Meal Surprises On The Road

. . . I have wined and dined

sipped and supped

in some of the most 

Beemer estitomible dumps and dives . . . 


Tom Waits

        Black and white checkerboard tile floor of a diner, with chrome stools, and people sitting at the counter.

Authentic late 1930's Art Deco interior of Carl's Townhouse in Chillicothe, Ohio

        To be abundantly clear right from the start, I appreciate good food, but am in no way a dining snob!  Just the opposite!  What my wife and I truly enjoy is to take our comfort in small local independent eateries wherever we go.  Don't get me wrong, we have eaten in some spectacularly fancy restaurants, and were lifted to a whole whole new plane by the experience.  But it is the small intimate spots that we find most engaging.  Small local dining does not necessarily guarantee a good meal, but the experience will probably be interesting at some level.  There is always the element of surprise.  Astonishingly good food is one of those surprises.  An interesting story, architecture, incident, or encounter, are the other possible surprises.
        Take, for instance, Carl's Townhouse on West Second Street in Chillicothe, Ohio.  There a person can get basic diner fare, with a few flourishes thrown in as specials of the day. It all is tasty, satisfying, and reasonably priced - although the presentation leaves a bit to be desired, so no vertical food will be encountered here!  The real surprise is the origin of the building, for it was originally constructed and used at the 1939 New York World's Fair!  The Fair theme was "Dawn of a New Day" which quickly morphed into "The World of Tomorrow".  Even when glimpsing the future, whether it was the cigarette smoking robot, named Electro in the Westinghouse exhibit, or something else, a person had to eat!  This small building was the place to grab a quick burger, then go back out and be amazed some more.  When the Fair ended many of the buildings were slated for demolition, and some, like this one, were moved.  Due to popular demand, the Fair reopened and ran during 1940, but the burger joint was gone! It had been purchased and moved to Ohio by Roman Gerber.  His acquisition opened in 1940 as NCL, Nice Clean Lunch, on the edge of downtown Chillicothe.  Carl Reinhard bought the business in 1951 and changed the name to Carl's Townhouse, and ran it until he retired in 1981.  Over the next twenty years the restaurant changed hands, and some minor changes were made to the building.  By 2000 Carl's had fallen on hard times, and the building was scheduled to be bulldozed.  Joe Molnar bought it for $1 and moved it to its present Second Street location, where it is as popular now as ever, and he did not even have to change the name!
        Much of the original 1939 building, which was specially built for the New York World's Fair, is readily visible if one looks.  The lights, the dining counter, the stools, the windows, etc. are all original, and have survived being moved twice!  In a town full of fantastic old buildings, Carl's Townhouse is unique in its own right.  And since it still is basically a diner, a visitor can count on a properly greasy burger, good fries, a handmade milkshake, historic ambiance, and maybe a conversation with the customer next to you.

        Some dining surprises may occur simply due to road fatigue!  A couple such experiences were recounted in my book Hitting the Road Without a Map.  The first was at a ginormous truckstop in Missouri after driving eight and a half hours, and covering over 500 miles.  My blackened fish dinner was sublime.  It was great to sit down in a seat that was not moving, but I also believe the food was really good!  The next memorable meal was at the conclusion of another long day on the road covering 485 miles, but due to the stunning scenery in Pacific City, Oregon we did not bother to eat until exhaustion made it mandatory.  

Ocean beach scene, with sun setting beyond huge rock rising from the sea, and a car with surfboards on the roof driving along the water's edge.

Stunning Haystack Rock in Pacific City, Oregon

        After watching the sun set behind Haystack Rock, which rises out of the Pacific Ocean about a mile offshore from Pacific City, Oregon, my driving partner and I decided it was finally time to eat.  We had barely eaten breakfast in the morning before hitting the road, and then the driving and gawking at incredible scenery, had made stopping for a meal out of the question.  As it turned out, most of the seaside restaurants had closed for the year, so Pelican Brewery, which was still open was packed and the wait time for a table was over an hour.  Haystack Rock was readily visible from the brewery windows, so we were looking at the prospect of starving to death before any drinkers or diners vacated the premises.  The only option was a small grocery store adjacent to the RV park where we were staying. The store had a deli in which they prepared food to go.  Fish & chips made from halibut, which was swimming in the ocean less than twenty-four hours before it landed in the deep fat fryer, is a wonder to behold!  Was it starvation, or was the food from that little deli actually that good?  I am betting on the food, which really hit the spot.  The fact the food came from a small grocery deli made the meal even more remarkable.  
        Rain and fog, typical for the Pacific Northwest coast, thinned out the crowd at Pelican Brewery the following day, and we were able to leisurely partake of their bill of fare.  The burgers and fries were excellent.  Sadly, I cannot comment on the quality of their brew, due to having stopped drinking years ago.  I used to enjoy the flavor of beer, but merely having an alcohol content was usually sufficient for me to consume it, so a review by yours truly would be rather suspect.

        A feature touted by many so-called fine dining establishments is the "open kitchen" concept, where the clients can view the chef hard at work preparing exotic dishes.  To those of us who seek out diners, and other other small eateries, this has always been part of the ambiance.  Often times the person working the grill is more than happy to chat with customers who happen to occupy stools at the counter and are close to the action.  Some of the banter can be quite amusing, but most of the time it is simply fascinating to watch a skilled operator at work.

Workers in the food prep aisle behind the customer counter at a diner.
The "open kitchen concept" is nothing new, especially in old diners.  This one is Pam & Al's Route 20 Diner in Clyde, Ohio

        Sure, a person can go to a corporate fast food place and be relatively assured that what they order and receive on the east coast will be exactly like the same order in the Midwest.  You can even experience the same long line at the drive through, if eating in the vehicle somehow is appealing, which, for me, it never has.  Unfortunately, big corporate food franchises have managed to drive many of the small local eateries out of business just like the "big box" stores hollowed out many a viable downtown.  The arrival of progress is often greeting as a blessing, but as the local businesses wither away as the result, a shared sense of community is lost as well.  This is apparent even to folks like me, who are just passing through.  One typically does not get a sense of place when stopping at a McDonald's, for example.  But time spent at a place like Pam & Al's Route 20 diner in Clyde, Ohio can impart a sense of vicarious community for the duration of the meal.  A handmade burger, mashed on the grill beneath a heavy spatula wielded by the owner, followed up by homemade strawberry pie - because strawberries happened to be in season, is hard to beat.  The pleasant banter and conversation with the waitresses created its own calming affect.  By the time the check was paid, we were glad we had stopped.
        There is a place in Mansfield, Ohio that I frequent, where the name pretty much explains what the main course will entail, and that is Weiner King on Lexington Avenue.  It is a franchise restaurant, which as I have already established, I tend to avoid.  Through a conversation with the owner, a hyper-kinetic individual named Jimmy, this store may be the only location remaining in the country, although he said that rumor has it that there is another one somewhere down South - or was it in the Ozarks?  He talks so fast the deluge of information was overwhelming.  Also overwhelming is the number of offering which involve the humble wiener!  I have had them all, and some are a full course meal just by them selves.  But my friend who introduced me to this fine establishment of glass, linoleum, and Formica, orders at least two or three of any of the offerings because, "Hey, they're just hot dogs!"  Well, not just hot dogs!  These tube steaks shine through all manner of toppings, and their source is a closely guarded secret.  The fun is ordering and eating a number of the offerings at one sitting, so if one is inclined, start at the top of the menu with the Wiener King, which has sauce, onions, coleslaw, cheese, and other stuff, and work you way down through coneys, chili dogs, sauerkraut dogs, and more.  You can also order a bowl of chili, which is not straying too far off the reservation because they have to make chili anyway.

Wiener King sign on Lexington Road in Mansfield, Ohio

The sign says it all, in Mansfield, Ohio

        The photo above, of the sign out in front of what is obviously a neighborhood establishment, also shows part of the al fresco dining option available at Wiener King.  It may not be the patio or sidewalk dining of a fancy restaurant, but the picnic table is close to the sidewalk, and in some places a pad of gravel is a patio!  Hidden beneath the exterior of this restaurant hides the remains of an old Arthur Treacher's Fish & Chips.  Hot dogs have been served here for over forty years, so they must be doing something right, and I could not agree more!

        Another type of establishment, where the food can often be remarkably good, is the old fashioned dive bar or neighborhood tavern.  Walking into some of them often times feels like a risky proposition, and if everybody is giving you 'the stink eye', it is certainly within your rights to turn around a walk right back out.  We have had to do just that on several occasions, but it was due to hunger and the lack of a menu beyond hardboiled eggs, pickled sausage, and potato chips.  There was a period in my life when those items, along with prodigious amounts of beer, used to suffice for a meal, as far as I was concerned, but those days are over.  Now, if I want food - I want real food!  
        One day, while messing around downtown Nelsonville, we realized it was around lunch time, so I asked some construction workers who were tearing up the street whether there was a good place to eat.  The guy pointed across the square to one of the storefronts where a neon beer sign glowed in the window. "They got good burgers!" was his terse assessment.  Not long ago, US-33 went straight through Nelsonville, and there were a number of restaurants along with the usual franchise suspects.  But several years ago a by-pass was constructed around the town, and that just about put the final nail in the coffin for this interesting and historic place.  Decades ago, coal mines were up just about every hollar in Southeastern Ohio, and in some places the mines were even under the towns themselves.  Clay products were also a major industry in the area, and Nelsonville was the epi-center of brick making, hosting five different brick plants.  All that is gone now, and the few businesses that survived the closing of the mines and the brick plants were brought to their knees when the highway was routed around the little city.  For through travelers, it is a great thing, and I often blast through the hills around Nelsonville with the rest of them.  But I also have fond memories of what was once there, and following the workman's direction, we were soon to make a new memory.
        To describe The Mine Tavern as ancient and dark does a disservice to both those adjectives.  The entryway is done in black and white mosaic, with the words Mine Tavern.  That tells you this place has been here a while.  Inside, it is almost as dark as a coal mine.  The walls and ceiling are painted black to provide the proper ambience.  Once our eyes adjusted to the lack of light, we realized the ceiling and walls were made out of very ornate pressed metal, and was rather impressive.  I encounter pressed metal ceilings in many of the old buildings I tend to be drawn to, but to have the same treatment done to the walls is a bit unusual, and even more unusual for it to have survived.  We decided that even if the food was mediocre, just being able to see a place like this made to stop worthwhile.  However, the burgers were astonishingly good - especially the cheese burgers.  The cheese offerings were not the typical American or Swiss options, but a whole array of other cheeses that I was only vaguely aware of.  There was also some sort of secret Mine Shaft sauce, which is similar to Thousand Island salad dressing, that was provacitively deployed.  Desert was not an option unless one opted for an after meal lager, but that did not matter, because the burgers are remarkable.

Interior of the Mine Tavern in Nelsonville, Ohio, showing the pressed metal walls and ceiling, along with a red felt pool table and some unique beer signs.

Interior of The Mine Tavern in Nelsonville, Ohio.  Old pressed metal covers the walls and ceiling, and reflects the dim light from a front window.  Other than the red pool table, the whole place is painted black.

        A few days later, we ran into a friend who lives in Nelsonville, and we told her of our fine dining experience at The Mine Tavern.  She asked if we tried their burgers, and we told her that, yes indeed we had, and they were great!  We added that we liked the pressed metal in the place.  She laughed, and said she painted the whole inside well over a decade ago, in order to pay off a bar tab that had somehow gotten out of control.  A personal story like that made the whole adventure even more worthwhile!

          For anyone living near the spots just mentioned, they are not exotic nor unique.  These eateries are simply accepted as part of the fabric of everyday life.  I live in a small semi-rural village where the last funky cafĂ© was torn down to become a parking lot decades ago.  Sure, a person still can get something to eat here in Lithopolis, but the options are extremely limited. Probably the biggest surprise, especially to us locals, is the rather good Mexican restaurant called El Pedrigal, which opened in the building which was formerly the funeral home.  We also have a really cool coffee shop with a German-techno vibe to it.  Folks from out-of-town, who happen upon these joints, probably would add them to their own list of good places to stop again - which is great!
        All one need to do is take a chance!  Do not seek out what is predictable, especially when choosing places to eat, or locations to travel to.  Every state has interesting towns too numerous to see in a lifetime, and most of them have funky places to eat, which may astonish.  Expensive so called "fine dining" can often be a real treat, as well as a costly disappointment.  But when patronizing places where one's expectations are not real high to begin with, having a great experience makes it even better!  It may be the joint down the street you and your friends have made fun of, but have never gone inside!  Get out and live a little - have fun!  My wife and I may be in the next booth, having a great time and enjoying another surprisingly simple, yet great meal.


Carl's Townhouse - Chillicothe, Ohio

Pam & Al's Route 20 Diner - Clyde, Ohio

Wiener King - Mansfield, Ohio

Bon apatite'!



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