I have a confession: I don't travel the world--or this country--to explore all those historical monuments and museums. (So what do you suppose all the intellectuals will think of that?) Oh, I do check out a lot of those places and feel awe at everything that preceded our little existences. But here's the thing--I do my exploring between meals .
I don't care where a restaurant is. And it doesn't have to be "in." I just want great food indigenous to the area and presented in an interesting way.
Most vacationers read travel guides and brochures when they are planning a trip. I, too, spend a lot of time doing my homework before I journey to some new and wondrous place, but this adventurous Tennessean spends a lot of research time on restaurant reviews--four-star, three-star, two-star and no-star bistros. I quiz every friend who has been there before me--whether that there be Paris, Singapore, Cleveland, Pittsburgh or Rio.
And I keep my eyes and ears open for fallen stars, too. Tragedy to me means a former gastronomic miracle that has lost its glory because the chef left or the owners became absentee owners or the prices were allowed to go through the roof.
When I'm in Florence, Bangkok or Auckland, I do see the sights (besides golf and tennis). Honestly. But right now, if you snapped your fingers and said "Florence," I'd tell you in detail how the whole city turns gold at teatime, about finding great buys in leather goods before lunch or a spaghetti with broccoli and funghi to die for before dinner.
When a waiter sees an obviously kindred soul nodding approvingly and savoring every description, hanging on his every word with almost sensuous appreciation, that waiter is bound to wax eloquent and become dewy-eyed at the very mention of the succulent delights lingering in that kitchen and waiting to be consumed by the discriminating guest.
On a couple of occasions in Italy, misreading my receptivity as pure sensuality, a waiter or maitre d' discreetly mentioned that he would be off duty at 10:30 p.m., and should I restrain my appetite a little, it would be his pleasure to escort me to a wonderful adventure at an even more buonissimo ristorante than the one in which I was dining at the moment. Never mind what you're thinking; I didn't go.
It's not that I make these gustatory binges only when I'm abroad. When I'm on a concert tour or a television show tour here at home, I never forget for a moment the post-program joy of keeping body and soul intact.
For example, Cleveland might not be your average everyday favorite holiday town, but mushroom bisque at the Earth-By-April restaurant is a good reason to go there. To say nothing of the angel hair con fruitte de mar at Giovanni's. Honestly, just writing about it, I can hardly wait to get back. The audiences are terrific and the food is unforgettable in Cleveland. You heard me, Cleveland! And Chicago and Minneapolis and Philadelphia.
And Detroit! I'll admit that town isn't particularly engaging, but 45 minutes from the airport, Mrs. Morgan's Boarding House--its long tables covered with gleaming white tablecloths--is loaded with home- style food. Have the potted short ribs of beef, chicken and square dumplings and deep- dish peach cobbler. Gawd, I'm hungry just remembering!
I'm a real stickler for starting my shows on time. When the ticket says 8 p.m., my shows start at 8 p.m. I don't like long intermissions, and I always try to end a performance between 10:15 and 10:30 p.m. I can't eat too much during the day of my appearance, so five minutes after that last song and the last autograph, I'm off with friends and members of the orchestra (trust musicians to know good food) to the prized restaurant in the area. I'm one of the show-business world's great makeup-removers-in-the-limo.
The truth is that I haven't had too many "vacation" vacations. They are mostly working vacations, but when I do get a little time off, it's planned more around a restaurant route than a scenic route.
A few years ago, with the help of a friend at the great Mediterranee Restaurant in Paris, we put together a marathon trip from Paris to Rome that was truly memorable. It didn't make any sense geographically, but it was a marvel for the right reasons.
I suppose that you could cover Paris to Rome in a couple of days of driving. It took us two weeks! We even dashed across an additional border or two. After all, we absolutely had to try a fabulous restaurant with an unusual veal dish in Zurich, then rush over to Vienna for the world's greatest Bach and Handel (as well as a visit to Demel, the renowned confection shop, for pastries).
In Italy, there was a spaghetti carbonara in Rapallo, risotto and grilled shrimp in Florence. In France, anything en croute at Les Baux, quenelles des brochet sauce nantus at Le Coq d'Or in Saulieu.