When we drive to Vermont from Delaware, which we do about twice a year, we usually stop for lunch in Danbury, Connecticut at a restaurant called Rosy Tomorrows. We found this place one day when we were lost and looking for lunch. It is right off the highway but not immediately obvious; but we had made an emergency potty stop at a nearby Marriott and the woman working the desk recommended it for lunch. The food here is copious and acceptable if not outstanding; it’s the kind of restaurant that serves huge potato skins stuffed with bacon, calls appetizers “appeTeasers” on the menu, and has a long list of mixed drinks.
But who cares about the food when you are eating in an old caboose? Or when there is an electric train that circulates above the bar? Or when you can see old fairground attractions like a disheveled fortune teller (like the one from the movie Big)? To say nothing of a live piano player whose repertoire ranges from Chopin to Cole Porter.
If it sounds a bit like TGI Fridays, it is. The restaurant came into existence in the late 1970s just as the nearby Connecticut State Fair was being demolished and turned into a mall; the owner snapped up a few choice items, hung them from the ceiling, and voilà! It’s very popular with locals. We’ve eaten there often enough now that we actually have a collection of plastic cups printed with the logo are in regular rotation our house. Teddy loves them and often wants his pretzels or chocolate milk served “in a Rosy Tomorrow cup.”
My point here is a simple one, and it relates to traveling with children: You don’t have to eat fast food when you are on the road with your kids.
You must believe that I’m not being judgmental or sanctimonious. When we drove from one side of the United States to the other with one-year-old Tommy I had not yet read Fast Food Nation or The Omnivore’s Dilemma or seen Super Size Me. We ate at McDonald’s so often that I probably should have bought stock (oh, wait a minute, maybe not). Heck, I’ll admit it here although it pains me greatly; we bought Tommy McDonald’s French fries in the train station in Florence, Italy. I’m definitely aware of the fact that there are times when you do what needs to be done.
But I think we’ve also all been conned into thinking that fast food is always the only option because it is always the first thing we see when we get off the highway. These restaurants have won by their sheer ubiquity both here in the United States and abroad.
So how do you find your way past the golden arches? I have a few suggestions for your next road trip. Please bear in mind that I’m not asking you to see out fancy restaurants but local family places and diners that are as appropriate for kids as fast food restaurants. The idea here is that you’ll have decent food (not necessarily healthy, although of course that is ideal) at a reasonable price and will put some money into the economy of the communities you are traveling through. And sometimes if you take this approach you may end up surprised by a really great find – something that will never happen in a fast food restaurant whose entire premise is that no one who walks through the door will ever be surprised by anything that is put in front of them.
Here are my suggestions:
- Get online before you leave. Map the towns that you’ll be passing through around lunch- or dinnertime and then do a search to see if there are any local restaurants that look good. Sites like Chowhound are really helpful for realistic assessments of hole-in-the-wall places. You can also find many restaurant menus online.
- If you don’t have time to plan ahead and need something pronto, stop at the first hotel you see, saunter on in, and ask whoever is working at the front desk for a recommendation. Explain that you are interested in a local place, not a chain. You may have to dig a little – explain your willingness to drive a bit out of the way or to eat various kinds of ethnic food. Ask if there’s a great drive-in or snack bar or where you can get the best pizza in town. Get them thinking creatively.
- Willing to take even a little more extra time? Local Harvest lists farms and farmers markets selling produce around the country. Plan a stop at one to pick up your lunch, give the kids a chance to stretch their legs, and maybe even visit with some farm animals. Bet they won’t complain as much about the drive!
- And of course, there is always the old standby of packing a picnic lunch. Our car is so small that we don’t always have room for a cooler, but if you do, fill it with all kinds of the best yummy lunch stuff. And you don’t have to make it yourself if having one more thing to do is too much – stop by a local deli on your way out of town and have them prepare the sandwiches.
Follow these simple steps and you can travel knowing that you have helped out the local economy of a community like your own (and maybe had some local food too!). You also won’t have a backseat full of plastic toys. Well, you might still have the latter, but at least they will be the ones you packed or bought as souvenirs and not ones that came with the fries.