Southern Kitchen, New Market VA

(Honeymoon flashback: In July 2009, Marie and I took a road trip up to Montreal and back, enjoying some really terrific meals over our ten-day expedition. I’ve selected some of those great restaurants, and, on the first day of the month, we have been telling you about them.)

A couple of weeks ago, when I wrote about Old Clinton Bar-B-Q, I had cause to mention a wonderful book by John T. Edge called Southern Belly. If you enjoy the hobby of road tripping and eating and loving our culture, then you definitely need to buy this book! Our friends CB and Elizabeth gave it to us along with some other great books as a wedding present, and when I was mapping out our trip, I consulted both the first print edition of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives and Southern Belly for inspiration about where we should stop. I found Southern Kitchen in New Market within its pages, and realized that the best way to get from Baltimore to Asheville would take us right by it.

We left Baltimore in the late morning, having no idea what would befall us on the northern “beltway” around Washington, D.C. As everybody who has ever fought around this monster trying to get to I-66 on the west side of town knows, it is a complete logjam whenever the sun is up. We grumbled and scowled through what felt like hours of gridlock before we finally got a move on. I-66 runs through very pretty country before reaching I-81. Of course, looking at Google Maps with hindsight, we probably should have cut off a mammoth corner by taking US-231 straight to New Market. I bet there’s plenty of lovely country that way, too.

The restaurant is not far at all from the interstate, in a small, lovably old town called New Market. The sign is unmissable, a gorgeous, gigantic neon contraption erected shortly after the current owner’s parents opened the place in 1957. It’s a classic southern diner, with funny old formica tabletops and a menu full of meat-and-three staples, done right and done well.

I had country ham, served with a slice of pineapple, and stewed tomatoes, and really liked them both a lot. Marie had fried chicken that was simply out of this world, although she was less taken by the side of corn, which didn’t taste to either of us like it was all that fresh. Still, the chicken more than made up for it. But the real winner here was the bowl of peanut soup that I had before my ham arrived. I had never had this before, and I don’t know that I’ve seen it on a menu since, as it apparently is a specialty local to Virginia. It was thick and creamy and completely wonderful. I would love to have this again one day, and hope that wherever I do find it, it is as good as this was.

Now, while I did remember to order peanut soup from this place based on Edge’s recommendation, I unwittingly let my poor memory bring out the grouchy in our server. I recalled that, as the book was laid out, the page opposite the entry for New Market’s Southern Kitchen talked about the difference between Virginia Brunswick stew and Georgia Brunswick stew, with a local dismissing our take as being more like chili, and at least people in Kentucky have the decency to call their similar concoction burgoo instead of pilfering the name of their thick brew.

Misremembering, I took this to mean that I could try the Virginia style here at Southern Kitchen. I mentioned to our server that I had thought that they served stew, but did not see it on the menu. She told me that they did not. I apologized, and thought that I read somewhere that they did. “Well, you read wrong,” she said, curtly. Turns out she was correct, but I found the sassiness disagreeable. We made sure to compliment all the rest of the food and thank her for an excellent meal.

I would like very much to spend some time in Virginia getting to the bottom of the differences between our supposed styles. I have mentioned before that the thick, gooey stew at Sprayberry’s Barbecue in Newnan is said to be more akin to the Virginia standard, but there are so many other varieties of stew at so many other restaurants that I really would not agree that there’s a consistent Georgia (or Glynn County) style. Whether you’re talking about the chicken and tomato-heavy mix at Harold’s in Atlanta, Speedi-Pig in Fayetteville and Turn Around in Tallapoosa, or the vegetable soup proxy at Vandy’s in Statesboro or the creamed corn base of Zeb’s near Danielsville or any of the dozens in between, there’s a whole book to be written on the many ways that Georgians do it. I wish that I had read a little more closely, and planned to stop somewhere else off I-81 and find the real Virginia thayng.

This wraps up our Honeymoon Flashback series a little earlier than planned! I had intended to tell you next month about the snack that we enjoyed a few hours further down the road at a Tastee-Freez in Chilhowie, Virginia, but it has since closed, as has the place where we had dinner that evening, Fiddlin Pig in Asheville. The following day, we had a light lunch at Asheville’s Soda Fountain at Woolworth Walk, and an early supper at Knoxville’s Pizza Palace, both of which later got chapters of their own when we revisited them.

At any rate, it was certainly fun to look back at the great places that we enjoyed on our honeymoon. It really was a remarkably good road trip, and perhaps one day we’ll get to undertake something similarly huge. For the time being, we are sticking to the southeast, and there’s plenty more good eating to tell you about.

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Blue Moon Café, Baltimore MD

(Honeymoon flashback: In July 2009, Marie and I took a road trip up to Montreal and back, enjoying some really terrific meals over our ten-day expedition. I’ve selected some of those great restaurants, and, once per month, we’ll tell you about them.)

Have you ever noticed that the best of families just don’t want to risk anybody going hungry? We had stayed on the Thursday night with Marie’s Aunt Bertie and Uncle Bruce in Philadelphia, and we made certain they knew that we had breakfast plans in Baltimore, but Bertie just didn’t like the thought of us leaving town without something to eat. We woke a little before seven and there was an amazing spread of cheese and fruit waiting for us. We settled in and relaxed for a while. We wouldn’t be getting out on the road for a little bit yet.

Again following a recommendation from Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, we made our way down I-95 to the Fells Point neighborhood of Baltimore, and had our second breakfast of the day at Blue Moon Café. This place is, again, completely wonderful and completely justified the attention. Obviously, that show’s researchers do their work and pick great places, so nobody looks stupid when tourists show up to try restaurants out.

It was packed; we had about a twenty-minute wait and it almost immediately turned into an hour wait behind us, but the staff works their socks off and are downright excellent at their jobs. Wonderfully, we were seated at the counter and could see the cook singing and dancing to every single song played on that Jack-FM station while we were there, prepping and stirring and slicing with abandon and flourish. We had a great time. And the food…?

Decadent as hell. That’s an order of Cap’n Crunch French Toast and while all the walking we did mostly counteracted the food we ate, the pound that I did gain from all this eatin’ came from this thing. AND I WOULD DO IT AGAIN.

Unfortunately, Blue Moon seems to be just as well known for their line as their food. Reading what other bloggers have said, I’m incredibly grateful for only having to wait twenty minutes. Close to two hours seems to be the norm! I think that if you’re visiting Baltimore, I’d plan to go on a Wednesday or Thursday. Go on the weekend and you’re probably giving up a huge chunk of your day.

This stop turned out to be one of the most personally satisfying little chunks of the road trip, because the restaurant was literally three blocks’ walk from the stretch of road and the great old building on the waterfront where Homicide: Life on the Street, the best program ever made for American television, was filmed. It was so wonderful to walk around that place, where all those amazing actors had worked, and catch a little of the harbor breeze. It was a really nice day for it.

Nifty Fifty’s, Philadelphia PA

(Honeymoon flashback: In July 2009, Marie and I took a road trip up to Montreal and back, enjoying some really terrific meals over our ten-day expedition. I’ve selected some of those great restaurants, and, once per month, we’ll tell you about them.)

So a month ago, I wrote about how Marie and I stopped by the terrific Little Hut Sandwich Shop for lunch before going to visit her aunt Bertie and uncle Bruce in Ridley Park. There was one other stop that we wanted to make before we went looking for their house, though. We asked the staff at Little Hut whether there was a Best Buy in the area. We were having a small issue with Marie’s laptop that required a little help from the Geek Squad.

Happily, one was not far away at all. They directed us to take a left at Lincoln, and travel in the direction that we were heading anyway, and go about three miles to Baltimore Pike, I think, and take a right. So we enjoyed that tremendously good sandwich and resumed our drive. We noted the place where we’d turn to get to Bertie and Bruce’s on the way back, and then saw a remarkably neat building on our right. I didn’t know what we would be doing for supper – it turned out that Bertie had some wonderful curried chicken salad waiting for us – but I knew exactly where I wanted dessert.

This was Nifty Fifty’s, and they have a few locations, apparently five, in the area. Basically, it’s a neon-flooded fifties-style diner, extremely popular with teens, and they do desserts worth driving a hundred miles for. I’ll have to disagree with the otherwise excellent review at Burt’s Food Blog about the feel of the restaurant. It’s fifties-style in the same way that the Johnny Rocket’s chain is, filtered through 1985’s window of nostalgia into the past.

I’d really like to try the burgers and fries at Nifty Fifty’s, because the drinks and desserts are just amazingly fun and decadent and delicious, and the service first-rate, suggesting that the kitchen might be relied upon for some more successes.

Amusingly, they claim to be the world’s largest soda fountain, on account of their willingness to mix flavors and give you everything from Lemon Dr. Pepper to Cherry Chocolate Cola to, errrm, Toasted Marshmellow Soda. I tried this one, against our server’s advice, and can confirm it was every bit as gloriously awful as I hoped. But the chocolate ice cream soda was more than worth the trip. Bertie had a big ole ice cream sundae and Marie had a chocolate banana shake, and we were all very pleased and stuffed. If the road ever takes us back towards Philly, I hope that we can return to Nifty Fifty’s.

We took lots of pictures, but, well, we’re in all of them. We hadn’t formalized taking pictures of our meals yet, so you’ll just have to imagine a crowded, bright interior with a pink neon glow illuminating everything. It’s not authentically 1950s, but it’s delicious all the same. I strongly recommend travelers stop by one of these places for a meal. They’re open all hours, serving their giant milkshakes and burgers.

Little Hut Sandwich Shop, Philadelphia PA

(Honeymoon flashback: In July 2009, Marie and I took a road trip up to Montreal and back, enjoying some really terrific meals over our ten-day expedition. I’ve selected some of those great restaurants, and, once per month, we’ll tell you about them.)

Our friend Chris in Jacksonville has lived all over the place, and he’s got relations and aunts (he pronounces it “onts,” magically) and kinfolk all over, so he’s a pretty reliable source for getting ideas about where a fellow should visit. When Marie and I let our friends know about the honeymoon road trip, Chris was among the first people to make a suggestion. Since we were going to be visiting Philadelphia to see Marie’s aunt and uncle, we needed to swing by the Little Hut Sandwich Shop in Ridley Park, which is not far from where they live. Apparently, Chris is under strict orders to always bring his grandmother a big cheesesteak from this little takeaway counter whenever he visits.

Boy, you want to see people fight? City of Brotherly Love my eye, you just watch what happens when a newbie wanting to visit Philadelphia asks where he should go to get an “authentic” Philly cheesesteak. I think fans of one shop literally drive across town and beat people up for what was said on the internet about somebody else’s. I once defended Roy’s Cheesesteaks here in the ‘burbs of Atlanta as being as authentic as what you can get in Philadelphia, as Roy is actually from Cherry Hill. One guy told me “he isn’t there any more, is he?” and another said that Cherry Hill’s not Philadelphia. I took a lesson from internet fights that I once spent far too long fighting, and withdrew after the first round.

Oh, we just had a ball getting to this place. See, I printed maps of each little area that we would visit and, naively, assumed that you could just take I-95 down from New York into Philly. The Jersey Turnpike isn’t really I-95, even though it’s the same road. To continue on I-95, you actually have to detour onto one of a number of perimeter highways. Thankfully, Marie had to foresight to buy an atlas just in case, and pointed out that if we continued south on the Turnpike without exiting, then we would end up in Wilmington without seeing Philly at all. This remarkably confusing problem is detailed at Wikipedia across several pages; in short, this is one of the only interstates in the country that has two separate legs, and requires drivers to use other highways to get from one to the other.

Detouring via, I think, I-195 and I-295 around Trenton just to stay on the road we wanted was actually the second weird disappointment of the day. After our wonderful trip to Boston, we drove as far as someplace in Connecticut called Cromwell for the night. We had slept pretty decently at a Super 8 and looked around for some breakfast. I can’t remember where we ended up and I’m hesitant to name it for fear of shaming the wrong place, but it was a diner and Marie wanted pie for breakfast and they served her a piece with mold on it. Seriously.

The morning was spent driving through northeastern sprawl. The highway skirted around New Haven for the most part, and then through the disagreeably ugly Bridgeport. In time, I-95 carried us through the Bronx and Queens (cue the customary verse of “Dose Were Da Days”) and across the George Washington Bridge, eventually putting us onto the Jersey Turnpike. If you remember July 2009, you might recall that the feds came down on a half-dozen or more elected officials in New Jersey for corruption. I had a little frisson of excitement hearing about this on the news as we continued, but happily, we made it out of the state before the FBI closed the borders or anything to stop any of these crooks from leaving town.

We got to Philly a little after one. The northeastern neighborhoods are ugly as sin, but the downtown is breathtaking, the bridges are gorgeous and I love how all the ballparks and arenas are in one area. We got a glimpse of the Spectrum, which was demolished about a month later. We made our way to Ridley Park and found Little Hut very easily. The teeny place only does carry-out orders, though they do have a picnic table outside.

After enjoying some great conversation with the couple who were working the counter and learning about their shop, Marie and I split a giant mushroom cheesesteak and it was just amazingly yummy. The bread was soft and chewy, and the meat was seasoned just right. Neither of us had a cheesesteak that good before, and, other than Roy’s, haven’t had one that good since, although Woody’s comes pretty close. We had a bag of Herr’s brand chips and washed it down with a Hank’s orange cream soda. Amazingly, Marie’s aunt and uncle live only about two miles from Little Hut but haven’t got around to trying them. We made sure to let ’em know where to go next time they get a hankerin’ for a steak sandwich like this.

The Friendly Toast, Boston MA

(Honeymoon flashback: In July 2009, Marie and I took a road trip up to Montreal and back, enjoying some really terrific meals over our ten-day expedition. I’ve selected some of those great restaurants, and, once per month, we’ll tell you about them.)

In the last honeymoon flashback, I told you about the breakfast that we enjoyed on the fifth day of our trip, at Manchester’s Red Arrow Diner. After that, we buckled up and got back on I-93 and drove south to Boston, where our friends Mike and Prairie live. Technically, they live in Cambridge, and lent us a guest parking pass for our dashboard so that we could avoid the pretty crippling parking charges in this place.

You may have heard that driving in this city is something of a challenge. You may have also heard that I don’t much like driving in Toronto. I would rather drive blindfolded in Toronto than mess with Boston traffic again. Between poorly-marked streets, traffic circles, traffic triangles, and what Prairie explained to us as a general understanding in the city that there is always one more lane than is actually marked, I was a little “country mouse in the city”-ed by the town. Turn signals, in Boston, are for the weak. Prairie was good enough to set us up with a Charlie Card and directions to get our walking tour started, intending to meet up with her and Mike that evening. Actually, it’s okay that Boston is a driver’s nightmare, because the city has an awesome public transportation grid and is very pedestrian-friendly. We walked a few blocks through Cambridge to Harvard University, looked over the cool buildings and then did a little shopping.

There are two comic shops within a baseball’s throw of each other here. New England Comics was pretty darn good for what it was (principally mainstream stuff), but Million Year Picnic was the real revelation. I’ve heard of this store many times over the years and it didn’t disappoint – they have a fantastic collection of books from publishers across the spectrum. They carry 2000 AD, always a pleasure to see, and I found two books here that I didn’t even know that I wanted. Both of these shops are within one minute’s walk of the Harvard T station, so we took the subway across the river to city center and found our way to the visitor’s center, where the Freedom Trail tour starts. We walked the first mile-and-a-bit of the trail, enjoying several gorgeous historical buildings and sites. I was particularly intrigued by the cemetary where Paul Revere and John Hancock are buried, which is full of gorgeous old headstones with Puritan death-markings. There were lots of winged skulls in evidence, as opposed to the cherubic angels which would dominate cemetaries in time.

Eventually, the Freedom Trail brings you to Fanueil Hall, which was the old Boston merchant marketplace and which is now an indoor/outdoor mall. We got sandwiches from one of the shops in the food court – it didn’t look like a chain, anyway – and concluded that we probably couldn’t walk the next giant leg to get to the USS Constitution and back before 6 pm. Besides, our feet hurt. So we took a water taxi (after some map confusion as to where, exactly, it landed) across the harbor to see where Old Ironsides is docked, undergoing renovations.

The tour took a lot longer than planned, although it really was fascinating. Our feet were pretty darn sore by the time we got back to Fanueil Hall. There, the formerly-local singer Bleu was giving a well-received instore at Newbury Comics, which is less a comic shop than a CD/gift store. As a comic shop, it’s not bad, but seriously overshadowed by others in the city. Mike and Prairie are big fans of Bleu, so we found them, snapped some pictures, enjoyed his music and bought his latest album.

The rest of the evening was great fun. We walked over to the old Customs building, which is now a Marriott property, but they keep the historical interior up and open to the public, and then down to where they were parked. We drove back out to Somerville (which is a separate town, but feels just like another neighborhood since Boston is so agreeably filled-in) to visit Mike and Prairie’s favorite comic shop, Hub Comics. Knock me down if it isn’t just a hair better than MYP, in my opinion. Of course, I might be biased by their having one of the 2000 ADs that Diamond did not ship to us down here in Georgia, but it really is a terrific shop, with a whole pile of stuff. Regardless which of the two you prefer, Boston is certainly home to two of the five best shops in North America, I’d say. (But then, I’ve never visited Isotope… yet!)

For dinner, we went to Friendly Toast. Prairie and Mike offered the caveat that the original location, in Portsmouth NH, is even wilder and better, but what you get in Boston is pretty wonderful, too. The interior is just a museum of crazy found objects and pop culture detritus, and the food is great, too. Inside, it looks like a cross between Lynn’s Paradise Cafe in Louisville and The Grill in Athens.

The Friendly Toast was quite new to Boston when we visited – the restaurant had only been open for about three months – but it had a wonderful reputation already. The owner, Melissa Jasper, had been collecting all the fun and silly decorations for years, and well-wishers had much more to give her when word got out that she was starting a second location in Boston. Nevertheless, the launch was kept pretty quiet. Word only leaked about the second store’s opening in February, and they were up and running before the end of April.

Since then, Friendly Toast has been racking up awards. The Boston Phoenix, and several of its rivals, calls it the best breakfast in the city. Esquire and TV’s Good Morning America call it one of the best breakfasts in the nation. Everybody wants to sample their King Cake, which is a pancake made with bananas, chocolate chips, peanut butter syrup and bacon.

Bucking the trend, we were actually in the mood for supper, though I believe breakfasts here are available all day. We shared some cheese fries which were served with a strawberry habanero sauce – far better than the name might imply – and my burrito with corn salsa was gigantic and tasty. Of course, now that I have read some reviews and looked over their menu in more detail, it looks like I missed out on quite a lot. It might be a long time before we can justify going back to Boston, but I figure that I know for that next time.

The Red Arrow Diner, Manchester NH

(Honeymoon flashback: In July 2009, Marie and I took a road trip up to Montreal and back, enjoying some really terrific meals over our ten-day expedition. I’ve selected some of those great restaurants, and, once per month, we’ll tell you about them.)

We spent our fourth evening of the trip at a Super 8 in White Plains Junction, Vermont. The goal, as we left that state, had been to get as close as we could to Manchester, the largest city in the northernmost three New England states, and have breakfast at the Red Arrow Diner. It took this long on the trip to turn up some of the restaurants featured in the first bookshelf collection of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. I read about this place and knew that I wanted to visit.

The Red Arrow Diner originally opened in 1922 but it has changed hands quite a few times over the years. Currently owned by Carol Sheehan, the joint has a huge following of traveling foodies and late night guests, all of whom are looking for some awesome greasy spoon atmosphere and some really interesting items on the menu. Marie had pie for breakfast and I had a plate of what they call American chop suey, a big, heavy dish of pasta in a tomato sauce that probably wasn’t screaming out for me to eat it at 8 in the morning.

Somehow, I got the insane idea that, because it was breakfast time, I really needed to have a glass of orange juice with that. You know what would have been better? Any beverage. Anything.

Another specialty at Red Arrow are the Dinah Fingers, which are homemade Twinkies. If you’ve tried to eat a Twinkie in the last decade, you might have noticed that they don’t taste like Twinkies anymore, but some noxious concoction of chemical sludge. Dinah Fingers taste like you remember Twinkies tasting when you were a kid. We took a couple for the road, and they were really yummy.

We also got to overhear the most amazing conversation next to us, when the two locals with whom we were talking about Georgia greeted an old friend they’d not seen since he went to prison for killing a guy. So the three of them talked about life in “the joint” – they genuinely called it that – and the buck an hour he’d been earning in the prison library. Eventually I had to interrupt them to say that this was surely the finest conversation I’d ever overheard strangers having.

Thoroughly stuffed and pleased, we went outside to take some more pictures, and the Red Arrow’s owner, Ms. Sheehan, who was backing out on her way to some meeting, stopped to say hello and take one of us. That’s one thing we picked up from this trip: the restaurants featured on Guy Fieri’s show and tie-in book have had a tremendous, carry-on boom in business, and they certainly repay that with some fantastic hospitality.

The Kitchen Table Bistro, Richmond VT

(Honeymoon flashback: In July 2009, Marie and I took a road trip up to Montreal and back, enjoying some really terrific meals over our ten-day expedition. I’ve selected some of those great restaurants, and, once per month, we’ll tell you about them.)

A month back, Marie wrote up a chapter about our trip to Middlebury, and the details about the lunch that we had there kind of got lost in the nostalgia that she was feeling for her college town, and the great pleasure I was having wandering around and watching her smile. I remember that we left Mr. Up’s having enjoyed the food a good deal, and then forgot about it so thoroughly with everything else going on around that I asked her to do the writeup, since at least she could contribute a couple of college-days anecdotes.

After we finished in Middlebury, we drove back up US-7 to Burlington, stopping at Dakin Farm along the way. Digging into the goodies that Marie bought from this place later proved a pretty solid argument for moving to Vermont. You may not have known before now that there was such a thing as maple baked beans, but you can get them for $4.58 a can when you buy a dozen. You will want to do that.

Anyway, we got back to Burlington and went back up I-89 and crossed Lake Champlain, which is completely gorgeous, and found ourselves in some small farmland in the town of South Hero, where Marie’s college buddy Debbie lives in this really neat old farmhouse. Marie and Debbie had not seen each other in years and had lots of catching up to do. So we visited for an hour and a bit, and the ladies talked about spices and herbs and rubs and sauces and all sorts of cooking things. Marie tried selling Debbie on Penzeys and Debbie tried selling Marie on whatever spice company she likes, and neither were very successful. I figure, you find a spice company that you really like, you stick with it.

There isn’t anything to eat in South Hero outside of Debbie’s kitchen. There may not be anything to eat in Burlington, either, but I’m not sure. Debbie had something special in mind for supper, and it was a good forty minutes south of there. We gassed up before we got back on the interstate, where I confirmed a long-held theory that every convenience store in the state sells Moxie. I may not cotton too much to what damn Yankees think of drinks, but at least they have the sense to stock Moxie in every gas station. Man, I love that stuff.

Since, after dinner, we’d be making our way further south to New Hampshire, we took two cars. Marie rode with Debbie for the forty minute trip and I followed. I’d like to think they talked about old boyfriends and pranks they played on the dean, and that time they interrupted lacrosse practice driving some jalopy across the Middlebury field, but Marie politely insists that she was far too boring in college to get up to those sorts of hijinks, and just spent what little free time and money she had buying old books and fresh pastries from the bakery. She even once let me read her college journal to confirm how boring she was, but all I was able to confirm was that her illegible handwriting was even worse in the early nineties. Debbie politely stayed quiet on the subject of Crazy Marie stories. I’m not sure that’s fair; stories about me being drunk and stupid hang from every tree in Athens.

Anyway, for supper, we had the priciest and nicest meal of the trip. Debbie wanted to take us to The Kitchen Table Bistro in the town of Richmond. This place got a super write-up in The New York Times in December of ’08, and it’s well known in the region for being the best restaurant anywhere around I-89. All of their food comes from local farmers, so their menu changes completely in each season. Their salads are amazing and the ladies shared some pot roast which would knock you over with a feather. About a year later, I was very taken with the pot roast that they serve at the Smith House down here in Dahlonega, but it is a very distant second to how nice this meal was.

I read a review of this place which described the service as, and I love this, “unhurried.” The impression I get is this: if you are driving this far out of the way to have a dinner in a rustic old farmhouse with elegant furniture and nice tablecloths, you are not coming for a meal with the intent of getting on the road to someplace else quickly. No, you’re here for the night. We were seated promptly, and had a lot to talk about, and dishes were brought to us periodically, and we were there for the better part of three hours.

So yes, the bread was wonderful and the pot roast was amazing and the vegetables were fresh and incredibly tasty. The desserts are decadent like you wouldn’t believe, and appropriately portioned, unlike those giant things you pay too much money for and can’t finish like some places here in town.

But the winner? You see that burger in the picture below? That, my friends, that is the best hamburger on the planet. That is the finest burger I have ever eaten, and I say that having eaten an astonishing number of hamburgers in my life and living in a city with more great hamburger joints than anyplace else in America. It’s over, we can all go home and turn off the grills now. The Kitchen Table Bistro has won. Men should weep; I know I did.

I’ll digress here, for the benefit of Google surfers. I’m done talking about the Kitchen Table Bistro. Ours isn’t a “restaurant review” blog so much as stories about how our fun life intersects with restaurants, and what happened next was even more memorable and fun than the amazing dinner that we had in Richmond.

Marie mentioned in her chapter about Middlebury that she wanted me to tell the tale of that night, so here goes. It was around 10 p.m., a Tuesday, and we were setting out from Richmond in a pretty healthy shower, intending to make Lebanon, New Hampshire within a couple of hours to get some shuteye. What we learned was that while I’m usually good with staying awake until midnight with not much problem, a day as busy as this one wears me out quickly. Vermont itself does not help.

After about 45 minutes of interstate, my brain finally processed what it had not been seeing all along. Well, with the darkness and rain and practically no other drivers, and exits maybe every ten or twelve miles, Central Vermont was reminding me of that Atari 2600 game, Night Driver. Suddenly I realized why: there were no billboards. There is no roadside advertising of any kind in Vermont, nor indeed in New Hampshire and most of Massachusetts. Now, at least in those two states, companies can put their logos on the gas-food-lodging signs, but not in Vermont.

For about fifteen minutes, I thought this was a terrific idea. Vermont is completely gorgeous, and I’m glad the scenery is not spoiled by billboards, like it is down here in the south. But I started getting sleepy, and then I noticed the downside to Vermont’s strategy: my eyes were looking around for ads for motels and I only saw darkness. There is a slight advantage to having all these deeply ugly towns build up along I-75, with hundred-feet-high restaurant signs and light pollution turning the night into the ugliest Christmas tree you ever saw; at least you know there’s a darn Super 8 nearby.

Since you can’t even put a logo on a “lodging” road sign in Vermont, however, it’s a little tough to let drivers know you’re out there. All drivers get in Vermont is a little “bed” icon on a thin blue rectangle beneath the exit sign. (And not the “next exit 1 mile” sign, the “exit now” one.) Well, the next exit was for Northfield, and there was a bed icon, so I pulled off.

At the foot of the exit was a further sign telling us there was lodging five miles to the right, so we went that way. Again, it’s pitch black, no lights, pouring rain, and first we miss a turn where the road we wanted went right and we went straight, and then, once we got turned around, we went down the slope from hell. The sign said it was a 10-degree decline. Oh, the little rental Chevy was going to love climbing back up that.

After about four miles, we saw another little sign saying that some inn or other was a mile and a half on the right, on Prospect Street. This was as we entered the town of Riverton, which was the darkest I have ever seen a town. It is home to Norwich University, which was pitch black, like it had been abandoned long ago. (This much made sense, later. It turns out that is a military college, so of course they observe lights out very strictly.) There were no street lights, just pounding rain, although we did see one black-shirted teenager wandering around, wet, in the dark.

We turned on Prospect, and briefly saw several gorgeous, creepy old houses in the headlights. Then we found the hotel, which was the creepiest, oldest, darkest, spookiest house of them all. Words can’t do this justice. You ever thought horror writers were making up crazy-ass scary hotels miles from any highway? It’s true. I’ve seen this movie, and I know how it ends! I mean, the best we could hope for was the opening scene of Suspiria. Besides which, the Mystery Machine needed our parking place. This was not, to put it more directly, a hotel that looked anything like a desk clerk was still going to be awake for late, unexpected travelers. That it was a pitch black and spooky hotel somewhere in a pitch black and spooky town next to a pitch black and spooky college in a roaring thunderstorm just made it worse.

Debbie had earlier offered us couch space in her farmhouse. We declined because we had a breakfast destination in Manchester, New Hampshire, which is better than three hours’ drive from South Hero. I was starting to regret that decision a little. Next month, I’ll tell you how good the breakfast was, but right then and there, all I wanted to do was sleep somewhere safe, and not go pounding on the door of the dark, spooky hotel.

Thus adrenalized, we got outta town and climbed that 10-degree slope while the car sputtered and spat and hated every inch of it. We got back on the interstate laughing about it and were charged enough to drive for several more miles, before we pulled off at the next exit to ask a gas station clerk where the hell anybody was supposed to sleep in this state and not get done in by an axe murderer, and finally pulled into a Super 8 in White River Junction, just this side of Lebanon, completely exhausted and spent.

I have a lot of sympathy and enthusiasm for the no logo movement, and think that billboard companies are just about the worst things in the universe, and I love how unspoiled and beautiful the land up here is. It was not fun at the time, and that is a really long highway to go without a single chain hotel on it, but we’ve learned a lesson. In the south, we take easy-stop interstate hotels for granted. In New England, you make reservations. We’ll know for next time!