I Gave Up Eating at Chain Restaurants: How I Kicked the Habit
But after a trip to Michigan's upper peninsula when we bought and nearly ate a dozen chocolate éclairs whose undersides were green and fuzzy with mold, we added an important corollary: The restaurants we dined in must be some kind of clean. Maybe not as antiseptic as my Dutch mother's kitchen, but at the very least a place where the silverware wasn't sticky and the bathroom floor wasn't knee-deep in discarded paper towels.
In other words, restaurants needed to look greasy enough to pass as part of the "local color" but not so greasy that we'd have to worry about getting ptomaine poisoning.
Admittedly, it's a very fine line to walk.
For the most part, it's been worth it. In South Dakota, we discovered a lunch counter inside a ramshackle souvenir store that prepared some of the most savory soft-shelled tacos I've ever tasted, filled with buffalo meat. In Utah, the standout was a diner that featured spicy green chili enchiladas. There were also lobster rolls from a dingy Boston tavern and amazing deep-fried French toast in Montana. And, somewhere in Glacier National Park, we discovered a wonderful Italian restaurant in an area so remote that we drove through 30 miles of grizzly-infested back country in order to get there. The ziti was worth the trip.
My son, a purveyor of fine TV, likes to hit the spots he's seen on his favorite shows -- which adds a new dimension to our trips. We once ate fried redfish sandwiches and homemade coleslaw in a historic hotel in Tennessee, for example, because it had been on a show that exposed "the most haunted places in the U.S." (The food was good, but the ghosts were lacking.) Then there was the rib joint in Memphis. If it had been left up to me, I wouldn't have eaten in a place where you had to duck into a back alley, creep down some rickety stairs and shove your way into a dimly lit basement just to get some barbecue. Then again, I would have missed out on a terrific meal.
But not every strange restaurant we've tried has been good.
Our biggest gastronomic misadventure happened in the middle of Utah, in a town so small that it contained only a sign, a house trailer on a dirt lot and a restaurant. This was rural even by Utah standards. Attached to the restaurant was an enormous souvenir shop stuffed with a dusty collection of hand-crafted Native American art, souvenir kitsch and natural oddities such as bleached cattle skulls and discarded rattlesnake skins. The place brought to mind all of those '70s-era horror movies in which fearless tourists wander into a madman's lair and end up being buried up to their necks in dirt with their vocal cords cut.
Though it was six o'clock on a Friday night, we were the only customers. We were beginning to sense that maybe this wasn't the best place to eat, but before we could escape back to the van, the proprietor, a thin, nervous man with a habit of saying "we" (as in "we made all of that art in the other room"), seated us in the empty dining room and took our orders, convincing each of us to try a burger made of meat from buffalo that "we raised ourselves." Then he left us alone.
If this really had been a horror movie, this would have been the part where we were chloroformed and dragged off to the basement. My youngest daughter kept pleading for us to leave. "Did you notice that there are five cars out in the parking lot, but there's no one else here?" she asked. "Where did all the other people go? And why does that man keep saying we?" When I ignored her, she pointed to an immense barbecue pit outside the window. "Do you see that? Do you? Because I'm pretty sure that's where the owners of the other cars ended up."
In the eerily silent dining room, we ate our buffalo burgers as quickly as possible. We consumed them without condiments because the ketchup on the table was so old that it was scabbed over with a black crust that oozed red, and I figured that I had too much to live for to even open the mayonnaise jar.
The end of the story is rather dull. We paid for our food and left. No one was chloroformed. None of us were buried in dirt. And amazingly, we didn't even get sick. But, apparently, my daughter was still traumatized. A few months later, when she was assigned to write an essay about an event that changed her life, she wrote about that restaurant in Utah and said in her conclusion, "I've learned to never listen to my parents when they pick out a restaurant."
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