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Eating localEating local

Fine dining on the fly

The best Italian food in the country is found, unexpectedly, in Holbrook, Arizona; but if you’re in the mood for alligator, chart a course for Liberal, Kansas. Craving a crème de menthe dessert crêpe? There’s this little basement place on the hill in downtown Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Eating Local
Photography by Chris Rose

How do I know all of this?
The sad truth is that the vast majority of airports in the country don’t even have a vending machine, much less an airport café, so the cross-country pilot who needs to refuel more than the airplane must look beyond the airport boundary fence to survive. But how do you navigate to the best local eateries on the fly?

Luckily for you, it just so happens that I know a thing or two about this subject. During my first season flying with the Sport Air Racing League, I traversed 17,748 miles in my Ercoupe, Race 53, traveling at a speed a little better than that of a Volkswagen Bug. Needless to say, there were a lot of meal stops, and I learned how to find where to eat—and where not to. I’m fully qualified to be your CMI: certified meal instructor.

Buckle up. Let’s go.

Scoping it out
Sometimes it’s easy to find the right person to ask about local eateries. The friendly ol’ geezer at the terminal, the sharply dressed woman behind the counter of the FBO, or the over-fed lineman manning the fuel truck can always be counted on, but it isn’t always so simple. At Miami, Oklahoma, for instance (one of 11 Miamis in the United States, of which five have airports), the friendly woman behind the desk won’t tell you for love nor money where you should eat in town. She works for the city government, and the city refuses to play favorites.

In a case like this, you need to find another pilot (look for open hangar doors) or an on-field mechanic. The downside of this approach, however, is that you risk being dragged into a never-ending conversation that will eat up all the daylight and leave you with no time to eat.

But more important than who you ask on the field is how you ask.

Call it the last bastion of customer service, but the first response to, “What’s the best place to eat around here?” is often “What do you like to eat?” or “What are you in the mood for?” Now you’ve gone and done it. Try as you may, you’ll never get the conversation out of the hole you just dug. The person you’re interrogating is now focused on pleasing you, instead of thinking about what’s best locally.

Instead of asking where to eat, I’ve found it works better to start with a more general question like, “Say, what kind of food are you folks known for around here?” Unless they say, “Haggis,” it can lead into you smoothly asking, “Well, where’s the best place I can try that out?”

Of course, sometimes the locals don’t recommend local.

Chain traps and other pitfalls
I want to scream. It’s the third day in a row the airport manager (at three different airports) has recommended Applebee’s as the best place in town to eat.

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against Applebee’s. I like Applebee’s. But we have one back home. When traveling, I like to try out something different. Local eateries also showcase local art, local culture, and give you a chance to observe and sometimes engage with the locals themselves—while chain restaurants tend to be populated by passers-through. And, yes, I appreciate the fact that I’m a passer-through, too, but I’m a social anthropologist at heart.

It took me a long time to understand that really small towns take great pride in being important enough to “rate” a national chain—and of course, it’s important not to insult your hosts. The best face-saving move? If it’s end of the day and I’m looking for a dinner joint, I just say, “Oh, I ate at Applebee’s for lunch.” If it’s noon, I say I ate there last night. “What else you got here?”

Now, some of my more tech-savvy peers are quick to pull out their smartphones and ask Siri or Google for the best-rated local restaurants. But there are several problems, the first of which is that Siri is a drinker. Or at least mine is. She often navigates me via Scooby Doo back roads to vacant lots. More important, however, is the lack of tech adoption in many small towns. If you look closely, a top-rated restaurant in a place like, say, Oxshoe, may have gotten its five-star rating based on the fact it has only one review. From the owner’s mother.

Another pitfall is small-town politics. People in small towns have long memories. My wife comes from a small town. One time she told me, “You can’t trust those Martinezes, they’re nothing but trouble.” I dug deeper only to learn that my wife’s family firmly believed that the Martinez patriarch stole one of great grandpa Delgado’s goats in 1821.

OK, so it wasn’t quite the Hatfields and the McCoys, but you get the idea. The important point to remember is that the best place to eat in any town will always be boycotted by someone. Generally, this manifests itself by a lack of recommendation but sometimes, when ill feelings run deep, you might be advised to eat “anywhere but ________.” If you get that gem, odds are the place you’ve been told to avoid is splendid, despite the owners’ goat-stealing pedigree.

The parking lot test
Of course, sometimes there’s no one to ask. For example, there’s no one to ask at the Lampasas, Texas, airport (LZZ), because no one is ever there. A box on the wall has keys to the courtesy car. It’s the honor system.

The solution for cases like these? I call it the parking lot test.

When I was a kid, flying along in a Chevrolet Vista Cruiser, my father taught me how to recognize the best place to eat when no other intelligence was available: Look for the truck stop with the most 18-wheelers clustered around it. I use a similar system to determine restaurant popularity when I can’t gather any other intel.

The reverse corollary of this is that empty parking lots are bad news, no matter how highly recommended the eatery is. And if the parking lot across the street from the place the mechanic on the field recommended is overflowing, you might want to consider amending your flight plan.

Of course, if you’re down for the day, you might assume you could inquire at the inn. But you’d be wrong.

The first response to, “What’s the best place to eat around here?” is often “What are you in the mood for?” Now you’ve gone and done it. Try as you may, you’ll never get the conversation out of the hole you just dug.Beware hotel night clerks
At a forlorn town in western Nebraska I’m down for the night. I taxi in two minutes before the airport manager’s shift ends. As I step onto the wing, he hands me the keys to the courtesy car, locks up the terminal like Fort Knox, and disappears over the horizon in a cloud of dust. I take a seat in an oversized wood western chair on the covered porch that faces the ramp and, serenaded by the musical pings of tings of my airplane’s cooling engine, watch the sunset. I pull out my phone—thank God I have one bar—navigate to Expedia, and find the cheapest non-scary-sounding hotel. I’ll ask the hotel clerk for the best local dinner spot.

Eating LocalOr so I think.

At the motel, when I ask the clerk—who had a hard time dragging herself away from her cellphone to check me in—where the best place to eat is, she tells me, “I’m not from around here, I’m from Alaska.”

And people from Alaska don’t eat? I nearly ask, but I bite my tongue. I know I’m in a foul mood. It’s been a long, bumpy day, and my little Ercoupe has a wing loading only slightly better than an ultralight.

This isn’t the first failure I’ve had with hotel clerks and meal recommendations. Putting aside the young night clerk who exclusively ate at fast food joints, I recently discovered another pitfall of polling hotel employees for restaurant recommendations: The system is rigged.

Not long ago I found myself standing in the lobby of a major hotel chain. Something looked suspiciously familiar about the nicely typed, but too-many-times photocopied list of recommended local restaurants. I dug around my flight bag and found a wrinkled, folded, wine- and coffee-stained photocopy from a different hotel in the same chain from two nights and 1,600 miles ago. It was the same list. This wasn’t a list of local favorites. It was a paid sponsor list. Rather than an inventory of the best food in town, it was a kickback registry.

So take hotel recommendations with a shaker of salt.

Finding the recommended restaurant
“Ya’ head in-ter’ town an’ turn right afta ta third stop sign bye’ond the Tex-A-co. Then ya’ goes ‘cross them railroad tracks an’ turns left. In a coupler of blocks, before ya’ gets to da city park, turns left ah-gan. It’ll be a little ways up on yar right. Ya’ cain’t miss it.”

My mother taught me to always be polite. So I smile, and say, “Got it.”

As we climb into the crew car to leave the airport, my teenage son and co-pilot says, “Clearance from Kennedy would be simpler. Did you really get it?”

“No,” I tell him, “but the place is called Mom’s Diner. How hard could it be to find?” I hold down the button on my iPhone and say, “Siri, directions to Mom’s.”

She proceeds to give me driving directions to my mother’s house in New Mexico. 1,405.2 miles away. With current traffic it will take us 20 hours and 28 minutes to drive there for lunch. Mother will be thrilled, but maybe we should have tied down the airplane.

Still, my advice is not to ask for directions from locals when you’re a stranger in a strange land, but instead make triple sureyou know how to spell the name of the restaurant you’re headed for, and let technology get you there. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of spelling, because I promise you if you are trying to find Konnie’s Café, there will most certainly be a Connie’s Café in the next county over.

Eating LocalNavigating the menu
Now that you’ve finally found the best place to eat in town, how do you decide what to order?

Chances are, the person bringing you your food is a good resource for valuable advice and counsel on the menu choices. I’ve found that most servers are quick to share both their personal favorite menu items as well as the most popular items. Even when the advice of a waitress or waiter doesn’t sound as appetizing as something else I spied on the menu, I’ve never been disappointed by taking table-side advice.

Another option is to make your way through the restaurant to the bathroom, by the longest and most serpentine route possible, so that you can spy on other diners and see what looks good. I find that if I affect a limp I can get away with walking slower.

Or you can always order the special. But regardless, now that you’ve closed your flight plan to a local eatery, you can be assured that your meal will trump the airport vending machine. If there is one.

Bon appétit.

William E. Dubois is an aviation writer, world speed record holder, and two-time National Champion air racer. He teaches Rusty Pilots seminars for AOPA and blogs his personal flying adventures at PlaneTales.net

William E. Dubois

William E. Dubois is an aviation writer who holds a commercial pilot certificate with instrument rating, and advanced and instrument ground instructor certificates.

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