It’s a common saying that “truck drivers know all the good places to eat”. This is actually pretty much true, at least for places with truck parking. Drivers, like most people enjoy a good meal. So, how do they know where to eat?
For drivers on a regular route, it’s pretty simple. Either trial and error, or word of mouth (or CB). Those of us who pretty much run randomly around the country have to use a different strategy. Here are some pointers I’ve learned over the years on picking a place to eat when you’re somewhere you’ve never been before.
First, take a look at the outside. It doesn’t have to be a brand new building, but it should look halfway decent.
Next, check the parking lot. If it’s around mealtime, especially dinner, look for local cars in the parking lot. The more there are, the better the food is likely to be. If the lot is empty except for the restaurant staff, you’re probably better off looking elsewhere.
When you walk in, take a good sniff. A restaurant that serves good food will smell good. If it smells bad in any way, shape, or form, turn right around and walk out. Even if the food was good, who wants to spend an hour in someplace that reeks?
The next thing to check is the cashier. Ideally, you want to see somebody paying their check. If the cashier asks “was everything alright” or words to that effect, it’s probably a good bet. The places with bad food generally know it, and get tired of hearing about it from their (probably very few) customers, so they almost never ask.
Before going to sit down, make a quick visit to the restroom. If it’s a smelly, filthy disaster area, turn around and leave. If they aren’t maintaining the bathrooms that their customers are going to see, it makes you wonder what their kitchen hidden away in the back looks like.
Then, take a look at the dining room. It should be clean and neat, with tables ready for customers. If there are a lot of tables covered with dirty dishes, that’s a warning sign. You should heed it and go elsewhere.
Even if a restaurant meets all of the above criteria, it’s still no guarantee of good food. I always ask the waitress how the food is, or how a particular menu item is. Usually I’ve gotten a reasonably truthful response. If you’re told that the food is bad, give her a tip for the tip and be on your merry way. Also be sure to ask what’s the best thing on the menu. Beware if she tells you that she doesn’t eat there.
I also have a rule, that if it’s not spelled correctly on the menu, I won’t eat it. For example, a Mexican dish came with “Pico de Gayo” (instead of Pico de Gallo – and in Texas too!). Another ( very expensive) restaurant offered “Tuna Tar Tar”. Sounds more like road patch, rather than a tasty Tuna Tartare. My philosophy is, if they can’t even spell it, can they make it properly?
Also, look for the cook. Eating at a place where the cook is skinny is risky. In my experience, good cooks are usually packing at least a few extra pounds.
Flies and roaches are an immediate trip to the D list. Yes, even the best of restaurants can end up with a fly on occasion, but the good ones hunt them down immediately. I don’t like competing with bugs for a meal.
After I leave a restaurant, I record comments on my trusty computer. I use the A,B,C,D system. “A” is for “Always stop and eat there, even if you’re not hungry. “B” is for “if you Be hungry, it Be ok to eat there. “C” is for “if you Cee this place, Ceep on trucking because the food is Crap. “D” is for “Don’t even think about stopping there, even to park. It’s pretty easy to get on my C and D list, and pretty tough to get on my A list.
Where possible, I prefer independent restaurants over the national chains, the idea being that the independent has to be better than the chains in order to compete with them. While this is frequently the case, it’s not a hard and fast rule. Some of the most horrendous places I’ve ever seen were independents. The chains are usually at least mediocre, but not always. Independents also frequently offer regional dishes that the chains don’t.
Bad food is something that I find particularly annoying, because there’s absolutely no excuse for it. I don’t demand gourmet cuisine — just food that’s properly prepared and tastes good. How hard is that? Evidently, pretty difficult for some restaurants. I don’t mind paying for good food, but I do expect value for my money.
Truckstop and restaurant managers, please take note: stops cost a significant amount of money in a truck. It can take from one to three gallons of fuel just to get a truck back up to highway speed after a stop, so the idea is to make every stop serve multiple purposes. If I’m going to have to eat elsewhere because the food is bad, I’m going to fuel elsewhere too. Even if the pump price is a little higher, it still works out cheaper by eliminating an extra stop. One bad meal, and you can end up on my C or D list. It’s the responsibility of management to make the food good, so if your cook is turning out garbage, then it’s your job to fix it. Read carefully the items I’ve listed above. If you fail any of them, then you’ve got trouble.
I hope this guide will help my readers find good food, and maybe even improve a few bad places.
Comments and questions welcome.