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Memorable meals make vacations even better

  • Written by Shannon Michael

It began innocently at the Applebee’s adjacent to the hotel we stayed at just outside of Baltimore in 2002. It wasn’t the restaurant’s fault; it was mine for poor planning.

As a longtime subscriber of Bon Appétit, I enjoyed the articles about terrific restaurants throughout the country and world. I loved making recipes from the monthly R.S.V.P. column and wondered if I’d ever eat at any of the establishments featured in it.

So, why hadn’t I thought to research restaurants to visit as part of my trip planning?

My husband and I were vacationing with our children who were finally old enough for us to explore on a trip, rather than just go visit the grandparents. I had planned our route well, using my in-laws’ home in western New York as our launching point to travel to Cincinnati, over to Baltimore, then up to Philadelphia before returning back to New York.

In my pre-trip planning, I’d booked the rental car and hotels, bought tickets to see the Seattle Mariners play the Orioles in Camden Yards, planned day trips to the Kentucky Horse Park, Ft. McHenry, and Valley Forge. But, I’d never thought to research where to eat out.

Until that fateful evening at Applebee’s. Don’t get me wrong – I like my neighborhood Applebee’s. They are very supportive of many community groups in our area. But, I had an epiphany while eating dinner there that summer night in Maryland: We can eat at an Applebee’s at home. Why are we not eating at a restaurant that we can only visit in Baltimore, Maryland?

No more, I declared to my husband! From now on when traveling we would include memorable meals as part of our traveling experience. He looked concerned about what that could cost us as I declared my epiphany, but in the years since, our family travels have included amazing dining experiences that all of us still talk about to this day.

For our 2004 trip to the East Coast I was prepared! This time our vacation was a circuitous route from western New York to Boston, to Portland, Maine, and back. We packed in places to visit like Plimoth Plantation, the Freedom Trail, and the Portland Head Light. But, we also made sure to include some great places to eat along the way.

Our first memorable meal was in America’s oldest continuously operating restaurant, The Union Oyster House, just a stone’s throw away from Faneuil Hall in the heart of historic Boston. Open since 1826, the ambience oozed history, including the Kennedy Booth, where John F. Kennedy often dined. But, it’s the lobster ravioli in lobster cream with white wine and fresh herbs that brought my daughters and I back to the restaurant when visiting colleges in Boston in April 2010. Six years later, the dinner was just as memorable.

The online reviews of the pies at the Apple Barn & Country Bake Shop in Bennington, Vermont, made a stop there mandatory on our way back to New York. We sat outside at a picnic table eating delicious pie for lunch while taking in the breathtaking view of the Green Mountains.

Our next memorable meals occurred during a trip our daughters’ Girl Scout troop took to Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, in April 2005 to visit the birthplace of Girl Scouts.

In Savannah, two meals in restaurants along historic River Street were added to our favorite memories of our trip: the desserts we ate for lunch at the River Street House Seafood Restaurant and the low country boil served at the Cotton Exchange Seafood Grill & Tavern.
The fudge walnut pie with toasted walnuts on top of a rich, chocolate fudge in a southern-style crust has led me to try many recipe versions I’ve come across in a failed attempt to recreate this exquisite pie – that’s how delicious the pie was at the River Street House. And, yes, pie is a perfectly acceptable lunch entrée. Life is too short to not eat pie for lunch or dinner every once in awhile!

As for the Cotton Exchange’s low country boil – a heavenly scented combination of fresh, succulent shrimp, sausage, corn on the cob and potatoes simmered in Low Country seasonings – this is a prime example of trying local cuisine, where it’s always served better than when exported to other regions of America.

My biggest trip planning endeavor came in 2009 when our family took four weeks to travel by car from our home outside of Seattle to my husband’s hometown in western New York and back. Our trip took us through 21 states and the province of Ontario. We kept meal costs low by staying at hotels offering free breakfasts, and had a cooler for lunches we made ourselves daily. That left 20 nights of dinners to research for the route we’d chosen.

Realistically, we knew there wouldn’t be 20 memorable meals. After some long days on the road, we’d find a restaurant near the highway as we traveled late to that night’s hotel or a restaurant near or in the hotel.

Three restaurants made our list of all-time favorite meals from the trip. The first was in Dearborn, Michigan, where we’d visited The Henry Ford, a must-see museum displaying the bus Rosa Parks rode when she refused to give up her seat, the presidential limo John F. Kennedy was riding in that fateful day in Dallas, and the chair President Lincoln was sitting in at the Ford Theater the night he was shot.

My research discovered southeastern Michigan has the largest concentration of people of Arabic descent in the United States. Having never tried food from this region of the world, I found several websites listing Al-Ameer Restaurant, featuring Lebanese and Middle Eastern cuisine, as the best in Dearborn and the Detroit area.

Once seated, we told our waitress we’d traveled all the way from Seattle to eat there yet had never experienced this type of cuisine before and asked her for recommendations on what to select.

Out came a family-sized bowl of salad, a bottomless supply of freshly baked pita bread, followed by Family Tray #1: a platter about 30 inches by 18 inches heaped with fragrant skewers of lamb, beef and chicken tawook, kabobs, kafta, and shawarma, falafel with house-made hommous, and mounds of rice, and fattoush, a salad of chopped pita bread and vegetables.

To accompany the amazing dinner we drank the Al-Ameer Specialty, a tantalizing combination of fresh strawberries, apple, banana, cantaloupe and pineapple in a large glass mixed with mango juice and topped with raisins, pistachios, honey and ashta, a Lebanese-style clotted cream.

We enjoyed that meal for the next two days as we ate the leftovers for lunch.

On the way home, while visiting a friend in Aurora, Illinois, we were treated to one of the best Italian dinners we’ve ever had at Café Buonaro’s in nearby Naperville, owned by a parishioner at our friend’s church.

My husband and I chose the evening’s special: rotolo enrico, a pinwheel-shaped pasta dish filled with spinach and prosciutto served on a bed of red sauce and topped with a light, creamy white sauce. I begged the owner for the recipe to no avail, then even took the time to submit a request to Bon Appétit’s R.S.V.P. after an exhaustive Internet search could not find any recipe that came close to this Italian masterpiece of a meal.

And, then there was our stop in St. Louis, Missouri, the southernmost point on our journey. Some good southern barbecue was in order, and Pappy’s Smokehouse delivered a big home run with their Memphis-style BBQ accompanied by your sauce of choice: Pappy’s Original, Sweet Baby Jane, and Holly’s Hot Sauce.

How good is the BBQ? The mayor of St. Louis and several players from the St. Louis Cardinals were regulars at the time. Adding to the experience was being able to purchase their BBQ sauces to take home, where we could relish the wonders of Pappy’s after our trip.

Since my epiphany in that Applebee’s in Maryland in 2002, my family thanks me for the meticulous research I’ve done to find restaurants dishing up memorable meals. It’s made each of our vacations more special, and it’s been fun trying to find recipes to replicate some of those meals at home. After all, if a good meal is a journey in itself, shouldn’t it be part of a vacation, too?

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