessen, New York City: There is simply no more famous Jewish style deli in the county than Katz’s, since 1888, and no one who has been shipping its specialty foods longer. Way before there was an internet, even back in WWII, Katz’s shipping slogan was “send a salami to your boy in the Army.” They still do a brisk business and are very, very good at it, from the site out the packaging, instructions and selection. Options run the gamut from bagels lox and cheesecakes to soft and hard salami and even whole pastramis. In a city passionate about Jewish deli meats and pastrami in particular, Katz’s is routinely considered the best.
But to recreate the special thrill of eating at Katz’s – forever captured on film in the famous “I’ll have what she’s having” scene from When Harry Met Sally, the way to go is the “Complete 3-Course Dinner for Four,” a great value at $125. This includes a pound each of Katz’s famous pastrami and corned beef, a loaf of rye bread to turn them into sandwiches, four large and delicious potato knishes, a quart of pickles (your choice of half or full sour), two quarts of the stunning homemade matzoh ball soup, and a whole babka cake, your choice of chocolate or cinnamon. They even throw in the mustard. Not only is this a big, complete meal for four from sides to dessert, it is all best in class. The knishes, soup, and pickles are all as equally world class as the meats, and this is one meal that travels exceptionally well. If you have been to Katz’s, you know the pastrami and corned beef are served warm and moist, and to replicate the perfect texture, they vacuum pack each in bags designed to be submerged in boiling water on your stove for 10 minutes. Pull them out, cut them open, and voila, it’s like visiting the Lower East Side, but from anywhere in the country.
Legal Sea Foods, Boston, MA: There are a lot of places that will ship you fresh Maine lobsters ready to cook, but almost none of them offer true dinners – and most are not even restaurants at all. Then there is Legal Sea Foods, which began in 1904 as a retail fish market in Boston’s Inman Square, and later become the first restaurant chain to build its own state-of-the-art fish processing facility and food safety testing laboratory. They even partnered with the FDA three decades ago to help develop a now standard seafood testing program. The motto, “If it ain’t fresh, it isn’t Legal!” is well deserved, and now thanks to a century-plus of expansion, lots of people in the country have had sit down, dine-in access to the menu, whose most famous dish is New England Clam Chowder.
But Legal also uses its 116 years of fresh seafood expertise and excellence to sell online, and you can get oysters, fish, soups and cooked or live lobster sent anywhere. However, for a true feast, you cannot beat the aptly named “Complete Dinner,” offered for two or four people and combining the best of the best of the famous menu. There is the clam chowder to start (with classic oyster crackers), crab cakes as a second appetizer, then live (or pre-cooked) whole lobsters (with shell crackers) and to finish, Boston Cream Pie – of course! The dinner for two starts at just $123 with standard 1 ¼ pound crustaceans, but you can upgrade to larger ones. There are a couple of other notable package options, like the New England Feast, the same but without crab cakes, or the Maine Event, which drops crab cakes and pie but adds Littleneck clams.
Goode Co. BBQ, Texas: This popular Texas barbecue spot is equally famous for its pecan pie and smoked meats and is one of the only standout smokehouses shipping entire dinners nationwide. The original Houston location has been smoking meat with mesquite for more than 40 years and there are now four Goode Co. BBQ locations. They offer several packages combining barbecue meats with their signature loaves of addictive jalapeño cheese bread, but only the “Pride of Sam Houston,” includes dessert, the must-have pecan pie. Expect leftovers – you get a whole beef brisket, two full slabs of pork ribs, two links of their family recipe Czech sausage, two links of jalapeño pork sausage, two full loaves of jalapeño cheese bread, two bottles of Goode’s BBQ sauce, and a pecan pie. With meat, meat, meat, more meat, bread and pie, this dinner is suggested to feed 18-20 for just $225, the best buy out there.
Girl & The Goat, Chicago: Ever since culinary superstar and James Beard award winner Stephanie Izard hit the scene, she has been one of the nation’s biggest celebrity chefs and her Girl & The Goat has been one of the hottest tables in Chicago for years. Izard was named the nation’s Best New Chef in 2011 by Food & Wine magazine, and she has won seasons of both Iron Chef Gauntlet and Top Chef. Her eclectic eatery is on several prominent Top 100 In America restaurant lists, and her love of the namesake meat is reflected in this “Smoked Goat Taco Kit for 4.” For under a hundred bucks ($99) it includes all the many fixings for the tacos (tortillas, cabbage, fresh cilantro, pickled red onions, smoked goat meat, sauce, queso fresco, etc.) along with her signature masa chips with avocado dip for a starter, short “cobbettes’ of corn as a side, and for the finish, a pound and a half if homemade chocolate chip cookie dough, ready to bake.
Wayfare Tavern, San Francisco: Food Network star Tyler Florence opened Wayfare Tavern in the City by the Bay ten years ago, and it has become one of the food loving town’s favorites for its greatly elevated comfort foods. His signature double breaded, buttermilk brined fried chicken was rated the best in the entire country last year by Food & Wine, and that’s what you can get sent straight to any home. The “Fried Chicken Dinner Kit for 4” pairs the award-winning poultry with Wayfare’s signature glazed streusel donuts, complete with chantilly dipping sauce, as well as a classic side of macaroni and cheese, super creamy and full of Monterey Jack. It’s a main course, side and dessert that all pair beautifully with each other ($179).