by Caroline


Like most families, our family’s road trips have usually meant packing a cooler and handing sandwiches and snacks over a shoulder into the back seat, stopping only for quick gas and bathroom breaks. Traveling with kids, you hesitate to break the rhythm of a trip; sure, sometimes when the kids were much younger we had to stop because someone was screaming or wet (or both) but more often the kids would get into a good groove with a book or a nap and we’d hate to break the spell. So we’d forge on, sometimes late into the night. But on our recent trip to Santa Barbara, a couple factors made the idea of road trip restaurant stops more appealing. We were spending a day longer in Santa Barbara than usual, and we were staying with family, cooking most of our meals together, so schedule + budget = meals on the road.

I have some fond memories of childhood road trip restaurant breaks. Most often, it was a stop, on the way to my grandparents’ house, at The Red Rooster (cheeseburger deluxe, fries and a root beer float); sometimes, I went with my grandfather when he drove my grandma to a weekend retreat, and we’d stop at Friendly’s along the way (fried clam roll for him, grilled cheese for me, shared fries and a chocolate fribble).

These days we’re keeping up The Red Rooster tradition in my family (happily, it’s about halfway between JFK and my parents’ house now) and our drive to Santa Barbara usually involves a quick stop at The Madonna Inn. The boys love the amazing grotto bathroom, and somehow manage to resist pieces of cake bigger than their heads in favor of a cookie or chocolate from the sweets counter. We get a treat, run around the parking lot for a few minutes, and then continue on our way.

This time, we stopped at the Madonna Inn for lunch. It’s an ornate room — floral carpet, red leather seats, pink cloth napkins, carved wooden walls — and the menu is enormous. The kids, a little overwhelmed, ordered breakfast for lunch and were perfectly happy; I ate an egg salad sandwich which tasted just fine. The service is lovely and the atmosphere — maybe from all that pink? — is really warm and friendly. It’s a kind of kitschy place but it made us all very happy, and we were on our way in under an hour, feeling much more relaxed than if we’d eaten in the car.

On our drive back home, Tony used TripAdvisor to find a restaurant in Paso Robles, Panolivo, which I discovered, later, is a favorite of a local writer friend (always nice to have that confirmation). The boys ate giant salads, Tony had an excellent house-made veggie burger and a glass of wine, I had salad and a delicious hummus plate. We talked and lingered and picked up pastry on the way out the door.

I’m sure we won’t always stop and sit down to eat when we’re making road trips, but, like our gradual move away from kid’s menus, this is a development that’s definitely improving our family food life.