By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2008 Gourmet Magazine
In 1901, there were fewer than 7,000 cars on America’s roads. Just 40 years later, Duncan Hines’s guidebook Adventures in Good Eating was pinpointing hundreds of gems worthy of a detour. Here are 11 that were already on the map at the time of Gourmet’s inception in 1941. Some have been modernized, others hearken back to a nation of two-lanes, but all are still high on the short list of the country’s essential eating experiences.
If you haven’t spent time around Akron, you may never have heard of Barberton chicken, which was introduced at Belgrade Gardens (in the suburb of Barberton) in 1933. Made with family recipes brought from Serbia, the ritual banquet, which is centered around pieces of chicken fried in lard, includes a timbale of tart coleslaw and an alarmingly spicy tomato-rice hot sauce. The wickedly succulent bird, now served by a handful of restaurants in the area, has a red-gold crust that crunches into nothing but savor. It comes jointed the old-fashioned way (wings, drumettes, breasts, legs, thighs, and backs), which means there’s more delicious crust to chew and unexpected lodes of meat that are a pure pleasure to worry off the bone.
Opened in 1922, a year after White Castle debuted farther south in Wichita, The Cozy Inn, of Salina, Kansas, never became a national chain, but slider aficionados consider its itsy-bitsy burgers the ne plus ultra of the mini-burger world. This eat shack, with its six-stool counter, certainly captures the moral high ground in terms of burger purity by refusing even to offer cheese. You could get one without pickles, but that would be a mistake, since the dills actually outweigh the meat and contribute significantly to the Cozy Inn magic. Grilled onions are mandatory; their hash-house smell is as much a component of the little sandwiches as the meat itself. The slippery pucker of the pickles and the sweetness of the onions tease maximum flavor from the one-ounce patties, which originally sold for a nickel apiece. Today, they’re 79 cents, but nobody eats just one: The Cozy Inn offers a value meal of six hamburgers, a bag of potato chips, and a cold can of soda for $5.93.
The oldest restaurant in Mobile, Alabama, and one of several in the South that claim to have been the inspiration for Jimmy Buffett’s song “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” the pine-paneled Dew Drop Inn is where hot dogs were introduced to Mobile Bay, in 1924. They are bright red steamed franks of medium size, their presentation a work of art. They come topped with sauerkraut and a layer of beefy chili with spicy-sweet zest that elevates the simple dog into something habit-forming.
Dot’s is the Wilmington, Vermont, town café—so much a part of everyday life that regular customers enter before dawn to brew and pour their own coffee. It is housed in an 1832 building that was a post office and a retail store before it became a restaurant early in the 20th century. Its past is visible on the wall in the form of nostalgic photos of waitresses in starched white uniforms, circa 1938, but history and nostalgia tend to fade into the background when you are sitting in front of a big bowl of Dot’s mighty chili gooped with local Cheddar, a craggy-crusted bacon cheeseburger, or a handsome hot-turkey sandwich with lumpy mashed potatoes.
Alongside a striped barber pole and shaded by a rainbow neon marquee that says “Welcome to Good Food,” Kumback Lunch is so proud of being the oldest café in Oklahoma, with the same name and location since 1926, that historical highlights are celebrated in clippings and pictures posted everywhere. For all its famous and infamous visitors, including gangster Pretty Boy Floyd, who once demanded a steak at gunpoint, it earns a spot on the Roadfood honor roll for simple fare made with heartland savoir faire: high-rise meringue pies, warm cinnamon rolls every morning, and fork-tender chicken-fried steak.
A virtual time machine, Matt’s Place, of Butte, Montana, looks like it might not have changed at all since it opened in 1930. The state’s oldest drive-in has a short curved counter and a bright red, waist-high Coke cooler from which you fetch your own bottle from icy waters. Hamburgers sizzle in the back kitchen, milkshake mixers whir, and soda jerks dispense seltzer and syrup to brew effervescent potions. If you are not in the mood for a pork-chop sandwich (a local passion) or an ordinary hamburger, Matt’s offers a wild array of custom burgers, including one topped with fried eggs and a nut burger spread with mayonnaise and a fistful of chopped peanuts.
McClard’s has been perfecting the art of barbecue since 1928, when a customer at what was then the family trailer park in Hot Springs, Arkansas, offered a recipe for sauce in lieu of payment of his bill. The sauce is a righteous partner for chopped pork, but the single greatest dish in the house—and one of the best plates of barbecue anywhere in the U.S.A.—is the ribs and fries combo: a rack of meaty bones with sauce-glazed crust and succulent insides completely covered with a serving of beautiful french fries. Eating such a meal is a chaotic task that demands nimble fingers and countless napkins. The process of picking up a few twigs of potato every time you heft a rib soon becomes an art unto itself, and the opulence of the meat close to the bone is simply beyond description.
Opened in 1925 as a produce stand at the family farm on the outskirts of Louisville, Mike Linnig’s became a beer garden and drive-in that hosted square dances, boxing matches, and baseball games and was famous for its fish sandwiches and apple cider. It closed in 1942, when the Linnig boys went to war, but reopened when they returned; today it’s an Ohio River destination dining spot famous for huge portions of catfish and frogs’ legs and that signature big fish sandwich. It still has a beer-garden feel, especially if you sit outdoors at one of the picnic tables or in a screened cabin.
Although many of the businesses that now surround Santa Fe’s plaza are trendy and high-priced, the Plaza Café, established in 1918, is what it’s been all along—a three-meal-a-day town café frequented by locals and travelers alike, who come for dishes that range from American cheeseburgers to Greek souvlaki to New Mexican green-chile stew. The sopaipillas that come with the stew are hot from the fry kettle, perhaps the best in town, and don’t miss the quesadilla, a griddled tortilla sandwich filled with soft shredded pork and little nuggets of caramelized garlic.
Did you know that Dahlonega, Georgia, had a gold rush in 1828, 20 years before ore-hungry hordes began flocking to California’s Sierra Nevada foothills? The Smith House likes to say it was built on top of an untapped vein, but today’s treasure is in the form of puffy yeast rolls, cracklin’ cornbread muffins, fried chicken, baked ham, and true South vegetables such as candied yams and fried okra. Since 1922, when Henry and Bessie Smith turned the old house into an inn, service has been family-style, with strangers seated at big communal tables where a boarding house reach is perfectly acceptable.
We’ve never sampled Hadacol, the high-proof patent medicine that Colonel Tom Parker supposedly hawked before he became Elvis Presley’s manager, but we can recommend a fine teetotaler’s version of it at Wilton Candy Kitchen, in Wilton, Iowa. Opened in 1860, taken over by a young immigrant named Gus Nopoulos who came to town in 1907, and now run by his 88-year-old grandson George Nopoulos and his progeny, this vintage soda fountain makes its fizzy beverages using syrups squirted out of silver dispensers: lemon and lime for a Green River; strawberry, cherry, and vanilla for a Pink Lady; root beer and chocolate plus vanilla ice cream for a Brown Cow; and five different flavors for a Dipsy Doodle. As for the Hadacol, George Nopoulos makes his with a blend of vanilla and rootbeer syrups; he says it got its name because “They ‘hadda call’ it something.”