When you travel, do you eat at places that offer some local flavor? Or do you play it safe and stick to chain restaurants? Those of you who read last week’s column may recall that I recently visited South Dakota. While there, my husband and I tried to find places with some local charm.
I have foodie friends who check out every street vendor and hole-in-the-wall eatery for “authentic” dishes while on vacation. I’m more cautious, because food poisoning is an adventure I’d rather avoid. Nor do I hit a four-star restaurant every night; I’m usually too busy sightseeing to spend the time and money.
When you’re traveling, chain restaurants have the advantage of being familiar and predictable. If you have a carload of hungry kids, or when you’re tired from a long day of sightseeing, it’s nice to know what menu items, food quality and service level you can expect.
But, if you’re looking for something more adventurous or unique to the local area, you won’t find it at McDonald’s or Applebee’s. You might as well be eating back home.
I’ll confess that when my kids were little, our main road-food criteria was an indoor playground so the kids could work off some energy. Often, we would buy picnic items and stop at a local park. The kids could run and play while we stretched our legs and soaked up local atmosphere, whether it was Laguna Beach or downtown Fillmore.
Now our playground days are past, and Kim and I were on our own in South Dakota. Here are some of the memorable meals we shared; perhaps they will spark some ideas for your vacation travel this summer.
• Our all-day bus tour to Mount Rushmore concluded with the Fort Hays Old West Town & Supper Show. This touristy spot has a frontier-style town square, with demonstrations of historical skills such as tinsmithing and rope-making. When the term “chuckwagon” is used to describe a meal, you know it’s not going to be haute cuisine. It was hearty and plain, and amazingly well-organized.
About 1,000 people were herded through the chow line in record time. A baked potato was plopped on a pie pan, quickly followed by a choice of BBQ beef or grilled chicken breast, chunky applesauce and baked beans. A square of apple cake and a biscuit rounded out the meal.
We ate on long rows of picnic tables, and a band called the Fort Hays Wranglers got the audience clapping hands to oldies such as “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” “Back in the Saddle” and “Happy Trails,” as well as modern-day hits. They also did a Beatles medley and a hilarious Elvis impersonation — something for just about everybody.
Purchased at http://Mtrushmoretours.com, the dinner show is $24 for adults and $12 for children. I felt the overall experience was a good value, and several others on the tour said the same.
• While in the historic town of Deadwood, we stumbled upon The Midnight Star, owned by actor Kevin Costner. The bottom floor is a casino. Upstairs is Diamond Lil’s, a sports bar with Western flair; and Jake’s, a fine dining restaurant. Costner’s connection with South Dakota began when he filmed his Academy Award-winning “Dances With Wolves” near Deadwood.
You could say we had “dinner IN a movie,” since the walls of Diamond Lil’s are covered with costumes, photos and other memorabilia from Costner’s films. The menu items were named for characters from Costner movies, such as the Postman Black Bean Burger (“The Postman”), Robin of Locksley’s Tu6key Bacon Swiss (“Robin Hood”), the Dunbar Chicken Strip Basket (“Dances With Wolves”), or Mr. Brook’s Killer Cajun Burger (“Mr. Brooks”). Kim had Jack Dolan’s Chicken Salad Sandwich (from “The Company Men”).
I had a Will Bonner Burger, a juicy grilled Certified Angus Beef patty topped with sautéed mushrooms and melted Swiss. I’d never heard of Will Bonner, but my waiter explained that it was a character from “Stacy’s Knights,” one of Costner’s first movies. The burger was $7.95; and would have been $12 had I chosen a buffalo patty. (If you’ve seen “Dances With Wolves,” you know South Dakota is buffalo territory.)
The sandwiches, served in paper-lined baskets, were $7.95 to $9.95. They included a choice of french fries, kettle chips, coleslaw or “buffalo chips,” which were crisp round potato slices with a spicy barbecue-type seasoning.
While waiting for our food, we browsed the memorabilia around the room: A glamorous costume worn by Whitney Houston in “Bodyguard.” Baseball jackets from “Bull Durham.” An Elvis impersonation outfit from “3,000 Miles to Graceland.” American Indian clothing from “Dances With Wolves.” A trench coat and hat from “ The Untouchables.” Costner’s Navy uniform from “No Way Out.” Lots of cowboy boots and coats, much of it from the TV miniseries “The Hatfields and McCoys.”
Although there were a couple of service glitches, the food was good, with a Hollywood-Meets-Deadwood ambience.
• While at Mount Rushmore waiting for the evening program, we had buffalo chili at the on-site cafeteria, called Carver’s Café. It was $4 for a small bowl. Compared with the concession prices at movie theaters, amusement parks, sports events, and other entertainment spots, I thought the cafeteria prices were reasonable.
The chili’s spicy heat was perfect for the cold, blustery night. After marveling at the buffalo roaming Custer State Park, it seemed a little sacrilegious to eat bison meat; but I guess it’s part of the tourist experience.
• We bought sandwiches on the way to the Badlands National Park, and then had a picnic at the Bigfoot Pass overlook. Yes, the food was predictable, but the view was spectacular! Hard to beat that Great Outdoors atmosphere.
So now it’s your turn. I’d like to hear some readers’ thoughts and experiences on vacation meals.
Valerie Phillips blogs at www.chewandchat.blogspot.com.