This week, I did not read on the A9--largely because I was driving on it. The A9 is arguably (at least to ex-highlanders like me) the coronary artery of Scotland. If you were a Mars bar, you would deep fry yourself and clog it; if you were Hannibal, you would march your elephants up it. It is the grand trunk road (sorry, no pun intended) of Scotland, though General Wade, who was responsible for building all those military roads and rather attractive forts and bridges to help the English army control the natives after the ’45, would be appalled at the political cheese-paring that resulted in a highway that changes from two-lane to dual carriageway and back again in the on-again, off-again road-building equivalent of the relationship between Liz Taylor and Richard Burton.
Aside from the quiet pleasure of seeing the Cairngorms rise up before you in all their purpled mountain majesty (it is hard to believe Katherine Lee Bates had never seen them when she wrote the lyrics to America the Beautiful. She also wrote Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride, a poem that arguably established Mrs Claus as an early feminist, but I digress... ), there is the satisfaction of knowing that not too far down the road Ballinluig Motor Grill waits.
Although some people might consider ‘Ballinluig’ a place name as unhandy as the strangely concocted names parents seem to be giving their children: Shateequa and Daisz and Chlamydia; ‘motor grill’ seems refreshingly straightforward--particularly in a country where public libraries have been re-named ‘Idea Stores’. You know where you are with a motor grill (unless English is not your first language, in which case you might wonder about the customer base for a business that barbecues engines).
I suspect that the Ballinluig Motor Grill has not materially changed since it opened in 1970, though I noticed on this visit it has a new sign and hanging baskets. There was no need to panic--everything inside was the same as always, although I have an idea there used to be a display of banknotes of the world on the wall (but I suspect I might be making that up). There are still swirly-topped tables of grey formica and blue vinyl covered pews that match the blue carpet-tiles on the floor. The walls are still freshly painted pale blue and it is so clean I would quite happily have my appendix taken out in the ladies' room.
The servers line up with their backs to the pass, the cook quietly efficient behind them in the kitchen that was open to view long before it became a fashion. Leaning against the counter where toaster and soup pot, plates, glasses, mugs, coffee maker and milk machine (complete with rubber udders) are all immediately to hand, they cover table and cash till in apparent perpetual motion, though they also serve, who stand and wait. This is fast-food triage: customers sorted, fed and expedited out the door in a seamless example of effective service delivery. You never feel rushed, but you know your order will be taken and a hot mug of tea on the table in front of you in the time it takes to put your car keys away and settle yourself properly.
To my shame, though there is a menu to explore and homemade soup to try, I have never eaten anything other than egg, bacon and chips at the Motor Grill. There never seems cause to visit the gastronomic hinterlands when egg, bacon and chips are what I want. The egg yolk is always just on the right side of runny--shiny and viscous, like new motor oil--oozing rather than liquid. The bacon tastes like pig--not dry-cured, vanilla-flavoured Islington pig--just reassuringly familiar pig. The chips are hot and crisp and the individual packets of sauce are both culinary adornment and a handy test of motor skills: if you cannot open the packet, you shouldn’t be driving; pull your rig around the back of the service area and have a kip.
I know sensible, right-thinking people who recoil in horror, when I confess to my affection for the Motor Grill. Reader, I judge them. It is a place of unswerving honesty, with no pretensions to anything but serving plain food quickly and well. Go in at almost any time of day and you are guaranteed to find as good a cross-section of the travelling public as you might find anywhere. Someone should tell Ipsos-Mori to conduct their polling there, if they want a consistently broad-based demographic. It is one of the few places I can think of where all men are truly equal.
When you have finished eating, you pay your bill at the till where the tab for your table waits on a numbered cup-hook. Just in case you need something sweet to see you on your way, you can buy a Tunnock’s teacake or caramel wafer--anything else would be just plain wrong. Put a generous tip in the cup provided on the counter--equality reigns there as well.