‘Fine dining?’ Nope – just good, award-winning food

Published 1:23 pm Tuesday, February 6, 2024

By Robert St. John

Since 1999 I have written every week in this space, a thousand words a week, never missing a week. That’s over 1,300 columns and more than 1,300,000 words in print.

I mostly write about food, restaurants, travel, food in the South, and growing up in the South. Over those years I have made great efforts not to write about our restaurants in any kind of specific, self-promoting way.

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Every once in a while, I may write about the restaurant business in general and reference broad instances that have occurred in our restaurants. I have written about the stresses experienced while opening a specific concept, but I usually refer to our restaurants as, “Our Italian concept,” or “Our breakfast joint.” Only on rare occasions have I mentioned one of our restaurants specifically, and almost never mention them by name.

That will have to change for the sake of today’s column. Next week I’ll go back to my long-standing practice of mainly focusing on other restaurants when writing about this industry.

There are six restaurants in the current New South Restaurant Group fold: the New Orleans Creole-inspired concept Crescent City Grill; a breakfast/meat-and-three lunch spot called The Midtowner; two Italian restaurants – Tabella in Hattiesburg and Enzo in Ridgeland; the newest concept, a bakery named after a type of pine tree, Loblolly; and the subject of today’s column, Ed’s Burger Joint, whose name pretty much sums up the concept.

A question I am often asked is, “Who is Ed?”

There is no Ed, at least as it pertains to the restaurant’s namesake. The name came as a need to communicate the concept.

My first restaurant was a fine-dining concept that I opened in 1987. It tagged me as a fine-dining guy from Day 1.

When I went to open the first Italian concept, the word on the streets that kept coming back to us was this: “St. John is opening a fine-dining Italian restaurant.” I wasn’t fine dining. Far from it.

Tabella was designed from the start to be a mid-scale casual Italian restaurant. To call it fine dining was to— not only mislabel it, but— create an air of unapproachability as upscale concepts only appeal to a small segment of the market. One of the first moves I made was to put the servers in blue jeans and T-shirts to make sure no one saw us as upscale fine-dining Italian.

The same happened when the breakfast concept was in development. “That Purple Parrot guy is opening a brunch place.” We don’t do brunch at The Midtowner. We serve real southern breakfast and country cooking inspired meat-and-three at lunch, quite the opposite of a stuffy brunch spot.

So, when the burger concept was in development, I wasn’t surprised when people started approaching me asking, “When is the gourmet burger restaurant opening?” I wasn’t in the process of developing a gourmet burger concept. I wanted to recreate a very casual, fun spot that served burgers fries, tots and milkshakes like the places I grew up eating in my childhood. Nothing fancy. The opposite of fancy, actually. I wanted the focus to be on the quality of the ingredients in an environment that was accessible and comfortable for anyone and everyone who wanted a burger. There wasn’t going to be gourmet anything.

After a few months I got tired of trying to explain the concept I was developing, and since I hadn’t come up with a name yet, I thought that I should choose a good, casual blue-collar name that everyone would identify as a working man’s moniker. Ed fit the bill, and “Ed’s” had only three letters with an apostrophe, easy to say, not a lot to fit on a sign or T-shirt. “Burger Joint” would dispel any ideas of formal gourmet burgers with exotic toppings and upscale pairings. It worked.

People often ask, “Who is Ed?” There is no Ed. Actually, there are hundreds of thousands of Eds out there. We honor all of them. Especially the ones who love burgers and tots.

We just celebrated our eighth birthday at Ed’s. It’s been the most fun concept I have owned. Everyone loves a good burger, and the burger at Ed’s is exactly how I like a burger— two patties with soft and squishy buns. We have all manner of pairings and toppings, but you won’t find truffles or microgreens, just things like chili and bacon jam.

The longer I am in this business the more I realize that we’re not in the food business, we’re in the people business. Years ago, our company purpose was a brief three words: customers, co-workers, community. It was a nice alliteration and those have always been three things we believe in and dedicate ourselves to, but after a decade or so I made a slight shift in our philosophy. Today the company purpose for all our concepts is “We exist to support our team, delight our guests and to serve our community.”

We began putting our team members first and prioritizing them and their well-being and happiness because they are the ones who ultimately take care of our guests. Once we have done that and created a good environment for both of those groups, it allows us to reach out and do our best to help our community.

That being said, I am proud to give a shout out to the Ed’s team members who have been killing it lately. We have always garnered local, statewide and national recognition for our food and concept.

But the most recent award was one that is very special to me: The Mississippi Cattleman’s Association just named us “Best Burger in Mississippi.”

Years ago, a steakhouse concept I owned in Hattiesburg and Jackson won recognition from the Mississippi Cattleman’s Association, but this was the first time that organization recognized our burgers.

The thing I appreciate about the Cattleman’s Association is that they take nominations, but then the members visit the Top 5 candidates to eat and judge for themselves. It’s not a marketing campaign or popularity contest, but a true test of quality and consistency by people who know beef.

So today, I want to give a HUGE thank you to the small but dedicated team members at Ed’s Burger Joint who are the true winners of that recognition. It’s that crew, some of whom have been there from day one, or soon thereafter, who do the daily work of making that a great little burger joint.

Out of the 20-plus concepts I’ve developed over the years, Ed’s is the one with legs. It’s our growth vehicle as we have a couple of them in the works for future locations. And no, I’m not Ed.


Black and Blue Burger

3 pounds Ground Beef
1/3 cup Blackening Seasoning
1 Tbl Kosher Salt
1/2 pound Blue Cheese Crumbles
6 Hamburger Buns
1/4 cup Unsalted Butter, melted
6 Slices Red Onion
8-12 slices Ripe Tomato
2 cups Iceburg Lettuce, shredded
1 recipe Blue Cheese Dressing

Divide the ground beef into 6 equal parts and form 1-1/2-inch thick patties.

Sprinkle patties with the blackening seasoning and salt. Cook over direct high heat for 8-10 minutes for medium- medium well burgers (155-160 degrees). While the burgers are still on the grill, top with blue cheese crumbles dividing equally between burgers. Close the grill lid to melt blue cheese.

Brush the inside surfaces of the hamburger buns with the melted butter. Place on grill and cook over medium-direct heat for 2-3 minutes. Place burgers on the grilled buns and top with onion, tomato and lettuce. Serve the blue cheese dressing on the side

Yield: 6 burgers

Blue Cheese Dressing

1 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup crumbled blue cheese
1/3 cup sour cream
3/4 cup half and half
1/2 tsp paprika
1 Tbl garlic powder
1 tsp Worcestershire Sauce
1/2 tsp white pepper

Use a wire whip to combine the mayonnaise, blue cheese, sour cream and half and half in a stainless steel bowl. Mix these ingredients together thoroughly and then add the remaining ingredients and blend together. Refrigerate until needed. Best if made a day in advance.

Yield: 2 1/2 cups