Road food: NY Times food writer seeks guidance
- David Corcoran
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!