Wednesday, 12 January 2011

California Dreaming: Another Bonkers Road Trip - The Travel Bit: Part 3

I am thinking it is a good job I have been using different photos for each of these travel posts, because the titles are starting to look a bit samey. And should anyone be wondering why I called the series "California Dreaming", the answer is twofold. Firstly, the nature of the project was quite surreal - the companies I visited ranged from wind farm operators as featured in Part 2, to municipal waste water treatment plants, to an array of manufacturers of all manner of weird and wonderful things. One of them even made "arrays"(!), fashioned out of "epitaxially grown wafers", very possibly involving silicon, given the shiny-looking facade of the plant. Something tells me that I will remember these wafers for many years to come, even though I wouldn't recognise one if it fell on my head - or my tongue?

Then the other reason the trip felt surreal is because it was December, yet the weather was mostly hot and sunny, with blue skies and wraparound vistas of palm trees. I had the sensation of being on a film set a lot of the time, indeed I just learnt last night, whilst watching the first episode of America's Next Top Model (Cycle 15), that I WAS on a film set. The models' communal house was right on Venice Beach, a couple of doors down from the hotel where I holed up for the first weekend. So, you know, I came this close to being in America's Top Model! Well, maybe not - I am not nearly bitchy enough to win... ; - ) But on to the matter in hand.

The food and drink

The dearth of indigenous tea-brewing skills in the state - or indeed, the country as a whole(!) - has already been documented and discussed in Part 1.

Moving on to the local food, Wikipedia gives a pretty good summary of Californian cuisine:

"..a style of cuisine marked by an interest in 'fusion' – integrating disparate cooking styles and ingredients – and in the use of freshly prepared local ingredients. The food is typically prepared with strong attention to presentation."

I think of California and I think of jumbo shrimp, mango salad, sprouts, blueberry muffins, seared tuna, jalapeno peppers, tofu, wild rice, sushi, avocado, bell peppers, all that type of thing. It is pretty healthy food on the whole, and Californians have a healthy attitude to it and an "Eat Responsibly" bumper sticker to match.

However, I ended up eating in a branch of Denny's most nights, a chain of diners offering pretty homogeneous menus across the US. My hotels were invariably on out of town retail parks, and if you didn't fancy driving somewhere to eat, Denny's was often the only option. One night in the greater LA area, fancying a change from the chain's homely fare, I nearly stumbled into a steakhouse right across the road from my hotel, called "Tony's Spunky Steer". Then I noticed the blackout blinds in every window... So, worrying that there might be quite a different type of meat on offer, I high-tailed it back to the nearest Denny's. I just thought to check on Tripadvisor, and it was a regular steakhouse after all! Boo!

Now Denny's is best known for its All-American breakfasts, and my "gut feel" told me that to eat there in the evening would have a bit of a loser feel about it. The interior is too plain and plasticky, the lighting too bright. In short, too much of a cafeteria ambience. And since when did red go particularly well with yellow, (current colour blocking trend notwithstanding)? A cursory trawl of the Internet only serves to confirm my impression - take the title of this thread from

"Denny's - Great for breakfast, OK for lunch, Avoid for dinner."

But beggars can't be choosers, so I persisted in going there for dinner, and was (in fairness) quite pleasantly surprised. The sizzling barbecued chicken and the spicy tilapia in a skillet were both winners, and I had them more than once. You can sort of tell from the illustrations which dishes might be a bit sad and school dinnerish, and there were a few...

But as well as the recurring hot tea issue, I had other drinks problems at Denny's. Note the careful use of the plural. Firstly, what's with the iced water? Or more correctly, giant tumblers of ice, with a dash of water. If I want to bump my nose continuously on large frozen objects, I'll come back in the next life as a seal. At least the ice tumblers are free, as the Weights and Measures people would have a field day with them otherwise!

And there is another thing you need to know about Denny's: some of them are "dry" - as in not serving alcohol - while others are not. Then some of them are not dry, but think they are, like the branch in Fresno, where they said they didn't serve alcohol. I pointed to the Budweiser decal on the window. "Well we have beer and wine?" to which I replied: "Beer and wine will do nicely, thank you."

And there again you can be in a branch of Denny's, which knows it is licensed to serve alcohol, and still encounter problems, like the one which asked me for photo-ID when I tried to order a bottle of Corona. "Photo-ID?" I queried incredulously, "Why on earth do you need to see my photo-ID?" "Ah well" explained the waitress in a sombre tone, "we've had trouble with the authorities to do with the Protection of Minors legislation and we have to follow the rules." "Protection of Minors?" I answered, my voice quavering with exasperation. "Do you see this menu here for Seniors? Smaller portions for the 55 and overs? A few years and I'll be eligible for that menu - and you want to see my ID???"

This prompted the waitress to summon the Manager, who reiterated the rules, before inquiring: "So how many are you planning to drink?" I thought of coming out with some smart alec reply like: "Oh, just a dozen or so, enough to get totally rat arsed, before running amok and smashing the joint up", but instead replied meekly: "How about one?" I am pleased to report that the Manager waived the rules and I got my beer.

But my finest stunt in a Denny's was picking up a 20-something airforce mechanic in a remote village in the desert. No, I will rephrase that - I did nothing of the sort - he merely struck up conversation with me from the next booth, and after we had both finished our meals, cordially invited me to accompany him to find a bar (this was a dry Denny's, to go with the local terrain).

Reader, I declined, pleading paperwork, but thinking that that would be too much excitement on a school night, while my inner Health & Safety Representative said I shouldn't be getting into any strange men's cars whom I had only known long enough for them to eat a customised French Toast grand slam. My heart, on the other hand, said he was a perfectly decent young man and a credit to his country, and the innocent invitation had been prompted by the inevitable loneliness that comes with chronic solo dining.

When I told Mr Bonkers about this encounter, he seemed quite proud of me for showing that I can still pull someone young enough to be my son. A feat even more impressive when you factor in the American Eagle Outfitters cable knit sweater and 9 yr old boot leg jeans - an ensemble strictly confined to in-home comfort wear (which of course Denny's had more or less become by that point : - ) ). And the non-deterrent effect of the outfit reminds me in turn of the time I was mistaken for a hooker down by the Hudson River while wearing a full length camel coat and aran bobble hat.

Not that I did "pull", you understand. Oh, perhaps I should have gone after all...

What else is there to report on on the food front? Oh yes, the breakfasts, which were sometimes but not always included in the room rate. The more I sampled, the less I minded their absence. A traditional nasty is scrambled egg that has been slumped under its steel dome since 6.30am. By the time you come down to breakfast it is stone cold and leaching a colourless fluid – you suddenly remember the word “albumen” from Third Form biology lessons, and wish you hadn’t. Up there with the cold egg is cold, blackened - and oddly frilly - streaky bacon, along with the concrete Frisbees that pass for bagels, runny grape jelly and garish Froot Loops, which cascade out of Perspex towers in a sugary avalanche.

It wasn't till week two that I dared interact with a waffle iron: you dispense the batter into a cup, pour it into the iron, close it and turn it to a strange angle - imagine the hands on a clock showing 10 past 7 and you will get the general idea. My first and only attempt at waffle making produced a limp circle still molten in one quadrant, which rather put me off the rest.

In total contrast to all of the above, I did manage to sample true Californian cuisine in the 36 hours I spent in Venice Beach: I had breakfast twice at the Rose Cafe, a favourite haunt of real Venetians, who bound in as early as 8am, gleaming with sweat from their morning run - or less gleaming, but with a rolled up yoga mat tucked under one arm. At the Rose cafe they serve a variety of snacks and salads along the lines I mentioned above, with a mind boggling "array" of permutations.

I also ate out one night at a vegan restaurant, where the waiters hug you on the way out, and come and sit next to you to help you make your selection. Even with the limited menu on offer, it was just as well they did, as the restaurant was in near total darkness. This may have been to save energy or to create a tranquil, womb-like ambience - it was hard to tell. In the end I plumped for the special - a cashew nut korma with pitta and salad, washed down with pomegranate juice. (I thought I would go a bit wild - it was a Friday night, after all.) The waiter pressed me to a complimentary boule of rose petal ice cream. I demurred, then crumbled - and it was delicious. He was from Poland, as it turned out, and I told him I knew a few Polish words, including the one for a specific road deformity. He said he didn't get many clients in like me.

There were only two other sets of diners in that night: at the next table were two women and a man, in so far as I could determine gender in the gloom. Suddenly the man jolted in his chair, and asked his companions: "Hey, are either of you guys working on me, because I swear I just felt something!" I carried on munching my korma, thinking to myself that to hear the word "working" used in that context makes a change from that familiar inquiry from wait staff, sometimes when you are only three bites into your meal: "Did you want to get a box for that or you still working on it?"

And finally, a special award goes to a coffee house in Venice which took the art of tea making to a whole new level. It provided not just boiling hot water, a high calibre tea bag and a small jug of cold milk on the side, but a trio of egg timers to ensure you got the perfect brew - light, medium or strong. Only in LA, I thought. Yes, my experience of eating out in California lurched from the plain and homely to the elaborate and chichi via the oddball and worthy. I don't doubt that there is a middle ground - and the Italian my friends in NorCal took me to was the closest I came to it - but mostly this was a trip of extremes. So yes, on balance, the food was a bit surreal too.

And meanwhile, back home and left to fend for himself, the two week period while I was away was a bleaker time for Mr Bonkers on the catering front...

Photo of epitaxially grown wafers from, photo of ANTM house from, photo of Denny's my own, photo of seal from, photo of Denny's menu from, photo of French toast from Denny's website, photos of Venice Beach, cup of tea and Starving Musician shop all my own.


Unknown said...

I've really enjoyed your travelogue. You're like Dian Fossey - "Americans in the Mist."

If "Tony's Spunky Steer" really had been a strip joint, it would have been the best name EVER.

The vegan restaurant where they sit with you and give you hug is what all restaurants will be like in my own private hell.

Vanessa said...

"Americans in the Mist" - took me a moment for the penny to drop. Oh, my! I hope I haven't offended anyone. Well, possibly not any Canadians. : - )

I have just remembered another potentially hellish aspect to the vegan restaurant which I may add back in...

olenska said...

You've utterly nailed the fact that wherever a Denny's is located, THERE lies the loneliest, most desolate place on the planet. There are at least two of them within a twenty minute drive from my house... and though you may call it base superstition, we cross our fingers and avoid even LOOKING at them as we drive past. :D

Cymbaline said...

I've seen a greeting card at a local drugstore that shows two cats sitting at a restaurant table. One of the cats laughs so hard at something his companion says that he blows a mouse out of his nose (his dinner)-guess you had to be there! Anyway, you really cracked me up with this post :D

Cymbaline said...

Hey,another take on the table next to you... you WERE in California, you WERE in a Vegan restaurant... it's no great leap to think that "Someone working on me" relates to an attempted "psychic" connection.

(written by my SO)

taffynfontana said...

I find that yelp and chow hound have allowed me to be more adventurous while traveling out of town. I have found several food gems that are within minutes of my hotel by doing this.

Angela Cox said...

I am not sure I'll ever be able to eat again . It's breakfast time which is toast and marmalade with assam as hot as possible. I can't help thinking that the whole idea of breakfast without Radio 4 and no-one except my quiet husband sounds a nightmare.

Vanessa said...

Going back to kjanicka's "Americans in the Mist" analogy - it just occurred to me that for people in the Bay Area, that is literally true a fair bit of the time... ; - )

Vanessa said...

Hi olenska,

That's exactly right - these *are* invariably desolate spots. And though I said on Facebook that all such places are grist to my "Americana" mill, even I feel desolate myself sometimes - usually on a Sunday evening, especially if it is raining and the telly is s***.

Vanessa said...

Hi Cymbaline,

Glad you saw that mouse postcard in a drugstore and not in a restaurant, for it could easily put me off my dinner. And has made me rethink the rationale for Charlie Bonkers as a pet.

Vanessa said...

Hi again Cymbaline,

I have taken out "Somewhat bemused" to clarify, because it was more of a momentary double take, before twigging to the meaning of "working" in this context - especially as they went on to talk about plans for their friend Brian to raise the vibration of their chakras. : - )

Vanessa said...

Hi taffynfontana,

Thanks for stopping by! When I first saw the words yelp and chow hound. I thought they might be brands of dog food, and that maybe if I lowered my sights I might never be disappointed again when eating in out of town retail parks.

Then I reread your comment, googled the terms in question, and now realise that they are in fact restaurant locator sites - thanks for that!

Vanessa said...

Hi Angela,

Radio 4 at Denny's might be a stretch - on FM, certainly. And having your quiet husband on hand in each branch might just tip them over into logistical meltdown...

: - )

Ines said...

I feel most sorry for your bad breakfast experience because even though I don't eat a hearthy breakfast, I couldn't live without my fresh fruit and muesli and what you descrived pretty much made my stomach turn and I wasn't even close.
And I'm with Krista regarding hugs - strangers hugging me after dinner (or any other time)? *shudder*

You know, your travelogue at times reads like a Twilight zone. :D

Vanessa said...

Hi Ines,

Sorry to terrorise your tum!

Twilight Zone is funny - with a fact-based rather than a science fiction storyline. Which is arguably even more scary. : - )

Carol said...

OMG, I couldn't stop laughing! Bonks, I love your posts.

BTW, here in the US, hard liquor requires a different permit.

A sign up at the local Walmart (where you can buy beer and wine but NOT hard liquor) says "we will card anyone who looks under 40. I was sad to see that because I thought they were carding me because they confused me for 21 (the legal age) . Sigh.

And water and ice - I'm surprised that in CA they still readily serve that - I thought that they discontinued it due to water shortages. But here in the midwest one ALWAYS gets water at restaurant - heck, we have the Great Lakes.

I'm afraid most restaurants still think that the majority of Americans are farmers hence the need for those huge breakfasts. Though I do love that sort of thing on Sundays! :D And I'm with you on hotel 'breakfast' - NASTY!

Vanessa said...

Hi BF,

Thanks for your comment and the helpful clarification of US liquor laws. I did wonder if there were degrees of "alcohol-ness" somewhere at work... And how funny about Walmart carding people under 40. I got the impression that my particular Denny's had had a rollicking off the Powers That Be for some lapse involving a minor, and that since this harrowing incident they had vowed to challenge the identity of anyone with a tooth left in their head.

ScentScelf said...

I came, I saw, I left with visions of albumen and road deformity jostling for top spot in my head...

...that, and the Ms. PacMan machine at Denny's. Early undergrad, Denny's was the place you could go, get one plate of fries per 2-3 people, and pop the rest of your quarters in the Ms. PacMan machine. The waitress tolerated you because there were maybe two other booths in use at that time of night. Also the place where I first learned what the horrible smell of "too long left wet washrag" was. ERGH.

The amusing thing about chains is they are the "safe" choice, as with your midrange hotels. Venture off the path, and risk dark chakra vegan joints. (Well, esp. in Cali.) Stay on the path...and...well...albumen. But for sure albumen, and not grayish pickles.

When I'm particularly industrious, I bring my mini Coleman and stock cheese and fruit and beverage, with dry snacks in a bag. My son thought I was nuts. Until we hit day can handle only so much roadside {insert Polish word here}. This, of course, requires finding purveyors of said products at whatever price, unless you are leaving "home" with them at hand...another wrinkle of exploration.

I want that greeting card with the cats. (thanks, Cymbeline)

As for your homefront...oh, poor Mr. Bonkers. Poor, poor Mr. Bonkers. (Was he listening? Is he now gone? Yes? then... ::snorts mouse out nose...I mean, human foodstuff::

Anonymous said...

This is an educational blog: I now know what a "tilapia" is (looked it up) *and* I know that I could buy and drink hard liquor in States that require one to be 40+ to do so. (Assuming, of course, a foreign passport counts as photo ID. May be assuming too much!)

The Venice Beach tea-timer business: wouldn't keen tea drinkers judge their cuppas by look (and taste) rather than timing them? Perhaps the timers reassure novice tea drinkers? [Not to knock a good cafe that keeps tea drinkers happy and doesn't do that unsolicited hugging business.]

cheerio, Anna in Edinburgh

Vanessa said...

Hi ScentScelf,

Found your account of "Teenage Kicks" in Denny's most fascinating. Oh dear, you have well and truly got your own back for the albumen with the "too long left wet washrag" image!

Chains *are* safe, and when I have more time - and depending on where exactly I have to be - I do sometimes seek out hostelries with more charm and character: in the past I have stayed at historic B & Bs in Kansas City, St Augustine, Charleston, New Bern and the Poconos Mtns. But when you actually need to be somewhere just off the I-10, sometimes the line of least resistance is the most practical option.

What actually happened in this case is that the travel agent took a list of my meeting locations and found the nearest hotel to each that was neither low rent motel, nor high ticket Hyatt!

And yes, in week two, having accidentally left half the Lidl chocolate bar in a hotel fridge, I did stock up on one or two snack items for in-car emergencies - M & Ms and crisps, to be exact. And I always had a bottle of water on the go, especially in the desert...

Vanessa said...

Hi Anna,

I reckon you should be fine with your passport - just don't try to pay for your liquor with a Scottish ten pound note. It is terrible how no one accepts these outside of Scotland. I suppose the Americans have at least the flimsy excuse of non-legal tender, but what about the rest of the UK?

I found the tea timer business quite baffling. I am sure you are right that seasoned drinkers go by eye. I do use them for boiling eggs, but they didn't supply one for five and a half minutes. Tsk, tsk...!

Anonymous said...

Hello Vanessa,

Scottish notes are *certainly* a law unto themselves, with all the different banks issuing their own. (I wonder how overseas visitors feel about Scottish notes, because there isn't one design per denomination with which they can familiarise themselves.) It's definitely easier, when going to other parts of the UK, to get Bank of England notes and avoid the arguments!

Coo! Super hard-boiled: is that for sandwiches, salads or breakfast? (Sprog likes a soft-boiled egg with buttery toast soldiers: I've got *very* efficient at timing everything over the years!)

cheerio, Anna in Edinburgh

ScentScelf said...

Bonks, I hear you on the path of least resistance. Sometimes, the safety in sameness is preferable to the risks/rewards of the unknown--as well as other factors, like proximity, as you are so right to point out. It is interesting, isn't it, how the thing that is supposed to trigger the least response (the carefully molded hotel/motel/restaurant) can inspire some doozys?

I was going to chuckle at your "crisps," but realized that term would serve better out in those parts, as "chips" might better serve you at a table out in those parts--by which I mean to say a green felt table in a joint that never sees the light of day, and is always climate controlled just so.

Say...d'ya think we should be building little casinos for our perfumes???

Vanessa said...

Hi Anna,

The five and a half minutes is actually for soft boiled, but the egg has to be very large and even then I occasionally boil it harder than I intend to. But my albumen phobia is so acute that I prefer to "overegg" the timing!

Vanessa said...

Hi ScentScelf,

I have heard of those chips! I figure I am reckless enough with my perfume expenditure without developing a gambling habit. : - )

Though you are right to point out that casinos might be the perfect habitat to conserve perfumes in peak condition...!