There is a certain inevitability to ending up at McDonald’s when you travel. McDonald’s is everywhere like other restaurants usually are not. Sometimes other restaurants are, but they are only regionally ubiquitous. Not McDonald’s.
And I have nothing against McDonald’s. I enjoy it, especially for breakfast. I like how it is quick and you can always count on it to taste the same. There is much to counting on the taste that you expect. I have never had any really bad experiences there except that I worked for McDonald’s for a while during my sojourn in Bible School and I learned to be a little more laid back than I would be otherwise and to manage teenagers that appeared for work on drugs and old men who appeared for work mostly drunk or thoroughly hung over. It was good, though not financially rewarding.
But going to McDonald’s is usually nothing to write home about. As I said, there is a certain inevitability to ending up there when you travel (unless you go out of your way to avoid it), and it is that inevitability that makes the choices surrounding those inevitable times when you do go to McDonald’s stand out.
Avoiding McDonald’s for breakfast, we ended up driving dubiously up to the parking lot of a Cracker Barrel. We were dubious because their signs were not lit, though the interior appeared to be, and the parking lot had parked vehicles. It turned out to be open.
It turned out to be very prepared for business. What was memorable there was the service and the fireplace. Yes, they had a great roaring fire in the fireplace and I found it enormously congenial to be in the same room. (They also still had smoking there, on the border of Indiana, near Ohio.) We had prompt and solicitous service and left very pleased. As long as the service is good, the food meets expectations (one doesn’t, at such places, expect anything more exotic than the flavor of black pepper which seems to be what coordinates every dish but one expects fresh ingredients, mostly), and they have a roaring fire, who cares if the countrification is laid on a bit thick otherwise?
Dense fog enveloped Madison near sunset. We stopped at a hotel, settled in, and probably because we had had McDonald’s for lunch and also because it had been a long time ago and Chinese is plentiful, we decided to look around for a place of that sort called Imperial Garden. The fog betrayed us and we ended up going the wrong way. When we returned to the right road we saw nothing but restaurants of the more conventional variety until having circled for an uncharacteristically long time (I become impatient with anything that is not direct. I have been known to drive to an appointment, wait two minutes, and then depart because people did not go to the trouble to be punctual. When searching for places to which we do not need to go, I usually settle on something I can find if I can’t find what I’m looking for. I have great impatience with dithering of any sort. And after a day of sitting in the car . . .) it was spotted in the fog.
Not many Chinese places to which I go are actually decorated as such. This one at first gave me the impression of being a Japanese place, and perhaps less casual than I had hoped. It was nicely appointed, but not at all stuffy. We stayed, we ordered, we ate; I marveled. It was one of those meals the which grows, perhaps in the remembering of it. And long will I remember it; it was one of the most memorable meals of my life: the shrimp, the excellent rice, the beef, the chicken, the water chestnuts, onions and peanuts. It does not sound like much, but these simple things were transported, perhaps by the sauce, by the hot peppers, by the skill of a gifted cook. I ate it all with much rice (fifty fifty is the ratio I try for, or perhaps more on the rice end of things: sixty forty). Ah, the shrimp! I bet if I go back I’ll be disappointed as my memory has probably by now caused that meal to undergo a certain apotheosis. But if I am in the area and the circumstances have placed upon me sufficient hunger, I will have to return to that magical place.
(Speaking of shrimp, I had eggs benedict with shrimp in another part of Wisconsin. Wonderful. Strange notion, I know, but that adventure came as a result of my incapacity to putter over any decision and I had no idea they were included. Bad roads in Wisconsin; ugly people too, but what shrimp!)
I love to go downtown, as some may have gathered by now. In the cold the city steams, the sunlight comes in the glass very cheerfully and when the snow falls past the skyways . . . well. Around 10:30AM all lunch is preparing, and the smells begin to fill the skyways.
I’ve not been the sort of chap, previously, to get too excited about buying pizza by the slice. It just seems a losing venture, meager, bound to disappoint. But recently the size of the pieces caught my eye, and the notion of eating in the skyway also caught the eye of my imagination. Most of the eating space in the skyway is crowded, but some of it comes with views, interesting corners tucked away, and whatever mystery that great, interconnected warren of glass and steel and carpeted ways and lights and decorations and people full of purpose holds for me. So we went, and used the downtown post office—a nice place but run by the US government, alas: it has seen better days.
That involved a walk all the way from one end of town to the other through the skyway, and plenty of time to see who was preparing what so that on the return, with the lunch hour still in its early stages, we found a good place to order pizza by the slice and sit at a counter with a view to the world outside. Very pleasant. The only thing worse than homemade pizza (anybody’s homemade pizza) is the kind that is bought in the grocery store and ought to be forbidden. Pizza was made to be made in a shop and purchased hot. It was astonishing, and large, my piece, and not too much. It was an experience worth repeating.
If you are in the skyway ever and have hunger, I urge you to try a slice of pizza there, even if you are alone.
Let me close by venturing a little piece of advice that nobody will be able to dispute and which is amusing. When examining a place of eating, look at the size of the clientele. Of course, make sure there is clientele. I mention this because I noticed in the skyway a place with a long line right beside another place where the poor chap was standing behind his counter rearranging his food and waiting for patrons. But my advice is to avoid places where all you can see is skinny people picking in their finicky way at whatever is being served at the joint. Follow the hearty chaps, you won’t go wrong.