Thursday, August 6, 2009

On the Road Again: Where Has All the Road Food Gone?

Ahh, the road trip. As a child, it meant long hours squeezed between battling brothers or, if, I was queen for the day, sandwiched between the 'rents. I had no control over the destination, the radio station or the stopping places. I endured it all for the possibility of a soft serve cone that could melt away the pain and boredom.

Fast forward a few decades, and I love road trippin'. I'm now the King of the Road - master of the destination, the radio (or CD player) and the stopping places. And you better believe that road food restaurants top the list for places to stop.

Two weeks ago, I did a fly-drive trip to six states: Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Ohio and West Virginia. I was in heaven behind the wheel of my rental car while listening to the audio book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. I stopped for Georgia peaches from roadside farm stands and drove under the influence of those intoxicatingly sweet fruits.

But, other than those peaches, I discovered that finding good road food is less likely than Daddy letting me pick the radio station. I passed scores of Wendy's, McDonald's and Hardy's. Dozens of Dairy Queens and at least half a dozen Sonics. But where was the regional road food? describes road food as "great regional meals along highways, in small towns and in city neighborhoods." Where were the rib joints and the diners with fresh peach pie or biscuits hot out of the oven? What happened to the little hole-in-the-wall joints where I could get a bowl of beans with a side of corn bread?

Two years ago, I discovered just such a place near my home town in West Virginia. Hoggs and Doggs served up West Virginia style hot dogs (with slaw), beans and corn bread, biscuits and gravy and sweet tea. I've returned a half dozen times since then, but this time Hoggs and Doggs had, apparently, gone to Hogg Heaven. They vanished without a hub cap trace.

But the goddess of road food looked kindly upon me as I drove from Columbus to West Virginia. When I reached the halfway mark in Nelsonville (population: 5,000), the Flying Dog came to my rescue. Local beer on tap and a West Virginia style hot dog came to $3.35. An order of hot-from-the-fryer potato chips was less than $2.00. With free WiFi, I was ready to move in.

The Flying Dog was determined to soar above the Sonic and Dairy Queen down the street. I couldn't wait to stop again on my way back to Columbus.
But, alas, in spite of promises of a dollar dog on Tuesdays, Flying Dog had taken a belly flop. Its doors were closed.

What's your favorite, non-chain road food? When you hit the highway, where do you like to stop?


Sal said...

I drive between Northern and Southern California fairly often, and I usually stop to eat at one of three restaurants along Highway 5: Pea Soup Andersen's in Santa Nella (for pea soup, naturally), Harris Ranch near Coalinga (for steak), and The Apricot Tree in Firebaugh (for typical diner food). When I'm driving through Oregon I sometimes stop at Wild River Brewing and Pizza Company in Grants Pass. Good eating, and great beer!

JCK said...

I was all over Hoggs disapointing that you didn't get to regale us with delicious memories.

Not technically Road Food, but Oh, I do miss Fat Matts Rib Shack in Atlanta. There's no place like it. BBQ and Blues served up daily...

Jean Spitzer said...

I'm taking my first road trip in many years soon. I'll report back if I have any luck finding some non-chain road food.

Sue G said...

Congrats on the eosinphils.

I left Chicago for AZ six years ago and haven't seen a diner since. Apparently we don't have any of those in AZ. Sigh. Miss that home-cookin'-comfort-food. Mostly we have chain food places. Yuk. One would think I would be much thinner.

As for the restaurant closings you mentioned, seems like having you visit these places often portends their demise.

There goes your invitation to dinner at my house.

Susan C said...

Sal, Thanks for the tip about the Apricot Tree. I often drive from So. Cal. and No. Cal on that desolate Hwy. 5 too.

JCK, I flew in to Atlanta and didn't have time to eat or play there, but will have to check out Fat Matts next trip.

Jean, Good luck on the road trip and the road food. Where are you headed? Don't forget the audio books. I'm hooked on them.

Sue, I'm so afraid that one day we won't be able to tell one community from the next. The chains make them look identical.

He he. Don't think I haven't thought about being the kiss of death to these restaurants.

Petrea said...

There used to be a place on Route 66 in Illinois called Pig Hips, for a good reason. But it was great.

I guess you have to get pretty far off the main road for "road food," which kinda defeats the purpose. It's a sad state of affairs. If I'm starving and the only thing available is a fast food chain, I'll seek out a grocery store.

"Jo" said...

Errr... I'm going to mention The Unspeakable. Yes, that's right: the McDonald's drive through. In my defence I have to add that I don't drive so I'm hardly ever in control of the wheel. And when it is my decision it's the McDonald's by lack of a decent diner. In Holland road hotels/motels are more common than road diners. Road diners are hard to find, let alone wholesome road food!

...Hm. Thinking about it: road diners may be just what Holland needs!

"Jo" said...

Oh and one more thing: I do like McDonald's food every now and then. *blushes*

Ann said...

Thanks for sharing, Susan. Don't know anyone as active as you. Made me hungry reading this post.
I have anal (the Farrah Fawcett) cancer, and have turned into a real couch potato (might as well stick with food allusions here).
Did you ever just stay @ home (in my case a small apt) to eat whatever...hah.

Colonoscopy on 26th will let me know if cancer has come back to visit or departed for good I hope ;).

marinik said...

I love road trips too, and always prefer stopping at the local, tiny, mom and pap type places, and hey as long as it's fried or BBQed with goowy goodness... I'm in.

CG said...

If you ever have a need to head to Cape Cod from Boston on Rt. 3, take a detour to Plymouth. There's a great breakfast/lunch place on Main St. called Persy's Place. Its family owned and they have a few restaurants in the area. To say the meals are large would be a terrible understatement. I always make sure to grab a "bite" there for breakfast and I usually stay full until dinner. Its a beautiful thing. And, as a bonus, you can get Boston Baked Beans for breakfast. Alas, they only stay open until 3pm.

Jean Spitzer said...

The Southwest. Never been.

altadenahiker said...

You mean no one scratched that dog's belly? Sad.

I always thought that area would have the best cardiac arrest dining in the world.

Susan C said...

Petrea, Love the name Pig Hips for a restaurant.

Jo, My deep dark secret is that I like hamburger Happy Meals from McDonald's.

Ann, Couch potato as "food allusion" - that's funny. Will be thinking good thoughts for you, especially on the 26th.

Marinik, Tickled to hear from you. Gooey is good. By the way, I tried your recommendation for the bleu cheese with honey (and comb) on crusty bread. The best snack ever!
Soon I'll have ripe figs to go with.

CG, Thanks for the tip. It's goin' in the book. I hope to make it to Boston and beyond next year.

AH, You'd think that these small towns would just be spilling over with the M&Ps. But, no. Ravenswood, a town of less than 4,000, has FIVE fast food chains within a two-block stretch but not a decent M&P. Sigh!

eightfoldrabbit said...

If you're driving from LA up to Eureka or Oregon via the 101, here's the way to do it.

Eat breakfast at home. Burn rubber to Berkeley CA, where you stop for pizza at Zachary's on College Ave. Get back on the road, and stop in Healdsburg. Get a hotel for the night and walk into town for dinner at Bovolo - this is a little "slow food" bistro located in back of a bookstore right on the town square and they've got fantastic food. In the morning, get some coffee and a muffin at The Flying Goat (the iced Bankok on a hot day is a thing of beauty but they also make the best drip coffee I've ever had, ditto a plain latte) and drive on up the 101 a stretch till you get to Willits. Don't worry, the muffin'll do. Trust me. Wait until you can have breakfast at Ardella's. That'll hold you till you get to Garberville for lunch, where you stop at the Woodrose Cafe. Now, if you're continuing up the coast, the Seascape in Trinidad is great for chowder and a sandwich, a little shack right on the bay. If you stop in Eureka for the night, there's a gazillion places, but the Lost Coast Brewery is pretty fantastic.

Tons of road food along the 101 into Oregon, there's a million little diners and seafood places as you go. But that's how we do the LA to Eureka run and we're always happy.

Petrea said...

I got to know Ardella's through Willits Daily Photo ( Can't wait to go.

Susan C said...

Eightfold, You're my kind of gal! That road trip route sounds wonderful.

I (along with Petrea) know about Ardellas and Willitts through the Daily Photo blog. I hear they have some mind-blowing biscuits and gravy that I just have to try.

Kelly said...

The Scout swears by Marvin's in Petaluma (just breakfast and lunch, I believe). Close enough to 101, a great California omelet, and free wi-fi.

pasadenaadjacent said...

Remember Stuckys?

My experience with the road is to stick to the
chains. I find that if you go to a roadside inn, the cheese burger consists of a slice of packaged cheese, Webers bread and a bag of Laura Scudder chips. If you can't get the basic burger right then it's all downhill from there.

So sad about the south but that was my experience too. I saw a fair amount of industry leaving for overseas and elsewhere. With them went the charm and the roadside bar-b-que. All you can eat buffets seemed to be holding their own.

HAPPY GARG said...

join my blog please

USelaine said...

Woohoo! It's such a thrill to hear other people talk about Ardella's in my town. Too bad I don't have some sort of financial interest in it... The weekend breakfast menu includes their house-made hollandaise, which never disappoints.

Ardella's Downtown Diner also has a Facebook page you can "fan", if any of you do such things. ;^)

Piper Robert said...

If I could go back in time, I'd stop at Phil's Grill.

Susan C said...

Kelly, Sounds like Marvin's hits the jackpot. I bet Scout knows all the good places.

PA, Stuckeys! Yes, they and their little pecan logs are still around.

Don't even get me started on those all-you-can-eat buffets. Half of them appear to be Chinese. Or Chinesque.

USelaine, I was hoping you would see this!

Robert, Phil's Grill. Oh to sit at that counter eating a chilli dog and drinking an RC Cola. And if it was a really good day, I'd have money left to play the pinball machine. Heavy sigh. But what did we know? I was 11, and the food was probably lousy.

Piper Robert said...

You hit the trifecta. Chili dog, RC, and pinball.

For me, the benchmark for hot dogs are the ones from Phil's Grill. Steamed buns, very finely chopped onions, yellow mustard and the world's best chili sauce. Wow.

Piper Robert said...

Oh, yeah, money. Back in those days, a quarter was quite the bounty.

Piper Robert said...

BTW, Road Toad, outside of Ligonier, PA, is Bonnie and mine's favorite when we're around Pittsburgh.

West Coast Grrlie Blather said...

Two more discoveries just off 101 in Santa Maria (north Santa Barbara County): 1. El Paraiso (on Broadway) - healthy and fresh Mexican (no lard in the beans, etc.) and 2. Dino's (on Main St.) Buy deli sandwiches here before hitting all the wineries along Foxen Canyon.

Sal said...

Regarding Apricot Tree, I should point you to a review I wrote on my own blog:

We decided to eat there as a change of pace; the reviews on Yelp and Chowhound were largely negative but we gave it a chance nonetheless. Having low expectations we found the food pretty good. (Obviously it helps if you know what you're in for.)

Susan C said...

Robert, I think I also measure hotdogs against Phil's Grill. I don't care for Pink's, the lengendary LA hotdog stand, because their dogs don't pass the Phil's test.

The Pittsburgh area has great food. I used to fly into Pittsburgh sometimes for trips to WV.

Kelly, I think KK is taking the 101 route to Berkeley this week. I'll forward this information to her.

Sal, Thanks for the link to your blog post. Going there right now.

Carolyn Jung said...

My favorite is Ikeda in Auburn, CA and Davis, CA. It's a fruit stand, but the Auburn one also does burgers. The best part? They make killer pies. All kinds -- apple crumb, blueberry, peach, etc. You can't stop there without picking up at least one.

Pam said...

I love road tripping! We are buying a motorhome and I can't wait to get on the road. Stopping at great little diners along the way makes road trips so much better.

Susan C said...

Carolyn, Did you say pie? Oh, how I love a good pie. I see that Auburn isn't all that far from Fair Oaks, where a friend lives. I think it may be time for a visit.

Pam, Buying a motorhome? That's so exciting. A few years ago, I would have said, "Are you nuts?" but now I'm envious.

Margaret said...

How did I miss this? I don't think I have a road food favorite. I'm feeling both deprived and pathetic.

Susan C said...

Margaret, Must be because you're always jetting off to exotic places. ;)

pasadenaadjacent said...

Got one
Rossi's off of Highway 395 in Big Pine. Owners family goes back generations in the Owens Valley. Super "good" funk inside. Italian stone masons who built Tom Mix's cabin in the mountains nearby. Married a friend of mine whose part of the Ivers clan (Ivers Department store on Figuroa in HP and the location of the present day TJ Max in La Canada).

voted the 11th best steak in California

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