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Monday, July 23, 2012

Dinner on the Go


From the Vault Dept.: How tools have changed in a mere seven years! When I wrote this piece, I had yet to acquire a smartphone, with its access to restaurant locators – and the world of online restaurant listings has exploded, creating new challenges like parsing the idiot-intensive commentary on sites such as Yelp.

                                                              

The former Dayboat
IT’S THAT AWFUL MOMENT when you’re on a stretch of interstate highway and the sun is cresting its zenith and you’re feeling the gnawing pangs of hunger. You unwisely failed to pack a lunch, so you’re going to have to get off the highway to find something. You don’t know the area. But you know it’s a minefield of ptomaine and tastelessness out there. And whatever you order probably will be fried.

Traveling around New York’s Capital Region is challenging enough, but over time you learn a few techniques and ace-in-the-hole stopping places. It’s a kind of game. You lose points for dining at chain restaurants; your license to dine out is revoked if you end up at a fast-food joint. Long-distance traveling requires a broader strategy, and I’ve boiled it down to three methods.

First is the by-guess-or-by-god approach. People have to eat, you reason, and every town must support at least a cafĂ© or diner. It’s a romantic notion I sustain despite many years of bad experiences, and just as I’m about to give up on it something happens like our recent stop in Sherman, Maine.

It was the only promising dot on the map en route to Portland within lunchtime. A sign at the end of the exit ramp indicated that food would be found in either direction. We turned left and drove through Sherman. The town looked as if it had recently been eviscerated by the general of the same name. We U-turned and looked on the other side of the exit ramp. The vista was bleaker.

As I contemplated forcible removal of that lying sign, I found the promised eateries. One was at the Irving gas station on one side of the ramp, the other at the other, attached to a Mobil station. Not convenience stores: full-fledged restaurants.

Through the Irving window we saw that the dining room was crowded with burly men wearing wife-beaters, so we found seats instead at the Mobil-adjacent place. Our first indication that something was wrong, meaning something was right, was when my daughter’s order of macaroni and cheese appeared, and obviously was not made from a mix. The next was the appearance of homemade bread. The meal was as good as it was unexpected.

We learned later that Irving (a major gas-station chain in the area) had recently upgraded its restaurants, and that one probably was the better of the two.

Unfortunately, for every incident like that I can list dozens of disappointments. Which brings me to the next method: Read the ads and brochures. But do so with skepticism. If you’re visiting a tourist-oriented area, as we recently were on Prince Edward Island, there’s probably going to be a focus: seafood, in this case, with mussels and oysters and lobsters galore.

Thus we avoided Peakes Quay Restaurant. For all I know, it’s a terrific place, but the brochure listing touted it as having the “Island’s largest outdoor deck with the only indoor/outdoor bar and heated deck.” Much more tempting was the Merchantman Pub, with its promise of “Thai and Cajun fare” as well as local draft beer on tap. And the hunch paid off: it was a very worthy dinner.

Zagat guides are a mixed blessing. While I appreciate the ability to choose restaurants in a daunting place like Manhattan by food type and physical location, with notes on pricing and service, I don’t trust something built upon popular acclaim – after, it’s popular acclaim that keeps the wretched Olive Garden in business – but I note with approval that Zagat’s doesn’t list that particular place.

Not surprisingly, I like the weekly freebies, especially if they’re for-real alternative newspapers. That’s where the best ads lurk, and the Portland Phoenix and the PEI Buzz were great helps as we traveled. The Buzz ad for The Pilot House restaurant reminded me that plain white lettering on a black background denotes an upscale place probably with a good menu, and such was the case. Locally, Saratoga’s Wine Bar takes the same approach.

For consistent success, however, nothing beats word of mouth. The trick is to find people who know what they’re talking about. My PEI visit included some unexpectedly good advice, gained only because I’m eager to talk about restaurants.

The Island’s tourist industry revolves around the book Anne of Green Gables, and includes not only a re-creation of the titular house but also a cluster of salvaged buildings assembled to recreate Anne’s village. The sight of a costumed actor bearing down on me with an interactive gleam in the eye is enough to send me screaming in the other direction, so I found refuge in a concert hall where a talented singer-songwriter named Mike Pendergast was holding forth with sea-related material.

Talking with him afterwards, I mentioned my interest in food. “Oh, I could talk about that all day,” he said, noting that his Irish-Acadian background made him an enthusiastic trencherman. He described some compelling Acadian recipes, then sent us to an amazing little bakery where we found heavenly homemade date bars, among many other things.

“And you’ll want to have oysters,” he said. “Go to Carr’s.”

As I sat on the deck of Carr’s and slurped a representative serving of the varied oysters fished from nearby Malpeque Bay, I caught sight of the Pendergast face – but it turned out to be Mike’s brother, Robert, himself a bread baker. And it was Robert who insisted we try a restaurant called Dayboat [now, unfortunately, closed], which had opened only a couple of weeks earlier, and where we had our finest meal on the island.

As we checked in for an overnight in Revere, Mass., the desk clerk named a few local eateries, none of which sounded too interesting – until she mentioned “a little Brazilian place I don’t know much about.” The hotel was in a Brazilian neighborhood, so we hurried over to find a churrascaria, a completely unpretentious place where you buy dinner by the pound and eat cafeteria style. It was terrific.

Another hotel proprietor, this time near Fredericton, New Brunswick, tipped us to the fact that the restaurant at a local Holiday Inn was better than you’d expect from such a place, and she was right. And we hit pay dirt in Portland, Maine, where an old friend who has lived there for many years (and it’s a restaurant-intense city) took us to the excellent Silly’s, “which you’d never think to try by just looking at it,” he said.

Because he travels all over the northeast, he, too, has worked out ways of finding good eats, so we followed his recommendation to breakfast at The Friendly Toast in Portsmouth, NH, a retro-themed place that served an incredible omelette wrapped around bacon, cheese, corn, olives and jalapenos.

Even as I write this, a thousand new weblog entries no doubt have been published, trumpeting such discoveries, but nothing beats being out in the field, talking to locals, taking a chance. It’s the only way to travel.

Metroland Magazine, July 14, 2005

1 comment:

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