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Forks on the Road

The Laws of Road Trip Dining

by Bryan Miller

The peak vacation season is upon us, as is apparent by the number of packed SUVs on the highway with children waving and mugging at other drivers. (Gas prices be damned!) Anyone who has partaken in this annual ritual knows that it usually isn't long—15 minutes to an hour, depending on the age of the kids and the music on the radio—before the initial glee of escape dissolves into the grumbles of hunger, and the frightful question must be addressed: Where do we eat?

We are never so vulnerable, gastronomically speaking, as when we are on the road during vacation. The highway is replete with culinary land mines that carry such reassuring names as Millie's, Pop's and Capt'n Dick's. Around every corner lurk greasy fishermen's platters that give children nightmares, Naugahyde minute steaks that put tofu burgers in a favorable light, and endless fast-food indigestion huts.

The smugness we feel when we see visitors to our own towns wander into the most outrageously priced restaurant—the one that specializes in gray slabs of meat substance and changes owners every three months—turns to horror as we contemplate falling prey ourselves.

These circumstances leave one pretty much to fend for oneself. Seasoned travelers usually compile over time their own rules for judging restaurants. The late Fernard Point, the renowned chef and legendary trencherman of Pyramide in Vienne, France, used to go into a restaurant's kitchen before dining to shake the chef's hand. If the chef was thin, he had second thoughts about eating there; if he were thin and sad, chef Point declared, the only hope was in flight.

I have assembled my own strategy, which will soon be retested in the battlefield.

The Law of Velocity: Bad food eaten at 60 miles per hour tastes better than bad food eaten at the establishment at which it was made. This is a variant on the "Hot dogs taste better at the ball park" axiom. If you fall prey to a substandard restaurant, ask the waitress for doggie bags so you can eat in the car.

The Pepper-Mill Law: Well known by now but worth repeating. The disparity between a restaurant's price and good quality rises in direct proportion to the size of the pepper mill. Here is a technique for averting this pitfall: Enter the restaurant and discreetly inquire of the manager or maître d'hôtel if you might take a look at the dining room pepper mills (do so in a jocular, off-handed manner to avoid suspicion, perhaps mentioning that you have a collection of unusual pepper mills from around the world and would like to see what they have). If it is a utilitarian instrument no larger than your fist, it is safe to eat there. If, however, it resembles a deftly turned Louisville Slugger, inform the manager that you think you have left your car keys on the dash and take leave.

Fusion Law: Dine at your own risk at establishments that advertise such transnational collisions as "Chinese Greek," "Italian Lebanese," and "Indian Sushi."

Barnyard Law: You will never go hungry in a restaurant that has a huge plastic barnyard animal out front or on the roof. Waitresses are generally pleasant and the milk has a frothy head.

Generosity Law: At a rest stop let kids eat all of the ice cream and junk food they want and more. Chances are this will keep them quiet in the back seat for about 50 miles.

Sucrose Laws: Never eat in Pennsylvania Dutch country. Especially shoe-fly pie, which is like pouring a box of sugar down your gullet.

Dishwasher Law: Contrary to popular notion, truck drivers know very little about good eating spots—most of the time they are asleep when eating. If you want a reliable tip, call the nearest commercial appliance store and ask for the dishwasher repair man. He spends a lot of time in restaurant kitchens and usually has strong first-hand opinions.

Chinese Law: Never eat Chinese food in Oklahoma.

The Law of Volubility: Your chances of getting a disappointing platter consisting of mostly potato chips, pickle wedges and shredded iceberg lettuce is greatest in restaurants featuring: (A) a long, poignant story on the menu describing how the restaurant's name came about; (B) cute names for mundane dishes, like "Davey Jones' Platter," and excessive macramé in the dining room.

Local Color Law: If time permits, scan local weekly newspapers for barbecues, church suppers and fundraisers for the Daughters of the American Revolution. The price will be right for a family meal, and while the food may not be three-star, it will be copious, and you won't have to leave a tip.

Colonel Sanders Law: Let the kids eat all of the fried food they want; this will keep them quiet for more than 60 miles.

Survival Law: Never eat at a place called Mom's. Ever.

Former New York Times restaurant critic, food writer and cookbook author Bryan Miller (Cooking for Dummies, Desserts for Dummies), is a prominent authority in American gastronomic literature.

(Updated: 09/13/10 NW)

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