- The Thumbnail Traveler
- 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.
Monday, March 3, 2014
DISPATCHES FROM THE ROAD #2: Road Fill
It's a Road Thing.
It comes as no surprise that I will state that I love a good road trip. Something like 1/3 of my blog entries reference that, so it shouldn't come as a shock.
There are pluses and minuses to spending a long time on the highway, but for me one of the really great parts is discovering a very cool place to eat. It might be a regional chain, it might be a Mom and Pop stop, or even just a roadside barn with fresh fruit. Nationally there are the likes of Bob's and Cracker Barrel (though the latter isn't precisely a diner...a roadside eatery?) Regardless, it's something you completely miss out on when you're in Flyover Mode. Plus it often gives you a much more true sense of an area than does a stop at the next Burger King or Subway.
This sort of thing first started with me years ago on a couple of cross country trips with my parents. On the first, a two-person jaunt in a maroon Corvair, was with my father, around 1971. We spent half the time camping, and the other half in cheap motels. Budget trip, obviously. But it gave us some terrific father/son time, which given a Navy lifestyle was something quite special for me as a ten year old boy.
On that trip, from Rhode Island to California, we found ourselves along route 40 for much of the journey. After a couple of camping nights we opted for a motel as a chance to sleep in a real bed and get a shower. Not surprisingly I think this was much more my father's preference than mine...I was perfectly okay with no shower and camping out. Again, 10 year old boy. The motel was a basic no-frills roadside affair, with a diner in front. This was, essentially, my first exposure to roadside diner breakfasts, which remain among my favorite experiences to this day. There is something quite special about the kind of meal and service you get at a counter in these places, and it's always fun. (For some reason I just flashed on the Mel's Diner counter set for the long-running tv show ALICE...a highly romanticized version of the sort of thing I love.)
The second memory, and the one that reinforced the practice for me, was a visit to the now sadly defunct Copper Pot restaurant which used to be along 40 in the woods of Tennessee. True roadside installation, complete with a dining room and a cheap souvenir shop right next door. My family stopped there in yet another trip across country, though this time it was with my mother and sisters as we moved from Washington, DC to San Diego. The Copper Pot made such a strong impression I dragged my at-first skeptical wife there on our own coast-to-coast journey a couple of decades later. Sure enough, she too loved it.
Some of my favorite roadside stops along major highways:
The Ludlow Cafe in Ludlow California, just adjacent to Highway 40, along the remainder of Route 66. It's a real desert roadside diner with sharply angled roof and formica tables. Really good food and a wistful ambiance of days gone by.
The Rustic Table in the middle of the Sierra Mountains just off of I-80 between Reno and Sacramento, roughly 45 miles from Lake Tahoe. Truly delicious burgers (handmade) and a coffee bar right next door.
The Village Inn in Wyoming, Minnesota (Yes, you read that right) - Yeah, it's a chain. One I was unfamiliar with until running across them off of I-35 north of Minneapolis. Really good food and very pleasant service. Two steps up from Denny's, but in the same category.
The Florida Keys offer many, many great options for highway-side dining, but one of our favorites is Made to Order in Tavernier, on Islamorada. It's a perfect spot for resting and enjoying the seaside scenery while having a sumptuous breakfast or lunch.
Country Kitchen in Joshua Tree. One of my favorites. No decor, just good food. This is the sort of place I could sit for hours, people watching, talking to the owners and eating food that will give me a heart-attack within hours -- but what a way to go.
There are, of course, many, many more. Some of the best ones are right around the corner...we have Babe's Kitchen right here in Long Beach. And Emma Jean's in Barstow, and so on and so on and so on.
Some would call these places a dying breed. But from I can see, they're something special and those which are still around...are doing just fine.
See you on the road.