Other Memorable Meals
Recently retired from Magic 1170 (Stockton-on-Tees, UK), radio broadcaster Alan Ross had an earlier article, “The British Invasion,” in Issue 5 of this website.
“Breakfast in America” was a hit song in Britain from the band Supertramp, and just over a quarter of a century ago it was the closest I’d ever come to American cuisine. Of course, like all Brits, I thought I knew all about it. Or at least I knew all the clichés and stereotypes. Over here we’d been enjoying McDonald’s since the early 1970s and Colonel Sanders had been purveying his secret mixture of herbs and spices as Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets made their way across the UK. Back then, it wasn’t called KFC, and they still used the “finger lickin’ good” slogan. Fast forward to the spring of 1988, and as part of the Yorkshire Radio Network team broadcasting back to Britain from Disneyworld’s Magic Kingdom in Orlando, Florida, I flew in for my first taste of the USA.
Breakfast in my hotel was such a culture shock that I took a photograph and wrote down the ingredients: “Eggs Louisiana: fried eggs, sausages, green and red peppers casseroled in a tomato sauce with smoked ham.” Wow!
The team got another shock after venturing out of the hotel that evening for our first meal on International Drive. Greeted at the door of the restaurant by our waitress, she was so keen to tell all of us what we were going to have (including the iced water and the salad) that I was convinced for a moment that she was going to join us for the meal. Being used to British standards of service, here was something unusual—enthusiasm! Two other meals of that long ago and humid May stand out in my memories.
Having driven down the turnpike past Miami and out along the coral to Key West, I spent a very happy time looking at the ocean from the terrace of the Angler’s Seafood House (3618 N. Roosevelt Avenue, Key West, FL). It’s still there, but I suspect the price of the Surf and Turf (a T-bone steak and half a stuffed lobster) may have gone up slightly from the $16.95 it was back then. Then, back in the Disneyworld area, there was The Cattle Ranch Steakhouse, home of the “Six Pound Challenge.” It was where the group enjoyed our final meal before boarding the plane home. Alas, none of us felt up to that establishment’s challenge: eat a six-pound steak dinner including steak, salad, potato, and bread in one hour and fifteen minutes. If you succeed, the meal is free. Many photographs of proud patrons who had succeeded lined the paneled walls. Ever British, we each opted for a 32 oz. porterhouse steak. More than enough for me! The Cattle Ranch Steakhouse is still in business, but moved up the road a while ago (2700 South Sanford Avenue, Sanford, FL).
The steakhouse is, of course, an American phenomenon, and many of the dozens I’ve tried over the years have their own gimmick or quirk. One example, in Lake George, New York, of all places, boasts a big and blatantly kitsch collection of hanging faux Tiffany lamps interspersed with moose heads (George’s Restaurant, 3857 Route 9L, Lake George, NY).
Having returned to the United States many times since that first trip, I’m happy to report that there is much more to the fare offered on “the other side of the pond” than steak and fast food.
New York is obviously a mecca for foodies of all tastes.
For Brits feeling a little homesick, a couple of “must visit” places are Tea & Sympathy (108 Greenwich Avenue between 12th & 13th Streets), which is tiny and has the ambience of a 1960s transport café—complete with oilcloth table fittings. It is conveniently next door to a British food store as well as a fish and chippy. Rather more upmarket but in the same vein is the splendid Jones Wood Foundry (401 E. 76th Street), which is done out like a real pub, with proper beer and great food—kedgeree, steak and kidney pud, and cottage pie. During the run up to the wedding of William and Kate, you could have your photo taken beside a cardboard cutout of the happy couple while supping your pint of “Old Speckled Hen.”
Then there was the original Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant at The London Hotel (when Mr. Ramsey was still at the helm). It was an absolute gem. The beautiful starter of salmon and whitefish presented as a “mosaic of tiles,” which I tried, was real perfection—the memory of it will forever stay with me.
With that level of exquisite presentation in mind, provided your wallet can stand it and you don’t mind booking well in advance, the meal of a lifetime awaits you at Per Se (4th floor, Time Warner Center 10 Columbus Circle). A meal here is a truly extraordinary experience. There are two tasting menus, meat or vegetarian, either of which results in an evening of wonderful food, served by a staff who are the standard by which to judge others. Words can’t do justice to this place, it really is “food as theater.” Astonishing!
Museums might not be the first choice in Britain for a meal, but in New York their restaurants are very often excellent. The Modern at The Museum of Modern Art (9 W. 53rd Street) boasts a cheese board so extensive it comes on a two-level trolley and takes the waiter a full ten minutes to explain.
A particular favorite of mine is the marvelous Garden Court Café at The Asia Society (725 Park Avenue), where the food is a mirror of the museum itself—a fusion of all things Asian. It’s a good choice for lunch with a tasty black vanilla tea, one of the many varieties available.
If you are a Brit in search of a curry, in my opinion your options are rather limited. Dawat (210 E. 58th Street) does a very good value lunch menu, and if you find yourself on Long Island, the Curry Club (10 Woods Corner Road, East Setauket) maintains the correct somewhat dated and frayed colonial chutzpah and the chapatis to go with it! The food at both restaurants is great.
On a recent trip to Pennsylvania, a little off the beaten track in the Lebanon area and just down from a cluster of motels and a rather depressing Wendy’s, I had a meal in one of the most unusual restaurants I’ve ever come across. If you fancy stuffed boar or an alligator stew, then head for the Woods Creek Grill (3275 State Route 72, Jonestown, PA) and while you are waiting for the proud host to serve you, look around at the taxidermy on the walls. (Note: there are more examples upstairs as well.)
Washington DC’s eateries have been extensively covered on this site in issue 10 by the vivacious Mary Mendle Bird. I can vouch for the truth of her praise of some of those chosen and especially of the 1789 Restaurant (1226 36th Street NW) with its mouthwatering food served in an elegant and charming setting. For those interested, the proprietors make a point of listing their organic sources.
With a very different ambience but the same aim of sustainability at its core is Founding Farmers (1924 Pennsylvania Avenue NW). Hip and happening, with delicious diner-type food (try the trio of mini hot dogs!), this restaurant is understandably very popular. If you want to hear yourself think, however, let alone have a conversation, opt for an upstairs table where things are less frenzied. On a recent visit our waitress was the spitting image of Anne Hathaway—another plus!
Charlottesville is home of the University of Virginia and is resplendent with wonderful architecture. Jefferson’s legacy is much in evidence and there are notices commemorating former students such as Edgar Allan Poe. There’s also a vibrant downtown shopping mall with distinctive local shops as opposed to the usual globalized brands, and here you’ll find Hamiltons’ at First & Main (101 W Main Street). Sleek, pleasant modern decor, with paintings from local artists on the walls, likable and attentive service, live jazz on some evenings, plus delicious locally sourced produce all combine to make this a restaurant well worth seeking out.
Provincetown, at the very tip of Cape Cod, was originally a fishing village occupied largely by Portuguese settlers. It is now justifiably famous as a Bohemian artists’ colony but it also can boast activities like whale watching and special themed weeks and weekends organized by a refreshingly inclusive Chamber of Commerce. You’ll find the Portuguese influence in many forms, including a local bakery, and the kale and sausage soup that is a starter at the iconic Lobster Pot (321 Commercial Street). Slap bang in the middle of town, this is the place to enjoy seafood at its finest—particularly the namesake lobster cooked in many different ways. Opt for a whole one and you’ll be supplied with some lethal-looking cutlery and a necessary bib—enjoyment is a messy business! They also do the best Bloody Mary you’ll find anywhere.
Two other places in the center and West End of Provincetown are well worth a mention: Café Heaven (199 Commercial Street) for superb breakfasts and brunch; and, for coffee and snacks with extensive outside seating, Joe Coffee & Espresso Bar (148A Commercial Street). Joe also has free wi-fi!
Still in Provincetown, and for general all-purpose dining from lunchtime onwards, you could do a great deal worse than Fanizzi’s (539 Commercial Street). The menu there is comprehensive and the service always welcoming. As at the Lobster Pot, you may be lucky enough to have some marvelous sea views to go with your food. Just a word to the wise: if you go out of season some of these restaurants have very limited opening hours and many are shut completely.
So, in America, be assured you don’t need to limit yourself to fast food—far from it! I am not going to pretend that I don’t occasionally fall prey to the delights of a Nathan’s hot dog when making a rest stop on the road. But praise where praise is due—after traveling through fifty miles of dense forestry in the very north of Maine, despairing of ever seeing civilization again (let alone getting a coffee and a bagel), the lights of the ubiquitous Dunkin’ Donuts sign were very welcome, as were the coffee and the bagel.
At least sometimes, America runs on Dunkin’!