Category: Restaurant Chit-Chat

Sea Gull Pier Restaurant, Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, Virginia

Update, September 29, 2014 – Here is a link to the current restaurant that’s at One Island on the bridge:

www.virginia-originals.com

Update, June 6, 2009 – This post … well, it’s garnered a bit of attention since I posted it about a week ago. I don’t really know how people are finding it, but they’re finding it. And to be blunt, not everyone’s agreeing with what I wrote here. I won’t rehash my opinion in this update; I already posted it in the comments among both agreeing and disagreeing responders. However, I’ll approve any comment having merit while also not being insulting. So go right ahead and post your own opinion, negative or positive, on this particular restaurant. Y’ll kinda have me curious now!

I’ve been avoiding posting this one. I don’t like talking badly about restaurants. But this one has irritated me, and I have to explain why.

When you’ve driven extra miles, more than 150 miles one-way from the hotel you’re staying at, to eat at a single restaurant that’s in the middle of literally nothing, on a man-made island of a project once listed as one of the seven engineering wonders of the world by the American Society of Civil Engineers … wouldn’t you expect to find the best Crab Cake Sandwich you’ve ever had, even if it was just for lunch?

I gotta tell you, I was sorely disappointed.

Granted, we weren’t disappointed with the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel itself. And there are a couple other pics you have to see at the end of this post. But frankly, the Filet’o Fish at McDonald’s is better than the crab cake sandwich you see here.

The $9.95 “Crab Cake Sandwich with french fries” at the Sea Gull Pier Restaurant on Island 1 of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel wasn’t anything close to what I was expecting for either the price or the location. When the dish was delivered, it was exactly as it appears in the top photo; An overcooked (cooked at least twice the time it should have been) crab cake on an inexpensive (read, “cheap”) bun with a portion dish of tarter sauce and some slightly soggy fries. Not even a slice of lettuce there to put on top of it. Definitely nothing close to what a good Chesapeake Bay crab cake should be, is supposed to be, is expected to be, etc., etc., ad nauseum.

My real problem with this isn’t the dish itself. It’s how that poorly-made dish relates to those miles driven. People consistently travel long distances to see the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, to drive those 20 miles of pavement 20 feet over the waters at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, to get off on Island 1 to see the fishing pier, visit the gift shop and eat at the Sea Gull Pier Restaurant. I know because I lived in Norfolk for over three years, and two of my kids were born in the area. And this was still my first visit to this particular attraction and Engineering Wonder.

My real problem is that this sandwich, and anything else served at that particular restaurant, should solidly represent the seafood of the Chesapeake Bay. Unfortunately, it does not do so, not by a long shot. Honestly, when I bit into the sandwich it was ok, and I was instantly suspicious of the meat being a Chesapeake crab cake from Phillips, which is a wonderful product. If so, that would have been the sandwich’s only saving grace, as Phillips is the way to go in many cases for decent seafood for this purpose. But even it it was, somebody had cooked the Hell out of it and served it up very amateurishly. The result was far from representative of what even that particular seafood supplier would want to see for that product.

Now, having said that, the real reason we went to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel was for John:

This is my stepson Pfc. John Winckowski, USMC, and his mom, my lovely wife Mary, at our table in the Sea Gull Pier Restaurant. Memorial Day weekend with a U.S. Marine. Yeah, that’s the ticket. 🙂 John loves watching the “engineering marvels” shows on various cable channels, so heading to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel was something he’d looked forward to. I’m pretty sure he enjoyed the rest of our visit to that “enginering marvel”.

John and Mary also posed for me at the overlook that looks to the west at the Chesapeake Bay at the far east end of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel.

And for those of you who are fishermen or fisherwomen who want to fish the Chesapeake Bay without a boat, here’s a look at the fishing pier just outside the restaurant on Island 1.

But if you do fish off this pier, do yourself a favor; Pack a lunch.

The Cavalier, Lynchburg, Virginia

Last Friday the gent I was working with in Lynchburg, Virginia, had heard about the hot dogs I’d had at the Texas Inn the previous evening. I’d told him they weren’t all they were cracked up to be. He felt I needed to have something better. He gave me a couple suggestions, including the possibility of a lunchtime pizza, and then recalled a place that served hot dogs having what he called, “A nice red sauce.”

Hmmm, that sounded interesting. Red sauce. I wondered what the Heck that was … So he and I climbed into the company’s white Ford Focus, the one with air conditioning but no cruise control, power windows or power locks (the other car had the cruise control, power windows and power locks, but no A/C) and we headed for The Cavalier.

The place is … unique. From the outside it could be a dry goods store, with its aluminum window frames and glass block halfway up the front wall. Inside, the wood walls were either inscribed with personal graffiti or covered with license plates, flags, and Lord knows what else. For only being there 22 years, it looks a lot older.

Sam didn’t look at a menu … he simply ordered the two hot dogs, “with the red sauce”, including mustard and chopped onion, and a side of seasoned fries. I went ahead and ordered the same.

After probably 15 minutes, the waitresss placed the dogs in front of us, and handed us each a fork and knife saying, “You’re gonna need ’em”. She was right … I couldn’t pick the darned hot dogs up! The sauce looks hot and spicy, but is actually quite sweet. The hot dogs and their sweet sauce were good, and honestly, I could only eat one-and-a-half of them. Why? Well, there were probably two whole potatoes in the basket of fries …

The fries were probably the best part of the meal. Crispy on the outside with tender potato when I bit into them, they were coated with a seasoning mix that wasn’t as powerful as I expected. The seasoning provided a good balance for the fries instead of providing all the flavor. I could taste the potato. That’s quite a change from a lot of fries I’ve had.

Hot dogs and fries. Who’d have thought they’d make the best meals on that part of the trip?

The Texas Inn, Lynchburg, Virginia


Best hot dogs in the world, eh??

When I got to a hotel in Lynchburg, Virginia this past Wednesday it was well past 8:30 p.m. I’d been on the road for almost ten hours straight. At one point the GPS got me seriously lost in the hills east of New Haven, West Virginia, and I’d ended up on a one-lane road at the top of a ridge with nowhere to turn around with a sign in front of me which read, “Road Closed Ahead”.

The definition of irony: Not 36 hours after said GPS incident, the GPS manufacturer emailed me about upcoming map updates. Go figure.

The darned thing also led me east on route 60, through those nasty switchbacks that go up to the Blue Ridge Parkway in Shenendoah National Park, then back down again. The sun was still up when I started that section. It was down before I reached the ridge. I can’t stand driving those things in mid-day, but after dark it’s incredibly dangerous.

The gal at the hotel desk, Janelle, suggested I have a couple hot dogs at the Texas Inn, a 24/6 operation up at the next intersection. She claimed, “Best hot dogs in the world!” Too tired to chew more than what was stuck between my teeth, I thanked her anyway, went to my room, ignored the flossing, and went to bed.

By Thursday evening my curiosity had gotten the best of me. I know what the best hot dogs in the world taste like, at least for me. Others will claim Detroit coneys, some Chicago, and yet others prefer Nathan’s Famous. You’ll never find a concensus on the subject, and frankly, I’ve given up trying to find one.

Still, I decided to head up to the Texas Inn and find out what she was talking about.

The little place is … little. Large on the outside, only the northern-most section of the building (the left end in the above photo) is open to customers. Inside, a stainless-steel counter wraps around an open kitchen and waitstaff area. The 15 stools at the counter are all the seats there are.

Parking myself at the stove end of the counter (last stool on the right please), I ordered a couple of the chili dogs Janelle had told me about. In fact, if I recall, I mentioned that she’d recommended the restaurant and the hot dogs. Almost immediately AJ, on the left in this photo, said, “We’re better known for our Cheesy Westerns“. Ok, ummm … what??

AJ made up my two chili dogs, with the chili made right there in the restaurant, and also filled me in on the sandwich he prefered to tell me about.

First off, the hot dogs were passable. I do have issues with steamed or boiled dogs that are proclaimed “Best hot dogs in the world”. Sorry Janelle, but the best dogs are grilled, plain and simple. I do have to say that, even though the chili looked greasy, it actually wasn’t. It had a good flavor, but I prefer it thicker anyway.

Back to AJ’s story …

The Cheesy Western. It’s a rather simple thing and, as AJ told me, the Texas Inn has been serving it since around 1935. I’d learn the following day that the sandwich has a number of adaptations in restaurants in Lynchburg and the surrounding area, but the Texas Inn is likely one of the originators, if not the originator of it.

The Cheesy Western sounded good. Really good. Not only that, in sitting there watching AJ work I saw a few of them slide by to waiting patrons. Quite a few, actually. I decided to go ahead and order one, which AJ proceeded to make up for me.

The way they do it is like this: Quarter-pound burgers are kept in supply throughout the day, made from fresh-ground beef grilled on a small grill next to the stove. The grill has a rotating lid to cover the burgers so they cook up correctly. When a customer orders a Cheesy Western, two eggs are beaten and poured into a small skillet. When they’re almost done the egg is flipped. One of the quarter-pound burgers is laid on the egg and a slice of American cheese is placed on the burger. The whole of it is laid on the bottom of the bun. The top of the bun has a “super-secret” sweet mustard relish spread on it that they make at the Inn, and chopped onions. This is then laid on top of the now-cheesy innards, the whole of it is cut in two for easier handling, plated and served.

I gotta tell ya’, the Cheesy Western is a lot better than the hot dogs were. The hamburger was nice and juicy, which was a given, given the covered grill they’re cooked on. The egg AJ cooked up for the sandwich was similar to a good fluffy omelet. And that sweet relish they make from their “super secret” recipe? Yeah, if I had had a fridge to keep it in for the weekend, I’d have gladly bought a quart of the stuff. It’s that good. And even though the relish was on the hot dogs as well, it’s far better as part of the Texas Inn’s Cheesy Western.

When something is this iconic and has been around as long as the Cheesy Western has been, it develops a following. I saw this in action the following morning when I headed to the Texas Inn to enjoy the breakfast in the photo below. In the 30 minutes I was there from 8:15 – 8:45 a.m., fifteen Cheesy Westerns went out the door in to-go bags, apparently to be saved for lunchtime on the Friday before Memorial Day. Those fifteen sandwiches were sold to eight customers … one ordered a bag of two, and two gentlemen each took a bag of four.

Decadent? Yes. Bad for the waistline, and the heart? Absolutely. Good???

Damn straight.


Breakfast at the Texas Inn. Don’t eat at the hotel restaurant.

The Oink Joint, Birch Run: On The Beaten Path

There’s a newer copy of this post over here. If you’re going to leave a comment, please feel free to comment on that version to prevent confusion. Thanks!

This past Wednesday after we made final arrangements for our mom at Flint Memorial Park, my sister Barb headed north on Dort Highway out of Clio, Michigan, intending to take me to lunch. Given the situation, Barb knew what was needed; The same kind of homey place mom and dad would have both sought out, with a service staff that would treat us like family, and a food that’s decidedly “home-style”. She headed straight for the Oink Joint.

That’s funny. I drive by that spot all the time. But I’ve never been there. I just never saw the place before.

The Oink Joint is one of those places I’ve driven past numerous times and never really noticed. Technically it’s in Birch Run, Michigan, just like the huge manufacturer’s outlet center at I-75 at Birch Run Rd., our friends at Dixie Dave’s, and Tony’s, shown on the Travel Channel and soon to be on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.

Getting off I-75 at Birch Run Rd, you tend to turn east, drive right past Dixie Dave’s, head the couple miles to M-54/83, hang a left, and drive straight for Frankenmuth. About a thousand feet north of Birch Run Rd., you tend to look to the right at the putt-putt golf course.

Look left instead. There it is. The Oink Joint. You almost drove past it. Again. Quit that …

The Oink Joint, formerly known as Ken”s Diner, is located next to property for a former amusement park where my mom’s female cousin once drove a go-kart through a retaining wall back in the 1960s. The building is a classic stainless steel art deco diner, all original, and extremely clean. Of course, I’m sure it was spotless when Drew Barrymore directed her upcoming film Whip It! inside the diner this past fall, when the Saginaw News reported the Oink Joint as a new and successful business.

The restaurant’s owners, Dave and Ann Rheaume, keep things nice and tidy. This is no greasy spoon. This is a classic diner in the true sense of the word.

But past the Oink Joint’s film history and obvious cleanliness, it’s the food that really shines.

Barb ordered the pancakes. You can see these 12″ beauties in the first photo in this post. Barb has cooked in a professional kitchen for more than 30 years. She commented that when you have pancakes as big as those they have a tendency to be chewy along the edges while being fluffy in the middle. However, the pancakes in the photo were fluffy all the way to the edge, and had a great flavor that was well-balanced by the butter and syrup instead of being overpowered by them.

I ordered the restaurant’s classic cheeseburger. Longtime readers will know I compare burgers to my two faves, Halo Burger in the Flint area (there’s also one right there at the Birch Run Rd. exit), and Sonic, I’m not sure but I’m wondering if the Oink Joint also gets their hamburger meat from Otto W. Liebold as Halo Burger does. While the flavors are different, the quality of the meat is the same. The toppings were fresh and crispy as they should be, not wilted whatsoever, and the French fries seemed as though they may have been handmade by the aptly-nicknamed Tiny there in the restaurant’s kitchen.


My sister Barb, with server and Oink Joint co-owner Ann Rheaume.

On trips to Birch Run, Frankenmith and points north, I do believe the Oink Joint will be one of our go-to spots for good food and a family atmosphere. But with the Turkey Roost not too far to the north, we’ll have to choose. Hmmm …

A Dinner Date with Mary at Ciao! in Sylvania, Ohio


The beautiful Canneloni at Ciao! Ristorante in Sylvania, Ohio. Not an appetizer … I just wanted to show you dessert first.

One of the issues I have in putting this blog together is that seemingly, the better the restaurant, the worse the lighting is. None of the overhead lights actually lit our table at all. There was a wall sconce mounted on the wall right there at the end of our table in our booth, but it only had a little yellow-tinged 40W bulb in it. Taking pics of the food in these places with my trusty 8.0 megapixel Canon Powershot A590 is difficult at best in those particular extreme low light situations, especially when the light isn’t within a good spectrum. This happens even though the camera finally does have a decent batch of manual settings, better than most cameras in its class. Corrections in Photoshop CS2 kinda help … but the restaurants could certainly have better lighting to begin with and still have a romantic setting for guest couples.

Ok, rant over …

Yesterday evening Mary and I went on our first dinner date in some time. We’d simply gotten out of the habit of doing so, and really need to get back into going out on a regular basis. For the past couple years for my birthday dinner we’d tried to go to Ciao! Ristorante but on both occasions had shown up an hour before the place opened. On both occasions we ended up over at J. Alexander’s instead. The hours listed on Ciao!’s web site are still deceiving, showing times before days, in reverse of what’s the norm.

But hey, we finally made it! It helped to show up after 6 p.m. …


Mary’s serving of Penne con Salsiccia.

So was the restaurant worth the wait, worth the time we’d taken trying to get out there? Is the place any good to begin with? Ciao! Ristorante is part of the group of restaurants owned and operated by Mainstreet Ventures in Ann Arbor, Michigan. With select restaurants in Ann Arbor, the Toledo area, Florida, West Virginia and a couple more now going into Annapolis, Maryland, the small chain is quite particular about what they do and how they do it. We’ve been to multiple restaurants of theirs over the years and so far there hasn’t been a bad one in the bunch.

Ciao! Ristorante is no exception to this. It made for a wonderful date night.

The building itself is a bit interesting. It’s a converted Frisch’s Big Boy, located at the northeast corner of the US-23/Monroe St. interchange, barely south of the Michigan/Ohio line. The remodel added a lounge with booths having roadhouse benchs and a central bar, and a stone fireplace in the middle of the main dining room. There’s plenty of seating, televisons running ESPN and CNN, and quite a few rather busy servers.

Our own server, Ashley, was busy on her own but in her own way made us feel as though we were her only table. She had three tables I could see and probably a couple more. What was interesting was that it seemed everything she was to tell us made her happy. She made the evening special for us as it appeared she was there only to serve, nothing more.


My serving of Salmone con Spinaci.

After some of the Chef’s homemade bread and olive oil for dipping, and a couple light salads (lightly dressed with a few super-sweet and juicy grape tomatoes), we recived our entrées. Mary ordered the Penne con Salsiccia off the Specials menu. The dish is penne pasta tossed with Italian sausage, pea pods, red pepper and grilled fennel in a tomato garlic sauce. I ordered the Salmone con Spinaci, which is grilled North Atlantic salmon served over spinach, wild mushrooms, caramelized onions and corn. Mary’s pasta dish wasn’t too heavy, having a nice blend of flavors and contrast of textures. My salmon was lightly grilled with crunchy grill marks. The spinach was beautifully sautéed with the other vegetables. The caramelized onions under the spinach made for a rare treat.

Our two desserts, my own chocolate and cream-filled Canneloni and Mary’s cornbread and berry pudding over polenta (it had some Italian name we can’t recall) were simply exquisite. Served with some strong, fresh coffee these desserts made for a brilliant finish to a wonderful dinner.

Yeah, we’ll go back. Someday. After 6 p.m. that is.