Pit Stops

One of the great pleasures related to driving on holiday is stopping driving for a delicious hot cup of coffee. Or so you might think.

A Schaerer coffee machine in Denmark recently.
A Schaerer coffee machine in Denmark recently: nice coffee, shame about the setting.

For the last month or so I have been taking a vacation. This means more than the usual amount of driving – none of it routine. What I dream of most is the chance to stop along the way and enjoy a chance for a really good cup of coffee. I envision a pleasant old way-side inn with a bunch of shade trees, a set of tables on a terrace. Nearby there ought to be a car park that isn’t a hideous expanse of asphalt. The other model is a café by the side of the road, set on the square of a small town. Finally, the coffee needs to be good. Not damn good but decent.

Isn’t this small moment not an intrinsic part of the touring package? It’s not all about 160 kmph motoring from Kenmare to Tralee or from Skagen to Falster. Along the way there need to be moments to take in the stuff between A and B. From time to time I have had such stops though the shocking thing is that they have been all too rare.

The wayside inn doesn’t exist, not where I live. Something in Ireland’s and also Britain’s urban structure prevents the café/square combo occurring. The French and Germans are better at this: I have actually stopped outside a café on a square with my car nearby and enjoyed a cup of good – not damn good but good – coffee. I know for a fact that somewhere in Chantilly there is a café on a corner with the tables and the trees. Nearby are the huge gates to the royal racecourse, which is a bonus.

My regret is that very little of the pitstops I have made in the last decade have really lived up to providing what I think is a small ask (in the jargon of today). Most usually the coffee has been very disappointing. The machine pictured here provided a very good – not great – cup of coffee this weekend on a tour between Silkeborg and Salling in Jutland.

Alas, the machine was in a petrol station appended to huge light industrial building set on one of those grim expanses of lawn and metal box the Danes now enthusiastically mar their land with. The pastry failed to live up to my already low expectations of Danish bakery (they are stingy with the butter). I drove off with the coffee cooling in the cup holder. That’s not as good as sitting in the sunshine of an early morning somewhere quiet and nice. Too many of my stops have been service stations hard by roaring motorways: bad coffee, a Rittersport and a hurried smoke of whatever dried stump the shop sells.

It seems to me that the mythical pit stop with the cup of decent coffee is another lifestyle lie. They don’t happen by chance at least. I suggest you plan your journey around likely pit-stops: use Google street view to scope the joint and even send an email asking what kind of coffee they provide. If you could string four of five such stops together on a two week break, some of that driving might be worth it.

In sharp contrast, long distance biking trips are full of great stops, usually three a day. And you can drink a beer as well.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

23 thoughts on “Pit Stops”

  1. I admit I’m not a great break-taker when driving and I’m trying to remember some time(s) when I did have a nice break. I wrote a bit about delivering cars for a living a few months back, and I mentioned a memorable transport cafe and bacon sandwich en route to Weymouth. But that was almost 40 years ago. Back then, tea was the only thing to drink, British cafe coffee was uniformly awful.

    The Roadhouse is a vanished British institution whose Golden Years I connect with the pre-War period up until the late Fifties. Like George Orwell’s idealistic Moon Under Water pub, I have an image of this place that deals with travellers with a degree of attention that is never found at modern Motorway services. Of course the reality would often have been stewed tea and a bland meal of whatever wasn’t on rationing.

    The most disappointing places I can think of are on the motorways of the country that prides itself most on gastronomic excellence, France. You can coax an almost drinkable cup of coffee from their machines but, with a few exceptions, the whole experience is very dispiriting.

  2. Surprisingly, some UK service stations are not awful. You can get quite not unpleasant coffee though good tea is another matter. The food can be nearly alright too.
    What I really want to get at is the dearth of place that are more than services. It is the place you can stop at for its own sake rather than to buy fuel or stretch after 8 hours at the wheel. It seems to be archetypal but in reality non-existent. I know a pit-stop outside Skive in Jutand which has all the main elements present but all of them are wrong: the coffee is watery, the pastries are pale and damp, the interior is cheerless and outside the carparking is dominant.
    The Dunraven Arms in Adare could be a contender if one could sit outside. It’s a grand horsey-set hotel.
    Really all I want is a cross between a bar and cafe by road with some tables and some shade. It must be somewhere in Europe?

  3. “Danish bakery (they are stingey with the butter)”

    I bet they claim it’s for your own good too.

  4. My recent experiences of pit stops, alas, are also of the service station type. This summer, it was Germany, which I crossed the whole length from south to north and back. Usually we stopped at Autobahn service stations. They often have a Lavazza or Segafredo sign already out on the road, so you know you get at least a decent coffee, albeit in an uninspiring and often very crowded ambience. Food varies greatly.

    In italy I’ve made the experience that the food usually doesn’t live up to what I’m used to from this country (which gastronomically I rate higher than France, but more on this later), but the coffee is always a delight.

    Regarding France, beware of inexpensive food there! This might include service stations, even if the food is costly there. I’ve never met another country with such a span of food quality from excellent to barely edible.

    As I hardly ever drive long distances outside of highways, I can’t tell where Richard can find the type of cafe/bar he’s looking for. In the most regions I know, this type of place is prevalent mainly in cities, where you wouldn’t pass by car if it’s not your destination. But I’ve met some really nice cafes in smaller Italian towns, where you get the usual mix of excellent coffee, non-industrial pastry and village gossip.

  5. Simon: isn’t there a Swiss chain called Moevenpick? They have a brand of ice-cream which is popular.
    I had to laugh at your comment about the French span of quality. And it’s true. The Belgians are similar. They really show a dramatic lack interest in charm. The apple wrapped in PET epitomises this.
    Sam: the Danes seldom use butter at all. You would be shocked by their “croissants”. You can get better ones in Ireland, amazingly.

  6. Yes, Mövenpick (as write the people who wave those strange dots on their keyboard). They run service stations under the “Marché” brand. It’s quite popular as you have a large station where you can gather all your food and combine as you wish from several types of meat, vegetables, side dishes etc. I’ve had very good ones of these, where they even freshly cooked a plate of pasta with vegetables while you waited, but the last one near Berlin was a slight disappointment, as the dish we chose might have been of the less popular kind and therefore obviously has been lying there too long after cooking.

    As for the ice cream: yes, it’s one of my favourites, too (if I can afford it, that is).

  7. As suggested, the only chance is usually away from main routes. In the mid-90s, I came across someone selling hot soup from a Jules Verne looking apparatus in the middle of the German countryside overlooking a preserved section of the East-West wall. I think he called himself Kuchi. The soup was excellent and the whole experience – a disparate group who’d chosen to stop, all standing holding cups of soup and contemplating the Fall of Communism or whether there was a large enough tree nearby – was quite memorable.

  8. The Italian Autogrill stations usually serve a decent coffee, even though Italian espresso is generally a bit too strong for my wimpy northern European taste buds. But at least Italians usually know how to handle a lever coffee machine.

    Here in Germany, the status quo has improved greatly in recent years: aforementioned Marché restaurants are a clear improvement over the Autobahn-Restaurants of yore, which used to serve salads as soups and soups in a semi-solid state. I’d even go as far as claiming that McDonald’s autobahn branches are far superior to the kind of obnoxious stodge we used to get served when travelling by car.

    Yet the ultimate solution for the caffeine enthusiast on the move may have been Opel’s Signum concept car, which came equipped with an espresso machine. I wonder what happened to that idea in the meantime.

  9. I know there’s the odd chilled glove compartment (though why you’d need iced gloves is debatable) but i’m surprised the car’s ability to heat and chill isn’t exploited more often. I once put a Cornish Pasty into the heating ducts of my air cooled Citroen twin to warm it up. Somehow it ended up impaled on the cylinder head with a large oily stain through its heart but, in principle, my attempt had method to it.

    1. Apparently, there are even cookbooks that instruct you how to position your food under the bonnet in order to grill it while driving. An alternative for roadside stations? If you have a Signum with the coffe to complement your meal, this might really work out…

  10. Short of planning a backroads journey via Michelin Guide approved eateries, I think the solution to Richard’s picturesque roadside rest stop problem would be to pack a picnic hamper of nice snacks, water and coffee utensils along with a 12v travel kettle. Admittedly you’re not getting espresso or the outdoor cafe furniture, but you can easily brew some very nice filter coffee with something like an aeropress and stop in any scenic spot you wish. I’d rather that than a takeaway cup of vending machine coffee at a motorway services.

  11. In principle I agree with Richard. Although, as I said, I seldom indulge, I like the idea of a roadside stop. But the reality is that I’ve often picnicked in cars and the reality of that is however hard you drain the cup and put the plastic top back on, the dregs of that Cappucino end up on your car carpet. I also admit to having had various picnics in my SM. The problem with that car is a curvy dashboard and general lack of flat surfaces to balance anything on, plus the construction of the seats which comprise a lattice of 5 cm deep grooves just waiting to swallow baguette crumbs. I guess the original intended SM owner wasn’t expected to picnic.

  12. The French don’t traditiionally buy lunch ‘to go’. They either bring their own picnic food, or expect to sit down and have a cooked meal. Which explains why the motorway offering is still somewhat underdeveloped. Instead people look for canteens, cafeterias like Flunch – which offers the same half-decent hot or cold food everywhere – or hotels with a lunch buffet like Campanile – where the quality varies from very average to actually quite good depending on who’s running the kitchen.

    As for coffee, most people accept that they’re unlikely to get a decent cup in any of those places, let alone petrol stations, while breaking a motorway journey, and just take it as an injection of caffeine.

    1. So, Laurent, it makes a bit more sense. The only people who buy those pappy baguette sandwiches on Autoroutes are foreigners. Possibly a survey of UK catering was carried out and a special baguette designed to cater to British tastes. Since I saw Michael Douglas in Wall Street many years ago, I don’t usually eat a big lunch, so a sit down hot meal doesn’t appeal, but I must try one sometime when in France. I’ve always wondered what Buffalo Grill is like.

      In fact I just looked at their website. Irritatingly, my browser default seems set on auto-translate, which renders their blurb as :

      “Family, lovers, friends or colleagues, Buffalo Grill restaurants welcome you every day at any time of the day. Whether for a small hollow on the road, a birthday party or a dinner for two or in a group, come and share a good time with ease.”

      Actually, I did have a very memorable lunch at a Relais de Routier north of Paris in 1963 whilst our school trip was waiting for our Bedford Utilabrake to be fixed. Excellent lamb and petit pois and, back then, it was actually full of truck drivers. Coincidentally, just 11 years later, I broke down north of Paris driving my own Bedford Utilabrake. But no Routier was to hand.

    2. Yes ‘Les Routiers’ would have been the guide of choice for anyone who cared about where they were going to find cheap but decent grub on their travel. I wonder if they are still the reference and whether their advice is worth following. This site is probably not the official one but could be useful to someone (who speaks French):
      http://www.relais-routiers.com/Relais_Routiers_index.asp
      In any case I doubt they would recommend Buffalo Grill though – that’s in the same as Garfunkel’s or the Aberdeen Angus Steak House.

    3. I fear Les Routiers like Logis de France after them have moved upmarket (in cost and pretension, if not quality). Certainly Routiers came to the UK many years ago, but the establishments over here never seemed the sort you’d find an 8 wheeled Berliet parked outside.

    4. Oh, and auto-translation is a source of endless fun – unless Buffalo Grill really mean that you could fill ‘small hollow on the road’ with one of their steaks…

  13. Here’s an interesting article on ‘Relais Routiers’ which, if not entirely accurate (it’s actually ‘andouille’ and not ‘andouillette’ which appears on the picture 😉 ), gives a fair idea of the beauty of those establishments, which aren’t just popular with truck drivers:
    http://www.weareneverfull.com/cafes-routiers-oh-to-be-a-trucker-in-france/#sthash.I07Toq5S.dpbs

    The bottom line is, as the author correctly remarks in his postscript, that you won’t find anything worth stopping for if you stay on the motorway for the whole journey.

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