I know. I said at the top of my post on Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse that it would be difficult to list my ten favorite restaurants. Well that got me to thinking. While it really would be nearly impossible to list my ten favorites across all restaurant-genres, it would be a tad easier if I stuck to roadfood establishments. That still casts a wide net. Roadfood can be barbecue, burgers, ice cream, pizza; just about any sort of place that isn’t fine dining and preferably has been around a while without changing too drastically.
So here goes. I’m going to list them in reverse order to build the suspense that I know you must be feeling at this point. These are all places that I learned of online at one of the web sites I’ve consulted over the years or at the suggestion of someone I met on the now defunct roadfood message board. I’m not going to include any restaurants in the Philadelphia metro area, where I live. It just feels like I should only cite places that I hit while on the road.
Actually, before I get into the top 10, I want to give an honorable mention to the Summit Diner of Somerset, PA. I’ve written about them before and will undoubtedly mention them again in future trip reports on here. They didn’t quite make my top 10, but they have a special place in my heart. The Summit embodies the classic, hole-in-the-wall American diner.
10. Kopp’s Frozen Custard: Glendale, WI I’m a big fan of genuine frozen custard, as opposed to soft-serve ice cream, which sometimes gets mislabeled as custard. Real frozen custard is denser than soft-serve and is made with eggs. The best I’ve had was at Kopp’s, just outside of Milwaukee, which is unquestionably the Custard-Capital of the country and probably the world. I was also pleasantly surprised by how much I liked their burgers. They are served Milwaukee-style, meaning with butter slathered on the bun. They might be higher up on this list if not for their lack of roadfood charm in terms of decor. https://www.kopps.com/
9. Town Topic: Kansas City, MO As I mentioned in my Kansas City trip report, the burgers at Town Topic were good, but not among the best I’ve had. As opposed to Kopp’s, decor and the classic vibe of this place are what put it on the list. They are the picture of a mid-20th century, old-school burger joint. The fact that they also make great malts and have a long list of pies adds to their appeal. http://www.towntopic.com/
8. Smitty’s Market: Lockhart, TX While I’ve had better barbecue elsewhere, I have never been to a roadfood joint that fit that label any better than Smitty’s. If you park in the rear lot, as we did, you enter into the smoker room, which is where you order and get your food. You’ll also see a small pile of burning wood on the floor next to the smoker. After getting your meal, you move into an equally classic-looking dining room to eat at long, communal tables. http://smittysmarket.com/
7. Arthur Bryant’s: Kansas City, MO This is one old-time barbecue joint that lived up to its reputation when I ate there in 2017. I enjoyed the best pork ribs and some of the best baked beans I’ve ever eaten in their delightfully sparse atmosphere. https://www.arthurbryantsbbq.com/
6. Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napolitano (a.k.a. Pepe’s): New Haven, CT I never hesitate when the subject of best American pizza city comes up. New Haven has no serious competition in my opinion. And Pepe’s – the grandfather of New Haven-style apizza (that’s what they call it up there) – is still at the top of its game. They have become a chain with outlets all over Connecticut and a few in neighboring states, but the original spot on Wooster Street in New Haven oozes roadfood charm. Try their signature white clam pie. https://www.pepespizzeria.com/new-haven-3/
5. Brown Bag Burgers: Henderson, KY It may have “Burgers” in its name, but this restaurant’s main draw is the best fried chicken I’ve ever eaten. Henderson-style fried chicken – also known as Road Food or Bon Ton Chicken, a back-story I’ll delve into at a later time – is full of spicy goodness and juicy to the core. And yes, their burgers are pretty good too. https://www.yelp.com/biz/brown-bag-burgers-henderson
4. Shapiro’s Delicatessen: Indianapolis, IN I love both Jewish delis and old-school cafeterias. Shapiro’s is both. Not only do they have great corned beef served on what has to be the best rye-bread anywhere, but you get to eat it in an environment that looks like it was pulled out of a different era. If you’re ever in town for a Colt’s game, Shapiro’s is across from their stadium. Try them out. https://shapiros.com/
3. Louie Mueller Barbecue: Taylor, TX Louie Mueller serves the best barbecue I’ve eaten in the form of both brisket and mammoth, mouth-watering beef short-ribs. And they do it with classic, hole-in-the-wall decor to boot. That’s a tough combination to beat. If I had to pick one last thing to eat before dying, I think it would be one of those short ribs. https://www.louiemuellerbarbecue.com/
2. Carl’s Drive-In: Brentwood, MO Carl’s is just outside of St. Louis on the Mother Road, Route 66. It’s basically a little shack with just a counter and some stools. They make great home-made root beer, but what placed them in this lofty position is their hamburger; or more precisely, their double-cheeseburger. It is the ideal of the kind of smashed, crispy-around-the-edges type of Midwestern burger that I have come to love so much. https://www.carlsdrivein.com/
- Gray Brothers Cafeteria: Mooresville, IN I mentioned that I have a fondness for cafeterias. I had no idea they were even a thing outside of schools and hospitals until I started reading about roadfood online. Gray Brothers is huge and serves classic, meat-and-potatoes, stick-to-your-ribs food, including excellent fried chicken and a tremendous array of pies. Those pies are laid out, nice and neat, by the slice in the large dessert section at the start of the cafeteria line. I’ve been to Gray Brothers three or four times over the years and always look forward to returning for the comforting feeling the place gives me; not to mention that pie! https://www.graybroscafeteria.com/
While compiling this list wasn’t exactly the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, there were tough decisions, including the order in which to list the ten restaurants I picked. I undoubtedly left some deserving places off the list and may return to this or similar ventures down the road to see if I’ve had any changes of heart.