Dining in Williamsburg

After a full day of exploring Colonial Williamsburg, I wanted to conclude my day trip with a nice dinner before heading back home to Northern Virginia. After looking at reviews in both TripAdvisor and Yelp, I thought of going to a restaurant called The Blue Talon Bistro for dinner. It is restaurant with French bistro fare, which I thought I would be willing to spend more on compared to an ‘upscale American fare.’ The reviews seemed to be more even in high ratings compared to a couple other upscale restaurants in town, and it did not seem to require reservation. Since the Blue Talon seemed to be a popular choice and it was a weekend day, I thought I would try to beat the dinner crowd and get there early when they start serving dinner. That would allow me to also finish early and drive home before it got too late in the day (I still had almost four hours to drive to get home).

I got done with my activities for the day by mid-afternoon. When I headed to the Blue Talon, I found out that they were serving lunch menu until around 4 pm, then they would close for an hour before starting dinner service at 5 pm. So I had some time to kill. Before the trip, I consulted a co-worker who went to school at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg to ask for her suggestions on dining options. Her suggestion already led me to a great lunch at MAD About Chocolate (the lunch was delicious, but the dessert was even more memorable to say the least). So I thought I would head to another place that she recommended that happened to be right across the street from the Blue Talon called Aromas Cafe. My friend said it was her favorite place to eat and hang out when she was a student at William and Mary.

So I spent about an hour or so at the Aromas Cafe. It was quite busy inside. They served light meals, pastries, desserts, and various kinds of gourmet coffee, tea, and other drinks. I was still pretty full from the lunch and (heavy dose of) chocolate cake from few hours before, so I only got a flavored iced tea to drink. There were no tables available inside, but they also had a couple of tables outside facing the street. That day they happened to have Oktoberfest festivities with beer tasting on the street, so there was no motor traffic allowed. So it was interesting to enjoy my drink while watching people passing by — tourists and locals alike.

Finally it came time to head across the street for dinner. The Blue Talon was pretty much like what I had expected from a French bistro. Good selection of French-classic fare served at a somewhat casual atmosphere. I ordered escargot as appetizer, calf liver for entree, and finished with a creme brulee. All pretty good, and I would consider the Blue Talon as a dining option when I am in Williamsburg again, however, I do not think there was anything particular about the meal that stood out as exceptional.

The photo below was taken at Blue Talon, and it was the one thing about the restaurant that seemed to be gimmicky but some people thought it was actually something unique… the ‘Historic Tap Water.’ The tap water was served in a bottle with blue talon logo on it and the small glass. Some people said it tastes better than normal water elsewhere. To me, it was just water, and it tasted good because I was thirsty. At least they did not charge extra for that.

Blue Talon

MAD About Chocolate

After spending the morning learning about the historical significance of the Siege of Yorktown at Colonial Williamsburg, I was ready to take a break for lunch before continuing the day with other events in the afternoon. A friend who went to William & Mary recommended to get the ‘Death by Chocolate’ dessert that Marcel Desaulniers created at Trellis. But since I was planning on eating elsewhere for dinner, I wanted to get a light, fast lunch instead, and as I looked for options on TripAdvisor, I discovered that Mr. Desaulniers apparently had come back from retirement and with his wife opened a small restaurant in Williamsburg called MAD About Chocolate. I thought that would be a great place for lunch as they also serve light dishes along with their chocolate-related creations.

The location of MAD About Chocolate is a little out of the way from the main commercial areas (DOG Street area), but it was within short walking distance. I thought it was actually nice to take a break from the big crowd.

The restaurant was small but had a very welcoming atmosphere. It was very nicely decorated in with lots of bright colors and patterns. I thought it went well with the ‘main attraction’ of the place, its chocolate-related products. The kitchen was right behind the counter, so you could see Mr. Desaulniers and his staff preparing the food for the guests.

I ordered the savory cheesecake of the day, which was served with salad and came out quite quickly. It was very delicious and perfect for a light lunch that still leave some room for dessert.

I also got the signature dessert, the MAD cake (I suppose it was their equivalence to the Death by Chocolate at Trellis). I underestimated the size of this dessert; one slice was big enough to feed four people, and that is probably how most people eat it (to share). I was alone, and I had this monster chocolate cake to eat.

I attempted to finish that cake myself as I still had another half day to walk around in Colonial Williamsburg and I did not want to tote around leftover chocolate cake (which I was not sure would still be good if not refrigerated). So I went through about half of the cake until one of the store staff who came to pick up my empty lunch plate asked if I wanted a to-go box for the cake. I declined and told her I would try to finish it, but she knew better and gave me a box anyway.

I finally gave up and took the rest of the cake in the to go box. I went back to my car at the Visitor Center and left the leftover cake in the back seat covered with a jacket, and that turned out to be fine. In hindsight, I should have just enjoyed small portion of the cake and take the rest home.

The cake itself was not only about quantity but also more about quality. I thought it was among the best chocolate cakes I had ever had, you could taste the high quality and the mastery of the preparation, and I did not feel sick of eating like what often time happened if eating too much of rich and sweet dessert. Below you can see the eight-layer chocolate cake next to my Blackberry smart phone for size comparison.

MAD cake

Cozy Dogs

Corn dog is a variation of hot dog where you have the hot dog wiener stuck on a stick, coated in corn batter, and deep fried. In the US, you can often find corn dogs at festivals or local fairs. If you ever had a corn dog, have you ever wondered who came up with the idea for a corn dog? When we looked for interesting places along Route 66, we found out a place that claimed to be the first to come up with corn dog. The place is called Cozy Dog Drive In, and it’s located in Springfield, Illinois.

Ed Waldmire Jr. and his wife Virginia opened up the Cozy Dog Drive In in 1946 after Ed came up with the idea for the corn dog and made it popular among the armed services after World War II. The place has been serving the corn dog that is called the Cozy Dog ever since, and during the heyday of Route 66 in 1950s, it became a popular landmark along the route.

Later on, Ed and Virginia’s son Bob ended up becoming a famous character along Route 66 as he open a restored store along the old Route 66 in Arizona where he lived during the winter time, and spent his summer driving up and down Route 66 on his VW van. Bob and his VW van became the inspiration for the character Fillmore in Pixar’s animated movie Cars.

We passed Springfield area around dinner time. We already planned to stay at my brother’s friend’s place in the suburb of Chicago for the night, and we wanted to meet up for dinner when we get there. But knowing that we wouldn’t be reaching Chicago area until close to midnight, we thought we would stop quickly at Cozy Dog Drive In in Springfield for some snacks.

We found Cozy Dog Drive In on the busy business street in Springfield. Today it looked like just another busy road in a city, but back in the day this was part of Route 66 that would likely be among the first stops traveler made when traveling from Chicago to Santa Monica.

The restaurant was similar to many local fast food joints, except that you could find some Route 66 memorabilia that would tell the story about the past. We ordered some Cozy Dogs and decided to take them to go to save time for the night.

The Cozy Dogs themselves tasted like what we expected of corn dogs. What made them special was the story behind the place where we got them. Now we could say that we’ve eaten corn dogs from the place that originated them all.

Cozy Dog Drive In

Snoots at Smoki-O’s

As we continued our coast-to-coast road trip on Route 66 into Missouri, we decided to drive through the state and selected St. Louis as the one place in the state where we would stop and get photos to represent Missouri in our Route 66 journey. We only had time to stop in one city as we passed Missouri that day, and St. Louis has the unmistakable landmark to photograph, the Gateway Arch, so that settled the plan pretty quickly. Since we would be reaching St. Louis in early afternoon, we thought it would be a good place to stop for lunch as well. The only question then was what to eat and where we would go for lunch.

When I thought of St. Louis in terms of food, one thing that came to mind was barbecue. St. Louis is not as famous for its barbecue as the city at the other end of the state, Kansas City. However, it has its own style of barbecue, and there is a delicacy that is associated to this city and the surrounding area, the barbecued snoots (grilled pig’s nose). It may sound weird, but apparently not to the locals there.

My brother and I tried out snoots once a couple of years before our trip when there was a barbecue festival in New York City where my brother lived. They had barbecue joints from all over the country coming in to represent their regional style of barbecue, and we saw one vendor from St. Louis serving snoots. We did try it there, but we thought it would be interesting to try the St. Louis-style barbecue again when we passed St. Louis. The only question was where we would go and try this out. Just like in many cities known for a regional cuisine, the locals have their favorite places, so you have to pick one in the end among many potentially good places to go.

While my brother was driving towards the city, I did Google search on my smart phone to look for options and people’s reviews on them. We finally settled on one place called Smoki-O’s that seemed to be located pretty close to downtown St. Louis (so we don’t have to go to far out of the way from the Gateway Arch where we wanted to stop and take photos). The place was also characterized as a ‘hole in the wall’ that is a favorite of many locals — which means it’s a ‘real deal’ and unpretentious.

We followed the Google Map direction to Smoki-O’s, and we ended up in a warehouse area north of downtown St. Louis. The descriptions we read about the place were true; the place was really a ‘hole in a wall’; we were even a bit unsure about the surroundings thinking about leaving our car parked on the street with our belongings in it. But we thought we’ve already made it that far, and we shouldn’t ‘judge the book by its cover.’

When we went in the restaurant, we were greeted by a lady that we found out later was the daughter-in-law of the lady who opened up the barbecue joint years before. She was very nice and hospitable, and explained what they had on their menu. We clearly looked out-of-place compared to other folks there who mostly ordered the food to go. The lady asked where we were from, and we told her that we were in the middle of a road trip from California to New York. After we ordered, she told us to have a seat at their small eating area while our order was prepared.

Few minutes lates, a gentleman came out of the kitchen area with a styrofoam container full of meat — the sampler that we ordered. He introduced himself to us as the pitmaster there. He was told by the lady at the counter about our cross-country trip, so he wanted to stop by and chatted with us a little bit. He mentioned that he’s done a road trip to New York City himself a couple of years back, since they were selected to represent St. Louis in a barbecue festival. When we heard that, we asked him if it was the same festival that we went to, and it turned out that it was. So we actually had snoots from Smoki-O’s already in New York City; we just didn’t remember it.

The photo below was the barbecue platter that we had for lunch at Smoki-O’s. It was plenty to share between the two of us. The food was good, but I think the encounter with the store owner and the pitmaster that left a lasting memory. I posted this photo on my Flickr album, and a couple of years later, this photo was included in an online slideshow on Big-Cities Barbecue on Grubstreet, the online foodies site for the New York magazine.

Barbecue platter at Smoki-O's

World Largest McDonald’s

We left early in the morning on our third day of the trip with the goal to cover more than 800 miles and reach Chicago area before midnight. As such, we tried to to be efficient as we also wanted to stop at several places along the way. Since we decided not skip The Rock Cafe for breakfast, we looked for an alternative place to get a bite to eat without spending much time. As I looked for options along the way, one caught my eye as the ‘perfect’ place to stop given the situation. It was right on Interstate 44 that we would pass, very likely would be a fast service, and yet it sounded interesting… the McDonald’s in Vinita, OK.

What’s so special about going to McDonald’s, you might ask. Well, according to the Route 66 guide books that I had in hand, this particular McDonald’s at one point claimed to be the largest McDonald’s in the world. Formerly a restaurant called The Glass House and built in 1959, it occupied about 30,000 square feet. I learned that in 1990 there was a bigger McDonald’s opened in Russia that supposedly contended for the ‘largest’ title, and more recently another McDonald’s in Orlando, FL, actually beat both locations hands down as the largest restaurant. Oh well.. it’s a (former) largest restaurant — still some history to be proud of there I guess.

When we reached Vinita, we saw the familiar McDonald’s golden arches from a distance, and the restaurant actually sat like a bridge across the Interstate highway. It was pretty much like some of the rest area / travel plaza that you find in some Interstate Highways; except that typically it would be a shared space with many stores, restrooms, and a visitor center. I thought for a moment, the arch of the bridge was painted McDonald’s yellow, so I suppose if the whole bridge was one big McDonald’s then it would make sense that it’s the largest one you could find.

It turned out that when you get inside the building, the space inside the large structure was shared with several other stores, and the actual McDonald’s restaurant portion was about the same size as an average McDonald’s store you could find anywhere else. There seemed to be a lot of unused spaces as well. A little disappointing for those like me who were expecting something different given the ‘hype’ but I suppose business sense prevailed that you should only scale the restaurant to be as big as the demand, and it had probably gone passed its glory days.

We had our standard McDonald’s breakfast, served in efficient manner as a reminder to the modern ‘on-the-go’ culture. On the way out, at the parking lot we did see a group of colorful hot rod cars. They looked like the real life version of the Hot Wheels toys, and reminded me to the characters that Lightning McQueen encountered on the highway just before he veered off and ended up at Radiator Springs. So there was something interesting found at this stop after all.

Former largest McDonald's

Cars Inspiration

When I was planning for the coast-to-coast trip tracing through the old Route 66, I learned that the animated movie Cars was inspired by the Mother Road and the people who lived along the route. I had watched the movie before on the big screen, but not until I watched it again in DVD format that I came to appreciate the difference between this movie than others Pixar had made. In the extra footage on the making of the movie, I learned that the Pixar team did a road trip on Route 66 to visit the places and meet the people who lived along the route, and they based the characters in the movie on real-life characters they met during the research trip. One such character was Sally Carrera, the blue Porsche sports car that ran the Cozy Cone Motel in the movie. The inspiration behind this character was Dawn Welch, a lady who owns a restaurant along Route 66 in Stroud, OK, called The Rock Cafe.

In the movie, Sally Carrera told the story how she ended up at Radiator Springs. She was a lawyer in Los Angeles living a fast-paced life, but was unhappy with life and decided to get away from the city. She had a flat tire near Radiator Springs, and the folks in town helped her getting fixed up, and took her in as their own. She ended up staying there and being part of the tight community.

In real life, Dawn Welch was originally from Oklahoma, but she worked in the cruise ship industry which took her to many places outside the US. She was planning on opening a restaurant in Costa Rica, and came to Stroud to look for an old grill to purchase for her restaurant. She learned about The Rock Cafe that had been a landmark on the historic Route 66 since 1939. Charmed by the historic building and the people she met, she ended up staying and running the restaurant ever since. She is actively involved in the local community, and the Rock Cafe in a way becomes an integral part of life in the small town of Stroud. She has also been involved in promoting the preservation of the historic Route 66. In 2001, the Pixar team stopped by at the restaurant during their research road trip. John Lasseter and his team learned about her life story and decided to make that as part of the story for Cars and based the Sally Porsche character on Dawn.

When I read up more articles about Dawn and the Rock Cafe, I also learned that in 2008 tragedy hit and the restaurant was destroyed in a fire. But Dawn with the help of her family and the community persevered and restored the historic building in the next year, and just few months before our trip, it had reopened again. That story increased my interest in checking out the place and experience that community feel first hand.

The night when we reached Oklahoma, we stayed in another town not far from Stroud with the intention to stop at the Rock Cafe for a breakfast before we continued our trip. We did find the restaurant, but unfortunately it might have been too early that it was not open yet for the day. Since we had quite a long journey planned for the day, we decided to continue on. But I did get a shot of the Rock Cafe’s neon sign before we left.

Rock Cafe

Free 72 oz. Steak!

Texas is known as a place for good steak. One of the places to get good deal on really good steak is the Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo, Texas. You can get a free Texas-sized portion of steak, 72 oz. there, with one condition: you have to finish it up with the side dishes in one hour. If you try it but you fail to finish it, it would cost you $72. More than 50,000 people had tried this challenge with about a fifth of them able to complete the feat.

We heard of this place on Travel Channel and Food Network programs. Even though my brother and I used to live in Texas for a couple of years, we never had any reason to drive through Amarillo, until our coast-to-coast trip. The Big Texan is located right on the side of Interstate 40, and they have a very big sign in front of the bright yellow building, so you can’t miss it.

We had been traveling quite a distance, starting in Holbrook, AZ, bright early in the morning. We decided to skip lunch after our visit to Santa Fe, NM, in order to make time to get to Amarillo to see the Cadillac Ranch before sunset. We did make it to Amarillo before it got dark, and after spending some time at the Cadillac Ranch, we’re ready to continue on and by then we’re pretty hungry as well. Great timing to go to a place known for its gigantic portion of meat.

The place was quite interesting. You’re welcomed by a giant cowboy boot outside on one side of the restaurant, and a big bull on the other side. As you get inside, the atmosphere was quite festive. There was a gift shop selling Texas and Route 66 memorabilias, nicely decorated hallways, and a big dining hall where the meals were served. In the middle of the dining hall there was a stage with a table and a digital timer. Looks like that’s where the challenger would eat in front of everyone. You can also see the open kitchen on one side of the restaurant with the grill cooking the steaks.

We were hungry, but we didn’t think we could do the 72 oz. challenge. But we did have the steaks; each of us ordered a 16 oz. prime rib. They were cooked nicely, medium rare to our order, and both of us thought it was delicious and worth skipping lunch for. We were seated pretty close to the open kitchen, so while eating we could also see the cooking staff grilling the steaks there.

Below is a photo taken outside the restaurant of the big bull advertising the free 72 oz. steak. You can see a Ford Excursion, the largest SUV you could get at that time in the US, parked next to it as a comparison of size. They say everything is big in Texas, and this place surely confirmed that.

Big Texan