Road Rash: A Good Feed

Oct 27, 2015 View Comments by

Road Rash: A Good FeedChoosing the Right Diner –

“They put on a good feed … if you leave there hungry, it’s your own durn fault.” I’d asked one of the locals at a gas station to recommend a good breakfast spot, and those were the exact words he’d used to describe the restaurant he pointed me toward. Red flags should have started popping up at the words “feed” and “durn” like Caddyshack gophers, but they somehow slid under the radar. People should eat or dine, whereas animals feed. A subtle, but important point.

I did leave the place hungry, and it was definitely my own “durn” fault, as well as my choice. Although the amount of food was copious, the eggs were runny, the potatoes hard, and the thick-sliced bacon could have been used in lieu of the customary rubber hose for extracting information from prisoners. And the décor? Let’s just say that “tri-county rummage sale” was the dominant motif and leave it at that.

Picking a good diner while on the road is somewhat of an imperfect science at best, and although we’ve gotten pretty good at it, we still miss badly on occasion.

My wife, Sharon, and I made a pact some time ago to frequent only privately owned establishments whenever possible for several reasons. One gets a better sense of the local community, a richer tour experience, and quite often a superior meal at family-owned places, the best of which continue to prosper in the face of relentless pressure from the chains. The trade-off is that the relative consistency of quality found at the familiar is gone, and each new eatery is totally new and unique.

Deciding which parking lot to pull into is a bit like playing Russian roulette, but there are a few techniques to improve your odds of having a good encounter. One popular trick is to simply ask a local what they recommend. This method is fairly bulletproof, but caution must still be exercised.

Another tip is nothing more than common sense; full parking lots usually indicate the place is worth stopping at, especially if it is located a distance off of the highway. Even mediocre places can do well when they are situated next to a busy exit ramp, but only the truly good spots will thrive a couple miles down the road. Once again, some rules apply to this method. Is there any pattern to the type of cars in the lot? Rows of immaculate, 1980s four-door sedans usually mean a traditional menu featuring meatloaf and Salisbury steak with sides of baked potatoes, green beans, and applesauce. A lot full of pickup trucks bodes of offerings such as ribs, burgers, and chicken wings. But what do the pickups look like? We generally shy away from places whose clientele drive jacked-up trucks adorned with any combination of gun racks, Yosemite Sam “Back Off” mud flaps, and unmentionables dangling from the trailer hitch. No offense, but we’ll just mosey on down the pike and “feed” elsewhere.

What does the restaurant look like? A well-maintained building and parking lot are a must, but there are other features that we look for as well. Lots of windows are a plus since they add an air of openness and perhaps an unconscious realization that you can always escape in case of a grease fire by tossing your chair through the glass. The low-slung, windowless, flat-roofed cinderblock buildings should definitely be avoided. The food may be great, but I’ve seen too many bad things happen in these places on TV shows. Even Chuck Norris generally has his hands full trying to get out of these structures in one piece.

And finally, what is the name of the place? Is the spelling correct, or does the sign contain words like “Kountry Kitshun.” I once passed a cafe that graced their outside sign with the phrase “Smash Taters.” They couldn’t even put an “ed” on the end of smash. People who glorify illiteracy don’t get my vote of confidence, even if they’re just trying to be cute. Besides, the place will probably be decorated with more geese than a waterfowl sanctuary. This is just a personal quirk, but nothing sends me for the door quicker than a gaggle of bonnet-clad hens.

One thing is certain; when you leave one of these mom and pops, you take memories out the door with you. Most will be good, a very few bad, but at least you’ll know you made a difference in someone’s day when you stopped in. You may not always remember the food, but it sticks with you when the owner asks you to help choose a new dining room paint color. Make it moss green, please, and we’ll check it out the next time we come through town. And if it’s not too much trouble, please scrap the Mother Goose napkin holders.


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