Going out to eat should feel like coming home

My Sunday morning plans seemed perfect. Today was the day for the big Brunch on the Farm for Shawano County, and anyone who has been to one of those knows how busy they are and how much attraction they generate from parents who don’t live on farms but want to make sure they realize their food doesn’t just magically appear in a grocery store.

Since I didn’t have to cover the brunch for the newspaper, I thought this would be a good day to just go out and eat. My cupboards were looking a little bare, and I hadn’t grabbed anything out of the freezer to defrost for a meal. It made sense to grab a couple of Sunday newspapers and make a beeline for the Farm Inn, a country-style restaurant with antique farm items decorating the walls that make it feel like you’re getting a home-cooked meal. I figured that with Brunch on the Farm going on, most folks would choose to go there, and the Farm Inn would be a nice, quiet place for me to munch on some bacon while digesting the weekend’s news.

When I walked into the Farm Inn, I soon realized that I have no future as a psychic. Not only was the Farm Inn bustling, it was overflowing. Every table was occupied, and even the seats at the counter, which usually attract few people, were full up. About a dozen people were sitting on the benches by the cash register, waiting for tables. I hadn’t seen the Farm Inn full like that except on Mother’s Day, and since Father’s Day was last weekend and there were no other special days for other family members that I was aware of, I concluded that my timing just sucked.

Obviously, I could have just gone home at that point, thrown some bread in the toaster and plopped myself on the couch to start reading. I didn’t want to do that. Why? Because there are just some times when you want to go somewhere to eat and hear the clattering of dishes as you smell the food that someone else is cooking.

I’ve always enjoyed diners, which are slightly different than your run-of-the-mill restaurants. Some places give you the feeling of city dining with starched collars and fancy-looking menus, while places like the Farm Inn feel like your home or a neighbor’s home, where you feel safe and welcome What you don’t feel is that your wallet is going to lose 20 pounds, so to speak.

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Whenever Todd and I go out to eat, we like small-town diners like Soda Pop’s in Eagle River, where the food is fresh, but the decor doesn’t look all shiny and new. (Photo by Lee Pulaski)

Growing up in a small town, going out to eat was a rare treat, as my mother was the kind of person who preferred to make the meals for her family herself instead of having someone else do it for her. On the occasions that the family went out to eat, we usually plopped down in a booth at the Iron Horse, one of the few places one could go and dine in Chino Valley in the 1980s.

What I liked about the Iron Horse was the fact that it wasn’t perfect. Everything was tidy, but it didn’t look like it was brand new. Some of the tables had chipped Formica, and the cushioning booths had a couple of signs of wear and tear. It was lit, but not so bright that you felt exposed. It was the simple life, and it’s because of that upbringing that I prefer haunting small-town restaurants instead of plopping the equivalent of four or five hours of work on a meal.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ll splurge on the occasion, but I prefer to go somewhere where the servers don’t necessarily look like their attire has to be ironed daily. I’m more inclined to enjoy myself when the restaurant staff is willing to shoot the breeze for a moment instead of doing a drive-by and collecting the orders faster than a speeding bullet.

However, I opted not to stick around wait for a table at Farm Inn to open up. While there are certainly other places to eat in Shawano, they don’t have the “small-town feel” I was describing before, so I drove 10 minutes east to Bonduel, where I knew of a couple of places where the atmosphere was similar to Farm Inn. I was just hoping they weren’t swamped with customers, too, especially since my stomach was starting to gurgle.

My first stop in Bonduel, The Hungry Bear, paid off. Everything, even the salt and pepper shakers, has a bear motif, and there was a nice little table by a window where I finally got to sit down, order breakfast and get caught up on the news. In fact, I was reading a rather op-ed piece regarding gun control when my bacon and eggs arrived.

While I wouldn’t mind making enough money to go out to eat on a regular basis, I’m fine with making it the occasional treat. It makes me appreciate the occasion more, and it helps me feel like I’m at home—just as long as I’m not the one slaving away in the kitchen.

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