This country is awfully big—too big, in fact—and you can take that as gospel from someone who logs, on average, about 100,000 miles a year by car, trying to take it all in. That’s my job, and there are far worse jobs, I can assure you; happily, I’m rarely in a hurry. It’s not like I’m a truck driver—if I see a town coming up that I know is worth a detour, I can probably make the time, and that’s how I got back to Branson, Missouri a few weeks ago. That’s always how I get to Branson, noted entertainment capital of the Midwest, and referred to famously on an episode of The Simpsons as "Las Vegas," if it were run by Ned Flanders.
Anyone who has been to Branson can tell you, this is no exaggeration—the town comes off so God-fearing, it makes Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, its relatively worldly cousins over in Tennessee, look like Sodom and Gomorrah. Not that it’s all that simple—at my first Branson stage show, the name of which I cannot recall (probably for the best), I remember being amused by the way the cast skated at lightning speed between cringe-making double entendre, USA-make-them-pay patriotism, and stirring renditions of old hymns that might even bring a tear to the eye of any visiting heathen. Some of Branson’s finest attractions, and they are considerable in number, are pleasantly agnostic—you don’t have to be a Christian, cultural or otherwise, to enjoy the Butterfly Palace, a rainforest environment filled with thousands of colorful winged things, or to get a kick out of the World’s Largest Toy Museum, or to appreciate the gorgeous expanse of Table Rock Lake, best viewed from a high floor at the Chateau on the Lake, my favorite hotel in town, where you can sit on your balcony in silence, gazing out above the tops of the Ozarks.
Then there is the food, of course, one of the few common interests Americans seem to share nowadays, and there is so much of it—hearty stuff for the most part, from chicken fried steaks to barbecue, to cinnamon rolls the size of manhole covers. One of the most efficient things about Branson is that some of its best food can be found at what is quite comfortably not only the finest attraction in the region, but also for many miles around. We’re talking, of course, about one of the finest theme parks in America that too many of us will never visit, simply because it is way out here in Branson, and that is Silver Dollar City.
Perhaps you’ve heard of Dollywood. Well, the thing to know about Dollywood is that long before there was a Dollywood, there was a small cave attraction, Marvel Cave, out here in the hills above Branson. Opening to the public in 1894—yes, you read that right—Marvel Cave grew over time, lots of time, to become Silver Dollar City, and Silver Dollar City, to sum things up very quickly, eventually begat the park we know today as Dollywood, after Dolly Parton became a joint owner. I love Dollywood. Everyone who goes to Dollywood, pretty much, loves Dollywood, and they’d love Silver Dollar City, too, if they ever made it out this way, to a place that makes Pigeon Forge seem positively on the grid.
Just like at Dollywood, the live-action craftspeople are all here, hard at work, the serious blacksmiths and the sassy candy makers, there’s blown glass, cut glass, leatherworkers, a miller grinding grain (no, seriously) for the park’s famous cinnamon bread, and there’s candle making, there’s Granny’s lye soap, and ice cream making, all the kettle corn, and a ton of terrific roller coasters, one of them a new-fangled German spinning coaster, the Time Traveler, which begins with an insane vertical drop and features no less than three inversions, which is a polite way of saying they turn you all the way the hell upside down.
Personally, I’d rather watch than ride—getting the stomach flips tends to interfere with my eating schedule, and there is so much to try at Silver Dollar City alone, from the barbecue (there’s a real smokehouse and everything) to the funnel cakes (some of the best in any theme park, hands down), to the aforementioned ice cream, which you can watch being made on the old four-bucket churn contraption at Hannah’s Ice Cream Parlor. It’s pretty good stuff.
A tip, however: Don’t fill up at Silver Dollar City, or, at least save another day or two to eat your way through the rest of Branson. Here are just a few essential stops.
The College of the Ozarks, a Branson institution, has many fine qualities, if you can leave aside the underlying feeling that this passionately conservative Christian institution has somewhat of a beef with the way the world has changed—witness the signs posted throughout this handsome (and very sought-after) lodge hotel, asking that guests respect their “traditional notions of family, marriage, and sexuality,” or kindly leave. Many visitors are right on the same page as the College, others just know and like the food, and haven’t thought to ask questions.
Personally speaking, I’m more than happy to keep my thoroughly modern notions of family, marriage, and sexuality to myself, just for a minute, long enough to dive into the delicious ice creams, to snap up as many packages of the classic, hand-cut mints as I can carry, along with the student-made jams, preserves, and other take home-worthy edibles being sold in the lobby. The hotel restaurant, student-powered of course, is one of the more pleasant dining experiences in town, an absolute gem—just don’t ask to see a wine list, because the campus is alcohol-free.
Before there was the Branson we know now, there was the old Branson, a small town down by Lake Taneycomo, which is now basically downtown Branson, and it’s here you’ll find this classic small town cafe, going for more than forty years now, serving three meals a day, from hearty sausage and gravy platters in the morning to lightly-breaded whole catfish dinners, with the house specialty—blackberry cobbler—for dessert at lunch and dinner. The prices are just right, and plenty of happy repeat customers insist this their favorite Branson restaurant.
From pretty decent sushi to solid taquerias, Branson offers a far more modern American menu than you might have expected to find way up here in the mountains. The delicate vegetable pakoras, the nicely done naan—clue’s in the name, there’s a tandoor in the house—and a crowd-pleasing lunch buffet make this one of the more popular restaurants in Branson, period.
Competition circuit king Brad Leighninger and a team of partners opened up a barbecue joint back in 2016, and Branson can’t get enough; St. Louis ribs and burnt ends tend to be the highlights. Note: While most carnivores will be plenty happy here, serious hounds will definitely want to make the side trip—it’s less than an hour—up to Springfield, where City Butcher & Barbecue is currently churning out some pretty fierce Texas-style barbecue.