When you travel, do you like to eat at chain restaurants or locally owned eateries?
I thought about this last week while I was in Norman, Okla., where my husband is working this month. We were hungry, and I spotted a Mexican place that looked interesting. We enjoyed tacos of smoked brisket and grilled Mahi Mahi. The service was great with a rustic Tex-Mex atmosphere. I never thought about whether it was a chain or independently owned. The next day while doing an online search, I found out that On The Border Mexican Grill is actually a Dallas-based chain with more than 160 locations. But since there's not one in Utah, it seemed "new" to me.
This brings up the issue of chain-vs.-independents. For a traveler, the advantage of chains is that they're familiar and predictable. When you've got a carload of hungry kids to please, or when you're tired from traveling all day, it's comforting to know what to expect. There will be a certain level of quality, and the menu offers something that family members won't quibble over.
But, predictability is also a disadvantage. If you're looking for something adventurous or unique to the local area, you're not likely to find it at a chain restaurant. You might as well be eating back home.
Since my husband has ended up working in Oklahoma at least once a year for the past dozen or so years, we've had the pleasure of trying other places that are more unique to the state, such Earl's Rib Palace, which has three locations in the Oklahoma City area, the Cattlemen's Steakhouse, the oldest continuously operating restaurant in Oklahoma City since 1910. In 1945, Oklahoma rancher Gene Wade won the steakhouse in a craps game. The place doesn't look like much from the outside, but the interior has been built on over the years, room by room, much the way The Maddox evolved in Brigham City.
The steaks are tender and juicy, and memorabilia on the walls pay homage to some of the restaurant's more famous customers, including Gene Autry, John Wayne, Reba McIntyre, and U.S. presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
It offers a lot more local personality than one of the steakhouse chains.
When we visited the Kirtland, Ohio, area, we stopped at RJ's, a small mom-and-pop restaurant down the road from the Kirtland Temple. It was a favorite of Mormon tourists and the missionaries serving in the LDS Church history sites, including my son, Jess Phillips, and my cousins, John and Carol Cluff. Owners Tom and Judy Ponzurick saw so many Utah customers that it began offering "fry sauce." Tom did the cooking and Judy waited on tables. My brother-in-law loved the house barbecue sauce so much, he ordered a case of it. The pulled pork sandwiches and the Stuffed Pepper Soup were signature items. Sadly, the place closed a couple of years ago after the economy took a nosedive.
I can think of some exceptions to premise that chain restaurants don't offer any local cachet. When I visited Massachussetts, a lobster roll at one of the Boston-based Legal Sea Food locations felt like a taste of New England. And before In-N-Out Burger came to Utah, a lot of people looked forward to getting a Double-Double on their California vacations.
Maybe that's why, as I was waiting for my flight out of Oklahoma City, I couldn't resist getting a small order of chili-cheese tots at the airport's Sonic location. The first Sonic began in Shawnee, Okla., and the company headquarters are in Oklahoma City. Since I've never eaten them in Utah, I could tell myself that I was having a tourist moment!