Thursday 20 October 2016

Florida: Diners, Dives and Luncheonettes

Everywhere I reviewed!
After suggesting you watch this space, I can only apologise for the three month silence. Unforgivable. However, I wasn't completely idle in Florida - after my occasional rants about online restaurant reviews (here, and here if you need a refresher) - I thought I'd give it a go myself.

It's not easy. I'm too English to give just anyone a five star review. I'm too polite to post a bad review. With just a few exceptions, it's a long list of four star reviews.

Still, I stuck with it and reviewed every place I ate and if nothing else it gives me a diary to look back on. If you'd like to read them too, I think this link to Google maps should work.

Angel's, Palatka
However there were two places I thought deserved more than four stars and four lines in a Google review. Not only was the food delicious, but they were historically interesting too.

The first is Angel's diner in Palatka. This authentic 1932 diner is far from the diner's spiritual home of the American Northeast. It also occurred to me that this is the first traditional diner I've eaten in.

A diner novice, I commented to the waitress that it looked like a train's dining carriage, and she agreed that it probably once was. As romantic as that notion might be, it's unlikely to be true.

In fact, it's much more likely that Angel's diner was prefabricated in a factory and shipped to Palatka. The long, carriage-like shape makes it much easier to transport on the back of a lorry or on a rail car.

See, it looks like a train!
The opportunity to make this shape a feature wasn't wasted by designers like Roland Stickney, who designed the iconic Sterling diner, heavily inspired by the Sterling Streamliner train dining cars.

It's unlikely Patalaka is an original Sterling - I'm sure I would have discovered if it was - but it's very much in the same style.

So in some ways, the diner is very much like the static caravan, much beloved of British holiday resorts (or, perhaps, the American trailer) - but with a bigger kitchen and booth seating - and delivered to wherever a local entrepreneur has bought land and thinks they'll have passing trade.

Seriously good onion rings
But what if you weren't just a guy with a dream and a patch of land? What if you already had a general story or a pharmacy (in the more wide ranging American sense). Well, that's where the luncheonette, or lunch counter, came in.

Arranged like a diner, with seats around a counter and using very similar cooking equipment, it could easily be added to any existing store with enough space.

Which one supported JFK's bottom?
Green's Pharmacy in Florida's Palm Beach is host to Green's Luncheonette, an institution that's been there since 1938.

Palm Beach was also home to the 'Winter White House', John F Kennedy's winter escape, and Green's hasn't changed an iota since JFK would come for a burger, fries and a chocolate shake.

I skipped the shake, but the cheeseburger would definitely take some beating. In upmarket Palm Beach, Green's was charmingly old fashioned without being 'retro'.

In fact, that was something rather pleasing about both Angel's and Green's - neither had succumbed to over restoration, neither had jukeboxes of 50s hits, nor pictures of Marilyn Monroe or Elvis.

It was packed!
Both had patina and been allowed to age gracefully. Both were also packed, so neither had to try too hard to attract the passing tourist dollar.

I am, of course, boiling up for a rant about over-restoration, about America's sometimes perplexing attitudes towards it heritage. But that's another post, for another time. See you in three months?

Friday 15 July 2016

Fun in Florida!

Another year, another margarita photo! Yup, we're back in Forth Worth's Stockyards and we're revisiting all our favourite haunts (if you need a reminder, read this post!).

The journey was relatively painless - although navigating rush hour Fort Worth from memory, with no GPS, was a challenge.

Google maps is awesome, but it does need a data connection and my phone provider let me down (naming no names, but the sum 1+2 = ? might give you a clue). I felt I earned that glistening goblet you see on the left.

But that's enough about Dallas - the title says "Fun in Florida!", and that's what I'm planning to have.

On Sunday I'll fly to Miami, the starting point of one of the USA's great road trips - south on US-1, across the bridges to Key West. So me, I'm going north!

I wouldn't say I'll be exploring 'undiscovered Florida' - this is a densely populated part of the US, popular with tourists from across the States and beyond. But I do plan to take the A1A north as far as I can, hugging the coast up to St Augustine - then a hop across the middle, and down the Gulf coast, picking up the Tamiami trail back to Miama. Only then do I feel I've earned the trip to Key West!

[The Route - every dot is a diner I want to try!]
What do I expect to see? Spaceships and alligators, the Everglades and urban beachside sprawl. I want to eat conch, frogs legs and crocodile. Florida has some classic 1930s diners that I'm itching to try - plus a restaurant that tries to include beer as an ingredient in every dish they serve.

I'm expecting mounds of crispy brown deep fried sea things, plus some of the freshest fruit in the US. I expect to hear Spanish in Miami, Salsa in Little Havana and dodgy 70s rock music in my car.

Watch this space!

Sunday 14 February 2016

How to be the Best Restaurant in America!

[Homeslice - best pizza in the world?]
Those of you that know me won't be surprised to hear I have a long list of fantasy road trips - and every now and then I'll see if they're still up to date, that nowhere has closed or gone down hill.

So I get to the Copper Top BBQ in Big Pine, a simple barbecue joint and possible lunch stop on US-395 (The 'Three Flags Highway') - and discover that not only is it still open, it's now the best place to eat in the whole of the USA.


Well, that's what readers of Yelp say - it tops their list of 100 best places to eat in the US. I already have a love/hate relationship with restaurant review sites and decided to investigate how this humble BBQ joint could become America's most well rated restaurant.

The journalists over at Slate have explained it best, and I fully recommend you go read their article after this, but here's my simplified take on it -

I'd written before that Americans love to give 5 star reviews and Slate say that over 40% of reviews on Yelp are 5 star. I've recently started using an app to rate beer and I've noted that my default review is always 4 stars.

Now, I'm a reserved Englishman, and that means I can't give anything a 5 star review (I'd reserve that kind of praise for the ambrosia of the gods, or the elixir of youth, should I find either). But I'm pretty free with my 4 stars. I like beer, and as long as the beer is okay, it gets 4 stars. Only if it disappoints me does it get less. And I'm rarely disappointed by beer.

[Really the best ribs in the USA?]
I think it's the same in the US - where their natural optimism and ebullience means that here, the 5 star review is the default. Hey, you're going out for a meal, the kids are with a babysitter, you're on holiday, you're on a date, you want this to be a good meal.

You want to give it 5 stars. And you will, unless something actually goes wrong.

So here's my four simple rules to having a well rated restaurant.

1. Make sure nothing does wrong. It's obvious, really, but - certainly in America - there's nothing like poor service to make you lose points.

Copper Top's owner gives away free food samples.

2. Don't be over ambitious. If your food truck serves hot dogs, and the hot dogs are tasty, you won't lose points. If I arrive at your food truck, and you confuse me with too many options, push me out of my comfort zone with venison sausages and sourdough rolls, and I don't like it, I'll dock you points.

Copper Top sell simple BBQ food on paper plates.

[Louie Muellers
is actually the best BBQ in the
entire world]
3. Don't be a local restaurant. I go to my local bistro once a month and always start with the risotto. I love their risotto. Last week the risotto was undercooked. I'm sad. There's a 3 star review coming now.

Instead, be a holiday restaurant. Ever noticed how fish and chips tastes better by the sea? You're relaxed, you want it to be good, and as long as it's not bad, it's best fish and chips ever.

It's possible that Homeslice in Austin doesn't make the best pizza in the world or that Riscky's in Fort Worth do the best ribs - but because I associate them with holidays, they'll always get 5 stars from me.

Copper Top is in the holiday resort of Big Pines.

4. Don't have your restaurant somewhere it rains. It's the holiday effect again. Rain makes us miserable. It's why there's fewer 5 star restaurants on the East Coast than the West. Chicago and New York both have world class restaurants, but the rain can wash away the occasional star, and that affects your averages. If you're thinking of opening a restaurant in Manchester, I simply say "don't".

Copper Top is, of course, in California.

So is all this advice true here in the UK? Well, here's the same top 100 list. (Relatively) warm and dry London dominates (just one restaurant in Manchester), as does simple comfort food. Number one is curry house Dishoom, and number two is a well regarded greasy spoon in Westminster. There's also pizza, two burger bars and a juice bar in the top 10 alone.

Need I say more?