There come times in the life of the traveller when meal-time desperation sets in. There one is, in a remote place and a hired car, and what one wants is a plain and decent meal; but it is well past nightfall and the witching hour approaches - that at which plain and decent restaurants shut down their kitchens.

I have no doubt that somewhere in Walla Walla, where I was last weekend, there exists a restaurant providing just such a meal. Walla Walla is no insignificant place, but a hugely bright and welcoming commercial centre in Washington State. It's the same with many similar places: downtown may be somnolent after hours, but oh, those tempting approaches where one sees light after 30, 40 or 50 miles of driving through wind-blown, horizontal snow . . . oh, that succession of cheap motels, petrol stations, convenience stores, markets - and, yes, junk-food emporia]

But what if one doesn't want a frosty- whip, a Burga (a local franchise), pizza, pancakes or buffalo wings? Try one of those chain restaurants (the ubiquitous Denny's - 'Your meal is free on your birthday, offer ends 31 December'), or the generic diner? There is a problem here. Walla Walla is in a geographical triangle that produces the best wine in the United States (incomparably richer, fruitier, tastier and stronger than Californian), yet the locals drink what passes for coffee in America. You sit down and they pour you a cup of this foul, watery brew. Wine? They've not heard of it.

My theory on this part of the world is that the only real meal the locals eat is breakfast. Up early, gliding in my white Nissan out of mountain darkness into the dawn that seeps into the valleys where the towns are, I sense real anticipation. Not for that coffee, but for the bountiful fresh eggs and the crisp toast, the breakfast steak and that vanished delight, creamed chipped beef on toast. All is well.

Between six and seven, the town breathes civility. Huge men in dungarees and padded jackets overlap the counter stools and chat up the cheerful ladies who pad between counter and kitchen on pneumatic nurses' shoes. The local paper, strewn in sections, offers curious violence and local sport; indignation and grievance, as elsewhere, are to be found in the local letters, for Bosnia is far away: 'I want you to know, Sir, that you lie about my planning permission . . . '

The habit is not to eat lunch, because out here one works, one has a lunch-box, and only the effete break off at midday; and at night, say between five and six, we eat at home: in front of the satellite-fed screen. Thus it was that here, bereft of home, a spoilt gastronome, I searched for my food and drink. Definitely the best place on my stretch of Route 20 in Walla Walla was something called the Meat Market. You come in, you queue up, you look on the wooden wall at photographs of what you might eat in the way of meat, you order, you sit down, you eat.

Not only is there not a drop to drink, there is the presumption that feeding is an operation that takes some 20 minutes, for turnover is what keeps steak-houses going. The manager of this not very large restaurant (which also sells steaks to take home) finds nothing unusual in selling a steak weighing a pound, wonderfully broiled, a huge baked potato, and a salad, for a shade under pounds 3. And how many of these does he sell? 'Oh, 'bout 500 an hour.'

To me, dining on the road is no different from dining at home. It is my one point of leisure in an 18-hour day, and if I get through it in 20 minutes, that extends the hours I have to spend in my bleak hotel room: one certainly equipped for sex (the beds are capacious and never single), for television (the box juts arrogantly from the wall), but not for reading - the headboards (when they exist) are hardand the bedside lights suggestively dim.

I wound up that night in the Modern, a 'Chinese-American' restaurant across the road from a giant shopping mall. It had wine. Not in bottles, mind you; not local wine, not good wine, but wine. Generic wine. The waitress was kindness itself: 'We got chardonnay, we got chablis, um, we got I think zinfandel, and we got burgundy.' Thanks. I will spare you the details of an Americanised Mongolian Spicy Beef.

The night before I had the opposite experience in Pendleton, Oregon. I was, thanks to my motel's recommendation, in a restaurant called Raphael's. It was in a former private house from about the turn of the century; the waitresses were bouncy college girls with long legs and pert accents ('They sure are quick in the kitchen,' my girl said, bringing me my main course of tagliatelle with soft-shelled crabs when I'd raised but the second spoonful of my appetiser, corn chowder); and the wine list was long and excellent. Only there's something dispiriting about having all the ambience, the ambition, all the trappings of civility (bearded diners, liberal ladies, candles that didn't gutter and weren't stuck in chianti bottles) and being served pre-cooked pasta and recalcitrant crabs resentful at having been kept warm under infrared bulbs.

Forewarned on the last night, and with the charter plane three hours late (what charter company gives a damn about its customers?), I made my meal last. Two steaks for pounds 8 and a bottle I brought with me.