Thursday, August 25, 2005

Road Food

Recently, driving west on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, we got off at Carlisle. I used to drive that way regularly, 20 years ago, and I wanted to show my wife my favorite truck stop diner, Fleming's. But it was gone, absorbed into some huge generic chain of truck stops. The new place was big, shiny, clean, new. But it wasn't Fleming's. Not by a long shot. Disneyworld is fine, but not when you were in the mood for South of the Border.

The experience made me realize I collect and cherish such places when I travel. In Atlanta, I've eaten at some very fine restaurant. But what I most look forward to, food-wise, when I pass through there is a breakfast at the Silver Skillet. This site begins to do proper honors to the place, which could be converted into a 1954 movie set with less than 5 minutes' worth of alterations and serves a biscuits-and-gravy side dish I sometimes dream about at night.

It has some essential qualities in common with the first such place I got to know and love, near where I grew up, the Llanerch Diner.

Road travel in America can be depressing. At every exit, the same Ruby Tuesday's, Denny's, and TGIFridays greet you. It's reassuring, in one sense, to know you can get the exact same meal, prepared the same way, at any of them. And at 2 a.m. when you just want coffee, that will do.

But sometimes you want to be somewhere real. The waitresses call you "hon." There's probably not a no-smoking section. There are at least three grievous misspellings on the menu, which also includes at least one artery-busting cholesterol bomb regional delicacy. Somewhere in the joint most of one wall or window is covered with sassy bumper stickers and rude cartoons. Real people eat there -- locals, truckers. There's not another one exactly like it at the next exit of the highway, or anywhere else on earth.

They don't live forever. I've lost a few over the years: Jamison's in West Chester, Dean's Diner in Ardmore, the Birmingham Grill.

Here's two more survivors from my short list.

Hungry Tarpon

The Hungry Tarpon, since 1947, just south of Islamorada at mile marker 77.5 in the Florida Keys, tucked under the bridge at the north end of Lower Matecumbe Key. (That's my son outside, when he was 11.) This is some of the finest eating that I've ever experienced and the price is terrific. Out back is Robbie's Marina, where you can stroll out on the dock and feed the real hungry tarpons in the Florida Bay. I recommend the classic Keys breakfast — grits and grunts. Fish for breakfast? You bet.


Richman's Ice Cream, Sharptown, N.J. On the back way down the Shore, between the rodeo (New Jersey rodeo? You bet) and the cranberry bogs. The art deco façade dates from 1947; the ice cream isn't made there any more, but the old ice cream shop is intact and whatever it is they serve is damned good.

What are yours?