The best and worst

With 50 plus years of traveling and restaurant dinners behind us, two meals we have eaten earn contrasting ratings.

The first happened decades ago when our children were young. Usually I had sandwiches in the car. However, on Easter weekend, my husband said, “Let’s eat at that college. When I was traveling with the National Guard, we stopped at that college cafeteria and had a great meal.”

We did and had an unexpected cherry on top! That day the school’s future chefs demonstrated their readiness to work in the food industry. In front of a wall of windows overlooking the lawn, the students spread a feast. On crisp white linen tablecloths they presented an array of artfully garnished dishes, artistically carved fruits and vegetables all centered around an ice sculpture of a lamb. Waiters dressed in tuxedos escorted us to our table and explained the day’s options and opulence.

No cafeteria line that day, we received royal treatment and a selection of the most exquisitely prepared food in a polished dining room. Through the years since, no other eating experiences have come close to that serendipitous moment.

A few years before Covid-19 we encountered the other end of the spectrum. The road to visit one family includes a long stretch of nothing but farmland for two hours. As we approached the county capitol mid-Saturday afternoon I wanted a break and a bowl of soup. 

“Let’s turn into the old center of town this time to see if any restaurants are open,” I suggested. Usually we stopped at one of the town’s fast food places. That day I wanted a proper sit down without disposable dishes.

We took a couple turns around the city square before we saw an open store. Most of the once-flourishing stores now featured junk shops, low-end department stores or papered windows.

The corner restaurant looked promising when we entered. We were the only customers. The spry older woman who greeted us looked fresh from preparing farm meals for her family. “Take any seat. It may be a bit sticky. Today is Pancake Day. We have been busy all morning.” She named a ridiculously low price for pancakes. My husband ordered pancakes. 

“Do you have vegetable soup?” I asked. 

“Yes, we put all our vegetables in one pot at the end of the day,” she assured me.

We slid into a booth with a slightly sticky seat and table. Was it my imagination that even the floor also felt a bit tacky? As I said, this was before the antiseptic smell that accompanies the guidelines mandated under Covid-19. Those mandates ensure that restaurateurs spray and wash every flat surface after every customer.

The little lady trotted our order to the kitchen. I could see the cook pouring pancake batter. Before presenting our food, he reached a dipper into a large stock pot and ladled its contents into a flat bowl.

My husband welcomed his plate of pancakes. I looked at the clear broth with vegetables and paused. Such vegetables: they looked like leftovers, including veggies that had stayed too long on the bottom of the pan. I know enough about cooking to at least make my mistakes disappear before anyone else sees them.

This little lady smiled proudly as she presented the food. No apologies. In fact she went to the kitchen and served herself a bowl of soup. She smiled at her soup and relished every bite.

I tried a few spoonfuls of the scorched veggies and offensive broth. I laid down my spoon. I had lost my appetite for soup. I drank my glass of water as my hubby finished his pancakes. 

The lady came over with our ticket.  “How did you like it?” I murmured a little bit of gratitude, but I would not be the one to quash her pride in the eatery. We left. In the car we shook our heads at the recently-opened restaurant that needed a bucket of hot sudsy water and cooking lessons. 

A few months later, again en route to my family, we swung into that town. The restaurant had, predictably, closed. Too bad. She had the personality, she just needed to study at the college where we ate our most fantastic meal ever.