I've been spending a couple weeks hanging out in western Massachusetts, which is known as the Berkshires. It's a region famous for its beautiful mountains, outdoor music concerts and restaurants run by people who hate food.
The most reliable source of grub I've found up here so far is the frozen food aisle at the Stop & Shop. At this point I'm thinking of asking Mama Celeste to adopt me (or telling her that I'm open to exploring a relationship with a MILF).
Until Mama Celeste agrees to cut me a slice, I've come up with a list of signs that tell me what restaurants to avoid.
• Everyone is fatter than you. Sure, fat people like to eat but most of them go for quantity over quality. So if it looks like you stumbled into an open casting call for the Biggest Loser, get lost.
• Everyone is older than you. Geezers are more concerned about cost than about quality. Their taste buds went dead around the same time their sex drive did and now they're just looking for an eatery that takes coupons and has wide enough aisles to park a rolling oxygen tank.
• They give toys to the kids. This is known as a bribe. If the food is any good, they wouldn't have to bribe anyone to eat here. And that plastic rocketship or freaky-haired troll doll is usually the most edible thing on the menu.
• They still have a working cigarette machine. I think these are against the law, but if you see one you know that you're not really in a restaurant, you're in a bar that happens to sell food. The patrons are tantalizing their palates with delicious Kool Menthols and Red Bulls with a Jagermeister chaser. As a result, the cook can pretty much reach into the trash can, pull out any thing he wants and put it on a plate.
• There's a bowling alley attached. If you have to ask why this is a bad thing, I'm not going to tell you.
• A row of motorcycles parked out front. If the owner caters to Harley riders, it probably means he uses the same grease on the grill that they use on their bike engines. Ask yourself this: Have you ever heard of a Harley Davidson gourmet club climbing on their choppers and hitting the open road intent on discovering which place serves the best seared mushrooms and fresh white asparagus turned in a pan with spring garlic? Me neither.
• There's an all-you-can-eat buffet. Especially if it's a Chinese restaurant. When I was a kid, it seemed that every visit to my relatives included a visit to Huki-Lau Imperial Polynesian Palace, featuring an all-you-can-eat-buffet with Chinese, Italian and "American" food. The sad part is, it was usually the best part of visit.
• They sell lottery tickets. You've got a better chance of winning the Powerball on a $2 scratcher than getting a decent meal. That's because the owner has figured out that there's more money to made selling colored pieces of paper with numbers than selling warmed-over tater tots. (Though they taste about the same.)
• The owner has a collection of vintage cars, motorcycles or railroad cars. I don't know why, but this is an infallible sign that the food is bad. Maybe the Salisbury Steak was good back when the 1923 Stutz Bearcat out front was first built, but it's been down-hill ever since.
• All the pickup trucks parked outside have gun racks. Nothing against hunters, but they spend a lot of time crouched in the cold, eating candy bars and drinking beer. They're not know for their discriminating palate. After a morning crouching in the woods, they would happily eat deer poop, as long as it's served with coffee.
• British owners. Yes, I know that Gordon Ramsay has done his loudest to show that British people can cook good food. But he's a liar. There's a British-owned place a mile down the road from me and if Gordon Ramsay were to try to fix what's wrong with it, he'd have to start by murdering the owners and serving them (overcooked, of course).
• Good-looking waitresses. I admit that I haven't run across many, but they're a sign that the owner cares about something more than he does about the food. And it means that most of the customers are coming here trying to get something other than a hot meal. Unless I'm in New York City or Los Angeles, where everyone is beautiful or about to pay a surgeon to make them that way, I want to eat in restaurants where the waitresses are so ugly that not even Tiger Woods would sleep with them.
I don't want to be entirely negative about the food up here in New England because I've found two small bistros that consistently serve tasty, well-prepared food. You should check them out if you're ever up here. They're called McDonalds and Subway.