We get the most out of a vacation when we’re able to get out of our comfort zones. The greatest travel delights wait or us when we experience things we have not experienced before, when we see grand and unexpected sights, and yes, even when we try out new foods that test our palates.
It may be tempting while on vacation to simply head over to the nearest fast food chain, and the same old recognizable “fast casual” diners we have back home. The menus are the same, the buildings look the same, and the waiters even say the same silly catch phrases that corporate headquarters requires them to say.
I saw the most egregious example of this phenomena in Thailand, home to some of the most exotic and challenging foods on the planet. The restaurants I visited in Bangkok gave me some of the most memorable food experiences of my life – but I met far too many Americans who either headed for the nearest American fast food chain, or worse yet, lived on bread and canned tuna because they were afraid to set foot in any restaurant at all. This of course, defeats the entire purpose of a vacation!
A vacation really isn’t a vacation unless you’re trying something new, and the last thing I want to hear when I’m on a trip are the words, “Do you want fries with that?“. You’ve already been to Applebees, McDonalds, and TGI Friday’s back home, you know what they have on the menu. Time to try something new. In China, I tried out a “thousand-year egg.” Although it’s unlikely I will ever eat one again because of its foul stench, I at least have a good story to tell. In Thailand, I enjoyed a meal of red ant’s eggs, which were surprisingly good. In Cambodia, we tried out a snack of salty fried fish skins with bones still on them, which people eat like potato chips. In Sweden I tried, at my cousin’s insistence, a bite of Surströmming, which is rotten herring which has fermented to such a degree that the can is bulging and ready to explode; and in Poland, we always spread seasoned lard on our bread instead of butter. And vodka. Lots and lots of vodka.
Such exotica may be hard to come by in the United States, but travel from Maine to California can still bring culinary delights to remember for years to come. On a recent trip to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, we found some of the most memorable one-of-a-kind restaurants, including the Blue & Grey Bar and Grill. They make burgers there – not so out of the ordinary, but the fun part is that the menu has a “Union” side and a “Confederate” side. I ordered a “Robert E. Lee” burger, which came with a tiny confederate flag in the bun; while my wife enjoyed a “General George Meade” off the Union side of the menu, which was of course, served with an American flag.
In Washington, D.C., we stayed at the George Hotel, a Kimpton property which has a fun George Washington motif throughout, and a homey custom of a complimentary happy hour with wine for all guests. We didn’t have to go too far for a unique dining experience, either. D.C. has some of the best restaurants in the country, and one of them is right inside the hotel in the Bistro Bis, a lovely French restaurant where I enjoyed an incredible confit de canard and my wife was thrilled with the boeuf bourguignon. It was even more special, because in our rusty little hometown in northern Indiana, the nearest French restaurant is 90 miles away in Chicago.
There’s something to be said for the comfort of the familiar, and I have to admit that despite my constant search for the exotic, we did pop in to TGI Friday in Manhattan for a Jack Daniels burger, and every now and then in Bangkok, I would get a hankering for a steak and would head to the mall to visit Sizzler. But the most memorable, exciting, and pleasant meals were had at unique, one-of-a-kind restaurants, ranging from street stalls in the back streets of Bangkok, old-world establishments serving wild boar that recalled days gone by in Krakow, and fine dining destinations in Washington DC and Manhattan where attention to even the smallest detail makes time there an experience unto itself.