I hate eating alone while traveling. If I have to do it, I seek out dark corner tables and I make sure I’m armed with a book or a laptop in which to bury my face.
It wasn’t always this way. In fact, I used to like dining alone, beaming confidently at the empty chair across from me while enjoying my food in peaceful silence. But a bad incident at Senor Frog’s in Myrtle Beach changed everything.
I know. Senor Frog’s, the hard-partying place that serves JELL-O shots and fish tacos to tank top-clad tourists in beachy destinations, isn’t exactly Shangri-La for the solo diner. Nevertheless, I was at Broadway at the Beach at the time (a vast Myrtle Beach shopping and entertainment complex), and my options included a Hard Rock Cafe shaped like an enormous Egyptian pyramid and various steakhouses and seafood spots. I’m a vegetarian. And it looked like the 70-foot-tall Hard Rock pyramid might swallow up a lonely unaccompanied traveler. So I took my chances with the frog.
In the same way that T.G.I. Friday’s displays vintage memorabilia and relics of Americana, Senor Frog’s posts smart-mouthed signs declaring “Save water. Drink tequila!” or “We don’t speak English, but we promise not to laugh at your Spanish!”
Sometimes, I noticed, Senor Frog’s staff placed signs next to patrons. As I waited for my nachos to make an appearance, I watched a waiter set up a sign next to a gaggle of giggling teens. It read “Supermodels at play!” with an arrow directing diners’ eyes to the girls.
“How sweet,” I thought. “But you better not put one of those things near me. You. Better. Not.” I sank my face into my novel and tried to blend in with the booth.
A server soon arrived and, with his left hand, slid a plate of cheesy nachos under my chin. In his right hand, he gripped a tall wooden sign, which he positioned next to my booth. “Needs a date,” it read. A fat arrow pointed mockingly to my head.
This is exactly the kind of thing I’ve always secretly feared when dining alone. Sharing a meal with a ghost in a restaurant stuffed with chatty quads and pairs, I’ve envisioned people whispering about me, wondering what happened to my date or whether I was some kind of socially marred loner. In reality, few people care about or even notice solo diners. Of course, there’s usually not a brazen sign broadcasting one’s lack of date.
“Take it away!” I hissed to the waiter. “No sign! Take it away!” The thing went down like a slap, but the damage was done. Thoroughly embarrassed, I choked down one or two triangle chips, signed the check and exited quickly.
Should I have laughed at the sign and taken myself a bit less seriously? Perhaps. But I was pretty embarrassed, and ever since that meal at Senor Frog’s, I’ve dreaded the table for one. How do you feel about dining alone?
— written by Caroline Costello
I have a confession: I can’t stand the taste of Coke.
Fortunately, this character flaw didn’t get me booted out of the World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta when I visited a few weeks ago. (To be fair, I don’t like Pepsi either.) Despite my bias, I didn’t want to miss out on one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions, so I tagged along with a few Coke-loving pals. Part museum, part advertisement, the World of Coca-Cola offers visitors a chance to watch the bottling process, meet the company’s famous polar bear and catch clips of old Coke commercials.
Frankly, I found all the exhibits and films a little hyper-promotional — but one part of the tour I did enjoy was the “Taste It!” exhibit, where you can sample more than 60 different Coca-Cola beverages from around the world. I discovered that I may not like ordinary Coke, but I do like South Africa’s fresh, fruity Bibo Kiwi Mango, as well as Estonia’s berry-flavored Fanta Magic. Of course, there were some duds too; my travel companions and I universally panned Italy’s Beverly drink, with its yucky chemical aftertaste. All told, Coca-Cola offers a staggering 3,500 different beverages worldwide (which gives a whole new meaning to the old slogan “Always Coca-Cola” — you can’t escape the stuff!).
Coke isn’t the only brand that looks a little different when you encounter it overseas. Take McDonald’s. The first thing that springs to mind when I think of the Golden Arches is a hamburger and fries — but as we note in Strange International Foods: Our Top Seven, the restaurant has tailored its menus to fit regional tastes around the globe. Its Indian franchises have replaced the traditional Big Mac with a “Maharaja Mac” made from chicken instead of beef (to accommodate Hindu diners). The “McArabia” is popular in Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, and features either chicken or kofta (spiced beef) wrapped in a pita-style bread.
I’m the type of traveler that generally tries to avoid big-name chains and products when traveling overseas; I’d rather sample local flavors and support homegrown businesses. But maybe there’s something to be said for visiting a familiar place and seeing it through a foreign lens. Maybe sometimes, even when you least expect it, it really is “the real thing.”
– written by Sarah Schlichter
When I pulled into Shelby with a group of other travel writers and tour operators, I had no idea that our arrival was big news — until we wound up on the front page of the local paper. “Focus on Cleveland County: Travel pros visit for a taste of our area,” ran the headline in the Shelby Star the next morning, complete with full-color photos.
We may have been the news of the day, but this little town in western North Carolina will soon be making its own headlines. It’s the future home of the Earl Scruggs Center, which will feature “music and stories of the Carolina Foothills” — including, of course, plenty of information on Scruggs himself, an internationally recognized banjo player and bluegrass musician who hailed from the Shelby area. (Among the exhibits will be banjos and other instruments played by Scruggs and his contemporaries.) The museum is scheduled to open in early 2012.
Not into bluegrass? Scruggs is only one of Shelby’s claims to fame. Come to town in the fall and you could catch the annual Liver Mush Expo, celebrating one of the region’s culinary delicacies. Pig liver and other parts (including the snout) are combined with cornmeal to create a liver mush loaf, which is sliced, fried and served in a variety of ways. I tried it on bread with jelly, and then with cheese and eggs — and can affirm that it tastes better than it looks! (The flavor is a bit of a cross between sausage and scrapple.) You can sample this “poor man’s pate” all year round at the friendly Shelby Cafe.
Save some time for strolling around downtown, or rather Uptown (a moniker deliberately chosen because it was more cheerful). Shelby boasts three main historic districts as well as a bevy of cute little boutiques and specialty shops. I stopped in the Cleveland Country Arts Council building, where a pottery show and sale was running, and boggled at the low prices for beautiful, locally made art. Also worth a visit is the Don Gibson Theatre, a restored Art Deco venue that hosts musicians, films and comedy acts.
North Carolina may not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of wine, but the number of wineries in the state has more than quadrupled in the last 10 years — and the Shelby area is getting in on the action. It’s easy to drive a loop around the region’s three wineries: Baker Buffalo Creek Vineyard & Winery, Owl’s Eye Vineyard and WoodMill Winery. Be sure to sample a few muscadine wines, which are local to the Southeast and offer high levels of healthy antioxidants (about 20 times as much as a Merlot).
If you’ve got kids in tow, make time for a stop at the Shelby City Park, with its historic 1920’s “carrousel” and miniature train. It’s just 50 cents each for a ride.
– written by Sarah Schlichter
It was 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning, and a 45-minute wait stood between me and my breakfast.
I was at Snooze, a celebrated Denver breakfast spot with five locations in the Mile-High City. Snooze is known for its cheeky out-of-the-box dishes, like red velvet pancakes, breakfast pot pie and breakfast tacos. But the eatery’s also notorious for its very long lines.
I thought I was clever to show up at 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning, but one has to wake up pretty early in the morning to outsmart Snooze’s hungry mobs. There was a throng of mostly 20-somethings, cups of coffee in hand, spilling out the door and onto the sidewalk. The hostess informed me that I would be seated in 30 to 45 minutes. Wisely, Snooze serves free coffee to waiting patrons, and breakfast cocktails are available at the bar.
I grabbed some coffee and loitered for the better part of an hour, poring over skiing magazines on a heated porch while my companion slurped a Bloody Mary. Despite cold hands and a rumbling stomach, the wait was worth it. I ordered the Benedicto Tuscano, a hunk of French bread topped with a ragout of tomatoes, white beans, kale and squash; two poached eggs; cream cheese hollandaise sauce; and shaved parmesan. Our waiter brought us a cinnamon pancake with pecan butter on the house. I would have waited twice as long.
I had discovered Snooze on TripAdvisor. As of this posting, Snooze is ranked 11th of restaurants in Denver, and dozens of reviews mention the eatery’s discouraging wait time and crowds. But the restaurant’s reputation as a perpetually packed house is what attracted me.
In Finding the Best Restaurants on the Road, travel expert Ed Hewitt writes, “It may be counterintuitive, but in some cases it pays to follow the crowds — if perhaps not the tourist crowds. If you find a busy restaurant, chances are good that it is busy for a good reason. … At the very least, your meals will likely be fresh, as high volume usually means food does not sit long.”
A line that curls around the block may look daunting, but it’s a sure sign of a crowd-pleasing culinary treasure. If you can’t stand to stand around for a spell, eyeball the hours posted on the restaurant’s door, and arrive right when the place opens. If the restaurant serves dinner and lunch, show up at 3 p.m. for a snack. Don’t flee from the crowds — follow ‘em and then come back at a better time.
How long would you wait for a table at a sought-after restaurant?
–Written by Caroline Costello
Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Group, an operating company of Expedia, Inc.
Last week I shared the worst meal I’ve ever had while traveling: a cast-iron skillet filled with a seething potato mass and rapier-sharp fish skeleton, accompanied by a noxious yuck-berry soda administered only to keep from choking. Here’s the best meal I’ve ever had:
It was 1999, and we were on the dusty road from Cordoba to Granada, heading for the Alhambra, a 14th-century Moorish stronghold that’s an endless showcase of pools and patterns (mesmerizing arabesques). My father, brother (who was studying at the University of Cordoba) and I were in a rented Peugeot five-speed, flying past olive and grape vineyards, when the rumble of three stomachs jolted the little auto. As is the norm when driving through the southern part of Spain, we pulled over at the first cafe we saw.
It wasn’t a complicated place — red and white checkered tablecloths — and it was nearly empty. “Que quieren?” the waiter asked.
“Puedo tener una plata con queso y otras cosas,” I said, blushing, in mangled Spanish. What we got was an antipasto plate filled with Manchego cheese (kudos to the La Mancha goat, who lives a couple hundred miles north of where we were), olives from the nearby vineyards, roasted red peppers and little slices of piquant chorizo. In between swallows, we drank wine made from the vineyard connected to the cafe. The combination of Spanish cheese, wine and sausage can often prove too much to take for excitable Americans, and sure enough, someone tipped over the wine carafe. The waiter mopped up the red and brought us another. What a waste. I would have slurped it up off the floor.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever had on the road?
– written by Dan Askin
I once examined a meal on the road as a scientist would an alien life form: with extreme care, a sense of awe and absolutely no intention of consuming it.
The setting was Moscow, 1997. Outside, old women who’d lost their pensions hawked cigarettes amid the Soviet gray of sky and concrete. We were in a “three-star” hotel dining room in a dingy, slightly bug-ridden hotel. Was there a menu? No, just a cast-iron skillet filled with lumpy white plasma.
The first taste was reminiscent of potatoes. A gooey, glue-like consistency left the food sticking to the roof of my mouth. With each bite, my oxygen intake was further diminished. (Was this an espionage tool to asphyxiate foreign dignitaries during State dinners?) The beverage to wash it down was a steaming carbonated liquid with an unidentifiable berry-like fruit on the label. The berry seemed to be glowing. Birds, which we all know can eat things humans can’t, were swarming the berry bush.
Thirteen years later, the acid-aftertaste still clings to the back of my tongue.
After a few bites, I could no longer swallow. So I explored with my fork, scalpeling through the membranous top layer and delicately separating glob from chunk. The consistency was creamy in places, milky in others. After some careful rooting, I exhumed … a fish skeleton. The whole thing struck me as a morbid version of the Kinder egg sold at the nearby souvenir kiosks. But instead of a plastic toy inside a chocolate egg, I got a rotting fish skeleton inside a noxious blob of potato-matter.
This was in the early days of digital photography, so no one thought to use their 35 mm or disposables on a food shot. Hopefully the prose picture was enough.
I’ve vomited up mine, so now it’s your turn: What’s the worst meal you’ve ever had while traveling?
– written by Dan Askin
Egg nog at a holiday party … Grandmom’s homemade sugar cookies … those can’t-eat-just-one gift chocolates from a client at work … is it any wonder December is the hardest time of year to stick to a diet?
For travelers trying to count calories on the road, it can be even more difficult — especially since most food served on airplanes is salty and fattening (and it often tastes lousy, to boot). However, there are some healthy options out there for air travelers who are watching their waistlines.
DietDetective.com recently released its annual airline food survey to spotlight the most — and least — nutritious menu items on a variety of U.S. carriers. The survey included both small snacks and meals, whether given out free or available for purchase.
According to the survey, United and JetBlue top the list for the healthiest choices. United earns kudos for its Lite snack box; featuring lemon pepper tuna, pita chips, chocolate-covered pretzels and unsweetened apple sauce, it adds up to just 430 calories (the equivalent of 112 minutes of walking). DietDetective.com also likes JetBlue’s 484-calorie Shape Up meal box, with its nutritious combo of hummus, pita chips, almonds and raisins.
Weighing down the bottom end of the scale is US Airways, for its “poor overall choices and not much variety.” If you’re traveling on a morning flight, for example, you’re better off packing your own breakfast than buying the French toast sandwich box (a diet-busting 705 calories).
For more help maintaining a healthy lifestyle on the road, see Eating Well and Staying Active.
–written by Sarah Schlichter
Airline meals have a well-deserved reputation for being mediocre and bland (that is, of course, when the airlines bother to feed us at all). But instead of blaming high altitude, dry air or cheap ingredients, researchers are now offering a new explanation for why that rubbery chicken on your transatlantic flight is so lousy: engine noise.
A recent study conducted by Unilever and the University of Manchester shows that the more background noise you hear while you’re eating, the less able you are to distinguish salty or sweet flavors, reports ABC News. In the study, participants were blindfolded and asked to eat various foods while listening to different levels of white noise (or no noise at all). Participants who heard higher volumes of noise noticed less intense sweet and salty flavors, and were more sensitive to how crunchy their food was.
According to the researchers, it’s not just the volume of noise that matters but also your feelings about it. If you like the sounds you’re hearing, even if they’re loud (such as music and chatter in a trendy restaurant), you’re more likely to enjoy your meal. But in the air, the constant noisy whine of the plane’s engines could make your dinner significantly less palatable. Add to that the fact that airline food rarely looks all that appetizing either, and it’s no wonder most of us are scowling into our trays.
So what’s an air traveler to do? Andy Woods, one of the researchers who contributed to the study, recommends wearing noise-canceling headphones as a way to overcome the effects of engine noise. Bon appetit!
–written by Sarah Schlichter
It’s official: we’re blogging! Welcome to “Have Tips, Will Travel,” where we’ll bring you quick takes on travel news, need-to-know info for travelers, and discussions on travel-related controversies and issues of the day (click here to read more about our new blog). Let’s get started.
On IndependentTraveler.com, we have travel deals, trip planning ideas, community forums and packing tips galore. But did you know we answer travel questions as well?
Our readers can send their burning questions to travel wizard (and Editor) Sarah Schlichter at firstname.lastname@example.org. While we’ve been asked about everything from passports to pet travel, the most popular questions we’ve received, by far, are about which foods can be carried through airport security. Ever since the TSA declared that all carry-on liquids and gels must be in 3.4-ounce containers within a single clear, quart-sized zip-top bag, countless readers have been e-mailing us to ask what kinds of foods they can bring on a plane. Is tuna salad a “gel”? (It’s close enough that it could be confiscated.) What about a mushy banana or a slice of cheesecake? (Probably ok.) Here’s a question we received last fall:
“I’d like to take Thanksgiving dinner to my son. I thought I would take cooked turkey, mashed potatoes and stuffing, but a friend said I probably can’t take it on the plane. Please let me know.”
These kinds of questions make us hungry for lunch. They also make us chuckle at the bizarre issues that come up in trip planning. Here’s Sarah’s answer:
“Thanks for writing to IndependentTraveler.com. You’d probably be okay to bring the turkey and stuffing, since those are both solid, but because the mashed potatoes are a gel-like substance, they would be subject to the 3-1-1 rules. That means you could only bring 3.4 ounces or less, and the container would have to fit inside a quart-size plastic bag. I’m sure your son will appreciate two out of three!”
Did our reader bring her son a zip-top bag filled with tiny containers of mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and gravy? We’ll never know. But we do hope that her Thanksgiving bounty wasn’t confiscated by some hungry TSA agent. After all, checkpoint clearance is always subject to the discretion of individual TSA agents, and the TSA’s lists of approved items are not set in stone.
Those of you struggling with similar questions should take a look at the TSA Helpful Hints for Holiday Travelers page, which has a list of foods that can be taken on a plane. Or you can post your travel questions or comments below — we’ll be happy to answer!