On the road trip of life, there are three things worth going out of your way for: family, friends, and phenomenal food.
If you’ve ever taken a road trip, you know there are a lot of crappy restaurants out there. I’ve driven across the entire country three times and eaten more wilted iceberg salads and microwaved patties of mystery meat than I care to remember (the unspeakable horrors my digestive tract has endured!).
That’s what makes those rare great food experiences so worthy of a detour. We rounded up some of the most iconic roadside restaurants this country has to offer, from a dreamy Denver ice cream spot to a historic inn under Oregon’s tallest waterfall. Just keep my three road trip rules in mind: Don’t eat and drive (i.e., no to-go orders), so you can soak up the local lore along with the sustenance. Tip well. And always, always break for pie.
Multnomah Falls Lodge: I-84, Corbett, Oregon
The beautiful setting at Multnomah Falls Lodge. (Photo: Multnomah Falls Lodge)
Just half an hour from downtown Portland, hike steep switchbacks through leafy rainforest to the top of the 620-foot-tall Multnomah Falls, the tallest in Oregon. Once you’ve made it to the top, you’ve earned yourself a prime view of the Columbia River Gorge and a delicious après-hike lunch on the misty falls-view patio at the Multnomah Falls Lodge, built at the base of the falls in 1925.
Insider order: Local smoked salmon with an apple huckleberry compote to start and rainbow trout grilled with lemon dill butter.
Little Man Ice Cream: Near I-70, Denver
Inside that giant cream can is a bevy of delightful frozen treats. (Photo: Little Man Ice Cream/Facebook)
It’s exceedingly rare for a restaurant housed in a giant version of something else — like, say, a 28-foot antique cream can — to have decent food. But at Little Man Ice Cream, you’ll find locally sourced ingredients and a fun atmosphere to boot (you can play with their Hula-Hoops while waiting in the inevitable line).
Insider order: Strawberry balsamic ice cream topped with homemade strawberry sauce and potato chips. This is the “Rocky Mountain High” state — home of the munchies. Remember?
Pops: Route 66, Arcadia, Oklahoma
Pops’ giant neon pop bottle all aglow at sunset. (Photo: Randy Lane/Flickr)
You can see Pops’s 66-foot-tall pop bottle from miles away — even at night, when its four-ton neon structure glows in rainbow hues. It’s symbolic of the restaurant, where around 600 types of sodas are available at any given time, from Jarritos Guava to Dry Juniper Berry to Sioux City Prickly Pear.
Insider order: The jalapeño-hot three grilled cheese sandwich and raisin-studded root bear bread pudding for dessert.
Nepenthe: Highway 1, Big Sur, California
Can anything beat the views as you dine alfresco at Nepenthe? (Photo: TripAdvisor)
One of California’s most iconic family-run businesses, Nepenthe was opened by Lolly and Bill Fassett in 1949. The restaurant itself — designed by a protégée of Frank Lloyd Wright and built with local redwood and adobe — sits cliff-side overlooking one of the prettiest swaths of Big Sur, where the Santa Lucia Mountains jut from the turquoise Pacific Ocean. It’s literally picture perfect (proof: Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton filmed scenes for their 1963 film The Sandpiper here).
Insider order: Everybody gets the Ambrosia Burger, a steak sandwich on a French roll with ambrosia sauce. We also love the citrusy California beet salad with butter lettuce, Point Reyes blue cheese, and candied walnuts.
The Griswold Inn: Near I-95, Essex, Connecticut
Soak up some history along with some brews at The Griswold. (Photo: The Griswold Inn)
History buffs, take note: The Griswold Inn has been opened a purported 238 years, since it was established as an inn for Revolutionary War shipyard laborers. It’s believed to be the oldest continuously open tavern in the country (it operated a speakeasy during Prohibition). Soak up the storied ambiance in the dimly lit dining room, still festooned with 1840s banners made by members of the temperance movement.
Insider order: The garlic and butter broiled clams topped with bacon, and the warm, sticky toffee pudding, Americanized with butterscotch sauce and whipped cream.
Palace Diner: Near I-95, Biddeford, Maine
Who doesn’t love a classic diner breakfast? (Photo: Palace Diner/Facebook)
Hip young owners have taken over this diner, which has been around since 1927, and they’re making quality ingredients a priority (both owners have a background in farming). But if you think this isn’t diner food, think again: The breakfasts at Palace Diner are just what your hard-working grandfather might have ordered — think corned beef hash and buttermilk flapjacks with Maine maple syrup — and that’s just the way the owners like it.
Insider order: Get something eggy for protein, but don’t miss the caramelized grapefruit or the brown butter banana bread.
Paul Bunyan’s Northwoods Cook Shanty: Near I-90, Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin
Now, that’s a Lumberjack Breakfast Paul Bunyan would approve of! (Photo: Paul Bunyan’s Cook Shanty)
Yes, it’s touristy — what do you expect for a restaurant with a 15-foot-tall Paul Bunyan statue out front? — but Paul Bunyan’s Northwoods Cook Shanty is also popular for a reason: a golden-pine-paneled dining room that’s been open since 1958, friendly service, and “lumberjack meals” that really would satisfy the folkloric Bunyan. Up to 450 people can dine at any given time on their red-and-white checkerboard tablecloths — and they do, thanks to its optional bottomless buffet.
Insider order: It’s all good. But don’t forget to stop by the bakery to get some just-made donuts on your way back to the car.
Joe & Aggie’s Cafe: Near Route 66, Holbrook, Arizona
Joe & Aggie’s Café has been serving delicious Mexican & American fare to travelers on Route 66 for over 70 years. (Photo: Joe & Aggie’s Café/Facebook)
Owned by the same family for three generations, Joe & Aggie’s Cafe looks much like it did when it opened in 1943, with a salmon pink stucco exterior and a mural of “the Mother Road,” Route 66, on the wall. It’s known for two things: on-point house-made red and green chili sauces and a star turn in the Pixar movie Cars. On the menu? American diner classics and stellar Mexican fare — you’re just a five-hour drive north of the border here, after all.
Insider order: The cheese-stuffed chile rellenos and a deep-fried apple burro à la mode.
Kreuz Market Texas Barbecue: Near Highway 130, Lockhart, Texas
Enter major food coma territory by filling up on great Texas barbecue at Kreuz. (Photo: Kreuz Market)
Want proof that Kreuz Market Texas Barbecue is legendary enough to make it worth a pit stop? Danny Meyer is including its jalapeño cheese sausage in burgers at the new Austin Shake Shack. Go straight to the source at the original circa-1900 Lockhart restaurant, where they do things the old-fashioned way: slow-smoking the brisket, sausage, and ribs over oak in brick barbecue pits. Two things you won’t find: barbecue sauce (the meat’s so flavorful you don’t need it) and forks (Kreuz barbecue is served the way it was in 1900 — on wax paper.)
Insider order: The fall-off-the-bone pork spare ribs.
Mama’s Fish House: Hana Highway, Maui, Hawaii
Hiding behind all those palm trees is Mama’s Fish House, known for the freshest fish and tastiest dishes. (Photo: Mama’s Fish House/Facebook)
Fronting a coconut-tree-lined craggy sand beach of northern Maui since 1973, Mama’s Fish House is beloved by locals and tourists alike for its fresh-caught fish, which is hauled in every day by Paia fishermen. (Make a reservation far in advance if possible: Mama’s fills up fast.) If you’re the type who likes to know exactly where your food came from, you’ll love it: The fish menu here names which fisherman caught the day’s mahi-mahi, ono, and uku, and where.
Insider order: The silver mouth pink snapper, which is seared with Maui onion and served with local watercress and avocado.