On the Road
By Tom Sietsema
The Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, June 3, 2001
Three hundred forty-five miles separate Worthington, Minn., from Wall Drug Store in Wall, S.D. That was a lot of cornfields and concrete for a family of five to look at on the long road trip that constituted summer vacation one
year when I was a kid. Mount Rushmore and the moonscape of the Badlands were
our ultimate destinations, but Wall Drug, a pharmacy/restaurant/theme park
that was famous in the prairie states for being famous, incited just as much
Road-side dining advice.
(Illustration by Martin Matje)
Once we crossed the Minnesota border, a nonstop parade of hokey signs on
I-90 reminded us that buffalo burgers, homemade pies and "free ice water" a
promotion launched during the Great Depression awaited us in Wall. After
seven hours of not-so-subliminal advertising, we kids probably would have
mutinied if my parents hadn't stopped.
I recall a lame Wild West theme and a gift shop that was kitschy even by
my adolescent standards. I've forgotten whatever I ate at Wall Drug, but the
worst disappointment was this: The "free ice water" turned out to be tepid.
That's the problem with vacations. Whenever you're eating on foreign turf,
whether in big cities or small towns, anything beyond fast food is a gamble.
You can improve the odds of a good meal by doing your homework buying a
guidebook or tapping the Internet but the search doesn't need to be even that
complicated. Sometimes all you need to do is open your eyes to the obvious.
With the summer vacation season in mind, for this column I've pulled together
some tips I've picked up over the years.
A parking lot might not seem like a harbinger of good cooking, but I knew
I'd struck gold the first time I pulled up to Jimmy Cantler's Riverside Inn in Annapolis and saw a democratic assembly of vehicles: a Rent-a-Wreck next
to a Jaguar alongside a motorcycle and a Honda. Besides, the license plates
were local. Had the lot tilted too much in one direction if it had been
filled mostly with trucks or with wheeled status symbols I wouldn't have been
as enthusiastic. Truckers, in my experience, are helpful at pinpointing cheap
eats but primarily focus on quick refueling, while the owners of luxury cars
are inclined to seek out country-club treatment instead of great food. But
any place that draws both camps holds the promise of lip-smacking barbecue,
lobster fresh from the water or frozen custard that puts Dairy Queen in its
place. (Extra points if there's a sheriff's car in the mix; law enforcement
tends to know a town.)
The American landscape is losing a lot of its regional identity. Drive
down the main drag just about anywhere and what you see are so many clusters
of fast-food chains that it's as if you're racing through one of those
cartoon houses where the characters chase one another through rooms with
identical furniture, over and over. For local color, you need to find a
genuine neighborhood, a place where people have been living for more than a
season, as opposed to younger, renovated neighborhoods dotted with yuppie
hangouts. In other words, a neighborhood without a Starbucks.
You can avoid that predictable scenery by taking back roads, maybe getting a
little lost, and stopping every now and then to roll down your window and
sniff the air. Following that tack in northern Wisconsin years ago, I found a
treasure trove of cherry pies and community fish boils.
In the absence of a trusted tipster, you need to reach out to locals for
dining advice. The best people to ask are those who have no vested interest,
which generally excludes hotel concierges and taxi drivers, who benefit from
pointing visitors in the direction of hands that might feed them. Hair
salons, interior design stores and art galleries are good for tracking down
hipster haunts; the owners of ethnic grocery stores are usually happy to show
off the places that best represent the part of the world they know best; and
if you're looking for afternoon tea, the answer might be found at a fancy
Want a more educated opinion about a place? Call a local cooking school or
ask the face behind the counter of a food shop or market that looks
promising; in Napa Valley, some of the best suggestions for where to eat come
from the clerks at wineries, who hear about the good, the bad and the ugly
from a steady stream of winery visitors who keep the area restaurants filled.
And be sure to pose the right question. "Where's the best restaurant?" is apt
to get you a seat in the fanciest place around, not necessarily the most
interesting restaurant for a visitor. Better to ask your local sources where
they enjoy eating on their own dime, or when they're entertaining out-of-town
guests. Their responses will also reveal whether they are more attuned to
food or ambience.
Food critics are used to assessing a restaurant even before they take
their first bite, but civilians can employ similar techniques. Start with the
sign. Places named after anybody but Mom are usually reliable, and a lot of
the time they signal an eye-opening breakfast. Exhibits A, B, C and D: Lou
Mitchell's in Chicago, Al's Breakfast in Minneapolis, Ella's in San Francisco
and Elizabeth's in New Orleans. No scientific study has been conducted to
explain this phenomenon, but places named after real people tend to have a
long history and family support behind their menus.
With the exception of any Hard Rock Cafe, a line outside a restaurant is
usually worth joining. Inside, scan the room for signs of life: Do diners
look as if they're enjoying themselves? Do they appear to be local? I also
like to see lots of Indian faces in an Indian restaurant, and Chinese in a
dim sum parlor. If you can, check out the restroom. One that is tidy suggests
that the kitchen is in order, too.
Put your other senses to work, too. I'm drawn to places that tickle my
nose when I walk in a seafood joint that smells sweetly of the sea, an
Italian kitchen with a hint of smoke or rosemary in the air, a breakfast spot
that says "good morning" in its perfume of cinnamon, yeast or roasted coffee
beans. If I'm curious about a place, sometimes I'll sit at the bar and order
a drink and an appetizer before committing myself to a table and an entire
Some flags that should almost always send you running? Servers wearing
costumes. Diners wearing name tags. Restaurants that occupy the upper floors
of skyscrapers, or that spin around, or both. The bigger the ad in the Yellow
Pages, the worse a restaurant tends to be. Abroad, I avoid places with
American names or menus translated into four languages. And I'm skeptical of
places that combine multiple cooking styles. As one of my well-traveled pals
says, "Most kitchens have enough trouble trying to turn out one country's
food, so I figure my chances of gastronomic happiness are minimal at a
Serbo-Peruvian sushi bar."
And, obvious as it sounds, steer clear of restaurants that aren't busy at
prime time. There's a reason they're empty. Unless, I've learned, you're in
Italy and there's an important soccer match going on.
Got a dining question? Send your thoughts, wishes and, yes, even gripes to
email@example.com or to Ask Tom, The Washington Post Magazine, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.