Sometimes the Best Meal Is the Blandest

When you're traveling, take time to appreciate the local flavor — even if there is none.

Wendell Smith's Restaurant in Nashville

Matt Taylor-Gross

These restaurants go by many names: luncheonette, café, rathskeller, sandwich shop, soup counter, cafeteria, bar and grill. Historically: ham and egger, tavern, beanery, hash house, greasy spoon, or simply, lunchroom. Some are Chinese restaurants, The Great Wall, or Fortune Garden, serving sliced chicken and broccoli, General Tso’s, fried egg rolls, densely weighted dumplings, and other classic American fare. Their authenticity is legion, but authenticity for its own sake is a trope of preservationists and pecuniary interests. Blandness, by definition, transcends all categories, and it's beautiful.

Suppose you’re traveling through Karlsruhe, North Dakota, population 87, and Pete's Pub & Grub is the only refreshment room in town. Imagine your surprise when the beer is colder, the people are warmer, and the food is more reassuringly familiar than you deserve. To the first person who will listen, you mention the Miles Davis Quintet played Karlsruhe, Germany in 1967. Who knows? A conversation ensues. "That one-set performance by Miles and his classic 1960s quintet — Wayne Shorter; Herbie Hancock; Ron Carter, Tony Williams — in Karlsruhe's Stadthalle?" That’s the one, friend.

Ramen shacks, taco stands, numbered pho houses the world over all serve a variation of their unique fare. The Midwest cafés are no different. In this case, mostly hot white, brown, and ashen green vegetables stewed in bacon fat. For spice, salt, pepper, garlic powder, bottled hot sauce. Unlike ramen, dim sum, the Irish pub, and the hamburger, this fare has never been exported — as yet. You’ll find xiao long bao in Cincinnati, but you won’t find a chili joint in Shanghai. Not just because in Shanghai, the bean is a sweet. 

A continental brasserie in Atlanta? Easy. The Southern lunch meat-and-three in Marseilles? Not a chance. There are many reasons for this: provincialism, the consternation of the locals, the cargo trade, the peculiarities of regional taste. Most of us won’t question the wisdom of a Niçoise salad and vin de paille in the south of France over a brain sandwich and a Sprite there, even if it were on offer.

There are notable degrees of failure in exporting specific cuisine without the corresponding culture. This mostly has to do with someone’s idea on how to "improve" upon it. Barbecue, being a prime example of consistent mediocrity. The Singapore hawker stand is another, more recent example. For me, a simple dish of perfectly fried rice outside the bus station in Congjiang County, Guilin, prepared by a highly skilled woman over an enormous wok has never been equaled. Each grain of rice is distinct, as if each were given a name. Your dish [here], a Platonic tamale, or cacio e pepe, a bowl of laksa that does the same in your pantheon of competitive snacking. 

Let’s say you’re driving U.S. 36 looking for arrowheads and ask for the site of a Pawnee Village and the location of Jim Bridger’s camp along the Oregon Trail circa 1857 in Beattie, Kansas. "The Milo Capital of the World." You’d pose this question at the Robidoux Café, local information center and town topic.

Down the road, you might turn off at Abilene, Kansas, and happen upon a sign: "We would like to thank everyone for your patronage of the Brookville Hotel over the last 125 years.. We hung on as long as we could, but the writing was on the wall." With the chagrined realization that you have just missed their famous pan-fried chicken dinners by weeks, with 125 years for you to get there.

Mostly open for two meals a day: breakfast and lunch. Menu: eggs and salami, pancakes, biscuits and sausage gravy, hash browns or cottage fries, meatloaf, string beans, mac and cheese. On Fridays, it’s catfish or carp. Polish and kraut comes with mashed potatoes and gravy, corn, and buttered roll. Open-faced hot roast beef sandwiches smothered in gravy are available any day of the week. They’ll make you a grilled cheese with ham and call it a Monte Cristo. The diet plate is scoops of cottage cheese and tuna salad on a bed of iceberg, carrot sticks, and green olives. Banana cream pie, coffee. There are regional variations: scrapple, fried okra, collards, pork tenderloin, tamales, beans and rice, jambalaya. 

Few road franchises, whose main advantage is ubiquity, can offer anything in kind. The main difficulty is overcoming that lonely feeling of manufactured hominess on a mass scale. 

We're all familiar with "Best Of" lists: 10 best books, 25 best movies, albums, essential kitchen gadgets, moments in sports, popover hoodies. "Restaurant Dishes We Can’t Forget in 2022."

By contrast, these homespun meals are dished out pretty much the same year in, year out, with cultural and regional variations that justify getting off the Interstate. Some are local institutions, usually recommended as the breakfast legend in the area. The finest will seem like Depression Era or pre-war anachronisms, frozen in amber. Spencer’s Grill, since 1947, "Parking in Rear." You could pick any one of them, and each would defy the best of the category. 

Must everything be the greatest before it gets a star turn? 

Will it be the best meal you’ve ever had? Likely not. Will you allow it to be memorable without being rated and ranked? The eating, like the cooking, is yeoman’s work and this is eating, not dining. You can relinquish all efforts to persuade skeptics. The unsung heroes of these kitchens are the owners, family members, and hired hands who’ve moved through taverns, casual dining chains, school cafeterias, courthouses, hotels, and hospital kitchens. Working people cooking for other working people, like yourself.

Is there room for improvement? Sure. Maybe you want some snap in your beans. But who asked you? There’s more to this feast than what’s on your plate. You might have not one original thought about it. But you’ll pick up the local argot by eavesdropping and rub shoulders with servers, stockmen, bankers, and road crews. And none will scold you for what you eat.

You might come into town a high plains drifter and leave it in a little better shape: cheered, warmed, caffeinated, and sated. If the service is fine, you were called some term of endearment like hon or slim or red, go ahead, tip 100% on $13.68, use cash. It’ll make you more memorable than your meal. You’ll be the anonymous stranger, king of the road. No fine dining establishment — approaching the cost of a ticket to Montreal — can do that. 

We rightly sample and praise regional cuisine the world over, it’s how we welcome culture into our guts and make it flesh. Let us now praise what is set before us, with a little grace. None may make the list of categories found in the "Best X in Every State." And that should be fine. Everything we are looking for is not on our plates. 

Regard the integrity of the gesture, accepting a gift from outside that comes to you from a server who appreciates your blushing humility. Return service with a smile. Be a connoisseur, but stay off Yelp, unless you intend to offer hope or directions. Be the Daoist priest of nothing in praise of blandness. The stoic queen of the butter pat.

Let’s say you’re on your way to Nicodemus with a bird dog, working fence rows with the small gauge Browning. Your shoulder the rifle, gaze into the blank November sky, knowing that somewhere down the line someone who cares about the cold November in your soul has been cooking a pot of chili since dawn, and is setting out the saltines and Homer Laughlin China for your eventual arrival.

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