Thirty-seven years ago my family moved back from Japan to the States, to a town eighty miles away from my maternal grandparents, and a tradition was born. Because halfway between my grandparents’ house and the one in which I grew up, in Brewster, New York, stands The Red Rooster, a hamburger and ice cream spot where we have been stopping regularly since 1972.
The Red Rooster is a small white place with a red and white striped façade, its steep roof topped by a giant sculpture of a soft serve vanilla ice cream cone. These days it has acquired some retro appeal; Jane and Michael Stern have reviewed it, and hip New Yorkers make pilgrimages for the Rooster’s fresh burgers and real milk shakes. But when I was a kid, before Route 22 was dotted with MacDonalds and Burger Kings, the Rooster was just a typical burger shack, the only place to stop for miles. There are two or three small tables inside, but they’re always taken up with people perched waiting for their orders; everyone eats at the picnic tables outside, or, in rougher weather, their cars. Friday afternoons would find my dad (my mom would join us later, after work) driving my brother Larry and me from our house in Westchester to my grandparents for the weekend. The Rooster was the halfway point, so we would stop to stretch our legs, use the bathroom and then, if the timing was right, buy hamburgers and root beer floats.
Now, the Rooster marks the halfway point between JFK Airport and the house my parents built for their retirement, a little north of where my grandparents lived. And so just as when I was little, a trip to Grandma and Granddad’s house involves, for my kids, a stop for ice cream. We have to leave home early to make our flight, so Tony and I scoop the kids up out of bed while they’re sleeping, and somehow the chance to eat ice cream in pj’s after 11 hours of travel makes it all the sweeter. They should be eating a proper meal, but sometimes nostalgia and sentiment are stronger than nutritional values.
We decided to drive to San Diego so my husband could attend ComicCon, and once we figured out that it was too late to reserve a camping spot halfway down, we decided to stop in Solvang. For us, if it’s a toss up between a tent and a great deal on a hotel with an excellent restaurant and spa, we’ll take the hotel any day.
We left at 5 AM. That’s right, before dawn, because 1) we wanted to be in Solvang for breakfast and 2) Ella gets carsick, so we figured the more hours asleep in the car, the better. I had a bag packed with boxed milk, strawberries, and bagels to tide us over until breakfast. Of course, the kids were so excited that once we were in the car there was No Chance in H— of Sleep. To combat Ella’s carsickness, I gave her Seabands, which proved miraculous. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a pair for Finn, and about halfway into the trip he moaned, and turned green, and threw up. So that was the end of the food on that leg of the journey. He eventually slept, and we did, in fact, arrive in Solvang in time for breakfast at Paula’s Pancakes. I was basically underwhelmed by the restuarant, but the kids quickly got over the sleep deprivation and Finn bounced back from the queasiness, and they loved this place. They both ate impossibly huge stacks (adult servings, actually) of pancakes and blueberries…
which kept them fueled for the rest of a really fun day visiting the Hans Christian Anderson Museum (ok, not their most favorite part of the trip):
riding a bicycle surrey with fringe on top(really!):
and taking funny pictures of windmills and other such Germanic-Scandanavian things:
We tried to think about eating ebelskiver, and fudge, and ice cream, which everyone around us seemed to be enjoying, but we had no appetite for anything after all those pancakes, not a single one of us.
That evening, we had a really lovely meal at the Hadsten House, which I enjoyed all the more after a terrific massage/body treatment, and then it was on to San Diego. The kids ate breakfast at the hotel, which made me quite nervous, naturally, but we got Finn a pair of Seabands at the local CVS, and they worked miraculously for him, too. No carsickness for either child for the rest of the trip, which left them free to munch on the granola bars, plums, and piles of pistachios I had packed. Yes, the car was a mess, but they were happy & not too junk filled. On the way home, we ate lunch at In ‘N Out burger, the one fast food we allow ourselves, and for which we all, admittedly, have great weakness.
The trip was not supposed to be about food, but it was about me not having to cook for nearly a week (which was an excellent vacation in itself, mind you). I was wary of theme park food (which was only truly horrible on one occasion), and I had brought cereal, milk, juice, fruit, bread, peanut butter and jelly, and snack crackers for our hotel room, which proved a really efficient and economical way to deal with breakfast and the occasional lunch. The food at San Diego Zoo was more than tolerable, at SeaWorld was abysmal (and you can’t bring a lunch in), and we avoided the crowds and junk at Disneyland by making reservations for 2 sit down meals (Blue Bayou and Big Thunder Ranch BBQ, both of which were pricey, but we found worth it for the decent quality food and the down time both places afforded us).
For most of the rest of the trip we visited with beluga whales & dolphins:
where the kids (& I) were truly smitten at the Shamu show:
enjoyed very cute pandas who really did eat bamboo:
met various Superheros & other denizens of the 2 & 3-D world:
consorted with fairies in Pixie Hollow:
rode rides with abandon (including every roller coaster at Disney & Space Mountain (twice), with both kids, and no, for some inexplicable reason, Seabands were not necessary…):
and just generally enjoyed watching Finn vanquish Darth Vader (which video I can only link to for size restrictions, but below is a preview…):
But we did have a few absolutely memorable family food experiences, which will be chronicled here in the coming days, including two excellent local San Diego spots, the kids’ first exposure to truly fine dining, and then the antidote to fine dining: room service.
I’m surprised to find I haven’t written about dessert yet in this forum, since I have a lotto say about the subject. And despite how healthy I try to keep my family, we certainly don’t avoid dessert. We’re just as likely to make an afternoon project of making cookies as making paintings, and if we have a bowl of apples, I’m just as likely to bake them into a crisp than to slice them up to feed the kids.
Today, after a late-afternoon romp in Golden Gate Park with frisbee and soccer ball, we walked up to one of our favorite local restaurants, a casual place where they bring the kids mason jars full of crayons and the silverware waits for use in repurposed cans of Hershey’s chocolate syrup. We eat there often (despite some memorably bad evenings there, no fault of the restaurant). After a simple supper (a roasted artichoke to share, pasta of various sorts all around, a nice salad of roasted beets, arugula, endive and manchego), Tony slipped in a quiet dessert order. The ginger cake here is so good we don’t even order the excellent chocolate cake anymore, which might be all you need to know about it. The cake is spicy and moist, a little crispy round the edges, and sits next to a generous scoop of homemade pumpkin ice cream, all surrounded by a pool of rich dark caramel sauce. It might be my favorite restaurant dessert in a city that’s rich in excellent desserts.
Tonight when the waiter put the dessert down, the boys fell on it. Eli practically snarled at me when I used my spoon to force his back down onto the plate and reduce his giant bite by half. Ben, with longer arms, snuck in for bites from the side while Eli stood up to get better access. “Eli!” I cried, appalled at his manners; “Do you even know what the cake tastes like?” He didn’t even pause to answer; didn’t, in fact, even swallow, but answered by shaking his head no. When it was gone, he took a deep breath and sat back, satisfied.
The subtlety of texture and flavor was lost on him; it was sweet and good and for now that’s all he needs. But in the interest of refining his palate, we’ll keep ordering this cake. In fact, I think next time we’ll order two.
In Paris, we rented an apartment, went to the market and fixed nearly all our own meals. But we wanted to take the kids out for a meal, just once, pretty much just to say we did.
We carried several guidebooks that included sections on kid-friendly restaurants, but too often kid-friendly meant a chain like Le Hippo, which has a kid’s menu offering (for about eight euros) a choice between steak, burger, ribs, chicken nuggets or fish filet, plus drink and dessert. Not bad, but not so great for vegetarian kids. (The one exception to the kid friendly = fast food thinking was in Karen Uhlmann’s wonderful Paris for Kids, where the Restaurant section begins: “I use my museum method for taking children to dinner in Paris (one museum, then one park). One pasta night for you; one bistro night for me.” I like the way this woman thinks! Maybe when the kids are older we’ll manage this, too.)
Although our kids actually handle restaurants pretty well, we were a little worried about the pace of the typical Parisian bistro meal, the need to order courses, the inability to make substitutions. So we went for Italian. In fact, we found pretty much the Parisian equivalent of our local Pasta Pomodoro. The boys ordered fusili with pesto, Tony had a pizza, I ate a terrific salade nicoise, and we all shared a couple bowls of excellent chocolate ice cream for dessert. It was quick, it was tasty. Everybody left happily.
The next night we gave ourselves a break from teaching anybody how to eat, and left the boys with my good friend Susannah so that Tony and I could go out on our own. We went for Italian, again, but this time a small and cozy place with tables far too small for our standard restaurant accessories of view master and coloring books. We walked past the beautiful seafood and antipasto bar on the way in:
And started with an antipasto plate and a rocket salad:
(The zucchini on the antipasto plate was a revelation: thin discs which seemed to have been dried slightly before marinating, to give it a fabulous chewy texture.) Then we moved on to a black truffle risotto and pasta with scallops. We had cocktails to start, wine with dinner, and lingered; we didn’t need to remind anyone to sit up, or not stick a fork in your hair, or to try three more bites because you’re three… It was peaceful and quiet, and the food was delicious, too.
Our next big restaurant meal was in the south of France, where after almost a week of meals cooked for us personally by Charlie the Chef (much more on this to come), we — the 4 of us, my parents, my siblings and their partners, my niece and nephew — all went out to a local auberge to eat.
We prepared for this meal as we’d prepared for our Eiffel Tower trip, making sure the boys were well-rested and fed before we headed out, for although by now our boys were thoroughly on French meal time (ie, dinner at 8), we still hadn’t asked them to sit through several courses. And in fact, we didn’t even arrive at the restaurant until 8, ordered half an hour later (yes, I was checking my watch), and the food didn’t come for thirty minutes after that. So the boys colored, and looked at view master discs, and Tony and I took turns taking them out for walks, which — given the scenery–was actually quite pleasant:
When our meals arrived, we were delighted: scallops and vegetables for me:
a beautiful vegetable plate for Tony:
And pasta for the boys. It had only been a week since they’d seen the stuff, but they fell on it like… well, like picky eaters who’ve been denied plain food for a week. I didn’t take a picture of their plates, but scribbled on the side of my menu Ben’s response: “I am going to delect this pasta!” Eli scooped it up into his mouth by the handful. I wasn’t about to spoil his happy reunion with comfort food by insisting on a fork.
There was dessert, and there was wine, and maybe there was coffee, too, but I really don’t remember, I was so distracted by my growing sense that yes, they would make it, we would make it, and two and a half hours after we sat down, we were heading home again, tired, contented, and well-fed after our family dinner out.
We love Plantation Gardens, where we stayed last year for a week. The condo was extremely pleasant, but the real revelation were the grounds and the restaurant, which is one of the best places we’ve found to eat out on the south shore of Kauai.
The Moir gardens, which border the restaurant are spectacular–hundreds of orchids in bloom…
and long paths to walk before and after dinner. Here, it’s not just about the food, but about where you get to eat the food: on a spacious lanai, in the middle of lots of cultivated, lush beauty. It’s clean and modern, but has clear ties the long history of the plantation and surrounding gardens and old Kauai.
This was one of the very few times we eat out during our vacation, so there was some ceremony to it. We dressed up. We made sure we were all hungry. We booked an early seating so that the kids would be in good spirits and we would get a seat on the lanai.
Ella and Finn , newly introduced to pu-pus and the glories of Shirley Temples, were festive when we arrived. They were excited and eager to sit down and eat. They understood what was expected of them regarding manners and appropriate behavior. Kory and I had looked forward all year to the sweet li hing mui margarita,
with li hing mui powder on the rim, mixed with salt. For my money, it’s the perfect island drink. Maybe the perfect drink period.
We ordered our drinks, a lilikoi lemonade for Finn and a Shirley Temple for Ella, and we waited for our appetizers.
The kids drinks went down fast.
Which is I guess what happens when you’re soda-deprived 310 days a year.
Thankfully, the appetizers came right out and were were excellent. Ella had choosen pot stickers, which are a staple for her at any restaurant with even a whiff of Asian influence.
Finn was adamant about imperial roles, which he had discovered a few days earlier.
And Kory and I ordered the kalua pig lettuce wraps because they just looked too good to pass up. And they were. Normally, we’ll share one, or two very small first plates.
They finished their plates.
And even though, on this one particular night, they had great manners, mostly used appropriate implements instead of fingers, made good conversation, ate with gusto and great appreciation, and generally functioned like little humans and not the beasts-at-the-table that they can sometimes be, still we had a problem. Because of course, they were no longer especially hungry, and we still had dinner coming.
Plantation Gardens’ has an excellent practice of NOT offering a printed children’s menu. So Ella and Finn had no idea they were missing out on the chicken nugget-thing when they were brought their small plates of rice, grilled opa, and a sweet, coconut milk fortified sauce on the side. They didn’t touch the sauce, but they did muscle and squirm their way through some of the fish and a bit of the rice. It was a struggle though, and not so much fun, even though the fish was quite good. And this was entirely our fault. Too many pu-pus.
I had the same fish as the kids, and it was sweet and rich and filling, even for me. Kory chose more wisely, the much lighter ahi, and it was superb.
Of course, the three sugar fiends wanted dessert.
There was really nothing about the dinner that was done in moderation. Especially not the second margarita.
But after we walked in the garden until it was dark, looking at plants, searching for the nocturnal toads which squat like sentinels all over the grass and paths. The kids love them. We love that the kids love them.
We loved our dinner. And we’ll do it again. A little differently.