Do you have a favorite restaurant (or two or 12) that you can't quite explain? A place where you love to go but don't always remember what's on the menu? When I'm reviewing a restaurant, I'm careful to focus on my plate: the food is the thing. But when I'm off the clock, I often crave something that has nothing to do with cuisine.
Some of my favorite restaurants serve up something irresistible that I (literally) can't put my fork into. Call it what you will — the ambiance, the atmosphere or simpler still: the mood. And sometimes, for me, a restaurant's mood is more important than its food.
I've compiled a list of some of my favorite dining destinations that hit the spot before I've even picked up my menu. To be clear: I'm not implying that these restaurants don't serve good food. But rather, they satisfy me in a way that goes beyond my palate.
When you need coffee, comfort, and cream pie
For me, a classic diner is the quintessential mood-over-food destination. Let's face it: While some have their specialties, most diner menus are remarkably similar. And while you can quibble about the crispness of a slice of bacon or the runniness of an egg yolk, the truth is, most of us can make a pretty good plate of bacon and eggs at home.
But there's just something about a diner. Whether you're channeling your inner Beauregard Decker, or the cool, late-night anonymity of Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks," or are in an Agent Cooper kind of mood ("Damn good coffee!"), there's something about sliding into a well-worn booth and perusing a well-worn menu that makes you feel like you're a part of an American tradition.
My local favorites include the cash-only Judy's Cafe, with its faux wood-paneling, faux-wood tables, mis-matched coffee mugs and unapologetic willingness to put sausage gravy on anything — including omelets.
They might not know your name at Jackie's Place, in the heart of Spenard, but you will be greeted as "brother!" or "sister!" when you enterm and that's good enough for me.
Jackie's serves up greasy-spoon basics with a bit of Hawaiian flare, and you will be made to feel like an instant regular.
Peggy's Cafe, with its U-shaped counter, hand-painted fireweed on the windows and copious Alaskana on the walls is the first place I ever ate in Alaska. I was 18. I had been flying all day from the East Coast, and my father picked me up from the airport and drove me straight to Peggy's for burgers and pie. I had the Dutch apple, and it made Alaska feel like home.
When your DeLorean is in the shop
When I'm overwhelmed by the concerns of the day, a good antidote is to look to the past. And for a young city, Anchorage has a fair number of restaurants that have not only stood the test of time but defied its very passage. Among my favorite time portals is The White Spot. Open since 1959, this no-frills joint is short on real-estate (just a few tables and an elbow-jostling lunch counter) but long on customer loyalty. It's known for its fantastic halibut sandwich, its no-nonsense attitude and aggressive indifference to curb-appeal.
Arctic Roadrunner serves up generous helpings of local history along with its burgers, fries, shakes and some of the best onion rings I've ever eaten. It's a cabin-style building that features wall-to-wall-to-ceiling Alaskana documenting its history and its famous (and sometimes infamous) regular customers. A fireplace, antlers, a view of Campbell Creek and a showcase of taxidermy make Arctic Roadrunner a must-visit when I'm feeling nostalgic.
My love for Lucky Wishbone (open since 1955) is well-documented. The vintage signage, the "lucky" green-upholstered booths, the pilot paraphernalia. And the best fried chicken, ever. To be honest, we rarely dine-in — their chicken is our family's go-to camping and road-trip fare — but using the drive-through is a literal and figurative window into a bygone era. Bonus: If you have dogs in your car, they will give each of them a fried gizzard. Resist the urge to eat them yourself. My dogs are on to me.
When you and your Uggs need some time apart
One of the great things about living in Anchorage is that you're rarely underdressed. Even in our most elegant eateries, you can sip your martini in your Xtratufs or toss back oysters in your Carhartts. That said, it's nice, once in a while, to dust off a pair of cute heels, a silk scarf or a purse that doesn't contain — for some reason — a packet of saltines, a dog leash and a single ballet slipper. Sometimes I don't want to eat lunch. I want to "do lunch."
So, when I want to channel my inner-Holly Golightly, I'm likely to head to South Restaurant and Coffeehouse. Brunch every day, frivolous cocktails and a chic-yet-homey vibe makes an ordinary lunch feel a bit lux. I'm particularly partial to their French country Benedict served on a baguette with a sprinkling of peppery arugula.
Downtown, I might head to Muse, with its retro-chic ambiance and its view of Rachel Dowdy's whimsical wildlife sculptures. Pangaea has a low-key sophisticated vibe and an adventurous menu, including brunch items with a twist, like falafel Benedict and chicken and waffles with a sweet corn ice cream. A little farther east, I like The Red Chair Cafe with its unique balance of urban edge — industrial fixtures, spray-paint art, and steampunk-y murals — and coziness — easy chairs, rustic wood furniture and a menu that celebrates and elevates comfort food.
For a little bit of evening glamour, I love cocktails at The Crow's Nest atop the Captain Cook Hotel, or the exceptional margaritas being served at the hip and trendy Tequila 61. Full disclosure: if you see me there, I'll probably be in yoga pants. Ask to see my ballet slipper!
When you need to plan a bank heist
Some of my favorite restaurants make me feel as if I'm taking part in something deliciously nefarious. These are the places I would go to plan a bank heist. Or carry a briefcase handcuffed to my wrist. Or pass a piece of microfiche in a packet of gum. When I feel like planning my own "Italian Job," I head to one of Anchorage's traditional Italian restaurants. Dim lighting, high-backed booths, grape-strewn trellises and straw-wrapped Chianti bottles all contribute to an air of secrecy and intrigue.
My favorite is Fiori d'Italia. If you can find it — tucked mysteriously away on a residential street in Spenard — you are automatically qualified to drive the get-away car. Fiori d'Italia also features an un-ironically Rat-Pack-heavy music rotation and fantastically well stocked bar if you require some liquid courage before your next caper. Sorrento's offers a similarly dark and secretive vibe, providing cover for when you pull out your blueprints and plans for underground tunneling. Villa Nova has a decidedly less murky vibe but the live classical guitar could provide good audible cover for any covert discussions involving corporate or international espionage. Plus, all three offer solid old-school piccatas, marsalas and carbonaras. A life of crime requires fuel, after all.
Being a food writer means I get to feed my face. A lot. But even a food writer cannot live by bread alone. So occasionally, I feed the rest of me: my mood, my imagination and my inner bank robber.
*Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the name of the artist whose wildlife sculptures are at the Anchorage Museum. Her name Rachel Dowdy.