Before you pack a picnic for tomorrow’s cross-country, run to your mail box and fish out the latest issue of Flight Training magazine and read my article Eating Local: Fine Dining on the Fly. The article shares the wisdom I gained on how to find a good place to eat when you are a stranger in a strange land. Wisdom gained from 17,748 miles of cross country flying at put-put speed during my first race season. The article is another lovely three-page spread with awesome illustrations from the art department!
“Where’s the best place to eat around here?” I asked the lineman.
“Well, we’ve got an Applebee’s,” he replied with great pride, “about four miles down the road, on the left, you can’t miss it.”
Rio and I exchanged a critical look. “Uh… any thing more local?” I pressed, “We’ve got an Applebee’s back home, and we always like to try something we can’t get at home when we’re traveling.”
The lineman seemed befuddled by this. “Well… what are you in the mood for?”
Now, Lisa and I made that mistake a few weeks ago when we were in the mood for a steak in a town that didn’t have good steaks. I parried, “What’s the local specialty?”
The lineman hesitated. Fidgeted with his pen, and finally said, “I’m not sure what you mean.”
Clearly he’d never had this sort of conversation before. Clearly my new plan of when in Rome, eat what the Romans are eating, wasn’t working out too well either. The conversation started to go downhill from there, so I placed our fuel order and signed for the crew car.
At the hotel I asked the front desk clerk, “Where’s the best place to eat around here?”
“We have an Applebee’s,” she replied with upbeat enthusiasm, “about two miles down the road, on the left, you can’t miss it.”
“Uh… anything more local?” I pressed, “we’ve got an Applebee’s at home and we always like to try something new when we’re traveling.”
The clerk bit her lip, “That’s pretty much the best place in town.”
I found that hard to believe, but I didn’t press her further.
The gas gauge on the crew car was on “empty,” and remembering the time in Liberal, Kansas when the crew car gave up the ghost on us and left us stranded, we stopped at a station next to the hotel to add a few gallons. I asked the guy at the gas station where a good place to eat was. You guessed it: Applebee’s. When I pressed for local flavor he said, “Well, we’ve got a bunch of Mexican places that are pretty all right.”
We are from New Mexico. This was Texas. Even the best Mexican food in Texas is bound to disappoint.
And you know what? In the end, the Applebee’s was very good.
When in Rome… even if the Romans are eating at Applebee’s.
As soon as I saw the Ercoupe on the menu, I knew this was going to be my kind of place.
What? Oh, you misunderstood me. You can’t order an Ercoupe there, but The Airplane Restaurant in Colorado Springs, Colorado, has a photo of an Ercoupe decorating the border of its dinner menu, right next to the Flying Chicken Florentine.
And another Ercoupe picture is featured by the Chocolate Touchdown. And a third by the Runway Chunky Chicken Strips. Of course the menu art also includes Jennies, the Wright Flyer, a flying car, the Bell X-1, and military planes both new and old. It also has images of famous fliers. And sexy stewardesses.
But no other plane had two pictures, much less three. I suspected someone at The Airplane had a special fondness for Ercoupes, and this turned out to be true. More on that after dessert. Actually, let’s back up to the appetizer for a moment.
Now there’s no shortage of airplane-themed restaurants at or near airports. Most are decorated with aviation art, and many have dozens of model planes hanging from the ceiling. But the Airplane ups the ante: The restaurant is in a plane. Well part of it, anyway. And part of the plane is in the restaurant, as well, much the way old railroad cars were used for roadside diners back in the day. And the merging of plane and restaurant is a work of architectural art.
Yep, The Airplane Restaurant is the proud owner of a Boeing KC-97, one of the largest and most powerful piston planes ever built. The KC-97 was sort of like a double-decker B-29. It had four engines, each with 28 pistons generating 3,500 horsepower per engine. In civilian clothes Pan Am flew them as Stratocruisers on the San Fran-Honolulu run. It was the first pressurized passenger plane, and reverse of a 747, had seats for 100 on the top deck and a lounge on the lower deck at the bottom of a spiral staircase.
Well, The Airplane’s airplane is a retired military job, so there’s no spiral staircase. But they’ve done a marvelous job of turning the plane into any pilot’s dream lounge.
The port wing and outermost engine are actually inside the main restaurant. I’m not sure if they built the building around the plane, or crashed the plane into the building, but the effect is wonderful. Under the wing are tables and booths. Behind it is a bar. Two sets of stairs lead up into the fuselage of the giant plane. In the back, they’ve left the refueling hardware intact (this plane served as an aerial tanker) and it’s fully visible behind a glass door. In the front, the spacious cockpit is intact and open for all takers.
I “flew” the beast for a bit, with Rio behind me serving as the flight engineer. A precocious three-year old girl was busy flying right seat and Rio was too much of a gentleman to boot her out. By far, it is the most spacious cockpit I’ve even been in. I think it’s bigger than my office back home. Behind the cockpit, booths line both sides of the fuselage.
And the tables are topped with shellaced sectional charts. Ironically, our table had the Albuquerque sectional on it.
I guess they were expecting us.
Downstairs, in the rest of the restaurant, the owners have taken aviation décor to the extreme the same way we have with our hangar. There are airplane models hanging from the ceilings, in display cabinets, and on every horizontal surface. Giant cockpit posters grace some walls, while other walls feature “nose art” or pictures of famous planes, famous aviators, and famous aviatrixes.
Any pilot will feel immediately at home with—if not a hair jealous of—the collection.
The staff all wear pilot shirts and mix aviation humor into their spiel. Hell, even the bathrooms have an airplane theme. Oh, not to worry, they are full-sized, but motion sensors trigger jet-plane take off noises when you open the door to enter the bathroom.
After our dinner, managing partner and pilot in command Steve Kanatzar made his way through the cabin checking on his passengers. He spied the Ercoupe logos on the sleeves of our summer flight jackets and ran to fetch a menu. “Did you see we have an Ercoupe on the menu?” he asked.
“I saw you had three,” I replied, “who’s the lady standing on the wing of the plane next to the Flying Chicken Florentine?”
It turns out the woman on the wing was his grandmother. In another photo, the two men leaning comfortably against the rear fuselage were his uncles. Kanatzar was recently able to track down his grandfather’s old Ercoupe, now residing in California, and now for sale. Sadly, he reported, the plane was suffering from corrosion. “I just can’t take on a project airplane,” he told me.
Thinking back on how much we’ve spent to get Tessie in good condition, despite the fact that our pre-buy mechanic assured us all was well, I let him in on the secret: “All Ercoupes are project airplanes.”
But maybe a restaurant in a plane is project enough for one man. But I must say, it was a project brilliantly executed.
Oh. The food. How was the food? you ask.