About Me

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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

Friday, February 15, 2013

Seedy or Seedling?

“All travel has its advantages. If the passenger visits better countries, he may learn to improve his own. And if fortune carries him to worse, he may learn to enjoy it.” – Samuel Johnson

Waiting for Something to happen
Cities and towns are not pristine. We all know that. 

We also know that -- for the most part -- these are the parts of towns best kept hidden and not transited by the well-heeled "tourist". Watts is not a beautiful part of Los Angeles. Likewise The Bronx in New York.

But sometimes seedy parts of towns become the object of our attention. Sometimes seediness itself is what draws the tourist and traveler alike to a spot where they can, essentially, let their hair down and traffic with their inner transient. Bourbon Street is a famous example. It's pretty much party town every naught, with dozens of decidedly unswank bars and clubs lining its sidewalks. Times Square during the seventies was the epitome of tourism seediness. Tijuana has a solid reputation as a place college students, sailors and other young would-be risk-takers search for mayhem. Hollywood Boulevard and Sunset Boulevard both have their sections for seedy revelry.

And Las Vegas, of course, has its Downtown. Fremont Street.

After a decade or so of trying to upgrade its image, including building the massive Fremont Street Experience canopy and turing the street into a pedestrian boulevard, The hotels lining the street tidied themselves up and safety was the watchword. Sadly, after significant effort and no small aesthetic success, Fremont has returned to its seedy roots. (And that may not be a bad thing for travelers.) The economy of the last half decade, which wreaked havoc on much of Vegas, has taken its toll here as well. 

There is a distinct echo of Bourbon Street here, with partying college students being a major occupier of the street. Unlike the Strip resorts, where motion comes in waves and generally is a rush of crowds from one thing to another, there is a lazier, more relaxed tone on Fremont. The night we were there a street party with a DJ and GoGo dancers raged on the doorstep of the Golden Gate, while at the other end a large street stage held an enthusiastic if slightly tone-deaf rock band. (Maybe it was just the singer who hit a few clinkers, but it sounded as if the band itself needed some guidance. Enthusiasm they had in spades, however, and the crowd certainly seemed to enjoy it -- and frankly, that is all that matters.)

The "Back Alley" behind the zipline
The flow of Fremont has been disrupted any number of ways, the most blatant being a massive zip-line installation at the East end. While looking to me like a really fun activity -- racing along above the crowd, passing the neon brilliance at a high rate of speed -- the receiving end of the line completely breaks up Fremont into two separate sections. While offering a very cool, very fun looking attraction, it completely blocks the flow of traffic -- the human kind -- from a large swath of the street. If you're detouring to the North side of the zip line there's almost a feeling of back-alley as you wander along next to the Fremont Hotel and Casino..

Another impediment to the flow is the addition, since my last visit which was, admittedly, a few years ago, of a handful of sales kiosks hocking jewelry, souvenirs and other things. It isn't the product or the appearance of the kiosks (for the most part). It's the presence of them. They have been set up in ways which block the direct and easy walkways of the street -- and while blocking the way may slow down a visitor and force them to look at the wares, this also requires the visitor to dodge  a series of large more immovable objects in addition to the more-than-occasional oblivious tourist. When it first opened, the Experience was an open pedestrian mall, which greatly enhanced the walkability of the place, encouraging the visitor to spend more time. Given that the supposed objective of the complex is to attract visitors, the cluttering up has driven them away.

Then there is the Experience itself, which is a blocks-long canopy of light and sound. We visited several times during its first few years, enjoying what was pretty impressive spectacle of computer images and energetic music. It was an attraction unlike any other in Vegas and I will attest to the fact that the crowds under that canopy were far larger than what we encountered on this last visit (Super Bowl weekend, which should have been packed). Instead of one large, cohesive show, the canopy display, like the walkway below it, was broken up into a handful of sub-presentations (if any at all…several spots were off completely). The original intent of the complex seems to have been lost in the shuffle over the years -- which is sad in many ways. The Fremont Street Experience had "classed up the joint" as the old move cliches would have said. It made downtown cool, and it brought a respectability to the area which it badly needs.
Party at the Golden Gate!

I am certain economic necessity drove a lot of the changes. I can understand that, but have to lament its effect nonetheless. The economy hurt downtown, perhaps more than it did the Strip. Several of the hotels lining Fremont have changed hands, gone bankrupt or are completely changing their branding. The Lady Luck has closed and is in the process of becoming The Grand. The Golden Gate and The Plaza have completed major renovations of their property and may be the anchors Downtown needs. (And I have to give a tip of the hat to the Golden Gate. The old girl is one of the very founding hotel casinos in Las Vegas and, despite rough times over the years it's a thrill to see her thrive.)

I love a good down and dirty, somewhat seedier vibe. It can actually be a hallmark of a place, such as the aforementioned Bourbon Street. It can certainly be part of the fun. And while it looked like there were quite a few people having exactly that, I cannot say that the Fremont Street Experience is as good as it used to be. It's my hope that the new hotels, the renovations as some of the stalwarts, and the improving US economy in general sets the stage for an uptick and return to what it was and could be again.

There's always room for that sort of fun -- and what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. But if it's going to be a bit more seed, it should be a bit less sad.


Monday, February 11, 2013

Bits and Bites

Hell, there are no rules here - we're trying to accomplish something. 

The Brand

We hit a major milestone over the weekend with the number of page views to the blog -- so a heartfelt thank you to everyone who has read and continues to read our little messages in a bottle thrown into the great ocean of the internet. Without you this would be nothing more than a private journal with pictures, and that's at the extreme opposite end of what we're trying to accomplish here.

So..you may ask.. what IS it we're trying to accomplish. other than maybe putting up a bunch of pretty pictures with halfway intelligent observations to accent their visuals? "Trying to take over the world"?

Well, no. Stopping well short of that famous line from the utterly consciousness-changing television program The Animaniacs, what we're trying to do is relatively simple: make an interesting and useful new brand of travel information.

The internet is utterly rife with a variety of sources ranging from the absolutely professional and informational, such as Concierge.com and other travel publication sites, to the user-supplied review sites such as Tripadvisor.com and Fodors.com. Then, of course, there are the advertising and booking sites for the various travel-ralted companies. Airlines, cruise ships, etc. All of them generally very useful and appropriate when needed.

So why add to the clutter? Simple: I wasn't finding a site that offered both objective opinions on sites backed up by a personal library of photographs which allowed for a visual perspective. Not to pat myself too enthusiastically on the back, but most travel photographers aren't good writers, and vice versa. I like to think I have something to offer in both categories, hence The Thumbnail Traveler.

The blog, Facebook page and Twitter are but three of an intended five aspects of a web presence we're completing out over the next six months. In addition to these sites, you'll also see a new and more comprehensive Thumbnailtraveler.com, which will feature full pages of photographs, write-ups and links to important travel sites all built around a single destination. At the moment the site has a handful of galleries up, but none of the write-ups. This will be finished out in the next few months, and then additional pages will be added as we add destinations to the overall portfolio.

Once this is all up and running, we're planning on adding interactive Forums to the entirety, so that we can all talk about the various experiences, journeys, and suggestions when it comes to our trips. I want to make this a complete community of travelers built around the concept of the adventure, but more importantly sharing it with others.

So cool stuff to come, and we hope you enjoy and can make use of the sites.

And this brings me to the next phase.

I used the word "Sharing" in the paragraph above. I use the word "Share" in the tag line for the Thumbnail Traveler: "Share the Adventure".

I need you to share. Not in the touchy-feely getting-in-touch with you inner traveler sort of way, but in a direct, open and interactive fashion here and elsewhere. If you like the blog, tell someone else about it. If you like one of the posters I put up to illustrate this column, feel free to copy them -- copyright free -- and send 'em out to your friends. We want to get the word around.

Now, flipside (and it's all about YOU): See the section at the bottom of this page marked "Comments"? Please, please feel free to add an intelligent thought or experience or comment. We want this to be a two-way communication. Not only feedback, but your own opinions.

The same with the Facebook page. Feel free to post your own thoughts, recommendation and links. It's a lot more fun that way!

This year is already shaping up to be a truly fun one for travel. We just got back from a marvelous visit to Las Vegas -- where we had a blast and several shots from the trip will feature prominently in the next blog entry -- as well as future plans that will take us throughout the Southwestern United States and later through Northern Europe.

It's gonna be a banner year, so please join us and SHARE THE ADVENTURE.

Thank you.