Dec 7, 2020

Life’s many beaches on Jekyll Island, Ga.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to halt travel as of this writing, and with a long winter homebound seeming more and more likely, if we can’t plan ahead for future travel we might as well look back at some of favorite travel memories.  

For me, my favorite destination in 2019, and the highlight of our family vacation during that summer, had to be Jekyll Island, Ga.  What drew us there?  Beaches.  Ocean.  Salty air.  Warm breezes.  Summer skies.  All in a relatively low-key semi-secluded setting. 

Jekyll Island is one of the four barrier islands off the Atlantic coast of Georgia that comprise the Golden Isles.  Jekyll is the southernmost and perhaps the most famous of the four because of its combination of beautiful beaches, historical significance and old-money charm.  That said, a trip to Jekyll Island is surprisingly affordable, and the island itself is quite accessible. 

While it might be possible to fly directly into one of the small airports serving Jekyll Island or nearby Brunswick on the Georgia coast, the vast majority (like us) will drive to Brunswick via Interstate 95.  Then, it’s a short drive on U.S. Highway 17 from either direction until you reach the intersection for Georgie Highway 520, also known as the Jekyll Island Causeway. 

The sign at the intersection, fountain included, can’t be missed. 

Oct 22, 2020

A night at the wax museum, Pigeon Forge, Tenn.

In a town like Pigeon Forge, Tenn., which seems primarily to exists to cater to family vacations, you’re destined to find plenty of artificially created attractions to take your money, come rain or shine.  So, when it did rain on our evening plans, my wife Punky hunkered down in our hotel room, while the Kiddo and I ventured out on the main highway through town to see what we could find. 

We ended up drawn to a site with one of the most prominent building facades on the Pigeon Forge Parkway – a replica of King Kong climbing a skyscraper while holding a biplane.  Perfectly out of place in Pigeon Forge, but what the heck? 

We had arrived at the Hollywood Wax Museum Entertainment Center.

Oct 7, 2020

A commoner dines at the Smoky Mountain Trout House, Gatlinburg, Tenn.

Before Pigeon Forge and Dollywood became tourist phenomena, there was Gatlinburg,Tenn.  As the closest town nestled in a valley just before you reach Smoky Mountain National Park on the Tennessee side, perhaps Gatlinburg was long ago destined to be – and remains – a huge family tourist destination, even if it seems overloaded today with cheesy artificial attractions designed mainly to take your money (e.g., Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, a space needle, and a museum devoted to salt and pepper shakers).  

The scenery in and around Gatlinburg, however, remains undeniably beautiful and, at times, breathtaking.  And fortunately, there are still enough places to go in town that pre-date most of today’s tourist traps, where you get a genuine sense of downhome hospitality. 

We were very fortunate to find such a place for dinner on our first night in town – the Smoky Mountain Trout House.

Sep 21, 2020

Hooray for Dollywood (and Splash Country Water Park)

I may travel like a commoner, but I am not an amusement or theme park person.  Just ask Punky.  She’ll probably roll her eyes.  So, when we planned a two-day itinerary at Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., as part of our weeklong family fun road trip last summer, I kind of felt like I was “taking one (or two) for the team.”

But I have a confession to make.  Dollywood was every bit as cheesy, camp, and crowded as I anticipated.  And I really liked it. 

Probably more than the Kiddo did.

Sep 11, 2020

Noshing at the Norbert, West Bend, Wis.

When my work took me to the quiet and cozy community of West Bend in southeastern Wisconsin, I quickly discovered the best downtown pub and grub for comforting food and drink.  Then, I found the best place for a funky, far out far-Eastern food experience.  But if you really want to know where the finest dining and drinking experience in West Bend is, I’d have to tell you to go to the Norbert


Aug 17, 2020

Signs you’ve stumbled into a really good Wisconsin dive bar

I may just be a commoner, but I’ve traveled enough of the country and set foot in enough watering holes to know not all dive bars are created equal.  Further, what makes a good dive bar in one part of the country doesn’t necessarily work everywhere.  That’s especially true in Wisconsin which seems to me to have a bar culture uniquely its own. 

After looking back over several stops from numerous trips to Madison, Sheboygan and places in between, here are a few signs I’ve spotted to know I’ve stumbled into a really good Wisconsin dive bar.

The Brazen Head Pub in West Bend proudly serves Pabst Blue Ribbon on draft. 

Aug 5, 2020

Tochi rocks ramen in West Bend, Wis.

Top-quality ramen at Tochi in West Bend, Wis.

The unassuming community of West Bend, Wis., was probably one of the last places I ever expected to find a gourmet level ramen restaurant.  But ramen is in and trendy everywhere.  And thanks to a little scouting before I started my work assignment in West Bend, it took me very little time before I tried Tochi

Jul 15, 2020

A commoner dines (and drinks) at the Brazen Head Pub, West Bend, Wis.

Whenever I begin an extended work assignment out of town, one of the first things I do to help acquaint myself with the area is to find a place I can call my “regular” hangout during weeknights.  Not every night.  But a chill, low-key and above all, comfortable place I can frequent once or twice a week and feel welcome.    

On my first night in West Bend, Wis., I was fortunate enough to find such a place when I walked into the Brazen Head Pub in the city’s historic downtown district.

In full disclosure, I knew very little about West Bend before I had to work there.  It’s certainly not on most short lists of “must see” destinations in Wisconsin.  With a population barely over 30,000, West Bend rests in the south-central part of the state about 30 minutes northwest of Milwaukee.  The surrounding area is typical rural Wisconsin scenery shaped by glaciers eons ago.  Perhaps what’s really noteworthy about West Bend is that there’s nothing noteworthy about it.  The town does seem like a perfectly fine place to live and raise a family though.  

Jun 1, 2020

Pappy’s Smokehouse in St. Louis lives up to the hype

I’ve been reluctant to this point to write new blog posts about restaurants and dive bars I visited prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic earlier this spring.  I figured why write about a place nobody could visit right away once they read my post?  I also figured I’d be doing the place I wrote about a disservice by not waiting until they were reopened. 

One such place that has been on my “to do” list since I visited last year is the acclaimed barbecue joint Pappy’s Smokehouse in St. Louis.  In a little more than a decade of existence, Pappy’s has rapidly become recognized among the best barbecue joints in the country due in large part to the media attention it has received on Food Network and other travel-related outlets.  With a famous barbecue destination in my own backyard, it was only a matter of time before I checked it out for myself.
Pappy’s Smokehouse is located just minutes outside of downtown St. Louis – a straight shot down Olive Street as you head west.  Look on the left side of the road, and you’ll know you’re there when you see the large smokers and probably a sizable pile of wood in front of the restaurant. 

The sight and smell of these smokers are sure signs that Pappy’s takes its craft to heart.  Some of their prized smokers are even given a name. 

May 12, 2020

Scenes from the Old Talbott Tavern, Bardstown, Ky.

When it came to planning our trip along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, for me there was only one obvious choice for where to stay the first night.  It’s a registered landmark full of history – not just bourbon-related (although it does boast the world’s oldest bourbon bar) but also significant to the history of Kentucky itself.  It’s the Old Talbott Tavern in the center of Bardstown, Ky. 

May 1, 2020

(Not quite) on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail: Buffalo Trace

After a lengthy but rewarding afternoon spent at the Wild Turkey visitor’s center near Lawrenceburg, Ky., we saved our final stop of two days of touring some of Kentucky’s finest bourbon distilleries for the Buffalo Trace headquarters in the state capital of Frankfort.

In full disclosure, the Buffalo Trace distillery was an original member of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, which has only been an “official” self-guided tour sponsored by the Kentucky Distillers Association since 1999.  But when the Sazerac Company purchased Buffalo Trace in 2010, Sazerac discontinued its partnership with other distillers on the trail (one supposed reason:  Buffalo Trace wanted to continue to offer free tours).  Regardless of how “official” its status is today, Buffalo Trace is widely considered part of the greater Kentucky Bourbon Trail experience, and since I happen to consider Buffalo Trace one of my favorite bourbons (much like Punky loves her Wild Turkey), we made it a priority to come here. 

I also feel compelled to describe my first impressions of Frankfort.  It’s one of the most oddly laid out towns I’ve ever seen, and it takes a little getting used to when you’re first exploring it.  It seems to exist along the Kentucky River in spite of the river’s and the surrounding terrain’s best efforts to thwart city planners who were intent on putting the state capital here.  About 25,000 people call it home today, and its historic neighborhoods near the capitol and the governor’s mansion are quite scenic and hilly.  Its small downtown area is very charming and walkable. 

Apr 21, 2020

On the Kentucky Bourbon Trail: Wild Turkey

Our second day touring the Kentucky Bourbon Trail had begun with a drive south from Bardstown through the rolling hills and winding roads of central Kentucky to the Maker’s Mark distillery outside of Loretto.  From there, we found a quick and efficient route back north (the relatively new Ky. Hwy. 555 north from Smithfield, then east on the four-lane Bluegrass Parkway, then north on U.S. Hwy. 127) to Lawrenceburg and our next destination.  Punky was pleased, for much of mid-afternoon was being spent on Wild Turkey time.

Apr 14, 2020

On the Kentucky Bourbon Trail: Heaven Hill and Maker’s Mark

My first post revisiting our trip last summer on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail was devoted entirely to the Jim Beam distillery in Clermont.  The second post of the series will be devoted to two more brief stops along the way – the first being the Heaven Hill Distillery and Bourbon Heritage Center in Bardstown, and then the Maker’s Mark distillery near the small town of Loretto.  

After we left the Jim Beam distillery, Punky and I headed to Bardstown where we checked in to the historic Talbott Inn (more on that in a future blog post), got our bearings and determined we could fit in one more stop along the trail before closing time.  I found it a little odd that even at the height of a tourism weekend, many visitor’s centers along the trail close at 5 p.m. or even earlier.

Fortunately, Heaven Hill was just minutes away on the south edge of Bardstown.  All it took was a drive past My Old Kentucky Home State Park and historic site, then south on Ky. Hwy. 49 past the state park’s campground and once the woods clear …

 … you’ll see rows and rows of rickhouses in the fields and on the surrounding hillsides.  With all this bourbon being stored and aged around you, the name Heaven Hill seems fitting.    

Apr 10, 2020

On the Kentucky Bourbon Trail: Jim Beam

Ever since I was old enough to enjoy good bourbon (which is very different than simply being old enough to drink bourbon), I had always wanted to hit the road for a weekend exploring as many distilleries as I could on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.  I’ve been to and through Kentucky more times than I can count due to my family’s connections there and its proximity to my home state of Illinois, but the many famous (and some less famous) and historical distilleries where I believe the best bourbons are made had always eluded my radar. 

Last summer, Punky convinced me to finally pull the trigger on just such a trip over Memorial Day weekend, and it turned out to be one of the many travel highlights of the year.  We decided to make historic Bardstown, Ky., the epicenter of our trip, selected a handful of distilleries near Bardstown and the state capital of Frankfort from our “most wanted” list and plotted our course for two full days of touring.   

We chose to make the Jim Beam distillery in Clermont as our first stop on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, partly because of its name recognition, partly because of its proximity to Bardstown and partly because of the route we chose to get there … we really wanted to avoid Louisville and really wanted to stop for lunch at the Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn in Owensboro.  Once we were past Owensboro, it was an easy and scenic drive on Kentucky’s parkway system to Elizabethtown, then just 20 minutes up Interstate 65 to the Clermont exit.  

It’s safe to say without Jim Beam Clermont would probably not even exist anymore.  As it is, Clermont is an unincorporated village off the side of Ky. Highway 245 as the road meanders east the interstate to Bardstown.  Before you get in the thick of the woods that comprise the Bernheim Forest, look off to the north for the first signs of Clermont and its most famous (if not only) business.   

Apr 1, 2020

A commoner drinks at Captain Tony’s Saloon, Key West, Fla.

If the Green Parrot Bar is my favorite Key West bar for chilling out and hiding among the locals, then Captain Tony’s Saloon must be my favorite bar on the island for getting a truly “only in Key West” experience.  There really is no other bar like Captain Tony’s I’ve ever encountered, and its uniqueness can be traced to its storied history, and an owner with a gloriously checkered past. 

Mar 29, 2020

Answering the call of the Green Parrot Bar, Key West, Fla.

Few spots on earth will put me in my happy place faster than a trip to the Green Parrot Bar in Key West, Fla.  That said, I must admit I’m grossly under-qualified to blog about this place compared to several of my friends who frequent the Conch Republic much more often than me.  So, forgive me if I omit something or fail to touch on any important points, but feel free to share your Green Parrot stories.

Nonetheless, no trip to Key West would feel right to me without making at least one stop at the Green Parrot.   It’s like vacationing in New Orleans and not going to Pat O’Brien’s.  You just don’t do it. 

So, let’s get into why the Green Parrot Bar is such a Key West institution. 

Mar 23, 2020

A commoner dines at the Southport Raw Bar, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

Traditionally, when I thought of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., two things came to mind:  spring break and cruise ships.  Frankly, I didn’t do spring break in college, and I had never gone on a cruise before November 2018, so I never considered Ft. Lauderdale as much of a destination of its own.  Nonetheless, once Punky and I knew we’d have a one-night layover in Ft. Lauderdale prior to our cruise’s departure, we intended to make the most of it.      

We checked in to our hotel by mid-day and, restless souls that we are, soon set off wandering the area looking for a late lunch.  Fortunately for us, a little research and a good nose led us to …

the Southport Raw Bar.  Located on Cordova Road, barely a block north of a busy stretch of the famous Fla. Hwy A1A, Southport Raw Bar seemingly had everything I would want and expect from a South Florida raw bar and restaurant.  And with a history going back to the 1970s, they’ve had plenty of time and experience (and a little “dive-y” feel around the edges) to become a Ft. Lauderdale institution attracting locals and tourists alike. 

Mar 19, 2020

A brief dive into the Caribou Tavern, Madison, Wis.

Madison, Wis. is well known for being a tavern town.  Every neighborhood has not just one, but several dive bars the locals consider their second home – a place where they can unwind, grab a bite to eat and hang out with their bar family for a while. 

I’ve visited quite a few local dives during my work trips to Madison, but there was something about the Caribou Tavern that intrigued me greatly, yet kept me from visiting.  Maybe it was the disadvantage of only driving past it at night.  Maybe it wasn’t as convenient to travel to as other dive bars I’d discovered. 

Finally, on my last business trip to Madison, I stopped in for a couple of drinks, and I’m glad I did.  My takeaway:  For several reasons, the Caribou Tavern may just be the best example of your prototypical Wisconsin dive bar I’ve found in Madison.   

Mar 9, 2020

A commoner dines at Buraka, Madison, Wis.

No matter where my travels take me as a commoner, I always like to discover cuisines from different cultures I’ve never tried before, even if that cuisine doesn’t necessarily seem to be a natural fit for where I’m visiting.  For instance, who thinks of Ethiopian food when they visit Madison, Wis.?  Well, once I read about Buraka, I did, and I’m glad I tried it. 

Feb 26, 2020

Things overheard in a New Orleans bar

Another wild and crazy Mardi Gras season has come and gone, and for the first time in many years I was able to partake in some of the craziness in New Orleans.  In the Big Easy, Mardi Gras is more than a season, it’s a part of life, and there’s no better time to visit and embed yourself among the people who live there.   

Whether it’s carnival time or not, there’s no place like New Orleans, and that’s reflected in the bar conversations you overhear or take part in while you’re there.   And as you can imagine, Punky and I spent a fair amount of our wild weekend in New Orleans drinking establishments – some famous, some infamous and some tourists rarely find.  With that in mind, here are just a few memorable quotes you’ll (probably) only hear in a New Orleans bar:

Feb 23, 2020

In search of the sacred Spotted Cow at the New Glarus Brewing Co.

If you’re from the Midwest and you love craft beer, chances are you’re at least a little familiar with the New Glarus Brewing Co. and its benchmark brew, Spotted Cow.  From my own personal experience, whenever I travel to Wisconsin, I inevitably wind up taking requests to purchase some Spotted Cow or another highly sought New Glarus product.  And for my personal tastes, most of them happen to be quite tasty. 

But what makes Spotted Cow so … ahem … sacred among area beer aficionados?  First, New Glarus and its line of beers are somewhat notorious for their scarcity outside of the state of Wisconsin.  In fact, if you see any of them in any bar or store outside of the state, call the authorities because they’re breaking the law.  So, there’s that whole “Smokey and the Bandit” feeling of bringing a few cases across the state line for your friends.

Then there’s the quality and craft of the beer.  New Glarus is not new to the scene.  The company was founded almost 30 years ago by a master brewer and its signature Spotted Cow, a truly tasty farmhouse ale I happen to love for its maltiness and fresh flavor, has been around since 1997.  With a handful of year-round offerings and an ever-changing line-up of seasonal and specialty brews, New Glarus could be a large-scale … ahem … cash cow … but it seems content to focus on quality over growth.     

Feb 4, 2020

A tale of biscuits, 'shine and watermelon ribs at the Loveless Café, Nashville, Tenn.

It seems fewer and fewer classic roadside cafes survive, yet alone thrive, with each passing year.  You know the kind I mean – legendary locally owned and operated diners on the edge of town that are themselves a destination for travelers who have heard how amazing the food is, each with a distinctive down-home vibe the Cracker Barrels and Bob Evans restaurants wish they could replicate. 

So, when more than one friend tipped me off about the Loveless Café, a Nashville institution since 1951 on the southern outskirts of the city, I longed for the opportunity to go there.  Fortunately, my most recent business trip to Nashville put me close to the Loveless Café.  Even more fortunately, my co-worker who rarely ventures out was as intrigued by the story of the Loveless Café as I was.  I think it’s safe to say neither of us was disappointed with the trip.

Located on Highway 100 near the north terminus of the Natchez Trace, the Loveless Café continues to thrive on it legacy of quality southern cooking – in particular its ham and biscuits.  That legacy includes national recognition from sources as varied as “The Today Show,” “Southern Living” magazine, the “Thrillist” website and Martha Stewart.        

Jan 21, 2020

A commoner dines at the Arcade Restaurant, Memphis, Tenn.

As a blogger, I sometimes have to make tough decisions on which topics I cover. Sure, a place can be historically significant, a city landmark or popular with tourists.  But if my personal experience there leaves me (ahem) underwhelmed, is it still, for lack of a better term, blogworthy?  Case in point:  the Arcade Restaurant in downtown Memphis, Tenn.

The Arcade Restaurant is recognized as the oldest and longest running restaurant in Memphis.  It’s ingrained in the city’s history.  Elvis Presley loved the place, probably because they served his favorite sandwich.  JFK, MLK and undoubtedly many other famous people with famous initials have dined here.    

Jan 15, 2020

Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Miss., gets to the heart of the blues

Clarksdale, Miss., is often referred to as “Ground Zero” for anyone who wants to immerse themselves in the blues.  And, why not?  Geographically, it’s centrally located in the Mississippi Delta region.  It’s literally and figuratively located at the “Crossroads” of the blues where U.S. Highways 61 and 49 meet.  And it’s surrounded by sites that are historically significant to the birth and evolution of blues music.  So, it should come as no surprise that the biggest and most celebrated blues club in Clarksdale (and perhaps the entire country) is in the heart of downtown – the appropriately named Ground Zero Blues Club.

With its official address at 0 Blues Alley, practically adjacent to the Delta Blues Museum (which I highly suggest visiting), Ground Zero Blues Club can’t be missed.  That’s not just a recommendation.  The building is huge; it looks like a converted warehouse that reportedly once housed the Delta Grocery and Cotton Co. 

Jan 5, 2020

Soak in the blues at the Shack Up Inn, Clarksdale, Miss.

I’ve experienced my fair share of unusual accommodations in my travels as a commoner.  From a concrete teepee in Cave City, Ky., to a night in a yurt in Colorado, to an Econo Lodge in Carbondale, Ill., on the verge of being condemned (it eventually was), sometimes where you stay is the most memorable part of the journey.  So, when it comes to kicking back in the birthplace of the blues, I don’t think there’s a better way to get in the blues spirit than to book your stay at the Shack Up Inn. 

A commoner dines at Baumgartner’s Cheese Store and Tavern, Monroe, Wis.

I wasn’t sure a place existed that could be the perfect representation of Wisconsin life, but then I traveled through Monroe, Wis., one week...