Try it. Who knows, you may even like it.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Searching for a restaurant in an unfamilar city

By Dick Hirsch
Even in the information age, eating on the road is always a challenge and can become a real adventure. That’s partly because we are spoiled; we are so familiar with the gustatory conditions on our home turf we are unprepared to conduct a truly comprehensive search for a decent meal elsewhere.
I’m no authority, but at home I can readily recommend local places where I consider the specialties to be apparent, whether it is chicken Marsala, ribs, souvlaki, pasta fagiole or the juiciest hamburger. No research is required, but it’s far different in unfamiliar territory.
Let’s eliminate places on the interstate highway system. There are few choices on turnpikes; a state agency has made the choices and awarded the contracts to the company submitting the highest bid.
Many of them are franchises and present the same menu offerings familiar at home. The Burger King burger and fries on the road have the same appearance and flavor as the same items served at the Burger King near the shopping plaza at home. I suppose that’s a benefit; you know what to expect, but there is no adventure.
It’s a far cry from the days when over the road travel was conducted on state highways leading through cities, towns and villages, through the countryside, over the hills, down by the river, or on the other side of the valley. At strategic points along the route were a wide choice of restaurants. It was the job of the travelers to attempt to choose a stopping place where the food was good, the silverware shiny and the restrooms clean.
There was a period when a school of thought maintained the best places to stop were those where the parking lot outside were filled with trucks, preferably the over-the-road 18-wheelers. The popular theory was that the truck drivers, since they were on the road on a regular basis, would know the best places to stop, the places with the finest food, the best prices and the biggest portions. Many travelers subscribed to that approach. Although it is unwise to generalize, I have never believed that truck drivers would be the best arbiters of culinary matters.
Signs and billboards were important. They beckoned the hungry and stressed the unique nature of each establishment. “Home Cooking,” and “Table Service” were popular claims, as were more specific postings citing the cuisine, such as honey-dipped fried chicken, homemade soup, pies made daily or fresh coffee.
The simplest sign I remember said “EAT.” I couldn’t believe any normal person would ever be attracted to a place with such an unimaginative sign. So I stopped. I ATE. It turned out well, one of the best tuna salad sandwiches on wheat toast I had eaten at the time, accompanied by a quarter of a head of lettuce slathered with Russian dressing. It was a satisfying occasion but such experiences require either daring or research, which must often be conducted on the scene.
The best research is done by interrogating the locals. It’s too bad, but the guidebooks are often of little use. They become outdated because restaurants close, managements change and cooks are notorious for departing on short notice.
The most effective strategy is to ask questions. If you ask the right questions of the right people, the theory is that you will find one of the outstanding places in town. This can be relatively simple if the spoken language is English, much more daunting for visitors to a foreign country. Consider this report of a recent quest for a place for lunch in Barcelona, Spain.
My wife, Lynn, after questioning a number of sources,found the name and address of a place. Our only challenge: to find it. First we sauntered down the boulevard. It was still early. No luck. Then we started asking. One couple pointed us in this direction, but they seemed uncertain. Another couldn’t understand our question. A shopkeeper confidently pointed us in the opposite direction. We needed a tie-breaker and approached a man who waved us away. He obviously didn’t want to be bothered with tourists. But Lynn persisted, showing him the printed name and address. His eyes suddenly brightened and he gestured, pointing that way and around the corner.
With his help, we found it. The menu outside looked appealing. In we went, where we were immediately greeted.
“Two for lunch,” I said.
“Do you have reservations?” she asked.
Ah, the perils of dining on the road.


At 2:30 PM, Blogger Brian said...

It can be difficult. When Nancy and I were in San Francisco, we had to look around a lot. We found a great Italian resteraunt. Only about $15.00. Had to eat outside because they were so buisy, but worth it.


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