Our love of chain restaurants, pt. 2.
After the massive disappointment of Western Sizzlin, we renewed our faith in non-fast-food chain restaurants with trips to Waffle House and Cracker Barrel. Actually, regarding the Waffle House, it might be more accurate to say that I restored my soul while Elana politely went along with me. If you’re from the north or the west, you may not understand this.
The thing about Waffle House is not that the food is great, but that it is so consistently good. That is a very hard thing to pull off. Every Waffle House I’ve ever been to, and I’ve been frequenting them for about 20 years, has served exactly the same margarine-soaked diner melange as every other Waffle House. Despite the fact that WaHo food is actually prepared by a team of short order cooks, it’s more consistent across 1500 restaurants in 25 states than either McDonald’s, which serves its food hot from the microwave, or Subway, which is JUST SOME GUY MAKING YOU A SANDWICH, MAN.
Cracker Barrel is a little more expensive than Waffle House, and you can buy weird gifts and Charleston Chews in the lobby, but it’s also basically diner food, albeit with “country-sounding” names for things, like Gran’-Pappy’s Biscuit-n-Lard Platter and The Hungry Klansman‘s Dinner. I may have made those up. But the fact remains that everyone I see in the Cracker Barrel looks suburban and middle class, and every last guy in the Waffle House looks like he’d be comfortable skinning a buck and running a trot-line. So.
Some local delights.
We would have liked to sample more of these, but we often got into the towns we visited quite late. Still, a few shouts out to places we liked….
Mike and Rhonda’s “The Place” in Flagstaff does fantastic cat’s-head biscuits — like fluffy, crumbly soccer balls, they are — and their ham seems to be real, honest-to-God ham, sort of smoky, sort of gamey. Also, I have never in my life seen waitresses with more hustle. I left something like a 35% tip. (Strangely, a few jackmongers on Yelp have claimed that the food here is actually bad. But they are wrong. So wrong.)
Flying Fish is on the highly gentrified President Clinton Avenue in what I assume is downtown Little Rock. But if you can clamber over the yuppies, I absolutely recommend the fried oysters, made “snappy” with some cayenne in the batter. Members of staff are fairly unfriendly, but they know what one thing they’re doing (namely, battering and deep-frying you some sort of water mollusk), and they do it very, very well. Bonus: after dinner, you can walk down to the shore and go up on one of the seven bridges over the Arkansas River. If this were L.A., a well-lit bridge with comfortable benches would be a haven for junkies and homeless hippies, but in Little Rock it’s a just a charming, scenic place to take your date.
Finally, some dear old friends in D.C. treated us to Rockville, MD’s finest Chinese cuisine, ordered in from The Seven Seas. There’s a mango beef dish that alternates nicely between desiccated, lightly fried meat and tart jolts of fruit, and the soups are many and wondrous. Even something as basic as wonton is made a little special by the addition of watercress.
Some thoughts on mid-price hotels.
Mid-price hotels are crap.
Here’s the thing — when you check into a $35-a-night Knight’s Inn, neither you nor the proprietor is pretending this hotel is anything special. They know, and you know, that you chose this hotel because it was the cheapest one available on Orbitz. If there had been a $17-a-night hotel, you would have chosen that one. So the internet may not work, and the “continental breakfast” may consist of three sad danishes and a gallon of vitamin-free citrus punch, but the price you pay ahead of time on the internet is a flat fee, and nobody tries to ply your feelings of middle-class inadequacy to get a few more bucks out of you, because they know perfectly well that there are no more bucks to be had.
On the other end of the scale, when you stay at a 5-star hotel, you’re paying hundreds or thousands of dollars a night, but the good news is that the price of everything else is practically invisible. A 5-star hotel would never do something as tacky as put a bottle of water in the room with a label telling you it’s $5.00 if you open it. They’d give you bottled water, of course, and they’d charge you for it, but the charge would be hidden from view. There’s no sense, in a top-flight hotel, that you are constantly dickering with the management over the little things.
But a mid-price hotel like the Hyatt Regency Bethesda (a minor indulgence for our last night on the road) is basically a money-making scam that rests on its guests’ sense that they don’t really belong in a nice place.
Things are elegant on the surface — the layout of the room is nicer and more humanizing than you’d find in a comparably-sized room at a cheap hotel; the linens are higher thread-count; there’s a small writing desk. And just like the 5-star hotels, they’d like to sell you all the little indulgences. But of course, since you’re only paying $80/night, they can’t assume that you’ll simply wave your hand at any and all costs. So you find yourself constantly nickel-and-dimed with little fees — $12 for parking; $9.95 for internet; $4 for coffee.
It’s not the money that really bugs me about this; the hotel can charge whatever it wants. But in a hotel where the wallpaper is peeling at the seams and the writing has rubbed off the buttons in the elevator and the room service menu misspells the word “delivery,” you don’t expect every little service or comfort to be a test of whether you’re good enough and rich enough. If you want to be that kind of hotel, man, just be upfront about it and tack everything onto the bill without asking. Don’t make middle-class people feel small because they don’t want to pay a la carte for things they could have gotten for free at a hotel that charges half as much.
Our gay, lesbian, bi, and transgendered brothers and sisters organized a march on Washington, D.C. this past weekend. Good for them. I hope they get everything they want.
My wife and I didn’t know didn’t know about the march — we just decided to swing through town to catch up with my best buddy from high school and maybe see the Mall and the White House. Well, the White House was mostly obscured by a giant tent for some reason (maybe they’re fumigating?), and the Mall was full of college kids showing off their Homes of the Future at the Solar Decathlon, but at the other end, the Capitol end, a crowd of maybe 150 diehards politely applauded speakers so low on the LGBT totem pole that they were scheduled for 5 pm on Sunday. The speakers thundered and railed and demanded action from Congress. They were very impressive. We continued on to the Metro station.
Between the Capitol dome and Union Station, there’s a monument you could almost miss entirely walking by were it not for this fairly disturbing statue of cranes trapped in a tangle of barbed wire:
Closer inspection revealed that it was the National Japanese American Memorial To Patriotism During World War II, which both celebrates the heroism of Japanese-American soldiers in units like the 442nd Infantry and apologizes for the dreadful mistake of sending people to concentration camps for potential disloyalty.
There are many fine things about this memorial, but the thing I liked best was the long, cylindrical bell at the northeast end of the monument. You ring it by means of a somewhat complicated mechanism involving a plunger. It rings, then reverberates for quite a long time. You can’t ring the bell again until the reverberations have died away, but it feels rude and wrong to walk away before that. So you stand there and you ponder what the gradually fading sound of a bell rung once might have to do with the effects of a single act of evil, or heroism, over the course of history.
And while you stand there, some moron wearing a rainbow flag for a cape wanders by with his friends, singing and giggling and wondering aloud what the hell this memorial is all about. He stares for a minute at the monument, not really taking it in, and then he scampers off up Louisiana Avenue. And that seems to be America’s history in a nutshell — serious men and women thinking deeply about our great ideals and how we can serve them better, and ignorant numbnuts in costumes storming the capital. It’s a grand and and weird and terrible country we live in.