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Without a Roadmap

When you’re traveling and hunger calls, there’s no such thing as a sure bet—but with a few tricks and a pinch of luck, you can find good eats

by Laura Leon on August 14, 2014 · 0 comments

While on a layover in Baltimore, I picked up a copy of Michael and Jane Stern’s Roadfood, a coast-to-coast guide to off-the-beaten path places to eat. I had been speaking with a colleague from California who was about to embark upon a multiweek New England trip, and had been advising her of where to go for good vittles. It struck me that many of the places I mentioned to her weren’t the type to be featured in the old Gourmet magazine, unless it was in the Sterns’ popular column, and that, coupled with my need through my job to travel across rural byways of New York state, got me wondering how people find good restaurants when they aren’t to found in any Michelin guide.

I generally dislike websites that offer random reviews and critiques of business establishments—who are these reviewers, and what’s their expertise and/or ax to grind? Sites like Yelp can be helpful, but again, if you don’t know who’s responding, and what that person’s likes and peeves are, it’s hard to make a fair judgment. Also, we’ve all known favorite places that suffer the occasional off night—do you want your dining experience to somehow be impacted by that anomaly? Tourism sites and travel guides are equally unreliable, often depending on paid advertisers for listings. Still, who wants to be dependent on highway exit signs for dining possibilities?

On a recent trip that began in Newburgh and ended with a long drive back from Rochester, colleagues and I basically flipped coins between Googling for sites off various exits. At one point, getting a hunger headache, I contemplated just throwing in the towel and hitting the McDonald’s—at least it’s consistent, which is something. It’s not that I’m anti Golden Arches; I just like to try something different, maybe with a little regional flair. We decided to try the Liverpool exit, and I made a snap decision based on the proximity of a restaurant with a healthy Saturday afternoon crowd to a dental office I’ve worked with. Not the most logical reasoning, but there is something to be said for a full parking lot. In this case, we were all pleasantly surprised by a clean, well-organized bar and grill which boasted—deservedly so—of excellent fare. Score one for us.

One colleague, a beer and fine spirits connoisseur, does her online searching not by typing in restaurants or even cuisine categories. “Generally speaking,” she says, “I’m more drawn to restaurants that have the words ‘tavern,’ ‘pub,’ or ‘brewpub’ in the title, with a high star rating without the word ‘divey’ in any of the reviews. In my experience, they tend to have delicious, generous portions without the focus on plate appearance (though sometimes they have that added benefit).”

I hadn’t actually thought of that. For weeks, I heard her talk up a place she had found in this manner just outside Rochester, so, naturally, we had to try it. Again, the parking lot was packed, and the bar, which had an attached dining room, even more so. Friday night fish fry is, apparently, a reason to come out in these parts, and from the gynormous slabs of fried haddock we were served, I can well see why. Another colleague ordered the pastrami on weck, and the meat looked as good as any I’ve had at NYC delis. This was the kind of place that had salt-of-the-earth looking waitresses in tees and jeans, the kind of servers who sense three steps ahead of your own thought processes what you’re going to next anticipate. Places with staff like this deserve a guide of their own, because they elevate the whole thing immeasurably.

Of course, knowing people who live or work in an area to where you’re going is a crucial part of solving the where-to-eat puzzle—unless the person you know lives on frozen meals and take-out pizza. I am lucky enough to work with people across the state who are avowed foodies, who send me snap shots of their latest creations (usually when I’ve forgotten to bring a lunch . . . suddenly, starving!). I bombard these friends with e-mails asking for recommendations. There’s nothing food lovers like half so much as sharing their best-kept secrets on where to go, if only because they know you’ll simply have to return the favor. More often than not, these recommendations have proven solid leads, especially when they’re places whose storefronts or, heck, even sign fonts, leave me cold or wary. It is through this method that I found not one but two lovely holes-in-the-wall in the District of Columbia.

I am an inveterate clipper of newspaper and magazine articles about food, dining and cooking, so whenever I read about a restaurant that sounds intriguing on the basis of its regional flair, I cut it out and store it in a travel folder. Of course, I only do this for places I think I have a remote chance of being. Sadly, this precludes places like Portland, Honolulu and Madrid, and is more likely to include places you’ve never heard of, even if you’re a born and bred New York stater. Still, there are places that leave me scrambling, such as the recent site visit to St. Bonaventure University in Allegany, in far western New York near the Pennsylvania border. Maybe they were barbecuing something in the back of the many, many auto-parts stores that seem to comprise the entirety of the main drag, but my friend and I were hard-pressed to find good eats. Even the hotel lacked a vending machine. Sometimes it’s a good thing to plan ahead. And pack a picnic.

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