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.