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Welcome to the online blog for traveler/writer/photographer Steven Barber. Come in. Relax. Take off your shoes and socks -- or any other article of clothing, this is the internet. Have a look around. I hope to intrigue, amuse, entertain, and maybe provoke you just a little. I love to find adventure. All I need is a change of clothes, my Nikon, an open mind and a strong cup of coffee.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Feeling Peckish?

"I dislike feeling at home when I am abroad."  - George Bernard Shaw

In almost every column, I seem to mention eating -- which may explain a few physiological things about my life. I love good food. Who doesn't?

The Dock Street Grill, Annapolis, MD
Over the many years I've been on the road, essentially my entire life, I've been privileged to eat in quite a few restaurants, both high- and low-brow. It's just part of absorbing the local culture and really digging your hands (and palate) in, metaphorically speaking.

But what I have discovered is that when you really, really want to spend time with the locals, get to know what makes each place different and in its own way unique, you have to get away from the high-end. The problem with eating at high-end and trendy restaurants is that they compete on a national or even international level for dollars (or euros, or yen, or whatever). And in their own way, they're all pretty reflective of that larger stage. Michael Mina's RN74 in Seattle is a wonderful place to have dinner, but nothing in the decor or ambience says "Seattle" to me. Likewise Tom Colicchio's Craftsteak in Las Vegas. It's one of my favorite steak houses, but sitting inside you could just in just about any big city on the planet. Bobby Flay's MESA Grill is likewise terrific for food, but do you know if you're in MESA Las Vegas or MESA New York when you're at your table? I've eaten in both, and can tell you they are beautiful and somewhat interchangeable in their presentation. In no way are they representative of what makes the Vegas culture (yes, there is one) different from the New York culture.
Peppermill, Las Vegas

Grand Case, St Martin
Don't get me wrong, I understand and appreciate the culinary aspects of eating in each one of these wonderful restaurants, and they are certainly excellent meals in a nice location -- but they are not what I look for when I'm trying to get a glean on the place I'm in. For that, you need to look at the neighborhood hole in the wall bar, the street corner grill, the neighborhood eatery that's been around since senior citizens were in their youth. This doesn't mean inexpensive -- some of the very best local places are mid- to -high- end eateries -- but the key is that they're not competing on a national scale, they're competing to be the best place here, in this place (wherever this is). They don't even need to be a single-site restaurant -- some local chains with three of four (or five) different locations can also bring that local vibe to their area. It has to do with representing what makes a destination different and then presenting that face to the locals and visitors alike. It should be the sort of eatery that doesn't necessarily jump out at you, but may instead be talked about in hushed tones by the residents -- you're being included in their little secret. But the most important aspect is that it shouldn't be the sort of restaurant that could be picked up and plopped down anywhere else in the world and not stand out like a sore thumb.

I think you're getting the point, so let's move on.
The Red Rooster, Jerome, AZ

In my analysis I picked ten places, almost completely at random, that to me illustrate what I mean. There are other, equally deserving places I can, and have, recommended. The Court of Two Sisters Sisters in New Orleans. The Ole Time Barbecue in Cary, North Carolina. The Federal House tavern in Annapolis, Maryland. The recently mentioned Country Kitchen in remote Joshua Tree, California. And you probably can name a dozen more I've mentioned over the years that aren't included here.

That said, I put together my criteria for what I look for in such a place.

Local vibe - It must, must, must radiate its environment. If you're in a college party town known for your beef, an asian sushi bar just isn't going to cut it. However if you're in New York, just about anything goes as long as it has that New York vibe about it -- though I will profess that in my opinion, Italian cuisine is most "New York" to me. Likewise, I'm not really going to appreciate a steakhouse in Tokyo as "representative" of that culture. So it's a fine and completely arbitrary line.

Excellent food - Yeah, well, this pretty much goes without saying, but needs to be included. If the food sucks, I'm not really interested in visiting.

Interesting atmosphere - Is it just a set of plain walls in a dusty mini-mall? Well, unless that representative of the area, give me something. I don't mean artificially gussy the place up, just make it somewhere I want to spend my time. (Philippe's in Los Angeles is a prime example -- it's a pretty raw environment, including picnic tables and sawdust on the floor -- but that's precisely the charm. It doesn't need to be anything fancy, just authentic.) What we're seeking here is a complete experience, not just great food. What do I remember about your place when I leave?

Service with a smile - Likewise, unless your catch is the abuse of your customer, please treat me with some semblance of appreciation. Nothing will put me off a restaurant faster than being ignored or worse by a restaurant's employees. At least act like you're glad to see me.

Reasonably priced - This doesn't necessarily mean inexpensive. You could be VERY expensive, but are your prices reasonable for what I am getting in return? I don't mind paying a little extra if the experience is going to be worth it -- but it's always a pleasure to find a spot with a low bill at the end of a wonderful visit.
Arturo's in the Village

These places I've selected below are representative of those standards. They are not the only examples, but they're the first that spring to mind -- I had to limit it to ten, which became fifteen and have, so far, had another fifteen or so pop into my mind as also perfect places to go soak in the local side. I have to draw the line somewhere -- and if you have a local spot in your neck of the woods, please jot a note in the comments section with your thoughts and the name of the place!

In no particular order, and food excellence is a given:

Sunset Cafe - Saint Martin, FWI  (http://www.grandcasebeachclub.com/the-resort/sunset-cafe/) - Sunning ocean view, sunset (of course), and rhum finish

Rooftop Cafe - Key West, FL (http://www.rooftopcafekeywest.com/) - Perfect location overlooking KW street scene, near Mallory Square and cruise ships, relaxing outdoor patio dining

Snowburgers, Lake Tahoe
Arturo's - New York, NY (http://tinyurl.com/az7ujta) - Jazz, pizza and a cramped bar full of after hours New Yorkers looking to relax

Lucile's - Boulder, CO  (http://www.luciles.com/) - Converted house, homey atmosphere, terrific brunch (long wait if you're late)

Chez Paul - Paris, France (http://www.chezpaul.com/) - Quintessential Paris Bistro environment. Tight fit, noisy, fun

Patin Couffin - Nice, France (http://tinyurl.com/bd3ovho) - Cut alleyway eatery with indoor seating (eat on the alley). Friendly but aloof staff, very romantic

Postcards Cafe - Hanalei, Hawaii  (http://www.postcardscafe.com/) - Converted house with the charm of a south seas gathering place
HB Burgers, Manhattan

Cafe Piccolo - Long Beach, CA (http://cafepiccolo.com/) - Intimate garden setting and feel. Sedate, romantic, friendly service. Valet park

Merchant Cafe - Seattle, WA  (http://www.merchantscafeandsaloon.com/) - Ghosties, history, friendly and fun atmosphere.

Rebel Kitchen - Big Island, Hawaii (http://rebelkitchen.com/) - No frills, great food and low prices. Cajun meets the Islands

Ole Time Barbecue - Cary, NC (http://oletimebarbecue.com/) - Best NC bbq we've had, but ask for recommendations. Sit at the counter for the best experience

Court of Two Sisters - New Orleans, LA (http://www.courtoftwosisters.com/) - A Big Easy institution. Sit on the patio for a quieter meal, but crowds can be tough on weekends

Dock Street Bar and Grill - Annapolis, MD (http://www.dockstreetbar.net/) - Good old time Annapolitan flair. Streetside or inside, depending on weather

Country Kitchen, Joshua Tree
HB Burger nr Times Square - New York, NY (http://www.heartlandbrewery.com/Times_Square.php) - Best burger in Manhattan. "Yeah, yeah, &%$# yoo too!". Near enough to Times Square for access, but much better food at lower prices

Country Kitchen - Joshua Tree, CA (http://tinyurl.com/ahpvavv) - It's a country kitchen. Everybody talks to everybody, the food is great. What else do you need?

These are the places that make a visit or trip or tour worthwhile. It's where you go to get the best and most representative taste (pun intended) of wherever you happen to be. The problem of course, is that once you start finding these little gems, you start seeing them whoever you go. And that's a good thing!

Aw, crud. 

Another ten just came to mind. There's The Red Rooster in Jerome, Pat's King of Steaks in Philly, Cattlemen's Steak House in Ft Worth…Leonard's in Memphis….Snowburgers in Lake Tahoe...

The Peppermill...in Las Vegas.


You get the idea.

Old Time table settings at the Merchant Cafe, Seattle

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