Last night, when I couldn't sleep, my mind happily occupied itself with the business of remembrance: the remembrance of things repast.
As I have put myself on a strict diet, (and if you continue reading this, you will certainly understand why), my stomach was grumbling a bit. Since a late-night snack was out of the question, I decided to distract myself with the pleasurable task of remembering and ranking some of the many delicious meals I enjoyed on my recent vacation.
Although I am perfectly content to eat a bowl of left-over chicken soup for dinner when I am home, I want something a little more special -- a little more memorable -- when I am in holiday-mode. I tend to think of food more as "fun" than just "fuel," and I don't like to waste even one eating opportunity. Frankly, there is nothing I hate more wandering around a new place looking for a restaurant, reading menu after menu, getting hungrier and tetchier by the minute, and then ending up with a disappointing meal. In that spirit, and should you be travelling to New England, I offer up the following public service: five fabulous eating spots, tried and tested by Bee truly.
Red Arrow Diner
Manchester, New Hampshire
Number one in my top five was the first restaurant we actually ate at during our trip.
We had flown into Manchester, New Hampshire at around 9 pm, after approximately 19 hours of travel. At that point, we didn't want anything but a soft pillow, but when we woke up the next morning we were plenty ready to break our long fast. As we were leaving the hotel, I hit upon the brilliant idea of asking one of the desk clerks if she could recommend a place. Let's just say that she had the look of someone who appreciated a good meal . . . and my goodness, she really steered us to a winner.
Just to put this place into context, I need to mention that one of the main foodie things that I really miss about America is the kind of 24 hour place where you can get breakfast any time you want it -- not to mention a bottomless cup of coffee. I've waitressed at several of these kinds of places during the years, and I've always thought becoming "Flo" was a viable career option for me. Whether on or off the time clock, I've enjoyed wiling away the hours in the following diners: Earl Abel's, Jim's, Kerbey Lane Cafe, 59 Diner and the House of Pies .
If you, too, are a fan of the diner genre you MUST visit this fantastic spot. It looks just like a diner should, and if you check out the website, you can imagine me and my five-girl crew sitting on those round, red bar seats and stuffing ourselves with eggs, bacon, hash browns and pancakes. Although any moderate person would have been satisfied by a full American breakfast, I'm afraid that a terrible greed descended upon me and I kept ordering wildly. Despite the fact that it wasn't quite noon, I didn't want to be done out of the dessert course -- always my favorite. I just had to try a whoopie pie, a dinah finger (homemade "twinkie"), and an eclair . . . and I still regret not ordering any coconut cream pie. (In case my Mom is reading this, in horrified dismay, I will confess that I didn't actually eat all of these things -- but I did taste two of them!) Then, in true American style, I was able to complete the dining experience by ordering merchandise. We left the diner full and happy, with a to-go box, two frisbees and two "Moe" mugs.
Saratoga Springs, New York
My friend Laurita and I have a long history of eating fried chicken together, and at Hattie's, I think we may have reached the pinnacle of fried chicken achievement. Blog evidence to the contrary, it's not something I eat very often . . . but it's something I love. Plain ole chicken is an everyday thing, a cooking standby -- but fried chicken is something else! It is a holiday food, a celebratory food. For me, it is also a deeply nostalgic food. When I lived in Houston, Laurita and I had a tradition of eating fried chicken, mashed potatoes, black eyed peas and spiced pecans at the Daily Review Cafe during our mutual birthday week in January. While I still consider the Daily Review version to be the height of comfort food, I was deeply impressed by Hattie's chicken. It was golden brown and juicy, with a delicate, crispy skin. It is deeply flavorful, without any particular flavor (pepper, for instance) calling attention to itself. You can choose your side dishes, and we felt that "sugar corn" (the sweetest I've ever tasted; it didn't need butter or salt) and cucumber salad was just right for summer eating. Here's a tip: Being a Hattie's veteran, Laurita suggested that we share a chicken plate -- which comes with four pieces of chicken! Believe me, two pieces are plenty . . . and we still couldn't even look at the dessert menu.
Hattie's is steeped in Saratoga history. The Hattie, a Southern cook who worked for a wealthy horse-racing family, opened the place in 1938, and from what I gather, it's being going strong ever since. The website gives you a great sense of what it looks and feels like. It is as homespun and authentic as your grandmother's best quilt -- the very antithesis of "chain" food. You also might get a kick out of knowing that the current chef, Jasper Alexander, beat Bobby Flay in the fried chicken throw-down. I didn't get to taste Flay's version, but it's difficult to imagine anyone bettering the chicken that I ate that warm July night.
Saratoga Springs, New York
I know that I've already waxed lyrical about PJ's, but I just can't leave it off this list. It is pure American nostalgia -- and it is also great food. They have a large menu of typically American fare: burgers, milkshakes, sloppy joes, hot dogs, and various kinds of barbequed meat, but I'm really not tempted to try any of that. Do yourself a favor and stick with the ribs. Ribs, corn, and fried green beans: messy, but perfect. If you are lucky enough to eat this food on a warm junebug night, with some great Stax classics playing in the background, you will have a deep and true sense of some of the best of what America brings to the cultural table.
The Red Lion Inn
One of the little things that makes me forever Texan is my internal map. Texas is so big, that if you look at a map and measure off a couple of visual inches, you know that you will be involving yourself in several hours of driving. Conversely, the same distance on an English map takes about 20 minutes! I've just never been able to get used to that. Driving around New England fills me with a even greater sense of wonder because you can get from one state to the next so quickly! The same hour and a half that will take you from one end of Houston to the next, (if you are lucky with the traffic), can take you from Saratoga Springs, NY to Stockbridge, MA.
Laurita suggested this little side trip, and I was so grateful that she did. Without a doubt, there is an America littered with strip shopping centers, fast food outlets and billboards . . . but you won't see any of that America in Stockbridge. Instead, you will find the Norman Rockwell Museum, Tanglewood, green hills, white picket fences, well-tended gardens and this historic tavern. The Red Lion Inn has a deep, shaded front porch crowded with wicker furniture, and you can sip your iced tea (or other, stronger libation) and watch the world go down Main Street. Both of the Roosevelts have stayed there, Teddy and FDR, and such literary giants as Hawthorne, Longfellow and Thornton Wilder. It truly has the sedate, gracious pace of a bygone era.
Because we had an early dinner reservation, we were fortunate enough to catch the 5 pm sideboard of nibbles that the Inn puts out for its guests. The famous "cheese log," accompanied by fat berries, carmelized walnuts, and buttery crackers, was so delicious that I could barely restrain myself from making that my meal. Indeed, it was so scrumptious that I ended up ordering a "Flight of Cheese" for my dinner. All of the cheeses were local, and they had poetic names like Twig Farm Tomme (a goat's cheese) and Bayley Hazen Blue. With a glass of red wine, it was a deeply satisfying meal.
Portsmouth, New Hampshire
I couldn't find an official website for Friendly Toast, surprisingly enough, but the linked food guide of HollyEats.com is entertaining . . . and it gives a whole list of great food finds in New England, thus continuing what I've started here.
Friendly Toast is exactly the kind of place that makes me want to be a college student again. If I were a college student in Portsmouth, I would hang out there all of the time. It has deep, inviting booths and an eccentric, witty decor. It is the sort of place that you can happily visit on your own, and there is so much memorabilia dotted all over the place that you can easily amuse yourself for hours -- just by looking. (The waiters and clientele are pretty interesting, too.) Friendly Toast has an extensive, quirky menu which ranges from vegan options to Almond Joy pancakes (I really wanted to try those) to cheese fries served with a strawberry habanero sauce. My friend Monique ordered the cheese fries, and that sauce -- which sounds really strange -- actually did "work." I had a bizarre, but tasty, grilled cheese sandwich on oatmeal bread, with a side of Guinness battered onion rings. Again, we were too full to sample the dessert offerings -- a great pity, and an oversight which will be corrected as soon as I can get myself back to Portsmouth.
I got a great t-shirt at Friendly Toast which has a Humpty Dumpty looking egg character on both the front and the back. The front says, with accompanying sad egg expression, "We make a lot of eggs cry . . .," while the back says, "to make you happy."
When I was packing to go home, I realized that I had also bought a Hattie's t-shirt with a line drawing of a chicken on the front. Not only does this confirm that chickens seem to be an ongoing theme in my life, but it also answers that age-old question: What came first? The chicken or the egg? At least in my case, it's the chicken.