Road food: NY Times food writer seeks guidance
I'm a writer for the New York Times and am about to embark on a story for our special Vacations section (publication date July 12). Subject: How to eat well on the road. I hope I can enlist your help.
I'm not looking for tips on specific places but for guidance on how to FIND good places. When you're driving from Point A to Point B, can you plan your trip so you won't be at the mercy of McDonald's and KFC? Is there a way to tell from the outside that a place will be worth stopping at? How to find local people who will steer you to a good spot?
Jane and Michael Stern have written a number of good books on this topic, the latest being "Eat Your Way Across the U.S.A." But even that book lists only 500 places, an average of 10 per state. Western Massachusetts, for example, is a desert to the Sterns. I don't blame them -- they're only two people, and I assume they travel together -- but is the traveler on I-91 or the Mass Pike just out of luck?
Are there other books our readers should know about? Web sites? Techniques? Any tips would be most welcome.
Librarians always do their best to understand what you are looking for and fulfill your request - local librarians are ALWAYS a good source for me. Plus they have the yellow pages. I also find that librarians and lawyers are often chowhounds - don;t ask me why - just my experience! Also take back roads that USED to be the main road - always prettier and with MUCH better food places. Restaurants on big interstates are transient places, pleasing the customer is not necessary if the customer is not returning. Back roads and older inter/intra states have places locals know about and return to, a smaller percentage of these will stink in comparison to the BIG ROAD places.
>Are there other books our readers should know about?
Um, this one right here comes to mind...
The search for a magic formula "to tell from the outside that a place will be worth stopping at" strikes me as naive and silly, especially coming from a NYTimes writer, who should really know better. Personal tastes differ (not just in terms of food, but also in terms of atmosphere, ambiance, etc.), but if you're serious about eating, at some point along the way you learn how to identify the type of place that's more likely to appeal to you. And then you also learn that some places defy everything you've learned -- I recently found a *perfect*-looking bbq joint in North Carolina, for example, but the chow turned out to be uttery weak. The next day, against my better judgement, I got some bbq at a place that didn't look very promising, and it turned out to be among the best meals I've had this year. Point being: Even if there were any rules, the most important rule is that many rules don't apply in the eating game.
As for guidebooks, the problem is not that the Sterns don't cover western Massachusetts -- the problem is your apparent assumption that the whole road-food equation would be solved if only they had just covered that area. Guidebooks have their uses, and I've certainly referred to the Sterns plenty of times (if you insist on a book with wider coverage, there's "Where the Locals" eat, although its format offers only breadth, not depth), but if all anyone needed was a guidebook, well, then presumably the New York Times wouldn't need to devote an article to this subject (and this web site wouldn't exist).
Bottom line: Finding a good eatery is the same as finding a good bar, a good motel, a good hardware store, or any other good local business -- you explore a neighborhood, listen to your instincts, maybe ask some local folks for their recommendations. In short, immerse yourself in the local culture. That's what travel's all about isn't it?
One suggestion is to plan your trip to take you through college towns. In Western Mass., for instance, towns like Amherst, Northampton, and Great Barrington offer tons of good restaurants a short drive from major travel routes.
This rule has its exceptions, however; on a recent trip down I-84 we stopped to look for food in Storrs, Ct (home of UConn), and were disappointed by the lack of anything more appealing than fast food and pizza joints. Still, especially in an area that I wasn't familiar with, I'd think that sticking to college towns is as good a bet as you'll get.
I have pondered this question in depth and have not really arrived at the ulitimate method but here are some of my better attempts. Art or craft gallery owners seem to have a pretty good pulse on the food scene as well as antique dealers. I have called realators and have had some success. Gay men are often a good source. Try calling a top recommended restaurant, make a reservation and then pick their brain on where you should eat the rest of the time you are in town. If I have the time I always have menus faxed to me from every restaurant I have any interest in. Just because it is a top rated or highly reccomended spot does not mean they have anything I want to eat. A menu can tell you a tremendous amount about a place, faxed menus are one of the most valuable tools I have found. Another important point is how to ask people the right questions. If you ask someone whats the best place in town you are more than likely going to get told about the most expensive place in town. If you ask someone "what is the most addictive food in town -it can be french fries or fillet mignion" you stand a much better chance of locating something special.
re: Michael Kleinman
County seats - go to the courthouse square and check around - these towns still have a living center. As somebody else suggested, travel the old US highways - some still have a significant amount of life, particularly if they are a ways away from the Interstate. At least one of the Interstate Gourmet guides is still in print - though dated, these can be useful if you have to stay near the highway. Look for pies on display. Avoid italian food unless you are in the NE corridor.
We always try to stop in a town that looks big enough to have a real main street and small enough so we don't waste time or get lost. (Big scores are finding olde style dairy restaurants--operated by the dairy, where you can buy their milk, ice cream, etc. on the way out--where you can usually always get an okay meal.) Another help is the AAA guide books. They have listings for historic restaurants. Or sometimes it will list that a restaurant has been in operation "since 1942" or such.
Now if we can just figure out why it is that you can drive past cows and farms for hours and when you stop at a diner get fake milk, margarine spread, and pre-packaged factory-made muffins!
It appears that, ironically, no one has suggested using
the Chowhounds to guide you. Why not post your itinerary to the appropriate board(s) on this web site and see what happens? You may well get the chowhounds
barking and woofing all along your route.
If it works, you'd have your local knowledge in advance of the trip, without having to sniff it out as you go. Get a map, organize the responses, and you could possibly end up with a breakfast, lunch, and dinner itinerary drawn up before you leave. Would be an interesting experiment.
I mean, that's exactly what I started this site for. To give us all a hangout and the abiltiy to guide each other. We've all been lone hounds for way too long. We're so much more effective "en packe". It's absolutely ridciulous for Betty in Oklahoma to have to come to NYC and GUESS about where to eat Korean or for Bostonians to go to OK and do likewise. We've all been working at this chowhounding pursuit (if not compulsion) anyway, so we might as well compare notes, build up a storehouse of info, and help each other.
I'm not even being hypey, I just speak as one of the hounds (I'm presently in Silicon Valley trying to explain the site to non-food people, so I sort of AM in hype mode, otherwise!).
Get some quotes from writers.
Calvin Trillin has an amusing riff in one of his early books (Alice, Let's Eat?) about finding a good place:
"Do they have plates?"
"Whaddya mean, 'plates'?"
"You know, plates, like you eat off."
"Of course, they have plates."
He then knows that's not the place for him and continues his interrogation until someone says, "Well, there's that old colored fella out by the highway."
Abraham Verghese in the magnificent "My Own Country" says he can tell if there's a good Indian restaurant in town by counting the number of Patels in the phone book. If there are more than 13, he calls one of them at random and asks for a recommendation.
Some of these points might repeat what others have said, but here's my M.O.:
1. The obvious: Ask around. Cops, mechanics, anyplace but the Chamber of Commerce. (Calvin Trillin's admonitions still hold true in most small towns I've hunted good eats in.) Ask locals for the first place they eat when they've been away for a while, in the Army or prison or college. Here in Buffalo, that makes the crucial difference of being sent to Duff's in Amherst for wings (Sheridan and Millersport) and not to Buffalo's better known but weaker Anchor Bar.
2. Look for full parking lots at lunchtime. Not foolproof certainly, but it separates the strong from the weak in the market. That led me to one of the best mid-American comfort food restaurants of all time, the Wayside in Berlin, Vt. (Off exit 7 on I-89, turn left, it's on your left on the Barre-Montpelier road. Reserve a piece of banana cream pie when you're seated because they only make a few each morning and by the end of your meal it may be too late.)
3. Find an excuse to go inside and take a peek at what people are eating. Ask for directions if you have to, to kill time. It's the only way I know to weed out the promising facades from the real deal without wasting a mealtime.
Just read your great article. Good work! As I am getting prepared for a family vaction up the California coast, your acticle was timely. I hope to put your ideas to practice.
(PS, post us on Alain Ducasse's new restaurant (NYTimes 7/12) when you are able to access your alter, er table.)