A Touch of Motorway Nostalgia
Near Holmestrand in Vestfold, Norway, a sight straight out of my childhood stretches across the E18: a genuine over-the-highway restaurant.
The service station restaurant, part of the Swiss-based Marché® International group, is the only one of its kind in Norway and hence has the same “landmark” quality I recall from visits to my Chicago cousins in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In those days, we’d regularly pass under one or more of the “Oasis” restaurants crossing the Illinois Tollway. I know we ate at one, because I remember the thrill of looking down at the cars racing by – as they could in those days – during dinner.
Cross-highway restaurants in the United States were, and remain, a sight reserved for the Midwest, specifically Illinois and Oklahoma; no other region developed the phenomenon. The Illinois “Oases” originally boasted “real,” non-fast-food restaurants (the Fred Harvey chain in the 1960s, then Howard Johnson’s in the 1970s), though today, like all motorway service stops, they are leased to a variety of concessions.
The only “solo” restaurant bridging a U.S. highway now is the McDonald’s over Interstate 44 in Vinita, Oklahoma, said to be the largest in the world.
Like the Oases of my childhood, Marché Holmestrand provides sit-down dining with real food, though served cafeteria-style. Norwegian and international foods – Swedish meatballs, schnitzel, chicken, or fish – with sufficient vegetables, salads, and bread, can be combined for a genuine rest-stop meal, rather than an easily pocketed hamburger or rubbery slice of microwaved pizza. (I’ve been to more than a few rest stops on the New Jersey Turnpike.)
Marché puts a strong emphasis on wholesome food from fresh produce, and this is reflected as much in the décor as in the servings. Relaxed and lounge-like, it strikes the American as a cross between Starbucks and Whole Foods – maybe with a touch of IKEA thrown in.
There the comparison ends, however, as this dining experience costs a good bit more than any of those establishments. This is Norway. I don’t have the receipt (my better-paid Norwegian companion generously treated me), but I’m guessing the dinner cost around US $25. After all, children 12 and under can have a meal, with a small drink, for “only” NOK 65 (US $11).
You don’t want to know what the bouncy pizza slice would cost.
Marché Holmestrand’s design isn’t typical for the brand, and that, of course, makes it particularly intriguing – as much so today as in my childhood. Looking down on the (very light) traffic rushing toward an inevitable slowdown at the Hillestad Tunnel, I got an actual sense of rest on the journey, not the tiresome feeling of being crammed in with a mass of irritable humanity unable to battle nature’s demands further, apathetically tossing dollar bills at an equally disinterested server before resuming the highway slog.
That oasis mentality forms a critical part of the nostalgia. In the “middle era” of driving in the United States, our motorways promised exploration over obligation, for adults as well as for children. (My 90-year-old father cautions me that Gary, Indiana, always held more of the latter, so I must qualify this.) When plane travel was largely reserved for emergencies, the road experience made up a good bit of what families considered to be the vacation.
The 1960s Interstate voyage was at once progressive and filmic. Dinosaurs stalked the landscape – at least, the Sinclair Oil kind did. (Well do I remember the awe of seeing a Brontosaurus rising over an Ohio cornfield!) Venturing out of the confines of home meant adventures in Hawaiian dining at pineapple-shaped restaurants with outriggers hanging from the ceiling, or passing over a flat plain where a flying saucer rose on the horizon.
And in this era, the bridge restaurant’s polished glass set in concrete and chrome offered panoramic views of a country still discovering itself – more interested in seeing what it had than in proving itself superior to an imagined global audience.
Although I haven’t been able to locate specific research on it, I suspect the cross-highway design has at least two practical impediments to its popularity. A key one is the cost of maintenance and repairs. The United Kingdom had a go at creating rest stops that straddled its motorways, and the indications I found about two – Medway Services on the M2 and Leicester Forest East Services on the M1 – point to this difficulty. The second, which the Leicester building demonstrates, is the ever-burgeoning use of motor vehicles, crowding the roads to the point of desperation for expansion.
The latter also lessens the cross-highway restaurant’s appeal to customers, dulling that feeling of pause along a great journey. It is one thing to enjoy a meal watching cars zipping along open roads in an attractive landscape; it is quite another to sit staring hopelessly at long lines of traffic, developing ulcers and indigestion as you realize you will soon be back among them.
That is, assuming the demands of the high-productivity commuter work style allow such rest at all.
In this sense, Norway still enjoys the bliss of my childhood days. But yearly, congestion problems on the country’s motorways grow, and Norwegians’ higher incomes mean greater spending power to acquire more automobiles – even with the government’s intriguingly high taxes on them. (More on that in the future.)
The Marché Holmestrand, like the Illinois Oases of my childhood, provides a pause not only for rest on the highway but for consideration of humankind’s transportation future. It seems appropriate that there’s only the one recent structure in Norway; for the restaurant bridging the highway always was a celebration of driving culture – an increasingly unsustainable way of life environmentally, spatially, and in availability of resources. Even in oil-rich Norway, unlimited growth of car travel isn’t possible. There simply isn’t room, if Norwegians wish to retain the places they wish to visit.
So maybe such places essentially are dinosaurs: a fantastic glimpse into past and imagining of the future, but in the end, destined only to be artifacts. Not necessarily a bad thing.
After all, not everyone wants a Brontosaurus in the backyard.