From gas station brisket to truck stop prime rib, these no-frills eateries serve food worth planning a road trip around.
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Occupying the corner of a classic New England truck stop, adrift in a sea of scuffed-up parking lot just off I-95 near Bangor, Maine, you wouldn’t confuse Dysart’s Restaurant on Coldbrook Road in Hermon with your town’s favorite brunch spot. But on weekends, this classic spot, just down the hall from the showers and the lounge and the fast lube, sure moves like one, with lines out the door and the buzz of satisfied diners, crowded around tables large and small.
Most likely, they are eating freshly baked muffins stuffed with seasonal fruits or generous plates of corned beef hash, things made from recipes you can pull from the restaurant’s cookbook, which includes categories like “Hunting Camp Favorites.” (If you were ever wondering how to stew a squirrel, Dysart’s knows.) Open since the 1960s, Dysart’s has mastered the art of sweet blueberry bread, which they slice, batter, and turn into French toast with blueberry compote. Their crave beans, made with molasses and salt pork, feature heirloom beans grown right here in Maine, a reminder that New England sometimes isn’t all that far from the original copy.
Everything at Dysart’s, from the baking to the cooking and even the rushed-off-their-feet service, feels intentional, like somebody actually gives a damn. When you run a restaurant like that, for as long as Dysart’s has, people come to count on you — truckers, loggers, summer people, local retirees on a fixed income, and everybody else hanging around Maine’s third-largest city.
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Ever since my first meal there many years ago, I’ve been scouting the country for equally memorable experiences. And I’ve found them, in great supply, from gas station brisket in Texas to truck stop Punjabi cooking in California, to slices of sour cream and raisin pie on the Great Plains. I discovered so much food that I’d been missing out on, right by the side of the road. That's how this list came to be.
Of course, in a country as free-wheeling and diverse as this one, the amount of choice quickly became overwhelming. Parameters had to be set, which is why you’ll find, among the finalists, an emphasis on actual restaurants, an increasingly endangered species, particularly since the pandemic forced many of our 24/7 greats to reduce their hours or disappear for good.
That’s why you’ll also find some great over-the-counter snacks and meals on the list as well. We avoided the chain gas station foods we love to argue about, all day long, not because they aren’t key to the road trip experience, but because they have their own special Food & Wine list. This time, we went heavy on the mom-and-pop experience, on independent operations, one-of-a-kind experiences that in many cases, aren’t just worth a stop, but a special journey. See you on the road.
Byron Center, Missouri
The drive down the highway from downtown Grand Rapids to Byron Center doesn’t take longer than 15 minutes, but the vibe at this clean and bright truck stop breakfast favorite is strictly small town. Most mornings, the place lures in a group of regulars that all seem to know one another, though you don’t have to keep to their schedule. Their hearty breakfasts of steak and eggs and dinners of liver and onions with a side of bacon are truly classic, honest road food — 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. If you’re in the neighborhood without Thanksgiving plans, they do an excellent plate for about twenty bucks, pie included.
What — you’ve never had a Pljeskavica? This humble yellow trailer in the middle of a truck stop vortex by the side of I-80 draws the road-weary for hearty Serbian fare from a former accounting student in Belgrade. When he moved to the United States, he ended up selling the meat-centric cooking of his home country, first to Serbian truckers and then to everyone else who has figured out that the spicy, house made sausages, comforting mushroom chicken, soups, and kebabs are some of the best food by the side of the road for miles. The big hit — the stuffed burger, or Pljeskavica, oozing mozzarella cheese and served between a distinctive, Serbian style somun bread.
In many parts of the country, an unassuming mini-mart with a few gas pumps out front is a no-frills utility, but not in Acadiana, also known as Cajun Country, where these places often function as legitimate snack bars, butcher shops, and smokehouses. There’s been a lot of change over the years, but Billeaud’s has been a Broussard staple since the late 1800s, for their boudin — pork or crawfish — and other local specialties like smoked sausages, cracklin’, and jerky. Plate lunch specials are a big draw, and you don’t have to wait for Mondays for the local favorite of red beans and rice with sausage — it’s served all week long.
One of Idaho’s longest-running businesses, the state’s most iconic trucker hangout began life as an actual stagecoach stop in the late 1800s. From early morning until midnight, seven days a week, the restaurant serves hearty diner fare. Every single one of those days, you can drop by for a giant slab of slow-roasted prime rib, or an array of charbroiled steaks, served with all the usual trimmings. Breakfasts also cater heavily to meat lovers — it’s not every day you order a rather whopping 16 oz. sirloin steak with your scrambles.
A truck stop with a tiki bar — and a ton of live music — on the fringes of civilization, just half an hour or so from Miami. Where, exactly, do we sign? Grab a beer, watch the sunset over the Everglades, and order a basket of crispy alligator nuggets to tide you over until your Cuban sandwich arrives. During the day, the place takes on a more low-key diner vibe, starting in the morning with a great breakfast to fuel a day of exploration in the wild Floridian interior. Just as a note: You might get funny looks if you don’t arrive by motorcycle
You don’t go hungry for long in Charlottesville, a relatively small college town with the food aptitude of a much larger one, but there are times when you really have to know where to look. And if you know, you know that a string of otherwise unremarkable gas stations in the area have this one, very good thing in common, which is an incredible ability to turn out quality, affordable fried chicken for the passing traveler (and in-the-know local). There are closer alternatives to the center of town, and tiny Lovingston is about a half-hour out into mostly rural Nelson County, but you’ll still often find yourself waiting in line. Don’t trouble with the rather expansive menu; you know what you’re here for.
South Sioux City, Nebraska
Linking the Canadian province of Manitoba with the Eastern Dakotas and Western Iowa before continuing on to civilization (Omaha, then Kansas City), I-29 is about as far from iconic as an interstate highway can get, which is exactly what makes it so great. The whole thing feels like a secret, not to mention that there’s always acres of personal space, even when the road is full of trucks, which can happen, provided they are not all sitting at the all-night Crystal Cafe. Just a few minutes off of the highway and across the Missouri River in Nebraska, a detour to the eatery is well worth making, and you should start with dessert. Ask to try the sour cream raisin pie, an antique, custard-based varietal that remains a regional favorite.
After the rest of the tiny, Czech-American town of West goes dark at night, the Czech Stop, out by the highway — I-35 — on the stretch between Waco and Dallas-Fort Worth keeps the lights on, traditionally all night long, serving freshly-baked kolaches, those simple sweet rolls that hearken back to the land of origin for many living in this part of the state. Well into the night, after you’ve driven so long you can barely see straight anymore, walking into this otherwise humdrum convenience store and joining the line of kolache-craving long-haulers at the bakery counter is the perfect reminder that the road isn’t nearly so lonely as it can sometimes seem. Savory koblasniks are the perfect on-the-go breakfast, stuffed with various types of sausages and cheeses.
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With locations stretching from Lafayette down to New Orleans, this string of mostly utilitarian gas stations is known for its range of food offerings, chief among them the Danny & Clyde’s sandwich counters. These are the modern-day home to a relatively classic tradition around the region, which is to stop at Danny & Clyde’s on your road trips for a po-boy — one overstuffed with crispy, golden-battered fried shrimp on the locally-favored French-style bread. The menu is rather vast, including most of the foods Louisiana is known for, from Natchitoches-style meat pies to boudin balls to plates of red beans and rice. In the morning mornings, their 20 ounce breakfast in a cup — grits, cheddar cheese eggs, bacon, and hash browns — is to be consumed responsibly. You'll probably need a nap afterward.
French-Canadian truckers, Bar Harbor summer people in their freshly-scrubbed luxury cars, and every kind of Mainer convene at one of the homiest truck stop diners to grace this list, with two locations on the edge of Stephen King’s hometown to serve you blueberry pancakes, chicken pot pie by the slice, housemade corned beef hash, and a dazzling array of house baked goods, including some very fine chocolate cream pie.
Lean into the little regional quirks, which give Dysart’s so much of its charm, like the beans and franks dish on the dinner menu, showcasing the most down-home of the local produce — both the yellow-eye beans and the snappy franks come from right here in Maine. (The original location in Hermon is the most memorable.)
There are gas stations that have been converted to restaurants, and then there are restaurants, like this remarkable tapas joint and wine shop, that never quite got around to getting rid of the gas station. A family-owned business built one brick at a time, the gas station came first, then the wine shop, these days one of South Florida’s best, and finally, the restaurant. From icy, sherry vinegar-laced gazpacho on a hot South Florida day to warming caldo gallego — meaty white beans with every kind of meat imaginable — and on to made-to-order paella, this is some of the finest eating you’ll ever do in a gas station.
You don’t really need directions to a good gas station taco in Dallas, Fort Worth, or anywhere in Texas, and no one place actually invented the idea, but all-night eaters in the Metroplex do a darn good job of acting like this chainlet of 24/7/365 service stations — complete with all-night car wash — was where the tradition began, back in the 1990s. These days, you’ll probably drive past half a dozen other options to get to the nearest Fuel City location, but starting here with a barbacoa taco ($2.31) or three, topped properly with onions and cilantro only, save a squeeze of lime and some hot sauce, is a fine beginning to your adventure. Even when your adventure begins at three o’clock in the morning.
There are a lot of secrets to uncover along the busy stretch of I-5 between Seattle and Portland, but we’ll start with this small town truck stop and diner, hiding in plain sight in about as middle-of-nowhere as one can get, where you’re about as likely to run into a retired couple in for prime rib night as you are a road warrior who’d have settled for a fast food burger but ended up here instead. The glorious all-night energy of this long-running favorite has, like in so many other places, been somewhat stifled by the pandemic and ensuing labor shortage, but weekdays, you’re covered for all three meals — not a slouch among them.
Waynesville, North Carolina
Early risers on their way out of Asheville and into the wilds of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park will do well to follow the big rigs pulling off of I-40 and into the lot of this Shell station-adjacent country cafe for freshly-baked biscuits stuffed with country ham, chopped steak, liver mush, beef bologna, or just plain old sausage — the perfect alternative to another morning of fast food on the run. Not that you wouldn’t want to grab a red-topped stool at the counter and stay for awhile — a healthy mix of locals and travelers stops by all day long for their better-than-a-diner lunch and dinner menu, with everything from pulled pork with beans and greens to ribeye steaks, all at fairly attractive prices.
There might actually be a place that serves possum pie with real possums — please DM us — but in Arkansas, possum pie is what’s for dessert all over this pie-loving state, a layered affair involving chocolate and cream cheese and vanilla custard on a crumbly crust made with nuts. At this 24/7 truck stop and restaurant, the bakers take things to another level with a raccoon pie, once again a multi-tiered event with cream, lemon custard, and blueberries on a crumble crust, a sweet-tart sensation that bears repeating every time you’re driving down I-40 between Fort Smith and Little Rock.
You expect a lot from a place calling itself the World’s Largest Truckstop, and you’ll get it. Part modest suburban mall (food court, movie theater, chiropractor) and part tourist attraction (check out the trucking museum, no, really), this 100,000-square-foot complex, plus everything that’s popped up around it, is the perfect break from your I-80 ordeal, whether you’re driving across Iowa or the entire country. From the rather gigantic buffet and salad bar at the Iowa 80 restaurant to the more intimate scene at Gramma’s Kitchen just across the road, nobody in search of a classic Midwest diner meal leaves hungry.
Do the time warp at this classic all-night diner off a rural exit of I-30, where every Sunday night passers-by in the know brake for the generous and comforting $12.99 dinner special — meatloaf, or fried chicken, or chicken and dumplings, all depending on the week, loaded up with a small army of side dishes like candied yams, pinto beans with ham, and turnip greens. You don’t have to be a Southerner to feel like you’re back home at Mom’s. Pie is extra, but well worth the couple extra dollars.
No matter who you are or what you’ve done, there’s always a giant cinnamon roll waiting for you — any hour, day or night — at this historic rural truck stop on the road between Denver and Fort Collins, complete with a tiny chapel, in case you need to get your life right. Going on three quarters of a century in business, even a corporate takeover couldn’t stop this from being an essential stop for anyone passing by. You can probably find a fancier cinnamon roll along the Front Range, but not this big, and definitely not at 2 o’clock in the morning.
Andy Cross / The Denver Post / Getty Images
You’d think long-haul truckers and the scrubbed-up church crowd might not be the easiest fit, but Sundays at this rural relic far enough from the closest interstate to mostly miss out on casual passersby are a wonderfully harmonious affair. Everyone is united in their appreciation of the weekly breakfast buffet at this classic Pennsylvania roadside restaurant, a smorgasbord of morning favorites. Opened in the late 1960s and feeling very much as if no significant changes have been made since, there’s no wrong day of the week to stop by for steak and eggs and classic dinners like meatloaf sandwiches swimming in hot gravy, accompanied by giant scoops of mashed potatoes.
Salt Lake City, Utah
Located in the light industrial lull between the airport and Salt Lake’s lively downtown, right in the spot where I-80 drivers are relieved to find themselves in civilization again, this modest, modern Somalian restaurant adjacent to a Love’s Travel Stop, sharing real estate with a trucking school, has quickly made a name for itself with halal-eating truckers and SLC food lovers alike, a welcoming spot for big plates of goat with yellow rice (or spaghetti, a Somali comfort food favorite) and fresh-made sabaayad, Somali-style flatbread. The Denny's next door could never.
Thirty years after Wally Gulli bought a little gas station in suburban Detroit as an investment in his family’s future, he couldn’t have possibly predicted that the family would eventually preside over an empire of restaurants, gas station and otherwise, serving up some of Metro Detroit’s best on-the-go eats. But that’s what happened, and entirely by accident, after the family enlisted their mother to start selling her Lebanese home cooking, which they all loved. So did everyone else; the project went permanent, a chef came on board, there was an expansion project, and after all this time, the original Mr. Kabob is still there, in the Sunoco station at 12 Mile and Coolidge, serving up one of the better shawarmas in a part of the country where you’re never far from a good one.
There are truck stops that offer a lot, and then there are truck stops that offer everything, like this classic destination between the Twin Cities and St. Cloud, right off of I-94. It has a cocktail bar, a restaurant serving up 24 oz. prime rib dinners, a bakery that pulls everyone in with the promise of pie, and the house specialty, fritter bread, a sweet, frosting-topped loaf swirled just with cinnamon or your choice of seasonal fruits. In season, there’s strawberry rhubarb bread, and the only thing better is that the restaurant will slice it up and make it into French toast for your breakfast. Wherever you’re going, it can wait.
Just a few minutes out into the desert on I-10, the Tucson Truck Terminal stays lively well into the small hours, while the city mostly sleeps soundly, with the action centered around this sparkling-clean diner known for its country-fried steak breakfasts with grits and gravy and scrambled eggs, chimichanga platters, and deep-dish apple pie for dessert. Depending on how much driving you're planning on accomplishing later on, they also do make a fine margarita.
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Wells River, Vermont
There was a time when this rural oasis favored by truckers heading to and from nearby Quebec on I-81 served up some of the homiest and most memorable New England-style cooking you’d hope to find at the side of an interstate highway. These days, food at the P&H hews closer to classic truck stop restaurant fare, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but one thing hasn’t changed, the thing that drew so many people here in the first place — the baked goods, starting with the cinnamon raisin bread; ask everyone else picking up a loaf, or loaves plural how far they’ve driven for their fix and how many years they’ve been doing this. Their answers might surprise you. At least until you try a slice toasted and buttered. And then another.
There’s really no way you can pass through southeastern Wisconsin without stopping for a kringle. First of all, they’re everywhere, and second of all, the flaky rings of pastry filled with almond paste and topped with icing that have been a staple around here since Scandinavian immigrants started arriving over a century ago are damn delicious. They're the sort of thing you could buy and see yourself bringing home, and then, a few exits later, you realize there’s almost nothing left. When this relatively retro Petro just west of Racine gave itself a makeover not that long ago, one of the many improvements, along with the beer cave, the outdoor deck, and an airstream trailer selling burgers, was a branch of O&H Danish Bakery, one of the more locally-popular kringle makers, where the only thing we don’t like is that it’s not open 24 hours a day.
As the trucking industry diversifies, so does the definition of an American truck stop restaurant. Around the country these days, you’ll see, at the occasional highway off-ramp, a sign or an advertisement for a nearby dhaba, which here, much like in South Asia, usually means a simple, side-of-the-road affair serving affordable and typically delicious meals. Launched a few years back in an old Mexican food truck, you still walk up to the window marked Ordene Aqui, but these days, it’s plates of skillful chole (chickpeas) and fresh, bubbly parathas being passed down. Just fifteen minutes from the glut of fast food and I-5 traffic clustering around Wheeler Ridge, this truck stop-adjacent operation surrounded by farmland is absolutely worth a detour.
There’s more than one Shop Rite truck stop in this part of the world, but the one at Exit 92 off of I-10 offers a buffet of vices, from the casino to the absurdly large liquor collection to the selection of discount tobacco, and, of course, an actual buffet, where they do things like fried chicken night for a few bucks, or at least what we’re calling a few bucks these days. Fridays, however, are the big deal at Rascal’s, a little over twenty dollars and it’s all the shrimps — fried and boiled — you can handle, plus crawfish étouffée, gumbo, frog legs and stuffed peppers, and bread pudding for dessert.
Walk past the display cases of antique toys, games, and Disney figurines and into hamburger heaven at this all-night standby just an hour or so out of Chicago on a relatively quiet stretch of I-80. A half-pound burger might not sound like a lot to a really hungry person, but try finishing one — say, the bacon cheeseburger, with onions and mushrooms (extra, but worth it). You’ll be lucky if you have any room left for the surprisingly good desserts — try the cream puffs and eclairs — made right on premises, good enough that locals come here to buy their birthday cakes.
The most Route 66 thing about the Route 66 Diner at this busy travel plaza on the Texas state line is the location, just a couple of minutes off of a surviving stretch of the historic highway, but the only aesthetics that really matter are the ones happening on your plate — the house specialties, the Black Angus double green Chile cheeseburger (yes, it’s a lot), and the chicken fried steak smothered in sawmill gravy, are both good enough that you’ll have to stop here on your way out and your way back.
Beckley, West Virginia
Right behind the less-than-thrilling Beckley Travel Plaza, this sprawling cultural center, designed to celebrate the very best West Virginia has to offer, from crafts to concerts to Appalachian cooking, is just one of the state’s many unexpected finds; stop for the jewelry-making demonstrations, the Christmas carol sing-alongs, and the book signings with local authors, stay for simple but memorable cafeteria meals of pan-fried local rainbow trout with a side of fried green tomatoes, West Virginia-style slaw dogs, and an array of seasonal desserts; when the local peaches are in, their peach bread pudding and simple dish of peaches and cream is almost worth a special road trip.
At some point, someone should tally up the number of Hawaiian restaurants located on the western half of the mainland. From LA’s South Bay to Las Vegas and all the way up to the Pacific Northwest, you’re never far from a pretty good-to-great plate lunch, or a spam musubi for the road. Where you won’t frequently locate these things, however, unlike in actual Hawaii, is the nearest gas station, which makes this Shell station find on the Kitsap Peninsula such a treasure. Because what a rainy day on your way to Olympic National Park needed — exactly what it needed — is a steaming bowl of saimin, that Hawaiian melting pot favorite, noodle soup topped with pork, fish cake and a soft egg.
Lee Vining, California
After your first visit to Yosemite, the one where you make your way up the winding road from Oakhurst and through the Wawona Tunnel, catching your first glimpse of the postcard-perfect valley, you’ll surely wonder if there aren’t other ways to get to one of the country’s most iconic national parks. The answer is yes, there is, as long as you don’t mind the drive around back, which for people coming from many places in Southern California, not to mention Las Vegas, is actually the most efficient route to get to one of the park gates. (Pros know — the alpine environments along the Tioga Road are some of the most special things about Yosemite.)
Before you get to all that, in the tiny Owens Valley town of Lee Vining, this Mobil gas mart is more than just a place to fuel up, it’s a visitors center, an entertainment venue, a grab-and-go deli as well as a proper restaurant, serving up ahi sashimi and buffalo meatloaf and wines by the glass, practically across the street from the spooky (and fascinating in its own right) Mono Lake.
Around 9:30 in the morning, every day of the week, travelers between Dallas and Houston start filing into this Shell station treasure adjacent to I-45 for half-pounds of brisket served with cowboy beans, bread, pickles, onions and jalapeños for a little over ten dollars a hit; if you hadn’t already been properly welcomed to Texas, well, you’re here now. Housemade jerky, loaves of spicy cheesy bread, smoked cheese and more function as powerful lures to the traveling masses, to the point where there are currently two Woody’s Smokehouses, the northbound one and the southbound one, like rest stops on an east coast toll road, except here, the food is so much better.
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