I'll go just about anywhere for a good meal. Based on nothing more than wisps of rumors gathered third-hand, I've eagerly made my way to sterile strip malls, seedy boardwalks, decaying industrial districtswherever. That doesn't mean, though, that I'm only happy eating in crummy surroundings. When I find a great restaurant in a part of the country that's worth the trip all on its own, I feel like a little kid who's tricked his mother and father into paying his allowance twice.
The five restaurants praised on the following pages offer that sweet sensation of double-dipping. Each exploits its location to the fullest, right down to using prime regional ingredients. Manka's, in Inverness, California, crafts thoughtful, delightful menus in the idyllic natural wonderland known as the Point Reyes peninsula. The Rocky Mountains loom over Valhalla, an unusually civilized ski-country dining room in Park City, Utah. A ferry ride leads to a waterside spot in the San Juan Islands, Washington, where chef Christina Reid-Orchid turns Pacific Northwest ingredients into unpretentious and delicious meals. Not only does Christina's have amazing views, but it's on the second floor of a gas station. A gas station! Sounds like my kind of place.
I went to Orcas Island, Washington, to stay at its classic resort, Rosario, to kayak and to watch its eponymous killer whales. I wasn't expecting a great restaurant, particularly after I'd been told to go to a place on the second floor of a gas station. Inside Christina's were white walls, plank floors, windows on the bay and a dozen tables. The menu, too, was small and unfussy. I had a tangy, lightly curried summer squash soup and a flaky potpie of tiny potatoes, sweet peas and morels. At the end of the meal, I told chef Christina Reid-Orchid that I loved her. "Then you have to come back," she said. "I'll cook up something good!" (310 Main St.; 360-376-4904).
People come to the Point Reyes National Seashore, about an hour north of San Francisco, to explore the lush fern groves, waterfalls, lagoons, marshes and bay and ocean beaches. A lucky few will finish their day in the village of Inverness with an exquisite dinner at Manka's, a 1917 hunting lodge reinvented by an eccentric visionary innkeeper, Margaret Gradé. She and her chef, Daniel DeLong, present meals fashioned from ingredients foraged from the forest, raised by neighboring ranchers or made by artisans. The stinging nettles that go into a tart, nutty soup are collected on a fog-drenched point almost engulfed by the sea. In the spring, DeLong marinates baby lamb from nearby pastures with delicate young fennel. Manka's exploration of terroir is so thorough that the place almost feels like an extension of its natural surroundings (Callendar Way and Argyle Way; 415-669-1034).
Park City, Utah
Getting a reservation at a top restaurant can require an Olympian effort. This will be especially true next year at the Deer Valley Resort, in Park City, Utah, when the town hosts some events of the Winter Olympics. The irony is that travelers typically come to Deer Valley to escape the crowds; the resort exudes calm, as does its star restaurant, Valhalla. At this hushed, pale-wood-and-cream sanctum within the Stein Eriksen Lodge, there's little of the table-hopping that defines Aspen and Vail (although heads swiveled when Mick Jagger showed up during the Sundance Film Festival). The room is so quiet you can hear the clinking of silver against china; all the action is in the open kitchen, and on the plates. Two standouts on chef Frank Mendoza's menuthe gravlax of arctic char paired with a salad of apples and pecans, and the chicken in a coffee barbecue sauceare luxurious, innovative and proudly American. Get to Valhalla before the Games start in February, when snagging a table will become a medal event (7700 Stein Way; 435-649-3700).
Maryland's Eastern Shore never seems to change: The towns stay small, the voters Republican, and the crabmeat always comes fresh from the Chesapeake. That's why the Inn at Easton, in a restored 1790 Federal mansion, is such a surprise. Although it has been open for nearly a year, some Easton locals still haven't figured it outindeed, a cop whom I asked for directions swore it didn't exist. It turned out to be two blocks away. Andrew Evans, the chef and (with his wife, Liz) proprietor, rewards those who find him with dishes that reflect both the riches of the Chesapeake, a few miles away, and the vibrant flavors of Australia, where he lived for six years. His tropical fruit Pavlova is enough to warrant a trip: Indeed, since my visit, several dignitaries from D.C. have driven up for dinner, including the Australian ambassador. I wonder if he bumped into that policeman (28 S. Harrison St.; 410-822-4910).
In a part of the country where "pretty darned good" is praise of the highest order, Primo is being called something even better: one of the best restaurants on the Maine coast. Before taking over this Victorian farmhouse in Rockland last year, Melissa Kelly was the award-winning chef at Old Chatham Sheepherding Company Inn in the fertile Hudson Valley. Amazingly, she gave that up to cook in this rockbound terrain where the ground is frozen solid five months of the year. Nevertheless, Kelly's ingredients are as local as they get: The vegetables are grown in Primo's own gardens and greenhouses. For a sense of what a gifted chef can do with Maine lobster, try her pristine lobster and asparagus salad with curry vinaigrette. And whatever else you order, don't miss the breads: Kelly's fiancé, Price Kushner, makes them in his wood-fired oven andI have to say itthey're pretty darned good (2 S. Main St.; 207-596-0770).
Nancy Harmon Jenkins