A friend of mine has encouraged me to take a good look at stainless steel and cast iron cookware. What are your thoughts?
My first thought is that you have a good friend. Two very good materials. You might add carbon steel to that, as well. It has all the benefits of cast iron at about 2/3 the weight.
In theory, cast iron is not good when using high-acid ingredients (i.e., tomato products, vinegar, etc.). But I do it all the time, with no noticeble effrects. You don't want to let acidic foods sit in the iron for any length of time, but, otherwise, they're fine in a well-cured pot or skillet. The key words there being "well cured."
With cast iron I would start with a 10" or 12" skillet, and a fair-sized kettle (which they market as "Dutch ovens" and "French ovens). Or go with carbon steel for the skillets.
Cautionary note: Cooking with cast iron can be habit forming, and once you start you'll be building a collection. Try flea markets, garage sales, and antique malls rather than buying new.
People say "stainless," when they mean "stainless-clad." Straight stainless is the next best thing to useless for cooking. But within the clad group there are half a dozen or more brands that are high quality and which cost less than All-Clad. Just a short, non-inclusive list: Calphalon, Cuisinart, Henkels, Tramontina, etc. At that level, design becomes a major consideration, because it has to be something you are comfortable using. Almost always that boils down to handle design more than anything else, particularly with skillets.
The core of cladware is a conductive metal, in one or more layers. Usually this is aluminum. Copper is popular, but, in practical terms, adds more to the look than the usefullness. And ups the prices. Look at the differences, too, between disk-bottomed and fully clad. It sometimes makes a difference in how the piece is used.
Isn't there a Cook's Warehouse nearby? In Marietta, I believe? You might find everything you need right there, and be able to compare and contrast various brands and designs. That ability, alone, would be worth the drive for me.
What is this about All-Clad being the best cookware?
For many years, when it came to stainless-cladware, All-Clad was the only game in town. And it's American made (at least under that name). So it became the cookware choice among many professionals, and developed a rep as being best. Now, as mentioned above, there are many competitors, usually at lower prices, with the same or better quality. So you have ample choices and don't have to be locked in to just one company.
In my experience, All-Clad does not stand behind its products, which makes them worthless. If you get one with a problem, and they don't honor their warranty, what good is the warranty in the first place? Personally, I wouldn't spend a dime with a company that has such poor customer service.
The interesting thing is that you never heard anything negative about All-Clad. When I had my problems with them, starting about three years ago, I started posting about the bad experience, and, of a sudden, people were coming out of the woodwork reporting similar problems. So much for reputations!