2008: fine, unusual dining experiences

The world is full of wonderful ways to add calories in interesting places. Here are my top six dining experiences of 2008.

A $10 ticket buys all you can eat at the annual World Championship Chuck Wagon Roundup in Amarillo, Texas, where up to 40 teams cook outdoors over an open fire, using cast iron pots, just like cowpokes did during cattle drives in the 1890s.

It’s quite the cooking contest.

Everybody eats the same thing– chicken-fried steak, baked beans, mashed potatoes, biscuits, gravy and peach cobbler – but no two cooks prepare the meal alike. The $20,000 in prize money makes for tasty vittles. Veering toward the longest chow line isn’t a bad strategy, for starters.

The down-home event – with ropin’ and shootin’ demos, cowboy music and crafts – occurs the first weekend in June at Tri-State Fairgrounds. It commences regardless of heat or wind levels because, as an announcer explained, “when it was like this long ago, you had to cook anyway and you didn’t whine about it – you just did it.”

For more: www.visitamarillotx.com, 800-692-1338.

Kansas City goes hog wild over barbecue, and more than 100 restaurants specialize in it. You’ll find barbecue everywhere, fashionable shopping centers to dicey neighborhoods, so choosing the best joint can be overwhelming.

Friends steered me to their favorite: Oklahoma Joe’s, which is attached to a gas station that almost straddles the Missouri-Kansas border. Think fluorescent-lit convenience store, not grease monkeys and grease-dripping pork.

The pulled pork sandwich deserves to be the best seller. Garlicky pickle slices add kick. When a local defined this place as her favorite because “the barbecue is spicy without burning my head off,” I nodded in agreement, happily gnawing my way through a rack of smoked ribs.

For more about Oklahoma Joe’s, 3002 W. 47th Ave., Kansas City: www.oklahomajoesbbq.com, 913-722-3366.

Most brewpubs provide fresh ales, pilsners or porters in a casual setting. The grub is hearty and, especially in Wisconsin, more about fish fries and burgers than haute cuisine.

Going against the grain is Hinterland’s gastropub in the fashionable Third Ward of Milwaukee, where surroundings are laid-back but the fare unconventional and upscale. Hinterland also serves good beer and food at its 313 Dousman St. brewpub in Green Bay.

Consider these Milwaukee options: wild boar, potato-fennel chowder, grilled white sturgeon. Dine in the clatter of the main restaurant or at a more private chef’s table (to watch kitchen magicians at work).

For more about Hinterland, 222 E. Erie St., Milwaukee: www.hinterlandbeer.com, 414-727-9300.

Lovers of finely crafted textiles know that Avoca produces some of the world’s most exquisite handwoven woolen products. A visit to the Irish company’s 1723 birthplace and mill at a tiny town in County Wicklow reveals the range of what is possible.

Avoca also feeds its customers well, which I discovered while at the Kilmacanogue store this fall. Often simple recipes are prepared well and beautifully, typically using seasonal ingredients. My hot carrot-potato soup was so good that I bought an Avoca cookbook.

Avoca operates nine shops in Ireland and Northern Ireland, plus one in Annapolis, Md. Most have cafeterias. For more: www.avoca.ie, 353-1-286-7466.

The oldest restaurant in President Gerald Ford’s hometown – Grand Rapids, Mich. – flies low on the radar but packs ’em in for breakfast in Sundays. The Cherie Inn, operating from the same location since 1924, attracts a big mix of ages, skin colors and blue to white collars.

Simple tables and chairs look dated, and are. They are from the 1940s, made in Grand Rapids. The tin ceiling is older, and the neighborhood has morphed into a hub of boutiques and stylish restaurants, known as the East Hills district.

Scrawl your name on a waiting list and be patient; breakfast goes until 3 p.m. Most popular is the eggs benedict, plopped atop an English muffin and shaved ham. I opted for slightly crunchy pancakes of blueberries and granola.

For more about Cherie Inn, 969 Cherry St., Grand Rapids: 616-458-0588.

Getting into the holiday spirit while in Chicago was a piece of cake, thanks to the Walnut Room on the seventh floor of Macy’s, which uses 1,000 ornaments to doll up a 45-foot-tall Christmas tree.

The elegant, 450-seat dining room impresses at other times of year, too, and what an ideal place for girlfriends to take a break from shopping. On the lunch menu are comfort foods, with all entrees priced under $15. (Indulge in a lovely glug of Frango Coffee – that’s three liqueurs and whipped cream – for another $6.50, which includes a holiday mug.)

Creamy chicken pot pie comes with the house salad: greens tossed with sliced cashews, mandarin orange slices and a slightly sweet vinaigrette. Inside my ring of Swedish meatballs, each dabbed with lingonberry jam, were (real) mashed potatoes topped with paper-thin slices of pickle.

For more about the Walnut Room, 111 N. State St., Chicago: www.visitmacyschicago.com, 312-781-3139.

Observations are the result of independent travel, conferences of travel writers and press trips. Recommendations include, but are not limited to, subsidized and complimentary meals.