It’s Like a Dusty, Gray San Francisco
“Where can I get the best burger in town?”
“If I’m looking for the most awesome mom-and-pop pizza joint around here — where would you send me?”
I’ve asked those questions so many times when I’m in a new town. Or variations of them. I wanna know about local breweries, dive bars, taco places, music venues, donut shops, antique stores, record stores, and funky neighborhoods.
Give me great experiences and interesting people. Don’t point me to any chain restaurants or big-box stores. I’ve had enough Panera and Bed Bath & Beyond for this lifetime and the next one.
There’s something great in every town. You just have to be willing to look for it and drive a few miles off the interstate.
That’s why I loved a question Rhett Miller asked near the end of a recent episode of his podcast, Wheel’s Off. Rhett is the frontman of the Old 97’s, a killer alt-country band that mashes up equal parts twang and power-pop.
On this episode, Rhett talked to Eric Howk, the guitarist in the band Portugal. The Man. After a half-hour conversation about Eric’s childhood in Alaska, his move to Seattle after high school, and the groups he’s been in, Rhett asked him about touring:
RHETT: “What’s your secret sleeper town? I always have a couple that I think people don’t know about.”
ERIC: “Man, there’s kinda like that base-level tour question. Like, ‘What’s the craziest city? What’s the coolest town?’ I love something about every town. And I think that’s the key to it. Like, you know. I’ve got my favorite spots in Richmond as much as I do in Barcelona.”
RHETT: “Richmond, Virginia?”
ERIC: “GWARbar. You ever eat at GWARbar?”
RHETT: “No. See, I need something good in Richmond.”
ERIC: “Owned and operated by theatrical metal band GWAR.”
RHETT: “OK. See. I’ll go there.”
ERIC: “There’s like the meat sandwich, which is like their sausage. And the descriptions are so good in the menu. It’s like, ‘Pork and beef cruelly ground together in a blender.’ It’s hilarious.”
[laughter ... and then Eric gets back to the question]
ERIC: “Um. I don’t know, man. Pittsburgh?”
RHETT: “THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT I WAS THINKING!”
ERIC: “See. It’s like a dusty, gray San Francisco with incredible architecture, and steel …”
RHETT: “Oh, the mountains all … and nobody knows!”
ERIC: “I’m sure you’ve played Mr. Smalls a thousand times.”
RHETT: “Oh yeah. I'm playing there in three weeks. Boy, it’s funny. When people say Pittsburgh, they always think of something that it isn’t. They don’t think about mountains, and …”
ERIC: “It’s got the word “Pitts” in there, which doesn’t help its cause.”
RHETT: “Yeah, that’s the next … ya know, Portland, Nashville, Austin — everybody knows those. But ...”
ERIC: “Exactly what I’m talking about. And what they did there. Again, like Millvale, in there is former steelworker housing that’s been turned into kind of an artist community. And it’s affordable, and it’s cheap, and it’s beautiful, and that’s what Seattle was to me at that point [when Eric moved there from Alaska in 1999].”
It was so cool to hear those guys talking about Steel City.
As crazy as this sounds, I have a thing about Pittsburgh even though I’ve never been there. My friends Steve and Kim moved from Orlando to PGH about 15 years ago, and they love the city. They rave about the people, their community, the arts scene, the weather — and the bridges.
You won’t find better ambassadors for Pittsburgh. Their infatuation with the city is contagious and has made me a stark, raving fan. I’m pretty sure I won’t be disappointed when I eventually get there.
The way Kim and Steve feel about Pittsburgh is the same way I feel about Grand Rapids, Michigan. Like Pittsburgh after the steel industry collapsed, Grand Rapids went through a rough period for a few decades after the auto industry started gasping for breath in the late ’70s.
I could tell you about the economic and creative resurgence in Michigan. But I won’t, because I don’t want a bunch of people to go there and ruin it. I got caught in some real-deal rush-hour traffic on my last few trips. They don’t need more of that shit.
But if you do end up in GR for business or pleasure, I recommend getting a hot dog at Yesterdog, which has been slinging wieners in a little storefront on Wealthy Street since 1976. Then you can get a beer at Mitten Brewing Co., which is in a cool old firehouse. And that’s only your first beer stop because there are a few dozen other breweries in GR and around West Michigan. Also, visit the fish ladder. You’ve probably never seen anything like it.
There’s plenty more. Ya just gotta ask around.
Check Your Bias
I stand by my theory that you can find something cool in any small city, town, or village. That’s why I don’t understand the self-satisfied pleasure some people get from talking smack about a town just because it’s in a flyover state or isn’t a major metropolitan area.
Last year I did some work with a client in Springfield, Missouri. Before I left on that trip, a guy I know gave me his eye-rolling ironic commentary about how “exciting” it would be there. To him, it was a big joke.
To me, it was exciting. I like going somewhere new. That’s an adventure in my book. Yes — even Springfield. If we sat down over a couple of beers right now, I could rattle off at least three or four interesting things from that trip.
And if you told me you were heading there, I’d tell you to hit Black Sheep Burgers and Shakes and to spend a little time driving along Historic Route 66. Insert your own joke about getting your kicks.
Another time, the same guy who slagged Springfield was talking to me about an upcoming trip to New Jersey. He asked if I’d been there before. I said yes, and he shot back, “On purpose?”
He followed up with: “I’ve never been to New Jersey. Although, like most people in this country, I’ve never had any desire to go there.”
All he knew was stereotypes. He had some cartoonish image of the people and the place. Funny thing is, he couldn’t even get all the stereotypes right. Like, he was off by about 40 miles when he made a Joey Buttafuoco reference.
Joey Buttafuoco is from Long Island, New York — not New Jersey.
I didn’t even bother trying. You’re not going to change someone’s mind if that’s how they’re wired. All you can do is float above it. By not engaging, you’re quietly telling the person that you’re not down with the conversation. Maybe one day they’ll have personal experiences with whatever the place or thing is, and they’ll come away with a different point of view.
Luckily for me, I have people such as Kevin, Derek, and Brian in my life. Three of my buddies who have never met each other and come from wildly disparate backgrounds. But they’re all on my wavelength and on the search for tasty food, beer, good music, and quirky experiences. Texts and posts from those guys are always a reminder of how much fuckin’ goodness there is in the world.
If you've stumbled on to anything cool lately, I'd love to hear about it.
PS: The Old 97’s (that apostrophe is theirs, not mine) are one of my favorite live acts. If you want a taste, click here to get started.
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