View from Out West — Food familiarity serves up mixed reactions

Photo courtesy of Clark Fair. Clark Fair and Yvonne Leutwyler sample the offerings at the new Subway in Dillingham last month, amid a line of other patrons. It’s the first chain restaurant to come to the rural community.

Photo courtesy of Clark Fair. Clark Fair and Yvonne Leutwyler sample the offerings at the new Subway in Dillingham last month, amid a line of other patrons. It’s the first chain restaurant to come to the rural community.

By Clark Fair, for the Redoubt Reporter

In the Dillingham Post Office the other day, I overheard a woman tell a friend that the best thing about the new Subway restaurant in town was that it was exactly like every other Subway.

I couldn’t help myself. Even though she wasn’t talking to me, I had to ask, “Why is that the best thing about it? Doesn’t that mean it’s nothing special?”

“No,” she said. “Since all Subways look the same inside, when I sit in there I can pretend I’m anywhere I want to be that has a Subway. It’s like a fantasy that lasts as long as I’m eating.”

“But eventually you have to step outside,” I argued. “Then you’re still right here in Dillingham.”

“Until then,” she said with a smile, “I can travel the world.”

The comfort of the familiar, I guess.

I was reminded of the time in the early 1980s when I toured Ireland with a college friend of mine. One day, as we were driving around the country, we found a Burger King, and she wanted to go inside and eat.

Although Ireland wasn’t known for fine cuisine, I hadn’t flown halfway around the world to consume a Whopper with fries. I could do that in Anchorage. I suggested we amble down the street to a pub, order a meat and cheese sandwich and sample a pint of Guinness with the locals.

(Later, my friend also wanted to shop in a Montgomery Ward store, but that’s another story.)

Many people are attracted to a restaurant by knowing exactly what they’re going to be eating. No guessing games. From Philly to Kenai, from Homer to El Paso, a Big Mac is a Big Mac is a Big Mac. Some people love such consistency, especially when it comes wrapped in colorful paper, bears a cute name (such as “The Big Carl”) and requires no courage or experimentation.

Such sentiment explains why a fuss was created back in the 1970s when the first fast-food restaurant — a Dairy Queen in Kenai — came to the central Kenai Peninsula. Local newspapers trumpeted the event and folks familiar with DQ burgers and Dilly Bars lined up out the door. The same combination of new and old invigorated the populace of Soldotna a few years later when residents received a Dairy Queen of their own, and then the excitement hit a fever pitch in 1983 when a McDonald’s franchise opened next to the new Safeway.

A crowd of excited customers crammed themselves into the lobby, ravenous for over-salted french fries and large sodas. At the drive-thru, the line of cars stretched across the asphalt parking lot nearly to the grocery store. One of the local radio stations interviewed patrons live on the scene.

Not wanting to appear part of the herd, I steered clear of McDonald’s for months. But eventually I succumbed to temptation — and to a cardboard container of deep-fried McNuggets and the requisite variety of dipping sauces.

Just before I moved to Dillingham in September 2013, I was eating most often at home. When dining out, however, I occasionally frequented the Subway or the Arby’s in Soldotna and Kenai, but I preferred the smaller establishments with a more local feel — Bub’s Pizza, Thai Town, Jersey Subs, the Fine Thyme Café, Odie’s, Veronica’s, Acapulco, Rocky’s Cafe, the Burger Bus.

Before moving out West, I’d been told not to expect much in the way of Dillingham public dining. One friend said that perhaps three or four restaurants would be open during the summer months, with only one or two keeping the doors open throughout the torpor of the winter.

Most Dillinghammers, it seems, are perfectly content to stay home at winter and feast on their subsistence bounty of salmon, moose and caribou meat, waterfowl and berries — supplemented, of course, by dry goods and produce from the grocery stores, plus an occasional home brew — making it difficult for restaurants to survive financially.

On my first day here, Yvonne and I split a pizza at Mama Mia’s, which was then open in the old Windmill Grille, moved later to the old kitchen in the Thai Inn and then returned to the Windmill Grille before going out of business. Later that fall, we consumed a pair of giant, tasty calzones at the Bristol Eagle, the former Chinese Eagle that is now the Spruce Kitchen.

There’s also the Bayside Diner, part of the Bristol Inn and open more days of the year than any other dining establishment in town. Finally, over at the Dillingham Airport is a Chinese restaurant called the Twin Dragon, which is open nearly every day, except for those times when it inexplicably isn’t.

Others, including a coffee shop downtown and a restaurant out on Wood River Road, have come and gone. And soon, we’ve been told, there will be a true fine-dining establishment — The Rack, the dream of a local entrepreneur.

Yvonne and I had gone running past The Rack, and we had seen the tables and chairs, the light fixtures and artwork — and we’d heard the stories of how long the place had stood there unused, expectation growing into resignation. The owner himself informed me this summer that he was almost ready to open — just a few weeks, he said. Another friend of mine said he’d told her the same thing a year ago.

Most recently, there is a Subway, the doors of which opened Monday, Dec. 13.

This first-ever fast-food restaurant in Dillingham was opened at noon for elders only from the senior housing complex up the road, and for the general public a few hours later. A staff of recently trained residents served up the first sandwiches to the elders, many of whom had never eaten at a fast-food restaurant and were unaware that they would be handed their meals shortly after making their orders — before even leaving the line.

Yvonne and I ate at Subway on the second day it was open, barely beating the lunch crowd, half of whom appeared to be students who’d hurried over from Dillingham High School.

Yvonne ordered a foot-long Spicy Italian on flatbread, and I had a foot-long Turkey Breast and Black Forest Ham on Italian herb and cheese bread. At a table in the back I sank my teeth into my sandwich, feeling the crunch of lettuce and red onions, of sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, and tasting the meat, bread, honey mustard and melted pepper jack cheese.

It tasted just the way it had in the Subway in Soldotna, same as the Subway in Kenai.

And I imagined that I could be anywhere in the world.

Clark Fair, a resident of the Kenai Peninsula for more than 50 years, is a lifetime Alaskan now living in Dillingham.

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