This is a guest post by Daniel Koontz, a well-traveled explorer and cosmopolitan diner. Below you’ll find his advice on how to plan a road trip dining experience that will be tasty and memorable (here’s a hint: it’s not roadside food).
Road Trip Idea: How to Plan for Delicious Dining
My wife and I have a long history of monster road trips. We both took cross-country car trips in our early 20s, I’ve repeatedly driven from New Jersey to Texas to visit family and friends, we’ve driven from New Jersey to Prince Edward Island, Canada (a 14-hour monster drive that we did in one day on our return), and we’ve done thousand-mile-plus road trips in England, Chile and New Zealand.
And in one of our favorite vacations ever, Laura and I flew to Albuquerque, NM, rented a really cheap car, and put 1,200 punishing miles on it during a week of sightseeing all over the Four Corners region. That trip, by itself, single-handedly caused Alamo Rent-a-Car to ditch the slogan “All the Miles are Free.”
I can claim a fair degree of authority, therefore, when I say that finding interesting and good quality food on the road is frustrating, takes up precious travel time, and is generally more difficult than it should be.
Yet it makes sense that it would be difficult. Think about it: if you were a local restaurant, would you be out near the interstate in a location where not one of your customers lives? And would you likely be able to afford the cost of an enormous billboard out on the interstate to lure in drivers from out of town?
Nope and nope. Billboards and easy-on/off locations are costly. Thus, they’re almost always the calling cards of high-volume, generic, national restaurant chains.
When you plan a road trip the majority of your time is spent planning clothes and gear and maps and snacks. But did you ever think about planning how to find really amazing food? This brings us to our first golden road trip rule:
Road Trip Dining Tip #1: If it’s on a highway billboard, don’t bother.
I’ll go even further with this thought. The entire national highway system in the USA more or less misdirects every honest attempt at finding good local eats. After all, communities with the “good fortune” of being located too close to the highway evolved into glorified exits adorned with gas stations, fast food joints and heavy truck traffic. And communities too far from the highway often died away, stranded from the primary tourist routes.
Look, our national highway system is in many ways the envy of the world. It makes it easy to drive and ship goods efficiently all over the country. However, if you’re an adventurous food-o-phile looking for interesting, non-generic dining experiences, the highway system only takes you part of the way there. Which brings us to our second commandment:
Road Trip Dining Tip #2: Get off the superhighway and onto secondary roads.
First, a truism: the center lane of a six lane highway simply isn’t a good vantage point for seeing a country. Get off the superhighway and get onto the secondary roads, and you’ll find real restaurants in real places where real people eat. More importantly, you’ll experience the astoundingly diverse range of local cuisine that makes traveling the USA an unforgettable experience.
Bake in an extra hour or two to arrive at your destination, and allocate that time towards a more leisurely drive on some interesting side roads. And rather than eating at one of 15,000 identical Ruby Tuesdays or Olive Gardens, enjoy a slower meal at a locally-owned place that advertises with a tiny little sign on the side of the road. That’s where the really interesting food is hiding.
There’s one other enormous advantage to getting off the superhighways and getting down into real towns and communities across the country: it puts you in closer contact with local people. Which brings us to our third, and admittedly most obvious nugget of advice:
Road Trip Dining Tip #3: Ask a local.
The shortest route of any town’s best restaurants isn’t through some impersonal billboard, it’s through the help of local people who actually know what’s good in their community. It may sound like a tautology, but everybody lives someplace, and therefore every place has locals. All you have to do is ask them where to eat! It really is that simple.
However, there’s an important wrinkle to asking locals, which brings us to our fourth and final bit of wisdom:
Road Trip Dining Tip #4: Ask locals in the right way.
What do I mean by asking in the right way? I’ll explain with a not-so-hypothetical example: Let’s say you’re visiting South Texas and you’re looking for a great local tex-mex joint. The thing is, you’re an obvious northerner, mainly because your accent, white sneakers, fanny pack and T-shirt saying “Remember the Alamo!” collectively give you away.
Further, let’s say you ask the nice young man working the front desk of your motel to suggest a good tex-mex place. This nice young man can’t help but see you’re from the north, and as such, he doesn’t want to send you to his favorite tex-mex joint, because he’s worried the food there would annihilate your entire gastrointestinal tract. This would make him feel bad, and it would mean that he wasn’t performing his customer service duties to the best of his ability.
Therefore, this nice, considerate local person will recommend a joint in town that’s more suitable for tourists. Sure, the food’s not as spicy, and it’s not a place he would go to, but hey, it’s what people from “away” are more likely to want.
But here’s the problem. You don’t want that place. You actually want to go to the tex-mex joint that’s gonna burn a hole through your GI tract. And that’s why, when you ask for a local restaurant recommendation, you must word your question carefully.
Here’s how. Instead of asking, “Can you recommend a good [insert name of cuisine] restaurant?” you have to ask “What is your personal favorite tex-mex restaurant in town?” It’s simple, but slightly counterintuitive. You don’t actually want what he thinks you want, you literally want what he wants for himself.
Whenever we’re traveling in the southern states, for example, we always ask this question: “What’s your personal favorite BBQ place that’s relatively close by?” Then we ask for directions. Easy. And if we ask two or three different locals and hear the same restaurant named more than once, we know we’re going to be in for a world-class meal. We’ve never missed with this strategy.
So consider that next time you plan a road trip…also plan to take some side streets, talk to locals and rehearse your secret question. It’s bound to score you some winning meals!
Daniel Koontz is the author of Casual Kitchen, a blog helping readers cook more, think more, and spend less. Happy Holidays recommends that everyone read his Six Core Principles of Healthy, Inexpensive Cooking.