The Best Small-Town Restaurant in Every State
Along with providing enough fodder for three full Springsteen/Mellencamp collaboration albums (make it happen, boys!), America’s small towns are home to some serious culinary action. Like a championship track team from the ‘70s or a native who went on to become a featured actor on a now-canceled sitcom, they are often the pride of the town for generations, and often exist as the very thing that puts a village on a map.
The restaurants on this list represent the absolute best small-town restaurants in the country, ranging from fine dining experiences in historic farmhouses to roadside diners, BBQ pits, and seaside shacks. Some are part of vibrant small communities far from cities (no, we’re not talking suburbs). Others are outposts doing business seemingly at the end of the world, stretching the concept of “town” all the way down to one resident. They’re all destination-worthy. And who knows -- maybe you’ll fall in love with the towns themselves over a gigantic plate of something unforgettable.
The Red in Red's Little School House is the 86-year-old father of Debbie Deese, who owns the restaurant (originally a schoolhouse built in 1910), and grew up about 2 miles away. Red comes in every morning and helps Debbie bake pecan and lemon pies. He's also still farming, and she'll sometimes feature veggies on the menu from his land. Those collards might've been picked by Debbie herself. And while you could order something delicious from the menu, you're better off getting the buffet. Pile your plate high with fried chicken, pulled pork, and veggies (peas, butter beans, corn, squash, and turnips usually make an appearance). If you're a soul food connoisseur, fried chicken livers and gizzards are also available. And because one plate from the buffet will just make you hungrier for more, they're known for their fried cornbread patties and apple cheese casserole. In a world of grab-and-go restaurants and drive-thrus, Red's is the type of eatery with huge wooden tables and an early 1900s vibe, a place where you eat your weight in BBQ while your server asks where you're from and how you're doing. It's not an act -- it's just how they've always done things.
Population: 10 (nine of which are seasonal)
Welcome to Coldfoot -- population: Mike. Mike is the remote locale's one year-round resident, and many of the nine seasonal residents work at Coldfoot Camp. The town is located above the Arctic Circle and was built by an Alaskan dog musher and a group of truckers in the '80s. The Camp provided a needed break for those driving long hauls. That explains the walls made from packing crates and trucker's names engraved on a wooden pole in the center of the eatery. And it is an eatery: In the winter, the food's limited to hearty fare like burgers and club sandwiches. But in the summer, things get good. A buffet features a salad bar with 24 toppings, with everything from hot veggies to salmon caught in the Yukon River about 60 miles away. A baker prepares freshly made baguettes, ciabatta, and rolls. And while it's not just truckers who pass through anymore (many are tourists from China), the sense of camaraderie you get when you're eating and drinking in a cafe in the middle of nowhere is part of what makes it a special place. Why else would Mike live there?!
Why would a guy who once made a living as a corporate chef for two of the biggest foodservice companies in the US open an Italian joint in the quaint, stoplight-free town of Pine and obsessively prepare everything from scratch? Because... wouldn't you? Culinary Institute of America-trained chef Michael Dahling is giving himself a chance to flex his culinary muscles. Every single day, they make the dough and grind the pork shoulder for the pizza. The pork belly is cured and roasted in-house. Farms in Pine provide the greens and baby kale in the summer. A wood-fired oven elevates the pizza so much that it's worthy of a two-hour drive in from Phoenix. Tired tourists and other assorted visitors to the nearby Tonto Natural Bridge State Park huddle inside the homey, reclaimed wood-filled space that only seats 20 (outside, a patio seats 50 in the summer). Be sure to walk 30 feet from the restaurant -- an ideal booze-filled taproom is a fine place to drink the night away: you'll find nine beer taps, scotch, and bourbon and live music on most nights. -- LB
You can't blame chef Nick Bottini for not being sure he wanted to open a restaurant in the building that became Low Gap Cafe seven years ago. That's probably because not many Culinary Institute of America grads who've cooked all over the country (including catering a party for Liberace!) open up restaurants in former gas stations. Bottini and his wife did, however, in Low Gap -- a town located in an area renowned for its hiking trails and sizable elk population. He even admits it can look a little like a biker bar from the outside, though that might be because people on motorcycles (and horseback) stop by for a bite. And while some biker bars are less than friendly, Bottini says the staff at Low Gap treats both locals and tourists like family. More importantly, they'll serve up his popular rib-eye with horseradish cream sauce, chicken fried steak, shrimp carbonara, and plenty of produce from local farms in the spring and summer.
We know California is dotted with amazing small-town restaurants. That said, while we'd certainly love a seat at The French Laundry, we're just as happy at The Old Place, which miraculously survived the recent fires that ripped through the countryside it calls home. Tucked amid the winding forest roads -- far enough outside the lights of LA and the shores of Malibu to feel truly isolated, even from the city its address is technically part of -- it's a tiny spot loaded with fur-trapping gear, an old piano, and a long bar that looks like it's seen generations of action. With scant few booths, dinner at this old-timey, saloon-ish spot adjoining Cornell Winery is booked with very specific time limits for each table, though it's unlikely you'll want to take your time once a wood-fired 18-ounce rib-eye or an off-menu bone-in filet hits the table at one of the most low-key great steak joints in California. Simple comfort foods like a succulent pot pie and a rustic take on shepherd's pie are also standouts. It feels like a place unstuck in time, as if you cruised in a DeLorean back to an alternative universe where the rustic woodland inns had food that made people's heads spin. Of course, an Owen Wilson sighting (oh wow, he's a regular) could bring you right back to reality.
Colorado is a well-known epicenter of skiing and... agriculture. Yeah, that was definitely the second word you thought you were going to read. And thanks to its location, Palisade Café 11.0 is perfectly suited to take advantage of the state's agricultural bounty, as everything from grapes to watermelon and stone fruits are grown there. The 11th co-owners of Palisade Café both have familial ties to Spain (and Peru), and are serving new American food with a Spanish flair, with everything from ajillo shrimp and seared ahi with peach habanero salsa to BLPs (bacon/lettuce/peaches from local growers that often have been picked that same day). Outside of the crazy fresh produce, one of the major draws to the cozy, brick-walled 51-seater is the paella. Every Thursday, locals and tourists to Palisade wine country pack the Café to dine on paella made for two to 25 people. The seafood, meat, or veggie dish features imported Spanish saffron and piquillo peppers. While the dish is made up of primarily imported ingredients, it'd be downright foolish to pair it with anything other than a selection from the world-class wines bottled right there in the Palisades.
Undoubtedly the shoreline's best-kept secret, this cozy little Post Road bistro offers some of the state's most thoughtfully composed chef-driven dishes with absolutely zero big-city pretension. It's sophisticated but not stuffy, with dark leather booths scattered throughout a couple of small dining rooms alongside a separate tapas-hawking lounge area that's huge among the area's many 9-to-5ers. The wine list is just plain silly and the food is ingeniously categorized into three distinct and ever-changing menus: Seasonal (i.e. farm-fresh salads, soups, and entrees all made with locally sourced ingredients); Regional, where dishes revolve around specific global centers as far reaching as Argentina, Vietnam, and New Zealand, switched up every six to eight weeks; and Specialties, a more consistent lineup of classed-up comforts like PEI mussels swimming in a saffron-scented white-wine sauce, Mom's Meatloaf drenched in demi-glace, and the best damn fries in the world (or at least in any town with less than 7,000 residents).
If you grew up in Delaware, you probably remember Odessa as the town with all the old stuff that isn't New Castle. As an adult, you'll rediscover know Odessa as the town with all the old stuff, including that restored tavern from the 1800s with great food. Despite the refresh, it retains plenty of old-world charm, starting with the eye-catching brick facade outside and continuing inside with its chandeliers, roaring fireplaces, cozy bar, and even more brick walls. But since you don't go to a tavern to leer at bricks (...or do you?), there's plenty of beer to make sure it lives up to its historic reputation. Any fan of Dogfish Head, the state’s unofficial brewery, will enjoy the vintage brews like the Noble Rot and Immort Ale from 2015, along with 10 beers on tap. Because beer is better with food, there’s elevated pub fare like spicy Old Bay wings, seared tuna nachos, brick-oven Buffalo chicken pizzas, and braised short rib. If you’re visiting on a weekend, the make your own Bloodys and assorted brunch fare is not to be missed.
Visitors to Florida understandably spend most of their time on the beach, preferably at a bar overlooking the water. Hawthorne is smack in the center of Florida's shaft, surrounded by wetlands. It doesn't exactly scream "spring break." That said, those surrounding wetlands are a repository for old-school Florida cuisine, and getting it within the walls of The Yearling is an experience unto itself. Named after author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' most famous book and located a short walk from her home, the place has been serving up its Florida cuisine under the glow of a brick fireplace and amid the endless taxidermy since 1952. Where else in Florida can you get a taste of frog legs, gator tail, and cooter (the turtle, pervert), or just some damn fine prime rib and sour orange pie? If you're lucky, slide guitar-slinging bluesman Willie Green will be in the house too. It's quirky. It's wonderful. And it's maybe the best place to eat turtle in the middle of Florida.
Located on the southern expanse of a sprawling Georgia forest, the Dillard House still does dinners the same way it's been doing it for 101 years: family-style in a farmhouse. And from the looks of the spread, that family is... pretty well fed. Expect massive plates of fried oysters, sizzling catfish, crabcakes, hush puppies, cajun rice, tenderloin, chicken-fried steak, and everything in between. Seriously. Each seating runs about $30 and includes enough Southern-style meat to put John Wayne into a coma. And if that does happen, the place doubles as a resort complete with an inn, chalets, and more, with the option to ski or hike it off in the morning. Or just wake up and hit the breakfast table, where another parade of decadence awaits.
Farm-to-table is a concept you're probably fairly familiar with. Ocean-to-table? Maybe less so. Mama's Fish House, which has had the same owners for the last 45 years, built their restaurant around it. That's why the menu lists not only the name of the fisherman who brought the fish in from the Hawaiian waters, but usually the name of their boat. And who among us doesn't love a good boat name?! The cuisine is Hawaiian with a French-Polynesian flair. Authentic Tahitian dance costumes dot the walls and an ocean breeze permeates the 260-seat, open-air, beach-side tropical dining paradise. As for what they're serving, it changes depending on what the local farms and fisherman are bringing into the kitchen that day, but you'll often find fresh fish like Hawaiian kampachi given a macadamia nut crust, stuffed full of crab and lobster and served with a pineapple beurre blanc and garnished with a petite lobster tail. Yeah, they're not messing around. If sashimi's on the menu that day, don't pass it up. The fish obviously doesn't get any fresher, and when else are you going to eat ahi with ponzu, watermelon, red shiso peppers, and kukui nuts? Only when you're on Maui's North Shore, at a table on the beach, at Mama's.
A temple to the great Western frontier, this tiny-town steakhouse does attract its fair share of Hollywood types during ski season -- Sun Valley's epic slopes are just five minutes away -- but don't let that fool you into thinking it's some sort of tawny celebrity chef-helmed joint. Inside, it's all about the meat, namely delicious Flintstone-sized bone-in prime rib, massive beef ribs, and the juiciest Midwest Certified Angus steaks, plus fresh seafood and all the requisite sides. And the carnivorous theme extends to the decor, which, with its century-old arrowhead displays, antique bullet boards, fiberglass recreation of the world's largest steelhead fish on record, and completely absurd number of mounted taxidermy, is best described as hunting lodge-chic (OK, maybe minus the chic, but in a very, very good way).
Housed in an old general store dating to 1910, Roy and Helen Tuttle have been slinging Moonburgers since they bought the place in 1982. If you are seeking a lengthy menu or a cozy booth, this is not your place. But if you happen to find yourself in Central Illinois craving a burger with a side of Americana (and also a bag of chips, they don't serve fries), this is your place. Get in line early (they shut off the grill promptly at 12:30pm), get yourself a gorgeously griddled double with cheese, top it yourself with the typical fixings, meet some strangers as you grab a seat on the picnic tables outside, and find yourself smiling for the rest of the day.
There's a bit of a rivalry going between Iowa and Indiana over who TRULY invented the pork tenderloin sandwich, but Nick's has about as credible a claim as anyone for having popularized it, having been in the business of selling them since 1908. The juicy fried cutlets that stretch comically far past the confines of the bun are definitely the top draw, but there's more than just pork behind the art deco neon sign that summons hungry Hoosiers from all over the state. Some have argued that the sugar cream pie, another Indiana specialty, ought to be Nick's true calling card. You're advised to get both and decide for yourself.
Yes, "located inside a hundred-year-old small-town Iowa bank" sounds like Stefan moved to the Midwest and started doing nightlife reviews, but The Ladora Bank Bistro is all too real, run by a husband and wife team who recently purchased the joint from the original owner, who fell in love with the building when he spotted it on a motorcycle trip. You'll find an eclectic shared plates menu featuring items like Boursin-stuffed, bacon-wrapped Medjool dates, crispy duck pot stickers, and fennel sausage en croute. You'll also find a wine list that is absolutely money. Get it?! Bank jokes! But seriously, this is not the kind of establishment you typically find in a town of fewer than 300 people.
Dining in a literal museum is novel and all, but that novelty wears off quickly if the food isn't good. Luckily, this singular restaurant literally surrounded by museum exhibits in a Civil War-era home located on the historic Santa Fe Trail delivers on both the educational front and the "wow, can I have some more of that buffalo?" front. The menu takes cues from both the Native American tribes of the area (hence the aforementioned buffalo, which you can enjoy with butter beans and fry bread), and the different European populations that settled in the area (try the schnitzel). If you manage to find a few moments where you don't have food in your mouth, the staff is incredibly informative when it comes to both the history of the food and the rest of the exhibits.
What happens when a professionally trained chef, whose resume lists stints at Michelin-starred restaurants in both Chicago and New York, decides to give up city life and return home to her sweet Kentucky town to convert a dusty, barn-like produce warehouse into a game-changing farm-to-table restaurant? A whole lot of awesomeness, that's what happens. Chef Sarah Bradley's focus here is on Southern staples, familiar enough to scratch that comfort itch but prepared with an elegance and creativity that could only come from the mind of a culinary innovator. On the uber-seasonal menus, deviled eggs and fried frog legs share space with sweet tea-brined chicken breast hot brown, grilled gulf shrimp, and Kentucky blue snapper, followed up by a host of bourbon-based craft cocktails and pies baked by Bradley's own mama. And they say you can't come home again.
Like so much Chumbawamba, Middendorf's has been knocked down by hurricanes multiple times, and every time it's gotten back up again. And thank God, because this place, sandwiched between Lake Maurepas and Lake Pontchartrain, serves up perhaps the tastiest fried catfish on Earth: cut paper thin, fried crisp, and seasoned in a way that allows the batter and the flaky meat to work in some weird, crunchy harmony. You can get it thick, too, but you're selling yourself short if you don't get the platter, which pairs the thin stuff with shrimp, oysters, and stuffed crab. What's more, you can boat up to the place… and take a much-needed nap on the boat after a marathon session cramming as much of the legendary seafood down your gullet.
OK, we're certainly not the first to recognize the prominence of this rural town of 700's quaint little breakout star. With full-on features from the likes of The New York Times, NPR, and The Boston Globe, the Lost Kitchen isn't exactly a diamond in the rough any longer, but that doesn't mean that the charm has run out. On the contrary, self-trained chef Erin French's gristmill-turned-epicurean oasis is better than ever, continuing to wow 40 lucky patrons with the riches of Maine's agricultural bounty four nights a week for eight months a year. If you're able to snag a reservation -- they open on April 1 every year and sell out in a snap -- you're in for the dinner party of a lifetime, moving between plump fried green tomatoes, Maine oysters with green apple mignonette, lamb chops with whipped feta butter, and cornmeal cake made sweet with ripe, juicy peaches amidst a fairytale of a room, all untreated wood beams, an open kitchen with a chef's counter, brilliant flower arrangements, and iron fixtures left over from the building's original heyday. But don't worry if you snoozed on the rez -- you can always pick up the spot's shiny new cookbook and try (emphasis on try) to recreate the magic at home.
Crisfield's crabbing industry may not be quite as robust as it was in its heydey, but they still play up the "Crab Capital of the World" thing (note the crab on the town's water tower), and more importantly, they still know how to serve up some tasty crustaceans. Partners Brian Julian and Kathy Berezoski have owned and operated the Waterman's Inn for three decades, so you'll be in good hands when you order your cream of crab soup, crab dip, and crabcakes. Pro tip: Crisfield is the main access point for Smith Island, which, if you know your deeper-cut Maryland culinary specialties, means you'll be ordering yourself a beautifully layered, chocolatey hunk of Smith Island cake for dessert.
Navigating down the winding back roads that lead down to the Montague Mill isn't for the directionally-challenged, but once you step into the magical riverside complex -- home to not only this New American charmer but also an adorable cafe, independent bookshop, cluster of artists' studios, and record store -- every GPS-based squabble you might have had immediately fades into obscurity. Originally built in 1842, the former gristmill sits just a few miles north of Western Mass college hubs Amherst and Northampton. But once you're seated on the Alvah's plank wood deck overlooking the rushing Sawmill River, digging into your delicate chicken liver mousse on toasted rye, smoked sorghum chicken wings, or pillowy gnocchi alla Romana, and sipping on wild fermented hard cider or an Old Pal cocktail on tap, you'll feel a zillion miles away from any frat house or strip-mall Target. It's not quite fine dining, not quite casual drop-in fare, but suspended somewhere in between, like a strange culinary dreamworld made only stranger -- and more appealing -- by its undeniably majestic surroundings.
Look, it's unlikely that you've ever sat down and dreamed of hanging out in a Polish hobbit house whose owners are weirdly obsessed with stove legs. But that very, very specific fantasy scenario is what you get in this little upper-lower Michigan oddity, a stone/log building overlooking the glorious Lake Michigan whose roof is lined with stove legs like some sort of folk-art rampart. Inside, you'll find the best Polish food north of Hamtramck, with massive platters of sausages and pierogies served in the indoor beer hall or on the garden veranda, and hunter's stew bringing warmth on cold nights (the massive array of Polish vodka helps there, too). And since you'll never want to leave, the place has cabins near the beach, meaning you have no excuse to not eat and drink to your heart's content. Weird, yes. But once you enter, you'll never look at the legs of your appliances again.
Amanda and Tomas Zimmerman are the eighth owners of this historic diner that started out as a White Castle-esque burger joint (called the Black & White Hamburger Shop) in 1931. Over the years, the restaurant expanded into the adjacent hardware store, and the Zimmermans have expanded the menu as well -- yes, there are still burgers, but they definitely weren't serving duck confit wontons with pepper-bacon jam in 1931. In other updates of typical diner fare, they're catering to vegetarians with roasted beet Reubens, and also leveling up the dessert offerings with a beer brownie sundae (the brownie's made with oatmeal stout), and the signature Black & White -- a ganache-coated chocolate mousse with a white chocolate garnish.
Mississippi is rife with old roadside restaurants hiding culinary treasures, and the Old Country Store is perhaps the granddaddy of them all. Housed in an unassuming, century-old general store complete with rust-flecked sheet metal and signage, the place is, in fact, a store, one where antiques, sports ephemera, and mounted fish are bountiful. But you're not here to live out some weird American Pickers LARPing fantasy: You're here for the fried chicken, which is crispy and impossibly juicy and has made the place famous among road-trippers, hungry locals, and famous weirdos like Alton Brown. It's served up buffet-style, along with beans, greens, corn, ribs, and other Southern fare cooked up by the owner/mascot Mr. D, whose constant singing provides the already quirky establishment with extra ambiance.
Arrow Rock is an idyllic little historic landmark of a town, and Catalpa is situated in a cozy red brick house, but it's also a seriously ambitious fine-dining outpost that draws diners in from all over Missouri. You'll find eclectic starters like fried alligator "wings" bathed in a Thai peanut sauce, as well as lobster bisque for two with lemon creme fraiche. Entree-wise, you could opt for a roast half duckling with rhubarb sauce and roasted pear risotto, or a boar bacon-wrapped rib-eye grilled on Himalayan salt blocks. There's a four-to-six-person chef's table in the kitchen if you want a closer look at the process.
When one thinks of dining in and around Yellowstone, thoughts tend to veer closer to "bag of GORP and some hot dogs roasted on a fire" than "insanely delicious Spanish tapas and rich paella." And yet the latter is exactly what's on offer at Café Madiz, which would hold its own in big cities, but really stands out in ranch land thanks to its huge menu of unexpected fare, from meat & cheese boards to stewed calamari, and chorizo served in a traditional Galician pig-shaped cazuela choricera. In all likelihood, you're in West Yellowstone en route to or on the way out of Yellowstone. So whether it's your last meal before hitting the wilds or your first since subsisting on burned hot dogs, you might as well treat yourself to something completely unforgettable: a culinary tour of Spain under the Big Sky. Keep in mind, this places is seasonal. If you emerge from a snowshoe trip, you'll have to get your paella fix elsewhere... good luck with that!
As the home of Nebraska's Big Rodeo, Burwell has a bit more of a restaurant scene than a town of its size typically would, but Sandstone Grill is the best of the bunch, run by sisters Tenise Jarecke and Tammy Pinckney, who returned to their native Nebraska after they each spent a few years honing their culinary chops in different cities (Kansas City and Seattle, respectively). Now they're keeping their home state happy with well-priced, locally raised steaks and chops -- perhaps paired with a Cowboy Wedgie, their take on a classic steakhouse wedge salad employing Cheddar and ranch in place of the typical blue cheese. Go easy on the homemade rolls, because you'll want to save room for one of the also-homemade seasonal pies.
In any other state, a steakhouse in a jail-themed casino that serves you sizzling bone-in rib-eye and bloody prime rib while you're seated in an actual cell might come off a little... corny. But since this is Nevada, Cellblock manages to feel somewhat subtle. Still, those dishes, the surprisingly inexpensive shrimp cocktail, and the tremendous Basque-style lamb chops covered in port and mint jelly would taste good if they were served in storage unit. Are there better steakhouses in Nevada? Well, yeah... Vegas, Tahoe, and Reno are built on foundations of discarded gristle. But for kitschy ambiance, value (seriously, this place is cheap), and overall oddball charm, it's hard to beat a trip to the slammer in Ely.
The cider press at this New Hampshire institution runs September through December, but don't worry, the warm apple cider donuts with vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce stay on the menu year-round and are worth the trip all by themselves. Of course, focusing on just cider and desserts does a disservice to an impressive top-to-bottom culinary operation, with thoughtful cocktails an oft-updated menu that will showcase everything from Korean short ribs with coconut parsnip puree to brick chicken with white bean and bacon ragout to vanilla-brined pork loin with curried apple butter. There's also an attached deli and general store that is being rebuilt following a fire, but rest assured you'll find plenty to fill up on within the restaurant.
The odds were stacked against Bagel Masters. It closes at 4pm (2pm on the weekends). Its main specialty is bagels, so you won't find any gourmet cuisine here. The space is cramped, sitting maybe 20 people, with about 10 extra souls able to claw their way to the cash-only register. The very arrogance that the name "Bagel Masters" touts should be an immediate disqualification. But despite the hurdles, Bagel Masters -- a bagel-deli-destination as New Jersian as Bruce Springsteen in a Devil's jersey punching a BENNY while sipping on Orange Crushes in Sopranos-branded chilled mugs -- is the best small-town restaurant experience in the Garden State. Their pork roll, egg & cheese (SPK optional but preferred) is more sought-after than a quality parking spot in Secaucus. The bagels are fluffy, cloud-soft, and bizarrely filling. The staff is on a first-name basis with more locals than the mayor, mailman, and preacher combined. Bagel Masters is the small-town restaurant. Just make sure you get there early. There will be lines.
This is an odd place to start a restaurant write-up, but do you remember the Pixar movie Cars? Part of the plot includes the real-life misfortune of small towns along Route 66, a roadway which became forgotten when the interstate highway system was built. Tucumcari is one of those small towns. And after the gut punch of the 2008 economic meltdown, Jimmy and Stella Watson decided to go into the BBQ business, as their hardware store was struggling. Jimmy grew up watching his Texan father conjure up pit BBQ, so he used that familial knowledge to serve mouth-watering brisket, ribs, potato salad, and beans to hungry travelers and locals working in the ranching biz. The BBQ has so many fans, Watson says it single-handedly saved his business. It's a testament to the couple's ingenuity that if you ever find yourself on Route 66, you can pull up a white folding chair at a table dressed up like a picnic blanket and dig into a plate of some of the best dang pit BBQ you'll ever eat. Inside of a hardware store or out.
If you're within 200 miles of the Catskills, odds are you've already heard of, or maybe even been to, this renovated 1962 diner off Route 28. The last time they surveyed this sleepy vacation town's population it numbered in the 300s, but this spot's hungry hipster cult following has far outshined its tiny surroundings. Design-wise, it's got everything your Dwell-loving heart desires and then some: a prominent "DINER" marquee hovering above a classic shingled roof; a long narrow lunch counter beneath warm pendant lighting, overlooking pie displays, coffee urns, and a retro Coca-Cola cooler; pea green two-seater booths divided by frosted-glass panes; letter boards above the register displaying the day's specials. Oh and the food? All the belly-warming comforts you'd expect -- country-fried steak and eggs, skillets with pork belly or house-cured corn beef, burgers, BLTs, and tuna melts -- done up with a modern chef's precision and as many local ingredients as they can find, plus excellent coffee, cocktails, craft beer, and dessert.
North Carolina is heaven for whole-hog BBQ lovers (and hell for hogs who would prefer to remain whole), and it takes a lot to really stand out in a state where a roadside shack is likely to trounce a seasoned restaurant once the coals are fired. For 70 years, Skylight has remained a paragon of the state's BBQ dominance, a shining beacon of the state's vinegar-doused 'cue, making perhaps the most iconic chopped pork sandwich in the world. Long before the likes of Aaron Franklin started cultivating cults around the magic they work in the pit, Skylight had generations of BBQ lovers traveling from near and far for a taste.
For as much as we poke fun at North Dakota (under the assumption that nobody who would be offended has the internet -- sorry, it's so easy!), the state was beloved by one Teddy Roosevelt, largely due to the vast wilderness areas, among them the Badlands. Located in the historic Rough Riders Hotel -- a place that will delight everybody except very confused DMX fans -- Theodore's Dining Room manages the task of treating meat-heavy cowboy cooking with a gourmand chef's touch, with massive char-crusted rib-eye, braised bison osso buco, and a gloriously tender prime rib beautifully plated amid the gorgeous scenery. It's upscale cowboy fare for the Insta crowd. But actually, maybe don't take a picture. We've heard the ghost of the old Bull Moose will rise up and break your phone if you pull that bullshit.
Located in a tiny 19th-century abolitionist town, the Spread Eagle wouldn't look out of place in a Merchant Ivory costume drama, its white tablecloth main dining area lit by the glow of a stone hearth, while a smaller room looks like the pinnacle of southern comfort dining in the 1910s. It was once a stop on the Underground Railroad, and rumor has it the ghosts of the era still reside in its walls. Perhaps the reluctance to leave has something to do with a menu that includes an exquisite take on beef Wellington, with the filet getting blanketed in prosciutto before being cloaked in pastry, or a pan-seared elk tenderloin bathed in a cabernet/onion reduction. Dining here is like getting a really compelling history lesson. Except at the end you get a chianti-braised pork shank instead of a quiz. If that's how all classes worked, our education system might be fixed.
In order to truly understand Oklahoma, you need to understand the onion burger. In order to truly understand the onion burger, you need to visit Robert's Grill in El Reno. Luckily, our national burger correspondent did exactly that. If you don't have much time, here's the short version: Go to EL Reno, order a burger at Robert's, experience a national treasure.
With respect to the excellent seafood shacks that populate the coast and diners hidden in the forests, there is perhaps no far-flung meal in Oregon more rewarding than Tad's. Located at the western end of the Columbia River Gorge -- a place that has more waterfalls than a TLC convention, and largely considered the crown jewel of Oregon's formidable natural splendor -- Tad's is hidden on a winding road that snakes alongside the Sandy River in the middle of nowhere (the Troutdale address is a formality). Yet it's perpetually packed with families, sunburned tubers, hikers, and all manner of Oregonian, who cram into the rustic restaurant for river views, and, of course, that signature chicken & dumplings, with two fluffy, decadent mounds of dough crammed into a silver bowl, smothered in rich gravy, and served steaming. That said, the pan-fried chicken is a thing of beauty, and for those still calling bullshit about this not being a seafood restaurant, the razor clamcakes are another uniquely Oregonian delight.
Pennsylvania Dutch Country is loaded with culinary wonders. And also lots of rocking chairs. Experiencing a home-cooked Amish meal is about as heartwarming and stomach-expanding a Pennsylvania experience as you can get. Located in an old house likely raised by the ancestors of your server in 1871, Good 'N Plenty offers up its simple comfort foods -- meatloaf, chicken pie, juicy roast beef, country ham, you know the drill -- a la carte, but the real move here is to go family style and be treated to a rotating array of plates fresh from the kitchen while getting to know your stablemates and trying really hard not to make an extremely outdated Kingpin reference. You will not have room for dessert. Luckily, it's also a bakery, so you can get your pecan-topped giant cinnamon rolls to go, preferably to consume in the nearest rocking chair.
You can't really get all that "remote" in America's smallest and second most densely populated state, but Westerly is certainly one of the state's more idyllic towns, situated on its southwest shore, and Ella's is the place you want to be eating when you're there. Yes, there's a certain unmistakable charm that comes from dining at a no-frills seafood shack, but there's also something to be said for a meal composed of chicken liver pate with pear conserva and vidalia fig jam, and maple-brined pork chops with Cheddar bacon tots. Actually, throw in some dynamite oysters (baked with a spicy chili-ginger sauce) while you're at it -- you are on the ocean, after all.
An estimated 5,000 people call this scenic Upcountry whistle-stop home and the rest are, well, travelers. Situated at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, it's been an important refueling spot for weary respite-seekers since the days of wagons and stockmen. The town is still littered with restaurants and bars, these days catering mostly antiquers, cyclists, hikers, and others venturing out from nearby Greenville or starting their trip up into the hills. While there's no shortage of amazing purveyors along TR's Main Street, this unassuming bar takes the cake with its unpretentious yet skillfully constructed cocktails, cool minimalist design, knowledgeable staff, and killer small plates. They're famous for their sliders, palm-sized beauties that range from beef, lamb, and turkey to oyster, soft-shell crab, and bacon-topped buffalo meat, each stuffed into a house-made brioche bun (they also make their own ketchup, dijon, and aioli). Crispy Brussels with honey-lemon-Sriracha glaze are also a must as are the Italian sausage-stuffed fried Castelvetrano olives. And the drinks! Everything is worth a try, be it a classic, perfectly balanced Papa Hemingway daiquiri or the devilishly smoky El Camino (rye, mezcal, bénédictine, bitters). Now that's a good night's rest.
Among the many sprawling, mind-blowing natural expanses that make South Dakota the most underrated state in the country, the Badlands is the most breathtaking: a seemingly Martian terrain carved into the earth. The area is a beauty to behold from any perspective, but especially wonderful when tucked into an old-school rustic diner munching on top-notch Sioux tacos. Here, the flatbread is fried to order, topped with rich buffalo meat, then smacked with taco toppings, creating something of a hyper-steroidal Gordita. There are steaks and fresh fish dishes too, but those tacos are the real draw: they're South Dakota's greatest roadside food. And in a state legendary for its roadside food offerings, Cedar Pass is the cornerstone of a good road trip meal, especially before disappearing into those rocky hills.
Blackberry Farm is a lot of things: Tennessee's best brewery, a baller all-inclusive resort, and one of the most beautiful properties in the state. It's also home to The Barn, an on-site, 8,000-square-foot, um, barn that happens to be one of the best restaurants in the state, small town or otherwise (and by small town, here we mean a basically nonexistent town). Here, candle-lit tables are loaded with all manner of haute cuisine mixed with Appalachian tradition, from smoked Carolina trout and grilled guinea hen to quail stuffed with field pea and country ham. Like the setting itself, everything is a combination of rustic charm with high-end presentation. Opt for the full-on tasting menu with a wine pairing: When everything on the menu is a winner, you absolutely will want to taste as much as possible.
Texas is littered with little towns that have their own destination-worthy BBQ scenes. But only Lexington has Tootsie Tomanetz, the legendary, octogenarian postmaster who has led Snow's to the forefront of Texas BBQ gold (and to the top of Texas Monthly's illustrious Best BBQ list). The line of BBQ pilgrims starts moving around 8am -- 6 hours after Tootsie starts the fires the night before -- and they're here for some of the best smoked meats in Texas, among them pork shoulder, turkey, and legendary jalapeño sausage. But c'mon. Snow's makes some of the best brisket in Texas. Which basically means it's some of the best brisket in the known universe. So maybe order that sausage as a dessert.
Two miles north of a Navajo reservation in Utah lie two ranch-style buildings at the base of the two sandstone geologic formations (they call 'em the Navajo Twins). One is the Twin Rocks Trading Post, where local Native American art is available for purchase. The other, opened in 1994 by the same brothers, is the Cafe. There you'll find views of those jaw-dropping rocks (snag a spot on the 12-seat patio if you can), and plenty of local Navajo cuisine to pair it with. That means a slew of dishes incorporating traditional Navajo fry bread, from tacos (with chili, Cheddar cheese, lettuce, onions, tomatoes) to French toast for brunch. The menu also features other fun mashups like egg atsidi: a cross between huevos rancheros and eggs Benedict. If you're looking to fill up on plenty of carbs before you take in the great Utah outdoors, the Sheepherder is a can't-miss, with hot roast beef, Cheddar, and onion piled high on that delicious fry bread.
With a population hovering around 5,000, Waterbury, Vermont might register as a mere blip on the radar for many Americans. But for beer and barbecue fans, it's cause for a full-on pilgrimage. This top-notch smokehouse/beer bar/nano-brewery has made quite a name for itself since its 2012 inception inside a former schoolhouse once home to The Alchemist's brewpub (AKA the Heady Topper barons). Inside the modest, rustic-style digs you'll find dozens of house and guest taps, including white whales from the likes of Lawson's Finest and Hermit Thrush, backed up by beer-friendly eats like duck fat fries, chopped pork sandwiches, hand-sliced brisket, big ol' burgers, and mac & cheese made with local cheese and laden with bacon, truffles, and jalapeños picked in-house.
Rich tapestries. Windows opening to rolling green spaces. Silk lampshades. If you didn't know that this upscale, highly refined 30-table exercise in fine dining only opened 40 years ago, you'd be forgiven for thinking it'd been popping out its immaculate plates since the colonial days. The menu is an exercise food as art, with dishes like an herb-crusted lamb carpaccio, pan-roasted duck, and intensely realized takes on beef (think a 72-hour-braised wagyu short rib paired with rib-eye sashimi) rolling out in a pricey, but totally worth it, prix fixe experience that's made all the better with pairings from the place's 14,000-deep wine list. Opulent? Yes. Luxurious? Of course. But we're guessing you're staying the night, and when you're destination dining, it's best to go all in.
In Washington, oysters are king, and they're best consumed with a spectacular view. Oyster Bar has both in excess. Situated among the sprawling forests, the place serves its bivalves in a hearth-heated dining room (or on a deck, if the weather permits) overlooking the picturesque Samish Bay, with the San Juan Islands visible in the panorama. Get them baked, fried, raw -- no matter what, the server will be on hand to help you pick exactly which oyster type you should get, with elaborate tasting notes usually reserved for wine bars. They're also good in a hearty cioppino -- where they swim with prawns, clams, mussels, and scallops in a spicy saffron stew -- or as appetizers for a solid sirloin kicked up with boar bacon. You'll be so distracted by the array of flavors, you might even forget to giggle when you say Chuckanut. Maybe.
West Virginia's Stardust Cafe would arguably have a case for the best small-town restaurant in the state if you only focused on the fair trade, green energy minded restaurants daytime menu of house-made pastries, za'atar-dusted avocado toast and sandwiches like the pesto-and-chicken-stuffed Gullino. But they take things to the next level in the evening hours, where you'll start off with a plate of prosciutto-wrapped grilled dates before moving onto a hulking braised pork shank on a bed of mashed potatoes with grilled Fuji apples. Also not to be missed: the mango curry chicken and the coconut rum cake.
There are restaurants that are farm-to-table, and then there are restaurants that don't know what's on the dinner menu until all the deliveries from nearby farms are in at around 4pm. Driftless is the latter. It makes it easier that Wisconsin has the highest concentration of organic farms in the nation; the ubiquitous Organic Valley brand has its HQ 15 miles away, and 200 farms are in the area. Crowds pack into the tree-filled 84-seater to taste the fruits of chef Luke Zahm's kitchen wizardry and on-the-fly creativity, which snagged him a James Beard Best Chef Midwest nod in 2017. While the menu is ever-changing, a pizza with seasonal toppings and Organic Valley tenderloin with potatoes are always on the menu. And whether you order a vegetarian entree, a fish dish, or a pork plate, it'll probably resemble a work of art. When Zahm isn't taking time off to lobby in DC to label GMOs, he's hosting wintertime collaboration dinners with young chefs every Sunday. His co-owner/wife says a chef listened to Zahm speak and said it was like going to "food church." Sounds like Driftless has a fantastic Sunday school.
No, you're not here to dip little pieces of bread in hot cheese. That's not the Wyoming way. You're here because this is a place where you get seated at a big-ass picnic table in the middle of nowhere and watch a bunch of hardened Wyoming badasses jam huge steaks and chicken breasts on a formidable pitchfork, then dunk those bad boys in a cauldron of hot oil until they're crispy on the outside, tender in the middle, then bring them to your table and serve them with buckets of dipping sauces. It's prix fixe, meaning there are appetizers. But it's still Wyoming, where "prix fixe" means "$30" and "appetizers" means fresh-fried chips and fried buffalo bratwurst. Surprisingly, this is not the only place that does this. But it's the best. And about as unforgettable an experience one can have at a dinner table.