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
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
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
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
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
And the results are quite satisfactory.
So Friday's is back on our list, without our having to be in London and
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
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
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
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
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.