New England

img 2580On our recent summer "vacation" to the East Coast, we had one day to ourselves. Blissfully alone, with only each other to have to worry about and please. Instead of the unending stream of family that we were happy to see, but the all-at-once, all-or-nothing nature of the company had left us a bit weary. There was only time for one dinner out. One dinner that didn't revolve around a porch and a grill and the constraints of many others picky palates. Don't get me wrong, I love grilling, but I was looking for something crafted with genius and care that required a fork.

Unfortunately it was a Monday night. All my top Boston choices were shuttered for the evening. And don't even get me started on how expensive the hotel prices are. For one night. Like New York pricey. So we choose to stay in Portsmouth, NH, a destination new to both of us and on the road between Bangor and Boston. Our hotel choice was a total cinch. The Ale House Inn. Sounded like it has something to do with beer. And it does. It's located in the historic Portsmouth Brewing Co. building, which dates back to 1880. That may be considered old in most cities in the country, but not in Portsmouth which the English "founded" in 1653. The 10 rooms are masterfully appointed (Keurig/iPad/flat screen/fridge), if a bit small, but since we were just sleeping there we didn't care. The free micro brew they give you at check-in was a lovely surprise and a nice touch on a hot summer day.

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CapitalCapital Grille is fine dining in Providence. It seems like they've been around forever and it's 25 years, so it is forever. It opened in 1990 and this is the original store tucked behind old Union Station. Historically, I find it intriguing that a place that was of its time then is still good at being contemporary years later. I went looking for an old menu to see what they served in 1990 but there are no clues for what used to be. I really want to know.

I don't have to tell you how hard it is to pick a place to eat. It's not like I didn't have any notice. We knew months in advance that I had to find the right spot for dinner in a place I don't know, that I can't find without a GPS and that's open Monday. There are places you can starve on Mondays and Providence is one. At the visitor's request, it must be: "A place you've never been that will break the bank, and that you can write about." Or what we call a regular working dinner. Years ago, in their Newton, MA store, I sat at the bar with beer and a wedge salad. That was when I was still allowed to have blue cheese, bacon and sour cream all on the same plate. Surely that doesn't count and so, of course, I don't tell. It's not like I'm going to have it again though I could. It's on the menu just as I remember.

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maggiesfamrToday's adventure begins as I leave Boston over the Tobin Bridge to Route 1 North to Middleton. I go by giant box stores and chain restaurants I've only read about. Although people drive fast in the city, outside the city they're worse. When you slow down to pull off, you're lucky they don't take you out although sometimes they do. People love shopping here, I can tell, and it's enchanting because parking is free and there's so much of it.

It's hard not to notice that the word "eatery" is big along Route 1 and we're not being snippy. As I pull in to Maggie's Farm parking lot, I see the Sol Bean Café next door and yes, here's another sign that says not just eatery, but 'healthy eatery.' Anyway, I've arrived much too early. Sadly, there's no bookstore, no market, no place to window shop, so I drive back a couple of miles to Home Depot. I manage not to buy anything. The parking is intoxicating.

Maggie's Farm: Bob Dylan wrote a song by this name in 1965. While I like '60s tunes too, the surfing ones like 26 Miles and Surfer Girl, the lyrics to Maggie's Farm describe a sad worker scrubbing floors, underpaid and fined. I'm sure Maggie's owner Mark McDonough knows something I don't. Anyway, I thought it might be farm-ish if not an actual farm but it's not, although their logo has a sheep wearing sunglasses. On their site it says they purchased "a classic 1953 International Harvester tractor to become the icon of the restaurant" but I didn't see it. What is certain, however, is that I'm very, very near a farm.

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atkinsapples.jpgLiving in Los Angeles, we know it's Fall by looking at our calendars not by the weather. October is usually one of our hottest months with no colorful, falling leaves, frost or crisp, cool days to be found. While I don't miss Winter, after two decades of living in the California sun, I still desperately yearn for the sights and smells of Autumn.

Since traveling is rarely an option, I have begun to enjoy the season by living vicariously through pictures and blogs I find on the Internet. The current crop is all about apples. The visions of pies, tarts and cakes, as well as piles of this fresh fall fruit have left me craving one of my childhood's sweetest and simplest joys: the Atkins Farms Cider Donut.

My grandmother was obsessed with them and subsequently, so were we. It was her way of treating us, without breaking her bank. (They cost a quarter a piece then, now still a steal for 50 cents.) Once harvest season began, we'd head out to Atkins to indulge in their – now famous – baked goods...and fresh-pressed apple cider. Heated to take the chill off the morning.

They bake the donuts fresh every day, infusing them with the cider and liberally dusting them with a mixture of cinnamon and sugar.  The recipe hasn't changed in over 35 years with good reason.  In 2008, they were rated by Saveur Magazine as one of the 12 best donuts in the country. Something I – and most of Western Massachusetts – have known since 1972. Well, 1976 for me.

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eastside-grill-logo.jpgWhile back home in Massachusetts for my father's 70th birthday – which is so hard to believe – my husband, older sister Sue and I wanted to take him out one night for a first-class, adult meal before the nieces and nephews descended and the backyard grilling began. We tried to get him to choose a place he wanted to go, but he wasn't in the mood to decide, so he left it up to us. He was thrilled we were there – it's been a year since we were together – and glad for a night out, but the occasion was something he would rather have ignored. I can't say I blame him.

Since I haven't lived in the region for two decades I deferred to my sister, who's had her whole life to scope out the area. Having just come off a 5-day seafood bender while on Cape Cod – with no complaints mind you – we were in the mood for something a bit heartier. Plus, we had to please the parents, which is not always an easy task. Dad will eat just about anything. Mom is a bit more selective. Sue's choice of the Eastside Grill fit the bill perfectly.

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