Where you eat can be a lens through which you experience a particular place. Sure, even small towns and cities have their upscale, destination-type foodie havens. And while they can be wonderful, flashy, top-rated restaurants can sometimes mislead a visitor who wants to be fed but taught a bit about the local culture. These destination-type eateries are fun, but I have always found greater comfort in discovering a more under-the-radar, locally-oriented joint.
Earlier this year, during a trip in and around Miami, I had dinner at Bourbon Steak by celebrity chef and restaurateur Michael Mina. It was good, and certainly expensive, but it was not the best meal I had in town. That distinction goes to my lunch at Mi Colombia, a barely 20-seat, counter-seating-only joint in Miami Beach, just around the corner from Normandy Shores Golf Club. As probably the only non-regular in the place, I was captivated by the unfussy service and the sublime bandeja montanera, a fry-up that includes rice, beans, steak, two types of sausage, fried pork skin, avocado (you know, so there can be something green on the plate) and a fried egg. It was just good, honest, relatively inexpensive eating, and made me feel at home in a place where I was very much a stranger.
Golf courses often work in the same way. On that very same Miami trip, the course that impressed me the most was Miami Shores Country Club, an oasis surrounded by a village of the same name. Design-wise, the course is solid, but what makes it a great place to play is the vibe. It's the mix of retirees and Millennials packing the range until 9 pm (it's lighted). It's the throwback signage. It's the mix of palms, oaks and banyans around the property. It's the canal running through part of the course and the railroad tracks running through another. It's the affable Director of Golf, Chris Baetzel, whose staff is as genial and committed to making customers happy as he is.
If you're a golfer who wants to experience Miami's best courses, by all means schedule rounds at The Biltmore or Turnberry Isle or even Doral. But if you skip a course like Miami Shores, you may end up missing out on an authentic experience that can help you get more out of your trip than you expected. Plus, local layouts' more modest green fees will save you some money.
Quick list: locals-oriented golf courses you should visit
Here are some other courses where I've found a distinct local flavor during my travels in the last couple years:
Riviera Country Club - Ormond Beach, Fla.
"The Riv" is just about the perfect family-owned, local golf hangout. Located just north of Daytona Beach, this nicely routed, easily walkable course proudly hosts a long-running pro tournament in the Riviera Open and has a loyal local following. Best of all: no formal tee times. Head pro Mike Boss and his staff manage the flow of players in a way that would make even exclusive private club pros jealous. $48.
Miami Springs Golf & Country Club - Miami Springs, Fla.
Its layout is not as strong as Miami Shores', but it has solid Golden Age bones. Few courses better represent the melting pot that is South Florida than this one. Sam Snead and Byron Nelson played the old Miami Open here back in the day. After years of neglect, the course is in better shape than it's been in years, thanks to superintendent Laurie Bland, one of fewer than 30 female golf course superintendents in America. Regular money games include teachers, blue-collar workers and former Major Leaguers Livan and Orlando 'El Duque' Hernandez. Everyone is welcome. $50.
Butter Valley Golf Port - Barto, Penn.
It's a little remote, but plenty of golfers from Philadelphia to Allentown drive - or fly - out to Butter Valley, owned and operated for 50 years by the Gehman family. The course won't land on any top-100 lists, but it's cheap and cheerful, with a keen focus on family golf (parents and kids can play 9 on summer evenings together for a total of $20) and an elaborate disc-golf routing interwoven with the main course. If you give her a pet behind the ears, Bogey the cat will purr from her countertop perch while you check in at the pro shop. $50.
Grand Beach Golf Course - New Buffalo, Mich.
A century-old nine-holer in a village where many Catholic Chicagoans spend weekends and summers sounds like it might be an exclusive, insular place to play. Not true; the villagers (who may invite you to hitch a ride with them on their own golf carts) are too happy to enjoy their course to let anything bother them. The only caveat: outsiders pay 50 cents more per nine holes than locals. $13.50.
Champlain Country Club - Swanton, Vt.
Just 15 miles from the Canadian border near the town of St. Albans (about 45 minutes north of Burlington), Champlain is a playground for the locals with century-old roots (plus a newer nine), but a culture that is anything but stuffy. No one objects to the laughter that echoes across the course; they embrace it and then they lift a few beers in the homey pub or on the clubhouse deck afterwards. $40.