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Illustration by Sache Eckes

Road Drill

How to navigate the trials and terrors of freeway dining and live to tell about it

By Christina Waters

MY, HOW TIME FLIES when you're running around looking for a decent place to eat. Howard Johnson's, the father of all highway "family restaurants," is turning 75 this year. That should give you a fair idea of just how long Americans have been hitting the road on those free-wheeling summer vacations. Where once there were station wagons filled with kids screaming for pizza and Dairy Queen, there are now SUVs filled with kids screaming for pizza and frozen yogurt. The only measurable difference is the price of gas.

Driving trips were the mainstay of our family vacations when I was a kid. My father was a genius at ferreting out rural roads lined with "fresh produce" and "home-baked pie" stands. His finest hour was sweet-talking some Amish women into selling him homemade root beer ice cream. And with the current baby boom, there looks to be just as many carloads of hungry road warriors as ever. You may not be cranking up "Born to Be Wild" as you're cruisin' down the highway, looking for adventure. You might just be taking that long-overdue drive across the country or through the scenic Southwest. Whatever your destination this summer, you gotta eat. And from where I sit, woman does not live by Dunkin' Donuts alone.

So we need to strategize for a moment. One of the great things about travel is that you leave behind the known world and venture forth, for example, into the beige wilderness of the American Midwest. Imagine mile after arugula-free mile, where balsamic vinegar is anathema.

One of the serious challenges of travel, especially road trips, is trying to find decent food in towns about which you know absolutely nothing. You can't resort to fast food. The reason is, in a word--grease. And if you're too young to be paranoid about heart attacks, consider an even bigger drawback to drive-through dining. Fat. Not theirs. Yours. Two weeks on the road, pumping back root beer floats, burgers and fries, can easily put an extra 20 pounds on your backside. Heads up.

When looking for sensible dining on the road, you've got three options: (1) Look for recognizable chains. (2) Activate the "when in Rome" chip and ask locals for tips. (3) Hit enlightened markets for deli stuff and picnic in the great outdoors (or on the king-size bed of your hotel room while watching CNN and X-Files reruns).

If you lack any hunter-gatherer instincts whatsoever, you probably need to start looking for recognizable signage an hour before you're starving. Signs for the giant chains are clearly visible from any freeway, even if you're hitting speeds over 85 mph. Denny's, Chevy's, Sizzler, Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Farmer John's and, on the very low end, Taco Bell, McDonald's, Burger King, KFC.

Our field work shows Coco's and Carrow's to be almost always acceptable. Locally run, but owned by a mega-corporation called Advantica (which also owns Denny's), Carrow's has never let us down in thousands of miles of vacation dining in California. Open late (24 hours in some cases), Carrow's serves what used to be called coffee-shop fare. But since it was started in Santa Barbara, that fare has been given some trendy California spin. Started 30 years ago, Carrow's gobbled up hundreds of Bob's Big Boy stores all over the West and now spreads as far east as Arizona and Texas. Breakfast foods here are always a good bet--it's hard to hurt eggs and pancakes. The bathrooms are clean, and that definitely counts. Prices are reasonable and you can find fresh salads--like the generous Southwest chicken salad--filled with items you can actually identify by name. We've found that BLTs (a safe bet everywhere) are usually well-made, and the pies are tasty. You could do a lot worse. And you probably have.

IF YOU OPT FOR the second approach, you'll want to get off the freeway. Good local food is almost never sitting conveniently next to an exit. You have to cruise a few main streets and be willing to ask a few people for suggestions. If time is a factor, look for local diners; the East Coast is still loaded with diners, family restaurants and Mafia-run eateries. Don't get me wrong. Crime families care deeply about good, homemade foods, and some of my favorite dinners in New Jersey and New York have been spent swilling spaghetti surrounded by the happy extended families of some loud guy wearing gold jewelry.

Stick with the basics. Don't expect a chain to offer fresh fish or cappuccino. If you want coffee with any flavor, you'll be looking for a Starbucks. Indestructible foods are the best choices when hitting a mystery dining spot. Bagels with anything. Pasta in a pinch. Pizza--no matter how bad, it's somehow still edible. You'll regret it eventually, but it will sustain life.

Option Three is the way to go if you're in serious Podunksville. Find a local supermarket, I use the term "super" loosely. Locate what passes for a deli section. Even the tourist trading post in Death Valley carries cheddar cheese and pretzels. Add a bottle of red wine--which you always carry with you for just such emergencies--and you're rockin'. Frozen yogurt can get you through the night, and chocolate in general covers up even the most generic delivery system. With some cheese, fresh fruit and a loaf of bread, you're ready to eat right there in the parking lot.

Of course you could pick up some paper plates, paper napkins, bottled green tea and cookies and find a scenic overlook. Picnics are always fun, and just getting out of the car and stretching can take your mind off the food itself.

Several years of car travel have taught me to always stock a few items. No matter how grim the dining prospects in the middle of nowhere, you can survive if you carry the following:

Bottled water (no explanation needed, make sure you bring small bottles). A decent red wine, real glass glasses and of course a corkscrew--this is not a necessity, but it adds a touch of civilized pampering so necessary if you're going anywhere near a Disney facility. Tiny twist pretzels--available even at 7-Elevens and those ubiquitous AM-PM markets--are your best friend. Power bars are imperative for stemming a breakout of crankiness caused by low blood sugar. Little boxes of raisins and bags of nuts (Planter's makes a designer trail mix that is actually wonderful and non-salty) all can keep you focused on the trip, not on your stomach.

There is a rule on this planet that you will always have a hunger attack when you are furthest from any place that sells food. So get resourceful--it's part of the fun. Don't be afraid to break out of your old ruts. That's what road travel is all about. If you think of the quest for food as part of your vacation, you'll soon find you can actually enjoy a doughnut with that diet cola. Or, as we have, scarf down a New Year's Day dinner of Ralph's brand camembert, stone wheat thins and slices of pear. Salut!

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From the May 3-10, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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