CROSS-COUNTRY RESTAURANT REVIEW (PART 1)



I often tell anyone who will listen that one of the great money-saving and health-saving aspects of an RV road trip is the fact that you can shop for food and create your own meals. You’re not obligated to eat three meals a day in restaurants, but you have the option to do it when the possibilities are just too enticing to pass up.

So this summer, given the fact that Amy and I were traveling empty-nesters, in a manner of speaking (our sons were attending summer camp), we decided on the occasional restaurant splurge. So what follows is one traveler’s ranking of the 16 best meals we enjoyed this summer.

Let’s make it a countdown to the best of the best. In this post, I’ll offer a review of numbers 16 through 9:

#16: Rocks Modern Grill (Savannah, GA)

A stroll along the Savannah River in the city of the same name is an invitation to whet your appetite at various eateries with names like Vic’s on the River and One-Eyed Lizzy’s. You can stop at gourmet peanut shops and buy delicacies like dill pickled flavored peanuts. You can shop for shirts and souvenirs. You can climb aboard a riverboat for an excursion. And you can watch massive cargo ships go by, towering above you. Or you can watch those same ships passing below you—as we did at Rocks Modern Grill, which offers both ground-floor seating and rooftop tables (on the ninth floor of The Bohemian Hotel). Amy tried the chopped salad, which was good, if not particularly chopped. I ordered the Rocks Charcuterie, an antipasto concoction that included prosciutto, Spanish chorizo and aged parmesan. Very tasty, but the view was the thing.

#15: Mountain House Restaurant (Boone, NC)

“Cookin’ is a necessity,” shouts the menu, “knowing how is an art!” The food was good—the epitome of comfort in the form of meatloaf, pot pie, fried okra and (my favorite) breaded tomatoes (which was more like a chunky tomato soup). And the breakfast-all-day option includes options like apple pecan pancakes and Belgian waffles. But it was the vibe that I appreciated most. We walked in, and three different employees treated us like we were returning family. They gave us samples when we were (as usual) indecisive about what to order. They asked us where we were from (was it that obvious that we’re not natives of Appalachia?). Basically, they lived up to the other tagline on the menu: “We’re not a chain, we’re the real thing.”

#14: Iguana Seafood Restaurant (St. Simons Island, GA)

Located in the charming village on St. Simons Island, an hour south of Savannah, this place is known for its shrimp. The waiters and hostesses tell you that the fried shrimp is what made the place famous and that they were voted “best on the island” six years in a row. Of course, my cynical reaction (kept to myself) was: Out of how many? And of course, I ordered oysters. But then Amy pushed for a shrimp combination platter, and I have to say this: It really was that good. Coconut shrimp. Buffalo shrimp. Bacon-wrapped shrimp. In fact, we agreed that the straight fried shrimp was possibly the fourth-place finisher in our taste test. Still, that’s almost a bronze medal.

#13: Hominy Grill (Charleston, SC)

Amy and I did a late morning television interview in Charleston, and while waiting in the green room (which are never green and rarely roomy) we chatted with some other guests. We asked them where we should go for brunch afterward. The answer: Hominy Grill. Located on the outskirts of Old Town Charleston, this is the kind of place that draws both locals who like a tasty shrimp-and-grits option and tourists who hear about it from the locals. Either way, that’s a good sign. The grits (I got them as part of my “country breakfast”) were, indeed, delicious. I have come to realize that I really, really like grits. I’m Chicago-born, California-living, but apparently a little bit country. And the other best part of the meal was the biscuit. Then again, I’ve always known I liked biscuits.

#12: Sliders Seafood Grille (Neptune Beach, FL)

Neptune Beach is one of those Florida beach towns where the sands seem to go for miles and tends to be occupied by buff young men and fit young women. Visit at the peril of your self-esteem. But I know it’s a great place because it is home to a great, little independent bookstore called Bookmark. And in the two or three blocks surrounding Bookmark are a number of appealing eateries. We chose Sliders because I walked by and saw folks feasting on heaping plates of steamed oysters. And I LOVE oysters, though I prefer the raw variety. Turns out the raw oysters were okay (and cheap—just $8.95 for a dozen). The Oysters Da Vinci (baked with parmesan cheese, scallions and bacon) were a bit better. But the best dish turned out to be shrimp & grits—Mayport shrimp sautéed in a garlic wine sauce and served over homemade cheese grits. Beautifully presented and delicious.

#11: Mabry Mill Restaurant (Milepost 176, Blue Ridge Parkway)

Food sure tastes good amid a trip back in time. After a stroll along a trail that took us through rural life in Appalachia—depictions of everything from a blacksmith shop, a moonshine still, and a churning water mill to a park ranger spinning sheep’s wool—we took our seats in the restaurant on the premises. The super sweet server brought us late breakfast for less than $8 each. Amy ordered the Gristmill Sampler—three large pancakes (buckwheat, cornmeal and the delicious sweet potato version). I opted for Mabry’s Meal (buttermilk pancakes, eggs, bacon, grits). We sat next to a window where a bright red cardinal chirped us a gentle soundtrack throughout the meal. That’s a Blue Ridge breakfast.

#10: Betsy’s Crepes (Southern Pines, NC)

Just a few miles from Pinehurst is an absolutely charming place called Southern Pines. Not only is the town surrounded by world-class golf courses and sprawling horse farms (both make any place picturesque), but the town itself is as quaint as they come. It’s the kind of place where the freight train rolls through the center of town, past old fashioned ice cream parlors and wine bars and stores with names like The Mockingbird and The Country Bookshop. But Betsy’s Crepes, a relatively new addition to town, did the briskest business. To explain why, I’ll just note that Amy ordered a Déjà vu crepe (2 eggs, bacon, asparagus, tomato, onion and goat cheese), while I opted for the Josephine (goat cheese and carmelized onions). There were, oh, about 43 others choices with names like Dali Lama, Last Tango and French Kiss.

#9: Ben’s Tune-Up (Asheville, NC)

An old college pal of mine lives outside of Asheville, and we met for dinner at a place he had been dying to try out. Why is it called Ben’s Tune-Up? Because it is housed in what used to be a mechanic’s garage. Now it’s an indoor-outdoor beer garden that serves typically Asheville eclectic food—in this case, it is best described as Appalachian-Asian. The foraged mushroom salad includes both chanterelles and shitakes. The ahi tuna sashimi is served with pork jowl. The spicy curry ramen includes okra and fried catfish. Yes, Appalachia and Asia found a commonality in culinary creativity. Plus, we laughed a lot.

So that was Ben’s Tune-Up. But tune in to my next post, and I’ll reveal the top eight eateries of our 2013 RV adventure.

THESE DELICIOUS PEACH FARMS ARE JUST PEACHY!

Nothing says “summer” quite like biting into a fresh, juicy, sun-ripened peach. Hopping into your RV and heading to a peach orchard is a great way to celebrate summer.

Peach Orchard
The best part of visiting farms in your RV is that you can properly store your orchard-fresh produce immediately. Some peach-picking tips to keep in mind: Peaches are highly perishable, so only pick what you can eat in a few days. Wait to wash fruit right before you eat it. And for best flavor, store peaches at room temperature and eat them within three to four days.

If you need to store them, refrigerate peaches in a plastic bag for humidity and use them within two days. When you are ready to indulge, let refrigerated peaches warm to room temperature to bring out their full delicious flavor. Oh, and have plenty of napkins ready. It’s great to support local growers and stock up on this tasty summer treat while you can.

Lane Southern Orchards (Fort Valley, GA): Georgia is known for its peaches, so it would be criminal not to include a Georgia peach farm first on the list! They also grow pecans, berries, kiwis, and more. Plus, they sell pies, cobbler, ice cream, and other sweet treats. Careful, though. They claim their peaches are so juicy, you’ll need to stand in a bathtub while you eat them!

Ham’s Orchard (Terrell, TX): At this Texas peach farm, they let their peaches get super ripe for maximum juicy goodness – and those sweet peaches taste excellent fresh off a tree or blended into creamy ice cream – perfect for an RV trip pit stop. You can’t go wrong with either! Mmmm…

Apple Hill Orchards (Mansfield, OH): The name may say “apple,” but that’s not all they do – this orchard also grows a mean peach! With eight varieties peach that can be harvested between July and September, you’ll have to bring your RV back a few times to try them all.

Melick’s Town Farm (Hunterdon County, NJ): Not every peach orchard offers a pick-your-own-peach option, but Melick’s does. They have over 5,000 peach trees, so you could spend all day looking for the perfect peach.

Hollin Farms (Delaplane, VA): Another great pick-your-own option, this Virginia farm lets people pick a peck of perfect peaches – or corn, or potatoes, or flowers… the options are endless. You could literally fill your whole RV with fresh produce!

Wolfe Ranch (Brentwood, CA): These fruit farmers know a lot about their produce, so rest assured that you’ll get assistance when picking your peaches – the proper picking technique, where in the orchards to find the ripest peaches, and even recipes. What a great way to mix up your typical RVing diet.

Jones Orchard (Millington, TN): These peaches are “fragile, local jewels” that should be consumed shortly after harvesting. That won’t be hard, since they’re so tasty.

SUMMER SUMMARY PART 2

I like to collect things during each RV excursion. This summer, Amy and I purchased a half-dozen refrigerator magnets—from Kennedy Space Center, the Blue Ridge Parkway, St. Simons Island, Mabry Mill, the Wright Brothers Memorial, and D.C.’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial—to add to our collection that now numbers more than 100. But I also collect something else: observations. While I drive, I’m constantly badgering my navigator (Amy) to write down road signs and place names that strike my fancy. Here are a bunch of those from our latest trip, along with some other observations along the way:

FAVORITE SIGNS:
1. Hoopeston, IL: “Home of the Cornjerkers”
2. “Historic Swanee River” (above a bar of musical notes)
3. “Bob’s Grill—Eat and Get the Hell Out” (Nags Head, NC)
4. “Grits Are Good For You” (on the door of Hominy Grill in Charleston, SC)
5. “Visit Menomenie, WI: The 15th Best Small Town in America.”
6. “Black Kow: America’s Favorite Cow Manure”

MOST INCESSANT BILLBOARDS: For Ron Jon Surf Shop (Cocoa Beach, FL)

MOST SPEED TRAPS: I-75 in Florida

NICEST PEOPLE: Chattanooga, TN

MOST CHARMING TOWNS:
1. Southern Pines, NC
2. New Bern, NC
3. Manteo, NC

BEST TOWN SLOGANS:
1. Marion, NC: “Where Main Street meets the mountains”
2. Tilden, WI: “Halfway between the equator and the North Pole.”
3. Boone, NC: “Heart of the High Country.”
4. Erwin, NC: “Pride in our past, hope in our future.”
5. Dousman, WI: “Home of the Wisconsin State Frog Jump.”
6. Front Royal, VA: “A town for all seasons.”
7. Wadsworth, IL: “The village of country living.”

BEST BARBEQUE: Moore’s Old Tyme Barbeque in New Bern, NC, mostly because I enjoyed their boast: “Moore’s BBQ is a Guinness World Record holder for making the World’s Largest Open Barbeque Sandwich with cole slaw (1,337 lbs.) on July 4, 2010!”

COOLEST RIVER CROSSING: Over the Neuse River in New Bern, NC

BEST WATER TOWER: Fort Mill, SC (looks like a huge baseball)

BEST INDEPENDENT BOOKSTORES (no particular order):
1. The Country Bookshop (Southern Pines, NC)
2. Hooray for Books! (Alexandria, VA)
3. The Velveteen Rabbit (Fort Atkinson, WI)
4. Bookmark (Neptune Beach, FL)
5. Joseph-Beth Booksellers (Lexington, KY)
6. Blue Bicycle Books (Charleston, SC)

BEST MUSEUMS/ATTRACTIONS:
1. Newseum (Washington, D.C.)
2. Kennedy Space Center (Titusville, FL)
3. World Golf Hall of Fame (St. Augustine, FL)
4. Wright Brothers Memorial (Kill Devil Hills, NC)
5. Fort Sumter (Charleston, SC)
6. Rock City (Lookout Mountain, GA)
7. Ruby Falls (Lookout Mountain, TN)
8. American Prisoner of War Museum (Andersonville Prison, GA)
9. National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.)
10. The Roots of American Music Museum (Milepost 176, Blue Ridge Parkway)
11. Jimmy Carter 1976 Campaign Headquarters (Plains, GA)
12. Pepsi-Cola Museum (New Bern, NC)

FAVORITE TOWN NAMES:
1. Love, VA
2. Coosawhatchie, SC
3. Rocky Face, GA
4. Neptune Beach, FL
5. Nags Head, NC
6. Tangerine, FL (in Orange County)
7. Sea Level, NC
8. Old Tavern, VA
9. Speed, IN
10. Ixonia, WI
11. Kankakee, IL
12. Dooms, VA

FAVORITE WATERWAY NAMES:
1. Chattahoochee River (Georgia)
2. Muckaloochee Creek (Smithville, GA)
3. Canoe Swamp Creek (near Brunswick, GA)

FAVORITE ROAD NAMES:
1. Possum Trot Road (Smyrna, NC)
2. Plum Nearly Lane (Maggie Valley, NC)
3. Bambi Drive (in the Fawn Heights neighborhood of Valdosta, GA)
4. Dismal Hollow Road (Front Royal, VA)
5. Three Neighbor Lane (Buies Creek, NC)
6. Purple Cow Road (Waynesboro, VA)
7. Poor Boys Lane (West End, NC)
8. Dead Man Curve (West End, NC)
9. Buddy Boy Thornton Road (Stewart County, GA)
10. Betty’s Drive (Albany, GA)
11. Harry Pringle Road (Dupont Center, FL)
12. Sweetgrass Basket Makers Highway (Mt. Pleasant, SC)
13. Mileaway Lane (Southern Pines, NC)
14. Peaceful Place (Williston, NC)
15. Mountain Shadows Drive (Trenton, GA)
16. French Broad Avenue (Asheville, NC)
17. Ponce de Leon Avenue (Atlanta)
18. Milk-A-Way Drive (Roanoke, VA)
19. Man O’War Boulevard (Lexington, KY)
20. Lovers Lane (Hopkinsville, KY)

FAVORITE BUSINESS NAMES:
1. S.N.O.B. (Slightly North of Broad) Southern Maverick Kitchen (Charleston, SC)
2. Holly, Wood and Vines (Mount Vernon, VA)
3. Surf, Wind and Fire (New Bern, NC)
4. Duck Woods Golf Club (Jarvisburg, VA)
5. C. Foy Tonsorial Parlor (a barbershop in New Bern, NC)
6. Goober Peas Country Store (Boone, NC)
7. The Baron and the Beef (Kinston, NC)
8. Pig-A-Dilly Plaza (Richmond Hill, GA)
9. The Kickin’ Chicken (Charleston, SC)
10. Ugly Mike’s Gun Shop (McHenry, IL)
11. Freckles Skate Center (Moultrie, GA)
12. Stay True Tattoo (St. Augustine, FL)
13. Fort Knox Self Storage (Marion, NC)
14. Gerald’s Pig & Shrimp (Tybee Island, GA)
15. Ben’s Tune-Up (restaurant in an old garage, Asheville, NC)
16. Fat Buddies Ribs & BBQ (Maggie Valley, NC)
17. One-Eyed Lizzy’s (Savannah, GA)
18. Wall to Wall Outdoors (Marion, NC)
19. Laughing Larry’s Lunchroom (Oakdale, WI)
20. Gator Storage (Leesburg, FL)

SUMMER SUMMARY, FROM A TO Z

Among my literary contributions is a series of alphabet books about everything from soccer and stock car racing to football and baseball (including the just-published W is for Wrigley). I’ve started on another book that I’d like to publish someday — M is for Miles, an homage to the wonders of the road trip. But for now I’ll have to settle for writing about my personal road trip, our recently completed summer RV adventure.

So here are 26 poems about one couple’s June-and-July expedition — from A to Z:

A is for the attractions in Georgia’s great southwest.
It’s Andersonville, Americus and Albany for a rest.

B is Columbia’s baseball team. The Blowfish is their name.
Nothing says America like a simple minor league game.

C is CANDLES in Terre Haute, a museum that keeps alive
the memory of concentration camps and those who did survive.

D is for a drive—the Blue Ridge Parkway, mile by mile,
a house-on-wheels highlight for our been-there-done-that file.

An eclectic Friday evening in Asheville, that experience is my E,
when dozens of drummers gathered for impromptu harmony.

F is for the Fourth of July. We celebrated Independence Day
at Fort Sumter where the Civil War began, right in Charleston Bay.

The great taste of grits, that’s my letter G.
We savored them in Neptune Beach, Charleston and D.C.

H is for Hampton, Virginia. We hadn’t been there yet.
During a five-mile hike in Mariner’s Park, we worked up quite a sweat.

I is for the ivy adorning Wrigley Field’s outfield wall.
We root-root-rooted for the Cubbies, had ourselves a ball.

J is for journalism and a jam-packed museum
that celebrates the First Amendment — D.C.’s great Newseum.

K is the Kennedy Space Center. One small step for man,
but one giant thrill for a rocket nerd and out-of-this world space fan.

L is Lexington’s lovely horse farms, those pasture-perfect places
that make the Bluegrass region the nursery of horse races.

M is for the memorials that surround the National Mall
and the monument in the middle, standing straight and tall.

N is a North Carolina gem. New Bern has the goods.
Pepsi-Cola was invented amid its historic neighborhoods.

O is a trip to the Outer Banks and

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Ocracoke by ferry.
Getting there is half the fun. Is it worth it? Very.

P is for Plains, Georgia, and the peanuts that we sought
in the hometown of President Jimmy Carter. Yup, that’s what we bought.

Q is for a quiet place called Love, a Blue Ridge Mountain blip
where we visited some old friends, a highlight of the trip.

R is Chattanooga’s Ruby Falls and also for Rock City,
high atop Lookout Mountain. The view sure was pretty.

S is for Savannah and

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its squares, the perfect mid-day stroll
if southern charm and Spanish moss are your simple goal.

T is for a trek one day to a Blue Ridge masterpiece.
For tremendous views of Linville falls, we had to walk a piece.

Unexpected discoveries, that’s U. Road trips mean great finds
like the Arts District of Chattanooga and a town called Southern Pines.

V is for the vistas along various Virginia stops.
For history and scenery, Skyline Drive is tops.

W is a whirlwind tour of the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Players, courses, moments—the wonders of the game.

X marks the spot near Kitty Hawk (four spots, to be fair)
where the Wrights landed their flying machine after conquering the air.

Y must be for yum— so many meals of note.
A best-restaurants list is coming soon, a traveling diner’s vote.

A summer tour in a house on wheels—that’s as good as it gets.
Over six weeks and twelve states, Z is zero regrets.

BERTHA

Our annual summer road trip has reached an end, and (as I always do) I’m going to offer summaries of our experiences in various forms. But not today. Today, I want to celebrate the moment when the road trip BEGAN. Not my road trip. This time, it isn’t a personal remembrance. I’m talking about THE road trip, historically speaking.

Exactly 125 years ago today, the road trip was inaugurated by a Ringer. Bertha Ringer was her maiden name, although she was soon known as Bertha Benz, married to a fellow named Karl, who happened to invent a little something called the gasoline-powered automobile. Karl was a master innovator. He patented everything from the carburetor and the clutch to the spark plug and the gear shift. And in 1886, he patented the first automobile designed to use its own power.

But he was a lousy marketer. Unsure of how to convince the general public of the viability of his creation, he had only taken it on very short trial drives. It was certainly innovative. But was it practical? Was it useful? Could it be a means of, say, visiting your mom?

But Karl’s wife had a penchant for saving the day. It was the money from Bertha’s dowry that had saved his fledgling company 16 years earlier. And it was her aim to show the world that the Patent Motorwagen No. 3, as it was called, could be useful (while showing her husband that there was a future in it). So just after dawn on August 5, 1888, she set off on what can rightly be called the first ever road trip.

Without her husband’s knowledge, but with two of her sons along for the ride, Bertha Benz set off from the German town of Mannheim toward Pforzheim, about 106 kilometers away. She was, indeed, visiting her mother, a distance of approximately 66 miles. Yes the number that will forever be associated with the American road trip experience, thanks to Route 66, was part of the first one, too.

It wasn’t an easy drive, but Bertha was clever. Along the way, she stopped at apothecary shops to find fuel (yep, pharmacies were the first fueling stations). She enlisted a blacksmith to mend a chain. She used a hatpin to clean a fuel pipe. She insulated a wire with a garter. After some long downhill slopes, she asked a shoemaker to nail leather on the brake blocks, thus inventing brake lining. She also later suggested the implementation of an additional gear to assist with climbing hills.

Bertha made it to her mother’s house by nightfall and promptly send her husband a telegram about her successful journey. She drove back home the next day. Despite the fact that her automobile scared a few people along the way, it was an early example of successful live marketing. The Benz Model 3 debuted at the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris. The rest is history.

Today, German’s celebrate her drive with an antique automobile rally. In 2008, the Bertha Benz Memorial Route was designated a scenic and historic route by German authorities. And every September, Germany now hosts the Bertha Benz Challenge. Its motto: Sustainable Mobility on the World’s Oldest Automobile Road. Its aim: To become a global representation of innovation—in the form of hybrid and electric and alternatively-fueled vehicles.

So as I prepare to look back in wonder on the road trip that Amy and I were so fortunate to experience these past few weeks and the state-of-the-art vehicle that carried us throughout (built on a Mercedes chassis, in fact), I have to thank

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Bertha Benz. The lady paved the way.