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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 24, 2002

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

Eating Our Way Across America, or How I Ate My Summer Vacation

I hear people complaining about McDonald's and Starbuck's and "the malling of America."

Heck, I complain myself. I hate the way The Gap and The Limited come into wonderful shopping districts like Georgetown in DC and the Third Street Promenade in L.A. and drive out the quirky, interesting, unique shops that made those areas worth visiting in the first place.

But if you're a stranger traveling into unfamiliar territory, you don't always want food to be part of the adventure.

Especially when you're traveling with children.

Every parent knows that when you walk into a McDonald's anywhere in America, you'll find a lot of familiar things.

And I don't mean the restrooms that look like they've just been used by people who had never seen a toilet before, or the kid who pukes about halfway down the playland slide so your kid comes down covered in semi-used Happy Meal.

I mean the menu. Your kid already knows what he likes or hates, and you can order a meal, eat it, and get back on the road with a carful of happy people.

Now, though, my youngest is eight and, while she's still a fussy eater, she can usually find something she likes in any restaurant that serves either pasta or bread. So we can wander America without ever pulling up to the golden arches.

But that doesn't mean we want to experiment at mealtimes.

In my favorite American travel book, Blue Highways, William Least-Heat Moon used to estimate the quality of roadside restaurants by counting the number of locally-printed calendars on the wall.

Obviously, he was traveling alone ... and had a cast-iron stomach.

If you're like me and my family, when you travel America, you want to find a predictable array of familiar -- and good -- restaurants at regular intervals. So that after a day of driving, or walking through tourist sites, or being humiliated in airports, you can sit down to a meal that you know you're going to enjoy.

Comfort food, that's what I'm talking about. A little bit of home on the road.

May I suggest a few chains that have worked for us?

Before we left, our grown-up daughter (the one who actually reads past macaroni and chicken fingers on the menu) looked up the Panera and Atlanta Bread Company and P.F. Chang websites to find all the locations that might be on or near our route.

The result was that in Asheville we pulled up to Atlanta Bread Company and had great sandwiches and salads.

At the Panera in Lexington, Kentucky, we scored food that was maybe even a little bit better.

After visiting the Mall of America in Minnesota, we had a wonderful dinner at the P.F. Chang in the nearby Southdale Mall.

None of the meals was expensive, and in each case we knew exactly what we were going to get before we walked in the door.

But these chains are still new and rather scattered. And in places like Hannibal, Missouri, or Minot, North Dakota, you'll probably never find them.

So you have to skip to the second tier of travelers' restaurants: T.G.I.Friday's, Applebee's, The Outback.

T.G.I.Friday's has a special place in our heart because it kept us alive in England. English cooking is exactly as bland, tasteless, and, to put it candidly, disgusting as you might have heard. So whether we traveled to London with our children or without them, along about eleven p.m. we always find ourselves in the T.G.I.Friday's in the West End, making up for all the meals we skipped during the day because nothing on the plate looked digestible.

However, in recent years Friday's slipped considerably, and we stopped going. But on this trip, driven by desperation when we found that the Panera in Rochester, Minnesota, wasn't where our directions said it was, we tried a Friday's and discovered that they just changed their menu. Drastically. Last Monday.

And the results are quite satisfactory.

So Friday's is back on our list, without our having to be in London and desperate.

Then there's the third tier: Bruegger's Bagels, Blimpie's and Subway. Sandwiches with good bread, decent deli ingredients, and fresh produce.

Of course, sometimes you do want something special. Something new.

May I make a couple of recommendations?

Los Angeles, for instance, is one of the great restaurant cities of the world -- in my opinion, the greatest. California cuisine puts an extraordinary spin on every other kind of cooking. But sometimes you don't have time to sit down for a fine meal.

Sometimes you just have to eat and run. In which case, know the location of the nearest Gelson's or Bristol Farms. These extraordinary supermarkets have my favorite deli counters in the world. Salads and sandwiches and take-'em-home-and-heat-'em-up entrees that are better than you'll find in the finest restaurants in most cities.

And at Gelson's, when you've got your lunch or supper, stop at the pastry counter and pick up the best chocolate eclair sold in America today. Heck, it's probably the best in the world, since the eclairs I've had in France hint that in this area, as with Italian pizza, America may well have improved on the home country's version.

If you do have time for an extraordinary meal in L.A., check out Josie's. Located at the site of a deeply weird but wonderful restaurant called "2424 Pico" (which also happens to be the address), Josie's offers its own spin on the themes of California cuisine and immediately moves onto my list of the top ten restaurants in California.

Oddly enough, on a recent trip to L.A. I discovered that beet salads are apparently the hottest new trend. Old favorite restaurants like Campanile on La Brea and Granita in Malibu had both added a brilliant beet salad to the menu.

It does not disparage them in any way to say that Josie's beet salad was the best of all.

Meanwhile, after a conference at the extraordinary Carmel Valley Ranch resort near Carmel, California, we went into town to have supper with a dear and too-rarely-seen uncle. We found the Rio Grill on Rio Road, despite its shopping-center location, to be surprisingly good.

If any California cuisine restaurant were to be made into a national chain, this would be my candidate. Besides, they have a beet salad, too. Not as good as the others, but good -- and at about a third the cost.

But do you want to know where we found the most welcome California cuisine restaurant? Just a few days ago in West Des Moines, Iowa.

No joke. Danielle is a world-class restaurant hiding in a culinary backwater. If it were in L.A. or New York, it would be among my top ten restaurants in either city; in Chicago or New Orleans, my top five.

Danielle is located at 1221 Eighth Street. (In West Des Moines, remember. That address in Des Moines itself would put you in a warehouse block where even the homeless don't bother scavenging for food.)

The menu at Danielle is limited -- a handful of appetizers, and only five entrees. But every item is creative, original, ambitious -- and delicious.

I can speak with authority, because there is a sixth entree that consists of "all of the above." For thirty-five dollars, they put a tiny version of each of the five entrees into one of the compartments of a high-sided tray called a "Japanese box."

I didn't have to take anybody's word for it. I tasted every entree, and they were all, in a word, perfect.

Never before have I known of a reason to envy people who live in the Des Moines area.

I have one now. They can eat at Danielle whenever they want.

There's another reason, too -- a deli almost as good as the ones in Gelson's and Bristol Farms. Palmer's is located in the Des Moines Skyway, the downtown second-story "mall" linked by bridges, building to building, that makes it possible to walk all through the downtown area without ever setting foot on the street.

The place is packed at lunchtime, but they do a good job of moving people through as quickly as possible without any loss of quality. Prices are low, they bus the tables for you, and the chocolate chip and sugar cookies are a lunch in themselves.

And if you find yourself in the Mall of America, as we did, as trapped as you are in Disney World, where it's just not worth the trouble to try to get back to your car just so you can go somewhere and eat, I have happy news.

There are two first-rate restaurants in the Mall of America (located in Bloomington, in metropolitan Minneapolis), both run by the same company. California Café and Napa Valley Grille had excellent service, perfectly fresh salad ingredients, Panna still water, and menus that live up to their ambition.

If Rio Grill in Carmel never gets around to franchising nationwide, these guys could certainly do the job of spreading California cuisine across the country.

Heck, it might even be worth going through the gauntlet at Mall of America just to eat at one of them. On successive days last week, we ate at both, and were glad we did.

In the past three weeks, between business and family vacation, I've found myself hungry in Orange County, LA, and Carmel; Asheville, Knoxville, Lexington; Hannibal, Nauvoo, Des Moines; Rochester, Minneapolis, St. Cloud, Grand Forks, and Minot.

And you know what? As the fussiest eater in a family of fussy eaters, I found good food in every one of these towns, ranging from quick snacks to sit-down dinners.

Without ever once having to resort to a Big Mac.

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