Meadowlark restaurant, Dayton Ohio

Meadowlark Restaurant is located on the outskirts of Dayton Ohio, pretty much in its suburbs… and is so impressively good that it’s almost worth the trip. And because it is in a relatively small city the prices are utterly reasonable; were it in places like Chicago or New York they could charge double or triple what they can in a town like Dayton.

(Barely took any photos while here, sorry)

This place ROCKS…and I’m not the only one who thinks so; pretty much ever one of the customer driven review sites gives this place between 4 or 5 stars. Appetizers are around $6-8 each and mains were around $20-$30, so for what it is, amazingly affordable. It is a farm-to-table chef-driven restaurant, i.e., fresh ingredients picked at the height of ripeness at nearby farms, cooked by an honest to goodness chef… I am sorry to say that I forgot to take photos of our appetizers.

I ordered a watermelon Gazpacho with peanuts, mint and a Fried Pork rinds garnish (which I asked them to NOT include) that was good enough that my travel buddy enjoyed it even though he is NO fan of watermelon… While my friend ordered the Shishito Pepper Hushpuppies with pimento cheese (which were deep-fried so not allowed on my diet) which he said were AMAZING… although not quite as good as my soup

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For Dinner I ordered blackened catfish with sweet corn butter and “hambalya” which was really really good (I had recently passed my liver blood test with flying colors, and was expanding my diet a bit to include fish dishes cooked as the chef intended… but still steering clear of anything fried.

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My friend, who is vegetarian, had the Ricotta&Goat cheese Tacos with Green Chiles in fresh corn Tortillas, topped with Capers and Spicy Tomatoes and served with a dressed cabbage and radish counterpart along with Lemon-scallion rice and creamy, smoky pinto beans ($22), which he also said was more than worth the price — he is not one for pricy restaurants.

For dessert we ordered the Homemade Pecan Pie Ice Cream with pie crust crumbles, which was as good as it sounds.

Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket, Willowbrook IL

Located on Historic Route 66 adjacent to I-55 in Willowbrook, IL, Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket opened in the late 1920’s as a lunch counter in gas station.

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As the story goes, in 1938 two women who ran a chicken farm overheard the owner, Ervin ‘Irv’ Kolarik, complaining about how much he hated running the gas station part of business and wished he could just run the food counter. They promised to share their secret chicken recipe with him on condition he bought his chicken from them. The chicken was so popular that by the mid 40’s it was clear he needed a bigger place and in 1946 he opened a restaurant adjacent to the gas station.

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One of the cute things that happened was it was the birthday of one of the customers and the whole staff came out to sing her happy birthday, only they clucked the words … as in made chicken noises instead of singing the words

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This is one of those places that has been a chicago are institution but I have never been because this is not a part of town I’d normally go to. As such, the odds of me being here again were equally low, so I had to try their specialty, the fried chicken. That said… The chicken was very good… but I’ve had better … the fried chicken at Disneyland’s Plaza Inn was in fact MUCH better. So I’m not in fact sure it was worth the damage to my diet (and in fact when I got back to Chicago I failed my blood test… my liver numbers had jumped again).

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My waitress was an obese middle-aged woman with the smile planted firmly on her face who was scurrying around the place checking on everyone regularly, Really friendly and asking all the right questions without being overly in your face about it…all while limping really badly with a sort of waddling walk. At the end of the meal I asked her what was wrong with her leg and she said it wasn’t her leg it was her back and by the end of the day she was in a lot of back pain. To which I exclaimed, “And you waitress?!!!” That woman deserves a reward… I gave her a $20 tip on my $18 bill.

Clanton’s Cafe, Vinita, OK

Clanton’s cafe on Route 66 in Vinita was one of the places I had marked as MUST try their foods… and I even planned my day to arrive there around dinner time… only to find it was closed!

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Clanton’s was one of the restaurants along the trek I was really looking forward to trying. This place has no shortage of accolades from TV and magazines, not to mention getting almost 5 stars on TripAdvisor and 4 on yelp. AND they’re supposed to have the best Chicken Fried Steak on Route 66, which is one of my favorite dishes

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But MY good luck, between me planning my trip and arriving there, they’d posted NEW hours which include being closed on Sundays. So

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The Big Texan Steak Ranch & Brewery; Amarillo Texas

Falling into my “big things” category, but not for the usual reasons…. This restaurant is sort of famous in the US (really, how many restaurants that aren’t major chains warrant a Wikipedia page?), not because the food is so amazing — it’s good, but I wasn’t deeply impressed (and even sent back the first dish)… but more for being an impressive tourist trap. In the vein of “everything is bigger in Texas” this place challenges the consumer to snarf down a HUGE 72 oz steak, a bread roll with butter, a side salad, and a fried shrimp appetizer in under an hour.

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IF the customer can, then the meal is free, if they can’t, it costs $72 (the other large steaks cost slightly over $1 an oz, so still a discount); and the challenge comes with a very specific set of rules.

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This is what a 72oz slab of steak looks like

As this was the question asked most by my Facebook friends…. According to the Wikipedia page: The challenge began in 1960 and “as of February 2018, over 9,500 people out of about 62,000 have accomplished this feat”… so in about 58 years, about 1,070 people try a year…

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That’s me, eating the steak

According to the manager I spoke with, HE said they average about 35 challenges a week — which sort of jives with my math (20 people a week) if you figure it took some time for the word to spread and with the number of people stepping forth to try it escalating over time.

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Note the date: this article is from 2007, so if true, 1,500 have done it in the last 10+ years

That said the restaurant has evolved over the years from just being a restaurant to being a “road side attraction”… aka tourist trap

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It property comes complete with its own Motel (and sufficient parking for Trucks and RV’s)IMG_0333

I arrived on a Saturday night and the poor girl who meets you at the front door essentially has the job of standing there and saying “It’ll be a 15 to 20 minute wait” while handing out buzzers… almost once every 30 seconds….

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for folks who show up single there’s a bar in the waiting area which gets very little traffic, where you can sit almost immediately (I didn’t take a picture of it, but it’s fairly long and there at least 10 spots held for solo eaters that I could have sat at, had I wanted to). This is because waiting sections of the place are HUGE and diverting. There’s a massive gift that is as big as if that were their sole business…. and stuffed to the brims

IMG_0336IMG_0337I was tempted by this … but where would I  put it? (This sign is particularly funny in Amarillo as they’ve NOT marked where 66 is… they sort of designated one area of town to 66 but it doesn’t seem to link to the rest of the road in any meaningful way, and almost feels arbitrary and resurrected for the tourists, unlike in say LA or Albuquerque, where the are actually roads that link to form a whole)

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AND there’s a gaming area with a shooting gallery for the kids/families AND gaming machines (see right side of image) for the adults

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Behind THAT there’s a section with tables for people who just want to sit with a drink and talk while waiting, but on a Saturday night it was pretty empty

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And behind that is the hallway to the bathrooms, which was lined with those moving pictures that change based on where you’re standing… all of which were historic portraits that changed into horrific images…. these sorts of things…. which kept me and a few other people entertained for a good 10 minutes as we decided which were the worst (and which could be purchased at the gift-shop). I.e., the “customer holding pen” is designed to separate you from your money, is almost as big as the eating room (which is two stories), and I’d bet is probably more profitable.

Only then do you enter the main eating area…

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Note the desert table at the bottom left

It is two stories high (happily I didn’t have to climb stairs), and is (I believe) set up so that anyone taking the challenge is sat in the central area and becomes part of the attraction; they are not only observable by most of the other customers.

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One of the things I noticed was how WHITE the room was…

But there’s a clock located below the massive cow-head, that can accommodate up to six competitors at once. But, no one was competing when I was there, which is why I think they have these guys walking around entertaining the guests (sort of a country western Tex/Mex nod to the Hispanic tradition)

 

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I arrived at the restaurant having not eaten all day… other than a cup of coffee. So I was pretty hungry. I consulted with the various guests around me, and one of them … who was eating Chicken fried steak convinced me to order that. It is very much NOT on my allowed diet (both steak and fried) but its one of my very favorite things. I ordered it with the vegetable soup and baked sweet potato (sweet potatoes are MUCH MUCH MUCH healthier than normal ones, and are even diabetic acceptable). I was also drawn to try the baby-back-ribs, which this place sells in a sampler menu of three as an appetizer.

The ribs were tasty … although, as I explained to the people next to me when they asked, “I’m Jewish”… they went quite for a second and then broke into laughter… “so really, I think they’re tasty but in 50 odd years it’s only like my 3rd time eating them.” The guy next to me asked if the meat was falling off the bone, which it was… and was it tasty, which it was… so he declared that meant they were good.

The soup was a bit thin… it was watery sort of soup with mushrooms and potatoes and other veggies in it, with a little bit of a kick (spice). But it was good, and since it had been a cold rainy day and my nose was running a bit, it was satisfying.

Then the “star” of the meal, my Chicken fried steak with white sauce, which is how they do it in Texas. (It was very pretty, but I didn’t take a picture of it, sorry.) I had my first bite and…. BLECH!!!! Firstly, it was neither cubed steak nor an actual fillet (which is how I prefer it), it was hamburger … and FATTY hamburger at that… and pretty much ALL I could taste in my mouth was a mouthful of fat. BLECH! I pushed it to the side and continued to eat my soup, with an intention of then starting on my sweet potato.

After a while a waiter finally came by (wasn’t impressed with the wait staff’s attentiveness) with an obligatory “how’s everything” which wasn’t genuine and I could tell he assumed would be “ok” only to be shocked when I pointed to the now cold plate of chicken fried steak… that was pushed to the far side of the table… which he REALLY should have noticed if he were any good at his job… and said, “I don’t like that.”

He went, and got the manager, who asked why I hadn’t like it… so I described my diet and how Chicken fried Steak is really one of my favorite foods, but that this one wasn’t good enough to justify breaking the diet… so he then suggest I order the grilled Salmon instead, which I did. And, unlike the day before when I had ordered salmon and got served trout… today it was actually salmon, and a fairly large slab of it.

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It was well cooked (by US standards), but firm but not dry… and sort of heavily spiced with spices I’d normally reserve for steak. But, by the time it had arrived I’d had 3 ribs, a cup of soup, a piece of Texas toast and 3 bread rolls… so I ended up packing up it and the sweet potato to have for lunch the next day (I had booked in a rest day from my travels, which a forecast of really lousy weather ensured I’d take…)

That said…If you’re hungry but not THAT hungry, they also offer 12, 18, 24 and 36 oz steaks (see menu), which is what the owner originally was selling and referred to as his “Texas sized steaks”, before coming up with the challenge. Oh and if that weren’t enough…

Then, as you’re leaving you are forced to walk past this gauntlet, A a gelato, fresh fudge and pastries stand…

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….even though this is technically in the front area right by the entrance to the restaurant area, I noticed most people bought from it just as they were leaving the store… to take home for later (so that your full stomach shouldn’t be the master of your eyes… which is kind of brilliant if you think about it from a marketing perspective)

https://www.google.com/maps/place/The+Big+Texan+Steak+Ranch+%26+Brewery/@35.193658,-101.755103,15z/data=!4m5!3m4!1s0x0:0x47059aec958d9814!8m2!3d35.193658!4d-101.755103

Del’s Restaurant Tucumcari, NM

Del’s Restaurant in Tucumcari New Mexico, which Yelp ranks as one of the top three restaurants in town was kind of a major let down. But in a town with only 27 options, half of which are national chains… well beggars really can’t be choosers.

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Looking at the exterior you’d assume it was a steak place … because cows…

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BUT NO! It’s sort of a Mexican/Southern American combo type place that can’t quite make up its mind what it is….

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other than all the staff have to wear white cowboy hats… Oh and note the upper right corner of the menus… the woman next to me ordered the “light bite” of macaroni and cheese, and it was this MASSIVE plate full of the stuff… and note that there’s NOTHING low-calorie on that list… Light bites in the southwest apparently doesn’t mean what it means everywhere else

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The place has a fairly large gift shop (the room after the tables, AND the check out counter) that sells pretty much all the obligatory goods and not much else.

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and an all you can eat soup and salad bar, where most of the salads are swimming in mayonnaise (welcome to culinary sophistication of the southwest)

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I got my salad (blue cheese on the side) and the mushroom soup (because a waitress told me the bean soup wasn’t very good)…. and then I ordered the grilled salmon. I am pretty sure I was NOT brought salmon… it was fish, and other than it was woefully over cooked it wasn’t bad… but it sure as shit wasn’t salmon… Sockeye salmon possibly… but that’s not Salmon… it’s in the trout family… and to be honest what I was eating tasted more like something in the tuna family than trout.

 

 

Fair Oaks Dairy: Fair Oaks Indiana

I’ve been to Fair Oaks Dairy restaurants twice now, but have yet to visit their theme park. Apparently, it the ONLY theme park devoted to dairy in the who country. The first time I was in 2015 when I was driving from Chicago to Florida, and spotted the road side advertising for the place (there’s a lot of them, and they are all way cool, MUCH nicer than the shoddy billboards you usually see — when researching this I learned the dairy had been bought out by Coca-cola in 2014), and they are one of the biggest and most high-tech dairies in the country.

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Last time I was here I was able to grab a meal at their cheaper food option, which is off on the other side of the parking lot from the restaurant and theme park (above)

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but that closes at 6pm (I didn’t show up there till about 6:30 today).

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which they call the Cowfé… it’s a no frills cafe that serves produce and food items fresh from their farms…

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cuban sandwich, $7.75 and an iced tea

and from what I could tell it’s SOME of the same foods as at their restaurant called ‘The Farmhouse,’ (the cafe has a MUCH smaller menu), for about half the price… I know this because I apparently ordered the same dish both times I’ve been there (hey, I like cuban sandwiches… )

IMG_2396.JPGbut without the table service, massive order of fries, and the all you can eat jalapeno cornbread… So the Cuban sandwich which was $7.75 at the cafe, is $14 at the restaurant. (I’m also willing to consider that the cafe sandwhich might be a bit smaller in size — I could only eat half of the restaurant’s sandwhich.) Looking at the foods offered, a lot of it is the same stuff you’d expect to find in Appalachia, which is not surprising as the culture extends about this far north.

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while walking back out to the parking lot I passed the table where some people who I had gotten friendly with when I entered were sitting, and they allowed me to photograph their food (I was amazed at how MASSIVE their portions were)…

IMG_2400.JPGand the woman gave me one her disturbingly large fried chicken wings (I was utterly underwhelmed by it, almost no flavor at all). On my way out of the parking lot I realized that the BP (British Petroleum) gas station adjacent to the Fair Oaks Dairy was actually sort of an extension of it (the gas station store ALSO sells their food).

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Bell Buckle, Tennessee: if you’re looking for something worth stopping for on the two hour drive between Nashville and Chattanooga

Bell Buckle, TN is a very cute, tiny (population of under 400) town located well away from any highways, but on an active train line. It is a well-preserved historic town full of well maintained Victorian homes, many of which have very pretty gardens, as well as a well maintained downtown (it is a whistle-stop town on the train line from Nashville to Chattanooga) that has done everything feasibly possible to be appealing to tourists.

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Approaching the town you pass some impressively palatial homes, which is not what one expects to see in such a small town in Tennessee. Then, the moment you drive into town you’ll have to slow down to 15 mph, as you pass The Webb school. Looking at it I could tell it was a fairly affluent boarding school (its tuition is between 40-50K a year, which is up there with the price of sending your kid to University) whose presence in the town, I was pretty sure, probably explained why the homes I was passing were SO nice. That said, when I got home and did some research; I discovered that it was in fact a college prep boarding school, founded in 1870 (one of the oldest ones in the south); and that the school had been moved to Bell Buckle in 1886 (because the town was dry while its original location was going wet); and, that it was at one point SO good that it was responsible for producing more Rhodes scholars than any other secondary school in country (that said, I was looking on their website that lists where their current crop of seniors will be going for university, and the list was NOT a very impressive one — the public high school I went to, it does way better).

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This was on the sidewalk in front of one of the shops

A little further up the road you’ll come to a still active train line (none of the trains I saw actually bothered to stop at the town, confirming its whistle-stop status), and a small collection or historic storefronts which make up the “down town.” I parked my car and walked around, exploring the shops.

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This, plus one shop, is pretty much all of downtown, like I said, tiny

In every shop I entered I asked what the history of the town was, and none of the staff seemed to know. In each case they said they were actually new to the town, or didn’t actually live in town. Which was interesting.

The shops consist mostly of women’s clothing shops, shops that promote local artists,

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antique shops and

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and four different food places, a coffee shop, an ice cream and sandwiches shop (with homemade fried pie), a meat and three and ladies high tea place…. with the exception of the coffee place (which was just a coffee place), all of the other three places were so southern as to represent stereotypes of the south, or tourist trap heaven.

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Again, how more Old South can you get than Pulled pork, Fried Green Tomatoes, Pimento Cheese  — oh right, Fried peach pie
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Again, not sure a place can get more stereotypically Southern than RC Cola and Moon Pies

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This is supposed to be the best restaurant in town, a traditional Southern ‘meat and three‘ but the guy in the wellness store told me that everything they serve is actually produced by Sysco foods (i.e., almost nothing is made by them, it all arrives in bulk already made), which is kind of shocking as it apparently is one of the major draws to the town (one store owner told me that it alone generates most of the towns income), and was, according to their resturant web site, listed as one of the top 10 resturants in the state

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I ordered a $5 bowl of Chili and got a bowl so big I could only eat half, the pancake looking thing is actually corn-bread flat cake (known as a johnny cake or a hoecake).

The shop that surprised me the most was the Wellness Emporium place that sold things like tonics, Kombucha and CBD Hemp oil. The guy when talking to the women described how he runs an organic farm and produces most of his products himself.

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I stand corrected: There IS good food near Dollywood! PigeonForge, TN

What I now know is that food in Dollywood comes in TWO varieties, 1) quantity over quality, or 2) quality over quantity.

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Mea Culpa back in May of 2016 I visited the Dollywood area for the first time and had nothing but horrible meals. Just recently I visited the town for second time with a friend who is a vegetarian, and as such, opted away from all of the tourist spots that promised massive portions and/or all you can eat options — as none of them were going to be vegetarian friendly, and instead opted for smaller local/places that offered normal sized meals where we cold pick and choose … and to my delight was MUCH happier with everything that was served to us. In fact I found TWO very tasty places in Pigeon Forge, and another down the road in nearby Gatlinburg.

Hidden among the shops right behind the Old Mill restaurant (where I had a TRUELY awful meal during my last stay) is an eatery owned by the same company called the Old Mill Pottery House Cafe & Grille

It’s a MUCH smaller place (easily 1/10th the size of the old Mill), that seems to attract an older crowd (I’m guessing snowbird types who come through town on a semi-regular basis) and locals, and neither I nor my friend were served anything we didn’t enjoy… and the prices are very reasonable. I had the salmon cakes appetizer with a baked sweet potato and Cheese grits, while my friend had the vegetarian sandwich. (Google maps for some reason refuses to load for the cafe, so I’ve loaded the Old Mill instead, but it’s right next door.

Across the street and about a quarter mill from the Old Mill we found a tiny hole in the wall Cuban place embedded in a strip mall called Smokies Cuban Cafe, which was also very tasty, where we could talk to the cook who directed my friend to what he could and could not eat; essentially she warned us that they only had one fryer, and as such all meat and vegetable dishes that were fried, were done so in that same single fryer. My friend, who has been a vegetarian for many years was given a mental heads up by this … having only really lived in places where vegetarians were normative, he’d never thought to ask about that before.

In this case I had the Cuban sandwich, while my friend had black beans and rice and a side of yucca with garlic sauce — the yucca fries being verboten (see above)

Finally, at the next town over, Gatlinburg, we took the suggestion of a shopkeeper and ate our dinner at Loco Burro Fresh Mex Cantina, a two story restaurant hidden above a Jonny Rockets burger joint and two small shops selling tourist junk. Even though it was a bit chilly we opted to sit in the roof top bar so that we could continue to enjoy the night view. I opted for a collection of side dishes: grilled shrimp, guacamole and black beans while my friend opted for a cheese quesadilla and a margarita.

 

Hanging with friends in Eastern Tennessee

This last few days were sort of a new thing for me, but highly enjoyable. I met up with an old (platonic) friend of mine who I knew from when I was living in the SF area, and we spent four days traveling together in Tennessee as a test of our compatibility as travel-partners, before we committed to longer trips.

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First we rented an affordable hotel room in the Pigeon Forge, Tennessee area (Dollywood/Gatlinburg/Smokey Mountains National Park) — with two beds, because I usually don’t sleep well with others. I was really happy to discover 1) he’s a very heavy sleeper who, 2) doesn’t snore — like not at all. Apparently… I don’t snore either, I am however quite the chatterbox while dreaming, but he said it didn’t bother him (like I said, heavy sleeper). Also, he has a job that allows him to work remotely, so he’d wake at around 7am, work at his computer till noon — about when I finally woke up — and then once I was awake did his business calls/meetings with co/workers while I was checking emails and getting ready — i.e., he’d get about 6+ solid hours of work in — and then we went to lunch (see my post, “I stand corrected: There IS good food in Dollywood!”)

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and do tourist stuff together in the afternoons and evenings. The first day we opted to go to Gatlinburg, which is right down the road from Pigeon Forge, a town I am said to say that I had completely overlooked last time I was here. All I’m going to stay is next time I think I’ll SKIP Pigeon forge and focus on Gatlinburg… we both liked it a lot more.

Granted, we were there for only a few hours, and essentially spent all our time at the Anakeesta attraction, a chair lift to the top of the mountain, and then when you get to the top it’s sort of a bridge among the trees… which bounces around a lot when you walk on it.

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Photos from the Anakeesta Attraction in Gatlinberg, TN

Afterwards, in the late evening we walked around Gatlinburg, and did some shopping.

 

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I’m a sucker for leather. I negotiated down the price of this hat (it is utterly impractical to my current lifestyle), which was already on sale, so I had no choice but to buy it. Happily, when we got back to the hotel I searched for it on-line and found I’d gotten quite the deal on it.

While walking around a shop keeper called out to my friend, who stands a good 6’5″ or such, and asked him to help her hang her Xmas decorations in front of her shop. He’s such a sweet guy that he agreed.

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After hanging out and doing tourist stuff, he went to sleep at his normal time, while I stayed up doing my computer stuff and watching movies on my laptop (with the screen strength turned down and wearing earplugs so as to not disturb him).

UNFORTUNATELY on our second day, when we had intended to try going to Dollywood, or driving around the Smokey Mountains National Park, his job went into a little over-gear unexpectedly, so we had to work around that, but it was ultimately all good. For myself, I spend so much time traveling that it’s no biggie if weather or life derails my plans, and I told him that going forward, we’d be doing longer stays (I prefer 2 weeks in a place rather than 2 days), so that if the same were to ever happen it would really NOT be a big deal for me. But it stressed him out, so he found himself a place where he could get some work done and, since we had two separate cars, we agreed to meet up at his friend’s home in Cookeville, TN (essentially what will one day be a suburb of Nashville, assuming it ever turns into a major city) later that evening.

Since I had about two hours to kill before we were supposed to arrive at his friend’s home — even considering the drive there — I decided to do a quick swing through the Smokey Mountains National Park.

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Note the kayaker about to brave the rapids, there were in fact two guys.

Later that night (which was Halloween’s eve) we met up at his friends home…. to find her dressed like a cat… So, I got inspired, and dressed us up in some costume bits that I conveniently had stashed in my car. (In about a month I was going to go to a Dr. Seuss costume party at the home of friends in Florida.)
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I’m supposed to be the skeptical pet gold fish from The Cat in the Hat story, while I dressed my friend as The Lorax . Being Australian and unfamiliar with Dr. Seuss for the most part, at first he wasn’t game with wearing the hat; but, then once we had explained to him how the Lorax was the ultimate conservationist fable for kids…

… conservation being a cause that my friend totally supports — he got into it with a will (the hat was mine, the rest of the outfit is something he picked up at a hippy type music festival he’d attended on his travels, cause he swings like that). We all went out to dinner dressed like that…

Later her friend showed up, and she remembered she actually had a “Cat in the Hat” hat in her garage and dug it out for him… and we went out again to meet up with some friends of theirs at a bonfire (where everyone immediately recognized which characters we were, which was gratifying).

Anyway… a good time was had by all, and I may have found myself a travel partner for some of my future travels… now we just need to decide where we want to go.

 

 

 

 

There’s no good Food in Dollywood

(Mia Culpa: I revisited Pigeon Forge in October of 2017, and in retrospect I realized my error lay in my sampling bias which was towards eateries aimed at tourists, all of which offer all you can eat/belly busting portions. What I now know is that food in Dollywood comes in TWO varieties, 1) quantity over quality (such as all the places described above), or 2) quality over quantity. So, please read this, but then please follow the link to the 2nd review)

Seriously, opt for a national chain or the grocery store; there’s nothing to eat here that’s worth breaking your diet. As you guys have probably figured out by now, I take food seriously…  both of my parents were great cooks, and I grew up traveling all over the world and my parents liked to eat. As such, one of the ways I judge a town is by how well it eats… and Pigeon Forge eats badly; from what I could tell from the two days I spent there, tourists ratings of restaurants were based soley on portion size and rather than on quality or taste, so that in leu of flavors, most cooks there seemed to rely on portion size and the salt & fat combo to keep customers happy. Pretty much everything I ate was bland, and none of these places could have survived in say, Chattanooga (a town with an active restaurant scene).

— My first meal after checking into my hotel was at the Old Mill Restaurant In Pigeon Forge proper which was suggested not only by the hotel staff, but by yelp and google reviews (4.5 stars with 277 reviews) as being the best local cuisine non-chain eatery in town. It’s a HUGE building meant to look like a converted mill.

Once you’ve been seated, and have ordered you will be served corn chowder, corn meal fritters and maple infused butter, as well as a salad with your choice of dressing… standard, to fill you up while you wait for your food to be cooked. As you can see from the picture, right there you’ve got enough food for a meal.

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First I got the chicken and dumplings: this was an absolute blech, my dumplings were inedible bits of semi raw dough that reminded me more of Japanese mochi (pounded rice) than of dumplings, and the gravy tasted of artificial chicken stock and salt — seriously it’s a sad day when you can compare a $18.99 dish to a can of hormel.

The waiter asked me how my meal was, and I was honest. He offered to let me order something else, and I flipped it out for chicken fried steak (also $18.99)… which is one of my favorite foods…. again, Blech, it tasted like bad cafeteria food.

Normally I hate wasting my money and will always pack up left overs to take home and eat later, but this food was so nasty that I left it all pretty much untouched.

To their credit, when the waiter saw I had unhappy with both dishes, he had the manager comp my bill.

 

— Miss Lillian’s Chicken Shack, is actually inside of Dollywood. If you take the train ride, this the place where Miss Lillian runs out to meet the train waiving her banjo in the air (and she does this every time — I felt sorry woman who plays the character). One of the things that killed me at Dollywood was there were food stands all over the place selling you a sandwich, or some such for about $12.99, which looked to be more bread than meat — i.e., massively over priced. While at the same time if you skipped the ‘fast food’ in option of a sit down, like at Miss Lillian’s, for $14.95 you got an all you can eat buffet with four kinds of salads, smoked chicken or turkey legs (you had to request the legs), fried chicken, and chicken fried steak and a choice of three deserts (or you can take all of them). Of the mains, I think the smoked chicken was the best and it’s all you can eat, so you can keep going back and refilling your plate. So while its not the greatest food on the planet, it’s hard to argue with all the smoked chicken and salad you can eat for $14.95.

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And there is a a lady, the aforementioned Miss Lillian, who is dressed up like she was ripped out of hee haw (think Minnie Pearl’s cousin), whose job it is to annoy the customers who won’t play along with the shtick, and maybe play a bit of banjo 

 

 

Paula Deen’s Family Kitchens — which I had to try because of her cooking show empire, and all the scandal around her, just so that I could say I had.

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I had intended to try this place my first night, as it’s a set price of $21.99 for adults ($10.99 for kids), and you HAVE to order three mains, four side dishes and a dessert even if you came alone, so I thought … What the hell, why not (apparently people traveling alone are usually put off by this)… But then the waiter warned me — after I’d been seated — that you are NOT allowed to take your leftovers!!! WTF? They don’t provide to go boxes and apparently they won’t even let you pack it up if you bring your own containers. SERIOUSLY? I paid for it, why can’t I take it if I want to (talk about fascist!). 

However, after having seen that old mill was charging $18.99 for a main, which I hadn’t taken home either, I decided to just go for it, with the caveat of tasting it all but only finishing what was good. I ordered, after discussing it with the waitress, Catfish (on the waitresses insistence), Fried Chicken, and smothered pork chops as my mains, with greens, squash casserole, macNcheese and succotash (which I’d never tried before) as my sides;

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— the best things (and hence the only dishes I finished) were the catfish and the squash casserole, all the rest of it just got pushed to the other side of the table after an initial taste. The fried chicken was incredibly dry, the pork chop was nothing special and a bit bland, the succotash was way too salty as were the greens… the Mac and cheese was ok… but it was Mac an cheese (nothing special, not much better than stouffer’s frozen in my opinion, which is sad considering she’s supposed to be this famous chef)….. my dessert is banana pudding which my southern friend had already instructed should be “lighter than air” if it’s any good, and this most definitely was NOT