Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Arnold's Country Kitchen
Nashville, Tennessee

A red, rectangular cinderblock building on 8th Avenue South in Nashville stands out among a collage of drab warehouses and vacant lots. What happens inside every weekday between 10:30 a.m. and 2:45 p.m. stands out as well. That’s when Jack and Rose Arnold and their energetic crew serve some of the finest southern home cooking imaginable—so fine, that in 2009 it earned the America’s Classics Award from the prestigious James Beard Foundation.

Operating for nearly three decades in the Music City, and noted for its traditional southern meat and three, Arnold’s Country Kitchen attracts a steady flow of devotees, from smartly attired business professionals to laborers in uniform.  At 1:15 on a Monday afternoon, the line of customers extends along a tight side aisle of the restaurant, out the door, and into the parking lot. Everyone, it seems, has a story to share, about the restaurant. One visitor to Nashville reports that an employee at the Renaissance Hotel insisted that she try Arnold’s. A young couple with toddlers in tow dines here often. “Everything they serve is uh-MAZE-ing,” she assures the others in line. The gentleman ahead of us, a Nashville native, heard about Arnold’s from friends. “They said, ‘You gotta go there.’” He scans the dining room, adding, “It’s gotta be good if it’s this crowded.” 

The line inches forward, past a long row of rectangular tables packed with diners, and toward a serving counter that houses a variety of southern favorites. There, men and women in white aprons serve fist-sized pieces of fried chicken, links of sausage with sauerkraut, and strips of liver and onions. They ladle macaroni and cheese, creamed corn, and candied yams. A young man carves a hefty beef roast. Women flip corn fritters on a steaming grill. The cafeteria-style set up also includes green salads, a variety of pies, and Arnold’s signature banana pudding.

About ten minutes after our arrival, we approach the steam tables, and face the most difficult decision of the day. Our eyes desire a taste of every dish available, but still satisfied from a late breakfast, we choose the “one meat and three sides” luncheon priced at $8.79. 

The tender and thin slices of rare roast beef earn the distinction of “phenomenal,” a label appointed by a customer who proclaims his satisfaction to fellow diners. Warm and seasoned, the au jus oozes from a pile of creamy mashed potatoes and puddles around the meat. Soft green beans with bacon, and pleasingly sour hand-cut turnip greens round out the plate. Smeared with butter, the warm corn fritters serve as my dessert.
The menu varies daily, and favors true southern staples like chicken and dumplings, country fried steak, carved ham, fried catfish, and barbeque pork. Arnold’s also features a variety of traditional side dishes including fried green tomatoes, fried apples, and black-eyed peas.

Framed, autographed celebrity photos and reviews of the restaurant decorate Arnold’s interior walls. But no embellishment could detract from the restaurant’s institutional feel. The place looks like a narrow mess hall, something reminiscent of an old church basement. Patrons even rub shoulders at the common tables. Lack of atmosphere aside, though, Arnold’s qualifies as fine dining. Here, the quality and the flavor define fine. Surely, however, some regulars would disagree with the label “fine dining.” For them, Arnold’s is nothing less than the “finest.”

from 2010

Saturday, February 23, 2013

In A "Days"

The busy Walnut Avenue exit off Interstate 75 welcomes us to Dalton, Georgia. Shortly past sunset, headlights form a wavering white streak along the hilly, four-lane thoroughfare. Colorful neon lights illuminate a rocky, mountainous landscape dominated by motels, restaurants, super-sized filling stations, and in this, the carpet capital of the world, rug stores. We pull in at 6:05 local time to the Days Inn, a finalist on my researched and prepared list of satisfactory north Georgia accommodations.

Pictures provided by management to online hotel sites show a spacious, almost elegant, lobby. Indeed, there’s plenty of space occupied by quality furniture. But what appeared on the net to be expertly crafted plaster-work is actually cheap fiberboard in need of a few cosmetic touch-ups. While I don’t consider this misrepresentation, and the durability of the building material will not affect the quality of my overnight stay, I’d say the lobby doesn't do the photographs justice.

We wait behind a drowsy fellow in sagging slacks who requests two rooms. He removes a collection of credit cards from his billfold and scrutinizes each one before pronouncing the MasterCard suitable. Then, as the patient front desk clerk attempts to finalize the transaction, the guest-in-waiting delivers a litany of health and mobility issues that will necessitate a change of rooms. I grow impatient and use the cell to dial the Jameson Inn down the road where rooms rent for $3 more with coupon tonight. The “Dreamium” bedding and homemade waffles appeal to us, so we make the three-minute journey there. The Jameson looks promising, with its almost blinding exterior lights against the white façade. The grounds appear to be well kept. But, while my research indicates otherwise, the room we inspect feels cramped, dated, and dim. We leave without explanation and return to Days Inn.

This time, we encounter a height-challenged drunken guest in a cowboy hat appealing to the desk clerk for an outdoor smokers’ lounge. He solicits my opinion and I agree with the admittedly sane proposition. Smoking, in my non-smoking opinion, is best accomplished out of doors. This motel attracts laborers—many of them smokers—who travel for short-term jobs. This evening, groups of workers who have checked-in loiter on the balconies of this exterior corridor property, for lack of a better place to smoke. Silhouetted by a fluorescent glow, elbows resting on the railing, the men gaze at an endless flow of Walnut Avenue traffic as they puff on cigarettes and pipes.

Other workers assemble in small groups in the lobby, awaiting room assignments. They wear bulky boots, dusty jeans, and forlorn expressions. All of the young men look exhausted and sad, like convicted felons awaiting transport to prison. I assume the separation from wives, children, or sweethearts accounts for the somber scene. Any communication between the workers and the desk clerk is minimal. No smiles are exchanged among them. A slight nod of the head suffices before the clerk slides a keycard across the desk and points to the next customer.

For us, check-in is quick and cordial. Our second floor room, coupon priced tonight at $51.99, faces east and overlooks the parking lot. “We just remodeled six months ago,” the clerk announces, “and everything is new.” Well, the entry door looks old, but the weather-stripping looks new. Already, the carpeting and the furniture appear tattered. The bedding, however, feels plush, the lighting emits a cheerful white glow, and the television and remote cooperate. While I appreciate the fresh, just bleached scent of the towels when I enter the bathroom, I have issues with the toilet paper. It hangs under the roll, so with each tug, the end piece touches the presumably germ infested wall. But it’s good quality paper, and there’s plenty of it. So I’ll forgive this favorably rated and sufficiently clean Days Inn for their toilet paper blunder, even if the quilted sheets refuse to flush down the toilet.
from 2012

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Familiar, Yet Foreign
Clearwater Beach, Florida

The glaring sun hovers above Clearwater Beach, its late-day rays splashing an orange tint over the island. Approaching from the mainland and crossing the modern bridge that spans Clearwater Bay, we enjoy a view that stretches from the barrier island westward, miles into the Gulf of Mexico. Palm trees and tropical fauna line the median and shoulders of Memorial Causeway, adding to the attractiveness. I’ve traveled this mainland-to-beach route hundreds of times over the past few decades, lured not only by its beauty, but by the promise of a bright and vibrant beach scene at the end of the causeway. This evening, however, my former home away from home seems foreign to me, as Clearwater Beach languishes amid redevelopment efforts.

Along Mandalay Avenue, the north beach dozes. Souvenir shops housed behind old storefronts remain open at sunset, but attract few shoppers. Their arms folded, waiters in white aprons lean against the façade of the Lobster Pot Restaurant, watching the few cars that pass on this December evening. At Bob Heilman’s Beachcomber, an elegant Christmas tree decorates the foyer, with no patrons inside the landmark Clearwater Beach restaurant to enjoy the festive scene.

Squeezed between the edge of the marina and the Sea Captain Resort on the south beach, the imposing 11-story Holiday Inn Express under construction sits on a tiny corner lot once occupied by the family-friendly Sunny Motel. A block south on Coronado Drive, the pink Hyatt Aqualea Condominium Hotel towers 17 stories to dominate the area. The building shadows its neighbors, including the dark and quiet Alex Restaurant which shares a block with crumbling cottages and shabby motels.

The few remaining garden style motels on Clearwater Beach have fallen into neglect. At the New Yorker, smudges cover guest room windows. The disregarded asphalt parking lot cracks from end to end. The sign sags and its vacancy indicator no longer lights. It’s unnecessary really, since the motel can claim no guests this evening.

Directly across Brightwater Drive from the New Yorker, the Gem Tower looks equally untidy. A single car, with West Virginia plates, sits in the lot. Neither the motel’s sign, nor the office, exhibit any light. If not for the lone car, I’d guess the place has closed. Paint peels from the eaves. Grime and dust cover the faded lawn chairs and umbrellas. Unkempt trees and bushes invade the debris covered walkways. The swimming pool appears cloudy and grimy.

We park and exit the car after spotting a man on a ladder with a paintbrush. He splashes a fresh coat of aqua colored paint on the eaves, but his attempt at rejuvenation seems futile. The place needs a major facelift or a wrecking ball, not a cosmetic touch-up. The shuttered office looks abandoned. Through fogged windows, I notice stacks of yellowed postcards and photographs, and heat-curled receipts on the dusty counter.

Seven years ago, from our second floor room across the street at the New Yorker, I watched as the owner of the Gem Tower, a perky Polish immigrant, routinely swept patios, washed windows, and ushered guests to their rooms. Often she cleaned the apartments and changed sheets well after dark to accommodate late arriving guests. The current condition would indicate the motel has changed hands, but the man on the ladder says he and his wife—the perky Polish immigrant—have owned the place for over 20 years. If the exterior is any indication, the rooms must need serious attention.

Directly behind the Gem Tower, an expansive lot awaits redevelopment. Town officials hope to build a multi-story parking garage on the site. Similarly, a weed infested lot behind the New Yorker Motel sits vacant, as it has for more than three years. The oceanfront Adam's Mark Caribbean Gulf Resort, the sprawling seaside Holiday Inn Sunspree, and the neat if small Gulf Beach Motel have all been razed, reduced to bulldozed plots of sand and crushed shells—a common sight now on Clearwater Beach.

Several years ago, the Beach Walk landscape renovation transformed a stretch of Gulfview Boulevard into an attractive, winding promenade. But fast food restaurants, and tacky surf shops with garish window displays, border the street and clash with the scene. Despite the costly project, few people enjoy the result.

Once my family’s favorite vacation destination, Clearwater Beach no longer appeals to me. As we cruise down the traffic-free streets, passing former haunts, I reminisce about the atmosphere that attracted families to this Gulfside resort community. I remember the tropical melodies of steel drum ensembles blaring from hotel tiki bars; the aromas of fried fish, of sweet waffles, of grilled onions; the endless glow of colorful neon lights; the pedestrians who strolled at all hours. At dusk tonight, the beach looks deserted, despite the much hyped Sunsets at Pier 60 festival, a mock-up of the Sunset Celebration arts and crafts event held nightly at Mallory Square Dock in Key West. And Post Corner Restaurant, the sprawling Greek-owned pizzeria where we stop for a carryout cheese and sausage, welcomes fewer than a dozen diners at dinnertime.

I realize the December low season contributes to a lack of tourists. But unlike similar seasonally-affected communities along Florida’s Suncoast, Clearwater Beach feels uninviting—borderline eerie, really. It seems the attempt to transform Clearwater Beach from a family friendly community to a chic resort has alienated the carloads of tourists who, for decades, supported the local economy. Moreover, the changing landscape fails to attract the caliber of visitors public officials had expected.

This Christmas season, the dismal shores of a formerly bustling Clearwater Beach offer no comfort, or joy.

from 2011

Monday, January 30, 2012

Beverly's La Croisette
St. Pete Beach, Florida

The name sounds a bit too French and uppity for my taste, but Beverly’s La Croisette in St. Pete Beach actually offers classic American fare in cozy surroundings. Located toward the north end of the beach where Corey Avenue meets Gulf Boulevard, the little restaurant behind a pink stucco façade serves only breakfast and lunch, from 6:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. everyday except Christmas.

We arrive early on a Friday afternoon to a crowd of diners feasting on platters of eggs and potatoes, on over-stuffed sandwiches, on pancakes as wide as Frisbees.

A dozen booths line the perimeter windows, while a row of tables runs down the center of the dining room. Seating is limited to about 60, and regulars here assure us that on weekends, the line of waiting customers extends out the door and down the block.

We select a comfortable booth near the entrance and overlooking Corey Avenue. A huge fan of breakfast, I disregard the lunch options in favor of my beloved bacon and eggs, a bargain here at $4.90, and even less for those early birds who arrive before 11:30 a.m.

Served on a big round platter, breakfast includes three strips of crisp, flavorful bacon, a pair of perfectly fried eggs minus the greasy film typical of many breakfast joints, home fries, and toast. About the size of chunked pineapple, the reddish brown home fries have a crusty surface, a warm and soft center, and a peppery flavor.

I bypass the pre-packaged jam in favor of Beverly’s homemade marmalade. The orange marmalade tastes predictably tart and sweet atop my finely toasted rye. But the pear marmalade, with its resemblance to high quality applesauce, is the real winner here. I slather spoonfuls of the spread on my toast and enjoy a little extra a-la-carte.

Over our third cups of the excellent coffee, we share a pancake for dessert. Grilled until slightly crisp, but moist in the center, the flapjack tastes mildly sweet. The American restaurant with the French name does serve croissants, but we reserve those for another visit.

Dressed in tee shirts and shorts to suit the casual atmosphere, the waitresses provide attentive and friendly service.

During every trip, I search for a restaurant that far exceeds ordinary. On this trip, Beverly’s La Croisette earns the distinction. I expect she will have several more opportunities to uphold her honor.

from 2007

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Wolfie Cohen's Rascal House
Miami Beach, Florida

“You know,” my sister laughs, “this place reminds me of a big Woolworths.” I study my surroundings: miniature ceramic tiles on the walls, terra cotta floor, wide picture windows. “This place” is Wolfie Cohen’s Rascal House Restaurant, a Miami Beach institution that specializes in home cooking with a Jewish flair. Bright and airy, like a sprawling old dime store, the place can seat hundreds. There’s no turnstile at the entrance, but patrons are corralled, according to party size, into lanes separated by tubular chrome rails. Like Disney World.

Shaped like the letter “D,” the counter has room for dozens of diners. This late afternoon, only two of the red vinyl stools are occupied, both by elderly gentlemen. One of them works a crossword, and on three occasions, he asks his limping, white-haired waitress for assistance with the puzzle. Each time, she glances at the old fellow before brushing him off with a curt “I dunno” and a wave of her hand.

Our spacious booth—more red vinyl—sits directly in front of the kitchen. Throughout my meal, I watch as servers rush through the dual chrome doors. In the kitchen, a half-dozen sweating cooks in white aprons shuffle between steaming grills and long stainless tables. They mix, ladle, and plate food with the precision of carnival magicians. About waist-high and a few feet in diameter, a kettle way in the back of the kitchen likely holds the chicken matzo ball soup, a staple here.

A lethargic waiter, Ken, ambles toward our table and greets us. Overweight, with unkempt, oily hair and sleepy eyes, he speaks in short phrases—“turkey’s good”; “go for the beef”; “I’ll be back.” The menu lists hundreds of choices, from chopped liver and kasha varnishkas, to bacon and eggs and seafood, plus beer and wine.

Unable to decide, we spend fifteen minutes studying the menu. In general, the prices appear high. A simple grilled cheese sandwich, for instance, costs $6.95 a la carte, while a corned beef on rye goes for $10.95. Wolfie’s charges $2.25 for a sliced tomato, $1.95 for a dollop of sour cream, and $3.50 for a side of baked beans. However, $10.95 for a full dinner seems fair.

Ken returns and leans on the side of the booth, his crumpled white shirt falling out of his slacks. With arms folded and mouth wrinkled, the waiter listens as we order, not bothering to write down our selections. He looks bored or tired, or both, like he’s been on duty here since the place opened in 1954.

We begin with a trio of relishes—average kosher dills, crunchy coleslaw in vinegar, sweet and sour pickles. The breadbasket holds crisp bialys, soft bagels, onion flavored cocktail rye, and pumpernickel, all baked in house and tasty.

Two thick slices of meatloaf, each about as broad as the sole of a size ten boot, arrive on a plastic turkey platter. They’re flavorful and moist beneath spoonfuls of creamy mushroom gravy. Whipped mashed potatoes and rich creamed spinach accompany the entree. The beef stew contains chunks of tender meat, whole red potatoes, and peas and carrots in a syrupy tomato based sauce. A generous fillet lightly browned, the grilled chopped steak tastes like a basic hamburger, minus the bun. It’s served with crisp and hot French fries. Three members of our group share their meals and still have enough food left over to fill two large take out containers. As expected from a 24-hour diner, the strong coffee tastes great.

The extensive dessert menu could rival the offerings of any neighborhood bakery. It features classics like lemon meringue pie, strawberry shortcake, and pound cake, plus specialties such as coconut macaroons, bobka, and rugalas (walnut filled cookies). Dessert prices range from $2.50 for a single black and white cookie, to a whopping $5.95 for a slice of pie.

Full-page advertisements in local publications laud Wolfie Cohen’s Rascal House as “voted Best Delicatessen.” The ads emphasize the “fabulous home cooking,” and picture the busy storefront after dark. Also pictured is an attractive long-legged blonde in short shorts, a halter-top, and high heels. I expect—and hope—to find her type pouring coffee and balancing trays at the Rascal House. Instead, I find Ken and an equally sloppy wait staff in a fifty-year-old restaurant that has never seen an upgrade.

But the food at this Miami Beach landmark is good and plentiful, and just walking through the door feels like an about-face in time. F.W. Woolworth would feel right at home. Well, until he noticed the prices on the menu.

from 2005

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Driving Florida's A1A
Fort Lauderdale to Miami Beach

Extending 328 miles from the Georgia line south to Key West, Florida’s State Road A1A offers Atlantic coast travelers a scenic alternative to the hectic monotony of neighboring Interstate 95. One particularly busy stretch of A1A covers some 30 miles of Broward and Miami-Dade Counties.

From the Galt Ocean Mile with its soaring condominium buildings, to the impeccable, palm-lined public beach where tanned and fit specimens sunbathe and exercise, Fort Lauderdale’s oceanfront exemplifies sophistication and fun. South of fashionable Las Olas Boulevard, beyond the elegant mansions that border the Intracoastal Waterways, and past the public marina, State Road A1A’s 17th Street Bridge spans the harbor, towering above cruise ships and container ships stacked high with cargo. Then, working class Ft. Lauderdale comes into view. In neighborhoods here, public buses outnumber luxury automobiles, and modest single family homes predominate.

At Hollywood Beach, A1A snakes through a canyon formed by high rises—mostly residential units with windows shuttered this late spring. By now, many of the seasonal residents have moved north to escape the impending heat of summer. Aside from a FedEX delivery man and one elderly woman shielded by an umbrella, the sidewalks are void of pedestrians this “low season” afternoon.

Farther south at Hallandale Beach and later at Golden Beach, the sky-high concrete eases as gated estates, many of them behind perfectly trimmed hedges 12 feet high, extend for a mile along the oceanfront.

Then A1A opens to three lanes of traffic in each direction. Modern granite towers with tinted windows neighbor aged buildings trimmed with faded awnings and metal latticework. Maids and factory workers stand at bus stops. Vehicles crawl through a string of traffic lights. Car horns blare and trucks roar. Clouds of exhaust hover above the pavement. Graffiti covers light posts and utility boxes. Construction cranes soar above the street, bringing more development to an already overdeveloped beach. For miles, concrete obstructs the ocean view.

Despite its large number of towers, Bal Harbour appears attractive. Pineapple palms and coconut palms line the sidewalks and the street medians along A1A. Tightly spaced, they create a canopy effect, especially evident when viewed on approach from the north bridge. Elegant boutiques, spaced as tightly as the palm trees, form the “Shops of Bal Harbour.”

At central Miami Beach, discount stores, tattoo and piercing parlors, and restaurants with grease stained windows occupy street side plazas. The miles-long boardwalk parallel to the ocean and just steps from A1A attracts tattooed teenagers, bearded beach bums, and foul-mouthed transients who beg for money. A sizable number of police officers patrol this area, in cars, on motorcycles, on bicycles, and on foot.

Thirty miles from Fort Lauderdale at Miami’s South Beach, where A1A ribbons along the Intracoastal Waterway, the 1920s and 1930s Art Deco architecture so characteristic of the area comes into view. It begins gradually, often with a curvy pastel colored building sandwiched between generic neighbors. And, here, neon is king. The Shelborne Hotel, the Geneva, and the Carlton all display colored tubing above their doors.

The feel is unquestionably metropolitan, and this beach side community bustles. Pedestrians stroll along swept white sidewalks. Diners gather at outdoor cafes, sheltered from the midday sun by colorful umbrellas. There’s a marked increase in bicycles and motor scooters, and a noticeable upgrade in style. Women here look elegant in miniskirts and high-heeled sandals. They wear their hair in modern coifs and their makeup in tasteful tones. The men look equally fashionable in pressed slacks and lightweight button–down shirts.

Its streets crowded with low-rise apartments and hotels, spacious diners, and shops, Miami’s South Beach is a city in itself. Save for the modern day fashions and the modern day shops—the Ralph Lauren, the 9 West, and the TGI Fridays—South Beach exudes a stylish, Gatsby-like character. The black Duesenberg parked at the entrance to the Casablanca Hotel, the neon lights, and the stucco facades tinted pink, yellow, and tangerine contribute to the classic atmosphere of this trendy neighborhood. And just beyond the A1A, only steps from all the activity, sea oats overspread mounds of sand and the public beach eases into the Atlantic Ocean.

from 2005

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Greenbrier Restaurant
Madison, Alabama

At the intersection of two remote farm roads in Madison, Alabama, beside cotton fields that stretch endlessly, a faded Coca-Cola sign stands on an old steel post, welcoming folks to the Greenbrier Restaurant. The flat-roofed, faded beige cinder block structure sits on Old Highway 20, just two miles off Interstate 565 but seemingly light years from civilization.

Wooden beams support low ceilings in the restaurant’s dim dining rooms. Dark paneling covers the walls, while vinyl tablecloths cover the sturdy wooden tables.

We sample the house specialty, the large barbecue pork dinner, a hefty half-pound serving of tender shredded meat for $6.95. The steaming entree arrives on a jumbo plastic platter, beside a baked potato and a mound of tart green slaw topped with a pair of dill pickle chips.

The combination plate—"this one's a lot of eatin'"according to the menu—includes a whole pen-raised catfish and two half-foot slabs of barbecued ribs for $10.95. The breaded catfish fillet tastes fresh and spicy, and our server kindly provides instructions on navigating the fish bones. Although they lack the “fall off the bone” tenderness, the Greenbrier ribs are meaty, if fatty, and tangy. A pile of soft French fries covers the remainder of the plate.

A series of squeeze bottles sits on each table, each one containing a signature sauce. “Only the ketchup isn’t homemade,” our waitress explains. I prefer the unusual mayonnaise and vinegar based white barbecue sauce and the traditional red barbecue sauce with the smoky edge. Louisiana hot sauce, Tabasco, and a spicy vinegar and pan-drippings sauce round out the lineup. Twelve to each basket, the complimentary hush puppies are crunchy and dark with a slightly sweet center. I enjoy several of them as dessert.

A representative from the visitor’s center in nearby Huntsville recommended the Greenbrier. She assured me that the restaurant attracts a local crowd. “Every Huntsvilleian knows about the Greenbrier,” she said. Every Huntsvilleian and, following today’s dinner, this satisfied Chicagoan.

from 2004

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

"Stop By, Cause I Need Your Money"
North Carolina

From Waynesville to Cherokee, North Carolina, U.S. Highway 19 weaves between fog-draped chasms and tree-capped peaks. But often on this Smoky Mountain route, man-made tackiness interrupts the natural beauty.

For more than 20 miles along the winding and sometimes steep grade highway, roadside shacks hawk everything from moccasins to souvenir tee shirts, to ceramic plates, to pottery, to Indian rugs, to costume jewelry. Masquerading as antiques, rusted tools and farm implements clutter unkempt lawns and gravel driveways. Countless items are available for sale, brazenly advertised in big letters on barns, cinder-block walls, and billboards.

Barbecue stands, casual restaurants, neat little single-story motels, and bed and breakfast inns compete with the vendors for prime highway exposure. The number of roadside establishments overwhelms, prompting travelers to dart their eyes from side to side, if only to investigate this tourist driven panorama.

At Cherokee, North Carolina’s gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and home to the Cherokee Indian Reservation, Native Americans beneath headdress and feathered garb sit beside tepees pitched on the asphalt parking lots of decrepit gift shops. Acting as bait for the heavy tourist trade, they agree to pose for cameras—for a fee—before directing visitors toward the merchandise. Undoubtedly, an emphasis on commercialism has enhanced Cherokee’s economy. But the profit-geared street side displays overshadow the town’s true Native American heritage.

A bold message posted on one billboard facing U.S. 19 might serve as the official motto for area merchants. It reads, “Stop By, Cause I Need Your Money.”

from 2004

Monday, February 15, 2010

Way Down Yonder In...Treasure Island
Treasure Island, Florida

I first heard the Dixie Chaps last November, during a visit to the Treasure Island post office where a recording of their lively arrangement of the Dixieland classic “South” fluttered across the room like a windswept envelope. In response to my inquiry, a postal clerk nodded toward a speaker on the wall. “Oh, they’re a local band,” he said. “They play at the Bilmar Hotel every Wednesday. “

Our group arrives at the popular Bilmar just before sunset on a balmy June night and locates an available table in a courtyard formed by sturdy stucco walls and decorated with palm trees and tropical shrubs. One side of the courtyard opens to a swimming pool where, this evening, motel guests lounge on inflatable rafts or slam oversized beach balls. Steps from our table, at the hotel’s beachfront lounge, a handful of patrons relax at wicker tables with beers and mixed drinks. Through sliding doors left ajar, I can see a clarinet and a trombone resting on stands beside a trio of microphones.

The aromas of char-grilled beef and baked fish waft on the warm sea breeze as servers dressed in tee shirts and shorts carry plates laden with entrees, sandwiches, and salads across the cobblestone walkways toward an outdoor cafe.

Ten minutes after our arrival, the band begins with an up-tempo song reminiscent of New Orleans’ Bourbon Street jazz halls. Comprised of five senior gents, the Dixie Chaps continue with “Basin Street Blues,” followed by “Jeepers Creepers.” They perform for nearly an hour, alternating soothing rhythms with swinging sounds.

Seated at an iron table beneath a palm in this courtyard on a sultry evening, I feel lonesome for the Crescent City. I recall the horse drawn carriages inching past Jackson Square, the warm, powdered beignets and steaming chicory coffee at Café du Monde, and the brassy tunes spilling from the dim old clubs onto the narrow streets of the French Quarter.

Then suddenly, a laid-back melody performed by the legendary clarinetist Pete Fountain comes to mind. “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” Yes, Indeed.

from 2009

Monday, February 8, 2010

Carnival Motor Inn
Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

From the small lobby, I observe scratched guest room doors equipped with heavy-duty deadbolts. I notice worn carpeting and corroded railings in the breezeway. Traveling without motel reservations on an autumn weekend, we ask to see a guest room before checking in at the six-story Carnival Motor Inn on Ocean Boulevard.

Dad and I ride the shaky and slow, dim-lighted elevator to the third floor and another well-worn breezeway. I’m about to discount the Carnival Motor Inn as another rundown motel among a string of aging oceanfront properties when I realize that 30-plus years of exposure to the salty sea air has had a corrosive effect on some of the surfaces. But as we enter Room 301, I retract my initial assessment. The basic double-bedded room is spacious and very clean. It has a mini-fridge, a microwave and anything but a basic view.

Through oversized windows, we’re greeted by the Atlantic Ocean—two tones of blue with foaming whitecaps atop four-foot waves. A private balcony overlooks the motel’s swimming pool and the beach immediately beyond that. Next door, the 21-story Best Western Carolinian seems close enough to touch.

Like so many mom and pop motels that survive along coastal resort communities, the Carnival Motor Inn offers no-frills accommodations at low rates. Certainly, the room has seen its share of traffic, but a few scuffs on the furniture and a few stains on the carpet won’t affect the quality of our visit. And we can’t complain about the price. Last night we spent $44 and some change for a room overlooking the parking lot at a Motel 6 in Knoxville, Tennessee. Tonight at the Carnival, the off-season rate for our room is only pennies more, at $45. But here, of course, we’re paying for the ocean view.

from 2008