Have you ever had a family travel food fail?

The Union Oyster House Sign - maybe someday I'll get to taste the food! So I mentioned earlier this week that my children walked the entire Freedom trail – all two and half miles of it – over the course of about six or seven hours one gorgeous July day. But in that post I didn’t tell you the sad end of the story. Given the amount of loving attention I dedicate to food on this site, you may be surprised to learn that it was lack of planning around a meal that was my stumbling block. Allow me to explain.

It was, as I’m sure you can imagine, something of a long and tiring day, even if we did have a good time. After we toured the USS Constitution, we waited for about a half an hour to catch the ferry that would return us to Boston proper. That’s because just as we headed for the dock a container ship entered Boston Harbor, shutting down all boat traffic. Although it was getting late (it was probably about 5:30 at this point) I wasn’t concerned because I had a plan. For dinner, we would walk ten minutes from the dock to the Union Oyster House, the oldest restaurant in America and the traditional dining spot of JFK. This is a place where the menu says you can order “Ye Olde New England Favorites” like broiled scrod. When we finally landed in Boston, I was musing whether I should order some uber-traditional 1950s libation like a martini with an olive in it as we pushed our way through the crowds on the wharf. Because, oh yes, there were crowds, an ominous fact that didn’t register at first.

Now here’s the key piece of information: Although I had a clear plan, I hadn’t made a reservation because I wasn’t sure when we would be done with our walk and ready for dinner. And surely, it wouldn’t be too busy on a Sunday evening!

I’m sure you’re not surprised to hear that when we arrived at the restaurant (at just after 6) we were informed that it would be a 45-minute wait. Just like that, the martini that was hovering over my head in a thought bubble disappeared with a poof.

No problem, I assured Matt. I know that the best place for pizza in the nearby North End is Regina Pizzeria. We’ll just head over there and order a pie. (Those of you with a practical bent might wonder why we didn’t head for the zillions of restaurants at Faneuil Hall a mere few blocks away in the opposite direction. But we were not going to be just hungry tourists! Not us! I have a reputation as a foodie traveling mom to protect, thank you very little.) Tommy and Teddy looked ravenous but utterly defeated. And Matt, knowing me all to well, followed obediently along. So really it’s their fault. If ever there was a moment for dissention from the ranks it was that one.

I was surprised at the chaos that greeted us as we entered the warren of streets that make up Boston’s Little Italy. Every restaurant we passed had a line out the door. It seems that with the demise of the highway that once cut this neighborhood off from the rest of the city (and which now runs underground with a gorgeous park above it) tourists and locals of every stripe had decided to make the North End their destination of choice. And of course, thanks to Internet and travel bloggers (thanks A LOT travel bloggers) all of them knew just where to find the best pizza in Boston. The line at our destination might have been the longest of all.

I was starting to panic a little as my own blood sugar dropped; Tommy looked even worse than I did. Matt realized the delicate and critical nature of the crisis and as we trudged along blindly headed in the general direction of our (restaurantless) hotel he kept his eyes open for a likely spot to dine. As we headed down Salem Street, all of our heads lifted at the scent of perfectly-roasted garlic that seemed especially strong around one storefront with yet another line of people stretching down the block. “Hang on,” he said, entering the door under the illuminated Antico Forno sign. He was back within minutes bearing a pager. “The wait here is only a half hour and I think we can sit down inside,” was his happy report.

We cozied up to the bar as best we could (there wasn’t a lot of space and only two stools were available) and revived the children with chocolate milk and soda and baseball on the television. A glass of wine or two may have also been consumed by the grownups as well, but who’s counting? I watched for 30 minutes, then 45, as the young hostess with an impassable face and gleaming black hair seated table after table while the lights on our pager remained stubbornly off. Finally, seeing two or three tables of people leave, I walked casually up to her and asked when we might expect to be seated. “Oh,” she said vaguely “You’re the second or third people on the list, so I’m sure it won’t be long.” Then I watched as she filled all three tables and then three more without summoning us.

That did it. Grabbing the pager and summoning all my dignity, I swept us out the door, dropping it on her stand without so much as a backward glance, past the long line of people that still stretched up the block, and into the first open door I saw, which happened to be that of a small pizzeria selling slices the size of dinner plates. Since I was basically speaking in gibberish at this point, Matt translated, insisting that, yes, we did want two slices each (this order required four separate pizza boxes, but no mind).

I had so lost my sense of humor that I don’t even have a picture of us eating the huge, greasy (and probably halfway decent but I could barely taste them) slices of pizza near the fountains where two evenings previously the boys had frolicked. Trust me, we all survived.

I’ve shared my food fail – now it’s your turn to ‘fess up: Have you ever run into trouble trying to feed your kids on the road? And how organized are you generally about meal planning? Inquiring minds want to know!

Photo courtesy of Night Owl City via Flickr.

Reader Responses

9 fellow travelers had this to say

  1. Oh yes! We also love to eat at fun, new or out of the way places when we travel. Roadfood is our restaurant book of choice when choosing restaurants on the road. So when we were recently on the road to Washington DC, we found a great restaurant opportunity in Pennsylvania that would be just about the right place at the right time. Of course the fact that there was no website or phone number didn’t deter us. It never entered my mind that it would no longer exist! After coaxing the kids along, “Only two more hours,” “Only 50 more miles,” spirits were impossibly low by the time we arrived at a boarded up restaurant. So I quickly looked around and found a Ponderosa Steak House. “The kids love buffets and they’ll have a salad bar, let’s go there!” I’d never stepped foot in one before, and I’ll tell you, it was the worst meal I have ever had on the road. Early in the evening the food already had a hard layer of overcookedness on the top. The icing on the cake, however, when we watched the guy cutting the standing beef roast. Not only did he cut the pieces ahead of time, causing them to get cold, he also started cleaning the heat lamp with a damp and dirty rag – right over the top of the cut meat.

    Of course there was mac and cheese and make your own sundaes, so the kids were in heaven, but it was a lesson to be learned in waiting too long for the perfect place to eat!

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  2. I think the most epic “food fail” had nothing to do with my kids – and everything to do with me. When we went to Disney World, I had researched, planned and plotted out each of the restaurants I wanted to visit – including their famous Victoria and Albert restaurant, a notoriously difficult place to get reservations to. But thanks to my over-planning, we not only had reservations to V&A, but the kids were set up to have dinner and have fun at the Neverland Kids club at the Polynesian Resort (which seemed close to the Grand Floridian where we were staying).

    However, on the day we were to have dinner, I had a mammoth turkey leg at Disney’s Animal Kingdom – really bad idea. We had to leave the park early and I was on the verge of vomiting the entire way back to our hotel. My husband took the kids to the pool while I tried to calm my stomach and my intense headache before we had to take the kids over to the Polynesian. But hey, the monorail at Disney only goes one direction – so we had to go through the Magic Kingdom, the Contemporary Hotel, hop off at the Polynesian, drop the kids off, then hop back on the monorail, go back to the room, change into nicer clothes (and I won’t go into what stuffing my cranky stomach into tight pantyhose felt like), and then sit through an overly-long dinner at V&A on our “date night” because I wasn’t going to NOT eat at the “best” restaurant in Disney.

    Was the meal worth it? A huge NO. Granted, my stomach didn’t feel good, but the food was only mediocre and the service was so over the top (and I’m a foodie from NYC) that I was cranky throughout the entire meal. My lesson: no more turkey legs and sometimes “best” isn’t always “best”.

  3. I feel like this kind of thing happens to us at least once per trip! We had an almost identical experience to yours the first time we went to Boston. I was pregnant, and when I was hungry I wanted to eat immediately! The wait was too long at Union Oyster House, so we had to skip it. We also tried the North End with little success. During our most recent trip to Boston, last summer, we finally endured the wait at Union Oyster House and were seated in JFK’s favorite booth! Only took us four years, but we made it eventually.

  4. Don’t feel bad, Mara – we have a food fail nearly every trip! As much as I organize all the other details for our vacation I can never seem to get my act together on where we are going to eat.

  5. Nice to know I am part of the majority here. I don’t think we have ever been on a trip where at least one meal (usually several) is a big fat fail. I’m getting better about researching and planning meals, but still, you just can’t control everything. Usually I’m waiting for my husband to decide what he wants to eat and he just shrugs saying “whatever.” By the time the 3 of us find food I am cranky, have no interest in what we are eating and we generally pick a wretched spot to eat that is over priced but happens to be in front of me when I’m ready to collapse. More planning is in my future in this area for sure! But there will still be mishaps on the way I know.

  6. We didn’t realize that in Israel, NOTHING is open for dinner on Shabbat…until sundown :-( There are a few places, but when you’re hungry and tired they’re not easy to find. Eventually, we found a great little pizzeria by the pound – perfect, because we all got our favorite and the kids tried a new carbonated juice they had never seen. Ahhhh… the memories!

  7. We were in the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica on Christmas eve. After a long, pothole ridden drive from Monteverde, we were thrilled to finally be within five miles of our destination, an old hacienda, which was to be our base for visiting Rincon de la Vieja National Park. Unfortunately, those last few unpaved miles took us an hour. Upon arrival at our hotel, we were not happy to learn that a special Christmas Eve dinner would commence at 8 pm — way to late for our two hungry eight year olds (who wouldn’t eat much of the pricey meal anyway. The only alternative was for them to cook us greasy hamburgers in the cafe.

    Christmas morning, the four of us set out on a guided horseback ride to the park (known as “Little Yellowstone” for its bubbling mud pots.) Our guide spoke no English, but I enjoyed using my rusty Spanish to converse with him. A few hours later, after seeing the geothermic activity in the park, he told us we were going to break for lunch. I saw him tie up the horses and then go to his saddlebag to produce what I had assumed would be a sumptuous meal for all of us. Much to my horror, he took out one lone sandwich and proceeded to eat. “But where is our lunch?” I asked in Spanish. “You didn’t bring any?” he replied. “Es problema.” “Si, es muy problema!” I screamed. — “We have to return to the hotel at once.”

    Upon arriving at our lodging, I marched up to the concierge desk who had arranged the tour and complained. “But madam,why didn’t you bring lunch?” he said. “Because your brochure said we would stop for lunch and besides, there was no place for us to buy lunch around here to take with us anyway!” We then had more greasy hamburgers.

    We had a wonderful time in Costa Rica, but I learned a valuable lesson: tour companies operated by foreigners often don’t understand Western service standards. Indeed, a white water rafting trip we took a few days later in another part of the country– that was operated by a Westerner-owned company– included a lovely lunch.

  8. I am so bummed you didn’t get to try Regina’s! It really is the best pizza ever. I was lucky that I had a friend who lived in the North End and knew all the ins and outs of how to get a pizza there without the long wait. I had a recent food fail in San Francisco involving pizza. Tony’s Pizza Napotletana is supposed to be the best in the West but my kids could not endure the 2 hour wait. Next time we will put our name in early, walk up to Coit Tower and back,and then enjoy North Beaach’s finest.

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