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Small Town Dining -- Spare Me


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(I wouldn't post this if tonight hadn't been so typical.)

Good lord. I know that when you live in a rural area you learn the good restaurants from the bad and where to get barbecue and country cooking. But for us out-of-towners -- God help us.

Rolled into Lexington, Virginia tonight and got a hotel room because we got out of town late and we didn't want to pitch the tent in the dark and the weatherman was calling for hail. Tomorrow: out to the swiming hole.

Hit Main Street for dinner and fell into the black hole of backwoods dining -- earnest at every moment but comically bad at every level. Bad food, what little there was available; laughable service, the waitress didn't know how to pronounce "lentil" or, evidently, take a drink order; the wine was appalling and iced in a beer pitcher, and the place had all the ambiance of a Motel 6 lobby.

And the local gentry were dining with us!

We held our tongues -- though even the kids burst out laughing once we got back into the car -- and tipped well, but it was a way-too-typical example of how awful out-of-the-way U.S. restaurants with pretentions of sophistication can be.

Let me say it again: Pretense of sophistication, meal so bad you just had to laugh.

I've had some bad meals in the French backcountry, but it always at least felt like there were profesionals involved in the dining process. Too often -- one could say, always -- in rural America, any attempt at dinner above the diner level descends into parody. What's up with that? Why is it so hard to get a decent meal outside The Big Town? How can we come together to make this work?

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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Le Maison de la Casa House?

If it was a local DC joint I'd savage it by name, but in a gesture of truce with Red State America I will leave it nameless.

The phrase "authentic Tuscan cuisine," however, will henceforth evoke bitter memories.

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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Le Maison de la Casa House?

If it was a local DC joint I'd savage it by name, but in a gesture of truce with Red State America I will leave it nameless.[...]

First reaction: That's magnanimous!

Second reaction: It might be a good idea to ward off future potential patrons.

Third reaction: It's up to you.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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What was the type of place at which you were dining? Was it trying to be a fine-dining joint or was it just a local greasy spoon?

In my experience the best places to dine (well, as far as balancing your risk goes) if you are unfamliar with the area are bars. It is really hard to fuck up bar food. Plus, I love bar food as much as fine dining on any given days. I mean, when I visited london I had some great fine dining moments, and some great dinners at Indian joints, but what sticks most in my mind are steak and kidney pie and bangers and mash at random pubs along the way. (I will try to forget about the pub in Bath which served lukewarm hotdogs and obviously canned beans as 'bangers as mash' (where he hell was the mash?)).

He don't mix meat and dairy,

He don't eat humble pie,

So sing a miserere

And hang the bastard high!

- Richard Wilbur and John LaTouche from Candide

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Interesting.

I was in Lexington VA this past Monday. Passed up the place you mentioned and a few other aspiring fine dining joints for the Redwood Family Restaurant atop a hill on the outskirts of town. Had fried chicken cooked to order. Did very well. Check came to $8 something. Then into town to the local ice cream parlor for some homemade mocha chip ice cream.

The next morning, I headed out of town south on Rte 11 and had breakfast at the Pink Cadillac Diner. Grilled pork tenderloin and fried eggs with grits and a biscuit. Did very well again.

When in Rome eat Italian, and when in Lexington VA eat down home American.

Holly Moore

"I eat, therefore I am."

HollyEats.Com

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I understand what you are asking in terms of Fine Dining in small towns.. Small towns certianly do have nice restaurants, but most of them are offered in terms of either steak or local fair.. I wouldnt expect to eat at a great Italian or French place in a small town, not that they dont exist.. I would more expect to eat at place that serves upscale local American cuisine.. Wether it be game or steak or fish.. I have found that Italian or Chinese in a small town is certain disappointment..

Edited by Daniel (log)
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What was the type of place at which you were dining?  Was it trying to be a fine-dining joint or was it just a local greasy spoon?

In my experience the best places to dine (well, as far as balancing your risk goes) if you are unfamliar with the area are bars.  It is really hard to fuck up bar food.  Plus, I love bar food as much as fine dining on any given days.  I mean, when I visited london I had some great fine dining moments, and some great dinners at Indian joints, but what sticks most in my mind are steak and kidney pie and bangers and mash at random pubs along the way.  (I will try to forget about the pub in Bath which served lukewarm hotdogs and obviously canned beans as 'bangers as mash' (where he hell was the mash?)).

It was a place that aimed at "fine dining," more or less. We're perfectly happy to eat at bars and dives, but Lexington is a nice little college town (VMI, Wshington and Lee) with a little bit of old money and a pretty downtown, so we thought we might be able to have a nice dinner out with the kids. We weren't expecting Michelin star-level dining, but we were hoping to be pleasantly surprised.

Alas... in retrospect, we should have just eaten at the Ruby Tuesdays next to the hotel.

(Ewwwww. Strike that last sentance.)

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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Interesting. 

I was in Lexington VA this past Monday.  Passed up the place you mentioned and a few other aspiring fine dining joints for the Redwood Family Restaurant atop a hill on the outskirts of town.  Had fried chicken cooked to order.  Did very well.  Check came to $8 something.  Then into town to the local ice cream parlor for some homemade mocha chip ice cream.

The next morning, I headed out of town south on Rte 11 and had breakfast at the Pink Cadillac Diner.  Grilled pork tenderloin and fried eggs with grits and a biscuit.  Did very well again.

When in Rome eat Italian, and when in Lexington VA eat down home American.

Damn! Drove right by it, looked it over and moved on. In my own defense, I will say that I've been to any number of places that claim to be what Redwood Family Restaurant apparently is -- tasty local cookin' -- and found myself choking down deep-fried, pre-portioned robo-cuisine. Also the kids wanted Italian (damn them!).

The diner tip has crossed my computer just in time, though, as we are headed that direction this morning.

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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I looked up some places in Lexington.. Sweet Magnolia's looks pretty good.. And listed under fine dining you have .. Sheridan Livery Inn.. Its says"Fine dining in a relaxed atmosphere. Enjoy a wide variety of your favorite American cuisine; steaks,poultry, and seafood delivered fresh daily. Dine inside or out on the adjoining cafe or enjoy a drink at the lounge. "

These are the places i would expect..

edit to add. Wilson Walker House "1820 classical revival town house. Featured in Travel and Leisure Magazine as "one of the best restaurants in Virginia." Creative American cuisine with regional influences. Children's menu, daily specials, and casual dress. 4 beautifully restored banquet rooms. Reservations requested. Open 11:30AM-2:30PM 5:30PM-9PM. "

Edited by Daniel (log)
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Damn! Drove right by it, looked it over and moved on.  In my own defense, I will say that I've been to any number of places that claim to be what Redwood Family Restaurant apparently is -- tasty local cookin' -- and found myself choking down deep-fried, pre-portioned robo-cuisine. Also the kids wanted Italian (damn them!).

The diner tip has crossed my computer just in time, though, as we are headed that direction this morning.

Warn your kids about the scary humpty dumpty at the Pink Cadillac Diner. Otherwise I suspect they'll love the place.

gallery_14_356_6566.jpg

I've struck out at "family restaurants" on a number of occasions. But it's a matter of playing the odds. In Lexington VA the odds favor down home american over French cuisine.

Holly Moore

"I eat, therefore I am."

HollyEats.Com

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I looked up some places in Lexington.. Sweet Magnolia's looks pretty good.. And listed under fine dining you have .. Sheridan Livery Inn.. Its says"Fine dining in a relaxed atmosphere. Enjoy a wide variety of your favorite American cuisine; steaks,poultry, and seafood delivered fresh daily. Dine inside or out on the adjoining cafe or enjoy a drink at the lounge. "

These are the places i would expect..

edit to add. Wilson Walker House "1820 classical revival town house. Featured in Travel and Leisure Magazine as "one of the best restaurants in Virginia." Creative American cuisine with regional influences. Children's menu, daily specials, and casual dress. 4 beautifully restored banquet rooms. Reservations requested. Open 11:30AM-2:30PM 5:30PM-9PM. "

We weren't exactly prepared for restored mansions -- we were pushing the edge of underdresssed at the place we hit, as we had packed for a campsite. And I put only so much faith in googled reviews -- the restaurant we went to last night is listed among the swell joints in town on the Lexington tourism website and reads a lot better than it eats.

But, as I said, we would have been plenty happy with mere competence. Sadly, that wasn't on the menu last night, and find this kind of experience to be way too typical --unless you know the scene well, or have Holly's excellent radar, it's hard to get a decent meal.

Oh well, on to the Pink Cadillac and the woods, where if dinner sucks, I'll have only myself to blame. :laugh:

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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You can get some pretty awful meals in France. The odds of a randomly selected cafe in the French countryside sucking are less than in small town America, but the risk is there. We could recite a litany of cultural, economic, geographical, et al., differences that account for the spread, but I don't care what country you're in it's always a bad idea to pick restaurants out the window of a car. What I've noticed is that, often, the same Americans who would be traveling in France with four restaurant guidebooks and a pile of computer printouts in the car will drive around the US with nothing more than the free map from the state welcome center. In that situation, of course you're going to have better luck in France -- because you're not relying on luck at all. But many, many American small towns, while they lack the culinary depth and sophistication of some of their European counterparts, have wonderful little restaurants -- you just have to be willing and able to invest the research time, which is admittedly a bigger investment of time here than in France because restaurants outside the major cities are not nearly as well documented here in the US. If you're not willing or able to invest the research time, the simple fact is that your odds of getting an acceptable meal will be better at chain restaurants.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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There is one quite nice restaurant in Lexington called "The Southern Inn" (or the Southern-something-like-that...it is early in the morning and my brain is not functioning too well!).

It is run by someone with training and experience. White tablecloth/casual, if that makes sense. Certainly you can go there in jeans, and certainly children are welcome.

The food is moderately "sophisticated" which means to me that you will find some creatively designed items but also some well-crafted simple foods. Nothing from cans or boxes.

There is another place called (again, sorry, name forgetfullness but it is the only one like it) Tequeteria something-or-other which is good and also fun for the kids. Again, fresh food, nicely prepared.

Southern Inn won't kill you financially, but the Taqueteria is of course much less expensive.

I have a friend who lives outside Lexington who knows food well, who is quite particular, and who "keeps up with" the food-goings-on in town. These are the only two places he will eat there. I've been to both restaurants and have been happy both times (and I, also, am not made happy unless there is some sort of charm and freshness to both the food and service besides demanding that the place be clean...which is something sadly lacking in so many places).

Anyway. Two more choices if you need them.

And yes, Holly is right about The Pink Cadillac. It is an odd and amusing place and if you order right, the food will be fine.

Edited by Carrot Top (log)
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It sounds like Trillin nailed this phenom with "Le Maison de la Casa House Continental Cuisine...

Where the continent is probably Antactica, since everything tastes like has been previously frozen."

I have to admit that I have had much better experiences with random dining in rural France (or rural anywhere for that matter). I'd wager a guess that there are fewer trucks delivering premade frozen and canned "product " to cafes in France. Just a guess.

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I've had some bad meals in the French backcountry, but it always at least felt like there were profesionals involved in the dining process. Too often -- one could say, always -- in rural America, any attempt at dinner above the diner level descends into parody. What's up with that? Why is it so hard to get a decent meal outside The Big Town? How can we come together to make this work?

Because in France most if not all professional cooks/chefs learned through an apprenticeship system (think a bit older) or attended culinary school which is affordable or free and is required unless you own the place.

EDIT: I wonder if there is any other country in the world with such an accessible system for training cooks?

Edited by chefzadi (log)

I can be reached via email chefzadi AT gmail DOT com

Dean of Culinary Arts

Ecole de Cuisine: Culinary School Los Angeles

http://ecolecuisine.com

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I have to say that I'm surprised you did not get ahold of some locals and ask them. If I had to, I'd quiz the desk folks at your lodging, and then go to a convenience store or even a big grocery and ask some random folks who live there. When you do that, I've always found that one name will usually stick out. And in rural places, a lot of times the best food's often well-hidden in a building you'd never judge is a restaurant at first glance. Hope you all enjoyed your camping.

Your kids sound very perceptive about dining already. Look upon that as a blessing. :smile:

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Alas, the worst people to querry are the desk clerks. They'll send you to Olive Garden for the best Italian food in town.

I've had good luck with police officers, volunteer fire departments, clerks in book stores, restaurant owners and, on one occasion, county prisoners.

Holly Moore

"I eat, therefore I am."

HollyEats.Com

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Because in France most if not all professional cooks/chefs learned through an apprenticeship system (think a bit older) or attended culinary school which is affordable or free and is required unless you own the place.

Even the ones at McDonald's?

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Because in France most if not all professional cooks/chefs learned through an apprenticeship system (think a bit older) or attended culinary school which is affordable or free and is required unless you own the place.

Even the ones at McDonald's?

Bien sur. :wink:

Is that even cooking? Isn't that food assembly?

I can be reached via email chefzadi AT gmail DOT com

Dean of Culinary Arts

Ecole de Cuisine: Culinary School Los Angeles

http://ecolecuisine.com

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I have to thank Holly and restate my desk clerk as well. When Lady Jaymes was here last summer, I recommended a wonderful and reasonable casual fine dining spot called George Henry's, because I could not make it out to dine with her. It was closed that night, and the desk clerks sent her to the Rex, which is over in every criteria: Overpriced, Overrated, Overcooked, BLAH. Actually, the inhouse cafe was better, at a third the price :shock:

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