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Dining With Chefs

I was working in the W Hotel in New York's Times Square just after the holiday season in 2001. Keeping late hours and working at a blinding pace among the tourists left little time to enjoy a meal out. One evening, a chef asked a couple of us if we would be interested in grabbing a bite to eat after work. Of course the offer was accepted by all. At nearly 2 a.m., the four of us hailed a cab from Times Square to Soho.

Blue Ribbon Brasserie was the destination and, based on the time of day, my expectations were low. However, my idea of this late night oasis was soon corrected. We checked in with the Maitre d' who notified us that our reservation was noted and it would be a few minutes on our table.

The waiters were wearing ties and moving through the room with a purpose. There were no empty seats in the house and the bar was even crowded with people waiting for their tables. You can imagine my sheer delight at what I was witnessing as we approached 3 a.m... After we were seated, we enjoyed a couple bottles of Sancerre and lobster, amongst other things. It was the best late night meal I've ever had.

The lesson I learned that night is that if you want to find the best food and drink in town, then you need to seek the help of a chef. Whether you are looking for a fine dining meal or a late night snack, chances are local chefs will know where to send you. The following professional chefs all work in some of the finest restaurants, but I find their opinions of places to go outside of their 5-to-6-day work week to be very valuable. I recently spoke to two local chefs to find out where they go to unwind or eat great food.

Julien Lancrerot is the Executive Chef of Omaha Steakhouse at Kingston Plantation. His culinary training in Paris, plus his 20 years experience in the kitchen, makes him a prime candidate to talk about good food. He also took Third Place for Best Entrée at the recent Taste of the Town, so he's got the chops to back up his opinions as well.

He describes his recent experience at Black Thai Restaurant & Lounge 22 as "outstanding Thai fusion cuisine with great service." "Anytime a restaurant can offer regional specialties, I will eat there," he jovially announced. Being a fan of new experiences and flavors, Chef Lancrerot says that he avoids most of the larger, chain restaurants in Myrtle Beach and opts for the independently owned places because they are more likely to try new things with the menu.

When I inquired about his thoughts on the local culinary scene, he, very politically correct, stated that "the culinary world is growing in Myrtle Beach. Chefs are becoming more knowledgeable and getting more creative in their menus." When it comes to beverages, wine is his drink of choice. We would expect nothing less from a classically trained French chef. While, admittedly, not a heavy drinker, he does value a glass of wine as a vital part of a great meal and considers a good wine list as a necessary component to a great restaurant.

Chef Donnie Koester is at the helm in the kitchen at City Bar Metropolitan Cuisine. After being schooled in Pennsylvania, he spent three years in Spain and then the next seven working in some prime kitchens along the East Coast. His monologue about the Chili Rellenos served at Abuelo's Mexican Food Embassy is enough to sell anyone. Chef Koester says Abuelo's blends consistent service with authentic food and that is what he looks for when he eats out. Being a chef that caters to later evening diners, he says there is little time to eat out and "coming from an Italian family, cooking at home with everyone happens a lot." So where does a chef with little time to eat out go to unwind late night? Jimmagan's at 62nd Ave. in Myrtle Beach is his favorite late night pub. "The people that are there make it a good late night spot," he explains. The comfort of hanging out with other industry folks is what attracts him there a few nights a week after work. While the menu, which is comprised of standard pub grub, stops being served at midnight, the drinks are reasonably-priced and flow late into the night. While this standard late night bar is simple and reliable, Chef Koester says that he's excited about the next five years in the Myrtle Beach culinary scene. "Things are a little limited right now, but that is changing every year."

Any time you get to speak to a chef, ask them where to eat or drink around town. If you are traveling, ask a local chef if they have heard anything about the city you are visiting. You would be surprised as to how many of our local chefs have international ties. While most will probably say their own restaurant is the best, they will also give you the close seconds around town. A chef is a far better gauge of a good restaurant than a novice review on a random Web site. Enjoy eating like a chef. Cheers!