Lots of us have an appetite for the memorable when away from home, and sometimes we quell it with food. We remember – long after a meal ends – unique settings, unusual menus and who shares the experience. What you see and experience matter as much as what you taste.
I have numerous new-to-me spots to recommend before closing the book on 2018 and plunging into the new year.
Al-Ameer, Dearborn: No county in America is home to more Middle Easterners than the Detroit area’s Wayne County, and that is why this pleasant but modest, family-friendly restaurant began business in 1989. Since 2016, it is an America’s Classics winner, which is a lifetime achievement award from the James Beard Foundation. Translation: Hummus and falafal to kafta and kabobs are authentic and delicious. Wash it down with a just-made raw-juice blend. alameerrestaurant.com
Bodegas Monje, Santa Cruz, Spain: Green and red mojo sauces on a Canary Islands restaurant table is as common as ketchup and mustard in the United States. Learn how to make these oil-vinegar-pepper-spice combos in the homey dining room of this winery with gorgeous views of the Atlantic Ocean and Mount Teide, a volcano that is the highest point of Tenerife, the largest island. What else is cooking? Octopus lollipops prepared with saffron, for one. bodegasmonje.com/en
Campo di Bella, Mt. Horeb: The name means “beautiful field,” and the destination is one part farm, one part winery and one part farm-to-table dining. Fixed-menu dining for 30 at a time happens all year and often hits capacity quickly. Menus lean toward gourmet Italian, made with seasonal ingredients from the farm. Heritage-breed hogs and sheep, Jersey cows, heirloom produce and 300-plus grapevines are raised here. Stay overnight in a suite above the wine house. campodibella.org
delecTable, Madison: Fans of imported liqueurs, oils and vinegars know vomFASS as the place to shop, and now the University Avenue location has another reason to visit: food theater. The store’s retail products are used in occasional cooking classes and multi-course, themed dinners. Watch the chef at work while you sip and nibble. Show up early and settle in with a cocktail. Price depends on type of event and seating. delectablexp.com
Hopstix, Chamblee, Ga.: Asian ingredients and flavors influence both the beer and food made here, near Atlanta. Andy Tan uses jasmine rice, chrysanthemum petals and more in his microbrewery. In his restaurant kitchen is a robata grill (standard equipment in his native Japan). Count lobster corndogs, sashimi salad and chicken katsu among the creative, casual Asian-fusion fare. Not a beer drinker? Sample from an assortment of Japanese whiskey and sake. hopstix.com
Lambert’s Café, Sikeston, Mo.: Heading south along the Mississippi River? Take a quick detour and catch a part of your meal. Just look for the guy with a cart of still-warm dinner rolls. You want one? He’ll throw it, sometimes tables away, and that’s the routine for 70-some years. Expect big portions of downhome cooking (meat loaf, chicken and dumplings, hot beef with mashed potatoes). Calculated kitschy-clutter is one way to describe the fun décor. throwedrolls.com
Mabel’s BBQ, Cleveland: Chef Michael Symon, host of The Chew on ABC-TV, is a local boy who has made his mark with six restaurant concepts. This no-fuss approach to barbecue is one of them. Meats and sides are plopped onto a metal serving tray, diners eat at picnic tables, and the hip, chic-casual location is downtown. Expect a wait to order ribs by the half-slab, brisket by the half-pound, a kielbasa sandwich. mabelsbbq.com
Mad Ox Bakery, Council Bluffs, Iowa: The owners are comic book and superhero fans, which is reinforced by what adorns bakery walls, and the reading material. Customers are welcome to linger. Sure, you can order a chicken salad or pulled pork sandwich, but the big talkers are breads (jalapeno-raisin-pecan, for starters) and fat servings of bakery. That includes doughnuts (red velvet, bourbon-caramel-pecan) and bars (pumpkin, caramel apple). madoxbakery.com
Auberge Nicolas Flamel, Paris: Dinner doubles as a show of art in the city’s oldest stone house, whose history is as rich as the five-course chef’s tasting that is a standard offering. Or order off the menu, lamb shoulder to wild salmon. End with a soufflé. For kids: a Harry Potter menu (the restaurant’s namesake is a wizard in the book). The Michelin-starred restaurant, built in 1407, long ago was home to a chemist and philanthropist, who fed and housed the homeless here too. auberge-nicolas-flamel.fr
Plzenska Beer Hall, Prague: In the basement of the city’s Municipal House, a century-old concert venue, is a stunning mismatch of classy art nouveau décor and fun beer hall, complete with roving, polka-playing musicians. Expect hearty servings of sausages, goulash and spongy dumplings. Roasted duck is a specialty in this cavernous dining spot, which is not the only restaurant in the building. Time your meal to an architectural tour of the gorgeous building. plzenskarestaurace.cz/en
Seagrape Seafood Market, Palmetto, Fla.: Catch of the day? It’s in the seafood case, which is within eyesight from the dining tables. So buy local seafood raw and by the pound. Or eat it there, grilled and in a sandwich. Creamy lobster bisque is a specialty. Take time to chat with restaurant co-owner Helen Dixon, a marine biologist. Palmetto is about 20 minutes south of St. Petersburg, and most of that I-275 ride is over water. seagrapeseafood.com
Valley Inn, Milwaukee: Under the Wisconsin Avenue viaduct in the Menomonee Valley, between Miller Park and Miller Brewing Company, is Piggsville. The family-owned Valley Inn is the last bar standing in this flood-prone area, and it’s worth your time to visit for a soup-and-sandwich lunch. Much is made from scratch, portions are generous, and police officers are among the weekday fans. No website. Find it at 4000 W. Clybourn St.