Imagine you’re staying at the Bates Motel and Anthony Perkins is your host. Imagine further that the Bates Motel Coffee Shop is the only place in town to eat. You’re on the road – alone – and it’s late at night. You’ve spent the day traveling and are too tired to go searching for a place that serves something besides “Mother’s favorite recipes.” Although you try, you can’t seem to ignore the sign above the kitchen door; the one that says, “We love serving our guests!” What do you do? Do you order scrambled eggs and toast? Or do you go to bed hungry?
Having spent most of the last nine months on the road, I don’t have to imagine such things. I can write about them from first-hand experience. The picture isn’t as bleak as I’ve painted it, but in many small towns, it isn’t much better. Come to think of it, it isn’t much better in some of the bigger towns I’ve visited either.
For the person who makes his or her living on the road, the two biggest headaches are finding a decent place to eat and a decent place to sleep. I’ll address the issue of motels in a future article. For now, I’ll concentrate on restaurants.
Finding a place to eat when you’re away from home is like buying a used car. You can go to a dealer you’ve heard about and feel reasonably certain that you’ll find suitable transportation for a fair price. Or you can search through the classified ads and try to locate the car of your dreams being sold by a woman as a “favor” to her ex-husband. Regardless of your approach, you’re taking a gamble that the vehicle will be fairly priced and in good running condition.
In the smallest of small towns, there’s a good chance you’ll find a McDonald’s. It may be hidden inside the Wal-Mart, but it’s there somewhere. Once you find the McDonald’s, it’s a safe bet there’s also a Burger King nearby. Depending on the size of the town, it’s only a matter of time until you unearth the Dairy Queen, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Wendy’s, Long John Silver’s, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and Subway. All of these are fine for lunch, but what about breakfast and dinner?
Many towns also offer IHOP’s and Denny’s. Waffle Houses seem to be everywhere you look in Georgia, but are few and far between in other states.
The establishments I’ve named are the most common of the recognizable places one finds while visiting other towns. None of them could be accused of offering fine dining or fancy cuisine. Like the well-known automobile dealerships, they simply offer a product of known quality – not necessarily great quality, but at least you know what you’re getting – for a reasonable price.
If you’re passing through a town at mealtime and want to grab something quick, any and all of these restaurants would be satisfactory. However, if you’re in a town for a week or two, you’ll quickly tire of the same old stuff and decide it’s time to gamble.
That’s when you think about the privately owned restaurants in your own hometown. Some of them are excellent and you wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them to anybody. Others aren’t so hot and you’d only recommend them to people you hope you’d never see again.
As you ponder the eating-places back home, there’s a good possibility you’d recall the greasy spoon that made you wonder if the health department knew it existed. You remember the place all too well. The cockroaches, the hair in your food, the waitress’s filthy apron, the lipstick smudge on your glass, the surly attitude of the cook, and the food that slipped across your plate every time you tried to stab it with the twisted fork.
You stop at a store and replenish your supply of Tums. Now you’re ready to take a chance and eat at the “Great Unknown.”
If your luck is anything like mine, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. In reality, the greasy spoons are no more abundant than the motels that remind you of “Psycho.” They’re out there, but the good restaurants far outnumber them.
The real shame is that many of the good restaurants are going out of business. Every time a national chain opens at a new address, it takes customers away from the “Down Home Grill.” It’s not that those customers no longer like the food at the “Down Home.” On the contrary, they prefer the home-cooked meals and friendly service. But, like too many of us, they’re in a hurry and want to grab something quick. We Americans are too often willing to trade exceptional food that may take a little longer to arrive and cost and bit more for something reasonably good, fast, and cheap.
We Americans are also willing to trade excellent for fair whenever there’s a doubt about the excellent. We tend to frequent places we recognize rather than gamble on places we’ve never heard of. Thus, not only does the “Down Home” lose its regular customers, it doesn’t even get a chance to demonstrate its fine food to the out-of-towners.
What we need is a name or symbol that can be used to identify the best places to dine. Some people insist that a full parking lot is a sure sign of good food. Trust me. I know from experience that the number of people in an establishment does not guarantee a good meal.
The AAA provides its members with listings of the better restaurants in various cities and towns, but few of those restaurants display the AAA logo. Those of us who aren’t members, or who forget to request the guidebooks, are left in the dark.
What we need is a way of marking the good restaurants in such a way that there’s absolutely no doubt they’re places you’d want to stop and eat. I think there used to be some guy named Duncan Hines that went around approving places. But, as with the AAA ratings, few places advertised his endorsements. Maybe he was too much of a highbrow.
In any case, I’m offering a plan that restaurant owners won’t be able to refuse. I hereby volunteer to be the guinea pig. I’ll try a meal at any establishment that agrees to feed me for free. If the meal is up to my high standards – which means it tastes pretty good and wouldn’t cost me a fortune if I was paying for it – then I’ll give the place my seal of approval – which means I’ll spray paint a large check mark on their front door.
It’ll only be a matter of time before those restaurants have more business than they can shake a spatula at. That means that other establishments will be calling on me to taste their wares. Before long, I’ll be crisscrossing the country judging the food at hundreds of eateries. Obviously I won’t be able to do it all myself. I’ll have to go out and hire assistants who will need to be trained so that they have the same high standards as I. And I’ll have to start charging a fee for the “service” of tasting food.
But the payment of a fee will in no way influence my integrity. Either the food tastes good or it doesn’t. If it tastes good, the spray paint comes out. If it tastes like something that should have been put in a can and left there, the paint remains in the pocket.
Within a few years, weary travelers will find comfort in that familiar check mark. They’ll know at a glance that a good substantial meal awaits them on the other side of that spray painted door. Like Johnny Appleseed, I will have left my mark on this wonderful country. I will have served my fellow citizens in a far better way than the politicians. I will be a very proud man. I will also, most likely, be very overweight, but it’s the least I can do for the road warriors.
Finally, let me add a word of warning to the fleabag hotels and greasy spoon restaurants. I will personally sign and number each and every check mark. If anyone tries to forge my mark for the purpose of misleading those folks who come to rely on my symbol of quality, I will prosecute to the fullest extent of the law. I’ll also refuse to dine at your place… unless you pay me at least four times my regular fee.