Disappointment in Lexington, Triumph in Roanoke

Lexington, Virginia

Among the many features of Eartha, my GPS navigating assistant, is the ability to list nearby restaurants wherever I am. So as I drove the bleak stretch of Route 81 into Roanoke and learned (via cell phone) that the restaurant I’d hoped to try, the Homeplace Restaurant (4968 Catawba Valley Drive, Catawba, Virginia; 540-384-7252), is closed Mondays through Wednesdays, I let Eartha smoke out some local places I was speeding past.

As I approached the exit for Lexington, Virginia, Eartha informed me that the Southern Inn Restaurant (37 South Main Street, Lexington, Virginia; 540-463-3612) was just a few miles away. The name intrigued. Out here in the sticks, Southern Inn was sure to be a lively down-home treat.

To my surprise, I pulled up to a striking bistro serving pricey New American Cuisine.

I did not have a good feeling about the place, but it was late, and, loath to be a reverse snob, I went in and ordered a $7.45 Asian pear salad (baby field greens, local Asian pears, toasted pecans, shaved red onions, chevre cheese [sic] tossed with roasted shallot vinaigrette) and a $12.25 grilled salmon sandwich (grilled salmon fillet served on a homemade garlic-dill bagel with bacon, lettuce, tomato, and herb aioli, accompanied by homemade potato chips and country cole slaw).

You know how in big cities many young chefs cook like clones, having been indoctrinated into the standard cooking school procedures? While their work is never very personal, and usually a bit pretentious and soulless, it’s at least competent, because, after all, they went to cooking school.

The cooking at this place had all those negatives, plus it lacked competency. Every bite was utterly lifeless and rife with errors. And if I never see another homemade garlic-dill bagel in my life, that would suit me quite well.

Roanoke

The Lexington Catastrophe wasn’t a streak-ender, because the place had triggered no positive vibe whatever. I only dined there out of morbid curiosity. Rattled nonetheless, the next day I was pleased to find my chow-dar unaffected.

The food court in Roanoke Market, with its fake Chinese booth, fake pizza booth, et al., seems pretty lame. Yet my antennae were twitching, and I eventually found myself at a greasy, untitled burger stand tucked at the end of an otherwise flashy row of concessions. Burger in the Square (32 Market Square SE, Roanoke, Virginia; 540-982-1639) makes fantastic, memorable crunchy old-fashioned hamburgers, and fine waffle fries.

I stayed at the Doubletree Hotel Roanoke & Conference Center, formerly a grand independent hotel that’s only been improved by the addition of warm chocolate chip cookies at the front desk (the chowhoundish signature of all Doubletree hotels). Build in 1882, it’s got loads of personality.

One secret of the South is that the $150 price of a blah hotel room in Boston or San Francisco can buy you a room at the best hotel down here in towns like Roanoke. To digress further, the reign of the big hotel reservation sites like Expedia and Orbitz is over. You can no longer book rooms more cheaply than at the hotel’s own sites, so they’re no longer worth the surcharges and stricter cancellation terms.

One exception is Priceline, which, in addition to their scary bidding system, offers straight-ahead discounted reservations for named hotels in many cities. If you work really hard, though, you can still ferret out bargains. For example, I booked a highly discounted room at the execrable Trump Marina in hellish Atlantic City via a shadowy bulk discount operation called Access Atlantic City.

Roanoke is halfway between New York and Atlanta. So at this point I can say I’ve really traveled. Tomorrow, I look forward to a nice long ride on the Blue Ridge Parkway.