Extraordinary dining is not about category or price. This year I found it at farms and an aquarium, from rural Wisconsin to the seaside of Japan.
Café DUTCHess, Thorp: Cheesemaker Marieke Penterman’s goudas win international awards, and the family farm has a homey café where the cheeses show up in quesadillas to pancakes. Customers begin with coffee or tea on the house. Buy wedges and curds in the gift shop. Peek into a barn with observation windows on two levels, to watch the parade of cows being milked. Near mariekegouda.com
Club Touris, Olympia, Greece: Near the site of the original Olympic games is an engaging and no-pressure culinary immersion. Help roll filo dough as thin as paper, for cheese and spinach pies. Load classic fare (moussaka, stuffed grape leaves) onto your plate from the lunch buffet. Sip ouzo and learn lively dance steps after the meal ends. The cheery destination specializes in meals for tour buses, weddings and other groups. tourisclub.com
Con Huevos, Louisville: Colorful wall murals will get you revved up for the first or second meal of the day. Then the food arrives with more color and flair. Prepare for a deep dive into Mexican cuisine; flavors go way beyond the typical. Pancakes are made with three kinds of milk. One type of taco is filled with pork, tomatillo sauce and pickled onions. There are two locations in Louisville. conhuevos.com
Grandma Miller’s, Hancock: Next to a 2,500-acre Waushara County vegetable farm is a friendly market and restaurant with down-home cooking. Go for a slice of flaky pie and coffee, or a lunch that begins with a free tease of side dishes (for me: raw veggies with dill dip, pickle-pasta salad, a creamy peach-gelatin salad). Décor resembles a tearoom – linens, lace and a pretty mismatch of fine china settings. Near Interstate 39 and open May through October. grammamillersmarket.com
Kamo Aquarium Cafe, Tsuruoka City, Japan: The chef is a national award winner who teaches small groups how to make sushi, a hands-on class that is all about local ingredients. That includes the rice as well as the fish, caught in the Sea of Japan, visible from the café’s wall of windows. Feeling brave? Book a class to see a poisonous blowfish butchered; the meat is thinly sliced and arranged to look like a Japanese crane before anyone takes a taste. Arrange for an English translator before arriving. kamo-kurage.jp
Local Goat, Pigeon Forge, Tenn.: Much feels familiar in Pigeon Forge, which a colleague calls “Wisconsin Dells on steroids” because there is no shortage of thrill-a-minute attractions and chain restaurants. This Goat stands out because it is family-owned and devoted to going its own way. Think deep-fried deviled eggs, topped with sriracha and candied bacon. Or The Elvis, a burger with bacon, peanut butter and fried bananas. localgoatpf.com
Original Breakfast House, Phoenix: No one looks for surfboards in Arizona, but that’s part of the décor here because of the owner’s California roots. The unexpected shows up on the menu too: Spam and eggs (served on rice, with mango salsa and mojo sauce), smores waffles (expect campfire flashbacks), pork green chili omelets, key lime pancakes. Be patient: A wait for seating is not unusual. originalbreakfasthouse.com
Please, Cincinnati: The chef/owner, who has cooked at the James Beard House in New York City, has graphic arts training, which helps explain the artistry behind beautifully fussy, edible surprises. Served in a casual setting with 30 seats (that doesn’t count the 12-seat bar that serves craft cocktails). The a la carte food menu is big on small plates, and choices change often. One earthy example: honeydew with burrata, sorrel, shiso and black sesame. Consider it intimate dining with a petite, precisely executed menu. pleasecincinnati.com
Range Café, Bernalillo, N.M.: An abundance of offbeat, locally produced artwork turns this fun restaurant into an attraction. Order blue corn pancakes with pine nuts and blueberries, or green chile chicken stew. Oversized cinnamon and caramel rolls, pies and cheesecakes are baked daily onsite. The Bernalillo location, one of four in and near Albuquerque, was the first. rangecafe.com
RED, Madison: Near Capitol Square is a popular sushi restaurant that consistently delivers tasty sustenance creatively and in a sleek setting. RED stands for Refreshing Elegant Delicious, and you don’t need to love raw fish to appreciate the offerings. Keep the price down by lunching with friends and sharing a couple of Two Roll Lunch specials: Choose from at least two dozen raw, cooked, vegetarian and vegan combos. red-madison.com
Santa Fe School of Cooking, Santa Fe, N.M.: In New Mexico is deep pride for homegrown ingredients – green chile, red chile, blue corn tortillas and more. No place runs with this love more, via Southwest cooking classes that last two or three hours. Themed dinners and culinary tours are arranged too. Or simply swing over to shop for your kitchen: The school’s boutique is big on regional foods, cookbooks, gadgets and equipment. santafeschoolofcooking.com
Two Olives, Wichita: Two sisters from Beirut share longtime family recipes and add contemporary twists. In their repertoire is a seemingly endless assortment of hummus that changes with the season’s ingredients. Go for the classic Mediterranean fare – tabouli, lamb kefta, baba ghanoush – and to experiment. Examples: brisket shawarma, green garbanzo falafel tacos, hummus nachos. The restaurant was the first to earn a four-diamond rating in Kansas. twooliveswichita.com
“Roads Traveled” columns began in 2002. These articles are the result of anonymous travel, independent travel, press trips and travel journalism conferences. What we choose to cover is not contingent on subsidized or complimentary travel.