I’ve had the pleasure and good fortune to do a lot of traveling in my life and picking a place to eat on the road can be a bit of a crapshoot. For that reason alone, chain restaurants are great for their consistent food and menus, no matter what city you’re in-Bangor, Maine or Bangor, Michigan.
But if you’ll take a minute, get off the beaten path and stop to talk with the locals, you might find that a one-of-a-kind restaurant will satisfy much more than just your appetite. A little button that my hometown friend & restaurant owner Chef Robert St. John wears all the time sums it up, “Eat Local”– whether it’s locally grown food or at a local establishment.
If you’re ever in my neck of the woods, Hattiesburg, Mississippi, plan to stop for lunch or dinner at one of Robert’s restaurants: Purple Parrot Cafe, Crescent City Grill, Tabella’s, Branch or wet your whistle at his Mahogany Bar.
I can personally vouch for his food. My first job waiting tables was at the Crescent City Grill. My favorites are too many to mention, but any of the fresh catches with their signature jumbo lump crap meat toppings are just fantastic. And if you want to try authentic gumbo, get a bowl there because the roux is darn near perfect. Robert St. John has been feeding my family and south Mississippi for 25 years. Nothing better!
Local restaurants walk to the beat of their own drum instead of corporate protocol, so they’re able to tailor their menu to the locale. This makes for unique food and a character-filled atmosphere. Some of these eateries even change their menus based on what’s available and in season.
I’ve traveled for years doing red carpet arrival shows, GAC ‘s Top 20 shoots and various specials for HGTV, Armed Forces Television, Travel Channel, etc. and all of that TV always makes me hungry! One of my ace cameraman traveling companions, Tom Zaleski was actually the one who really got me thinking about eating where the locals dine. While Tom and the producer were out scouting the shoot, I was scouting the local flavor for our group dinner that night. I’ve gotten to eat at many great independent restaurants…thanks in part to Tom & television 🙂
So that leads me perfectly to my second local suggestion. When the One Pan Nan crew & I traveled up to Indiana to pay a visit to Red Gold Tomatoes, they invited us for dinner at a well-loved place off the beaten path. If you’re up around Perkinsville, IN, Bonge’s Tavern is a place you should check out.
They obviously had the ‘Field of Dreams’ mantra in mind long before that movie came out because Bonge’s has been in business since 1943! They built it long ago and people have been coming ever since. It’s small, cozy, with lots of character and a central chalkboard menu with unusual fare. Charlie had the schnitzel-esque Perkinsville Pork and it was delicious. My order of homemade tomato soup, proudly made with Red Gold tomatoes which is in nearby Elwood, was memorable for its rich, multi-layered flavor. Someone said that even native Hoosier, David Letterman has dined at Bonge’s, so they’ve definitely built a solid reputation.
So, on your next trip to any city in our great nation, get some recommendations for dinner by asking a local where he/she eats and pay that establishment a visit. You’ll probably get a great meal and a truer experience of the town you’re in and you’ll be helping the local economy at the same time…instead of just passing through.