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On the Road

By Tom Sietsema
The Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, June 3, 2001


    Illustration by Martin Matje Road-side dining advice. (Illustration by Martin Matje)
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 anticipation.

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 dress shop.

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 meal.

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 asktom@washpost.com or to Ask Tom, The Washington Post Magazine, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.


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