Tastings: Great American Road Food

See original article in Groupaway Magazine here
Colorful restaurants serve up regional grub along highways and byways

By Lauren Borrelli and Laura Smith

Being cooped up in a car or bus for a long road trip makes for a restless, hungry group and fast food can get really old after a while. Let everyone stretch their legs and stop at one of the countless eateries often overlooked for those ubiquitous golden arches. Find the spots frequented by the locals, and you’re all but guaranteed a tasty, affordable meal. Tear into a talked-about sandwich at a mom-and-pop shop or a stack of flapjacks at a downtown diner. These roadside restaurants have locally inspired menus, fun decor, storied histories and a real taste of Americana. Just be sure to check on reservations beforehand.

Noank, Connecticut
Grab a seat at a picnic table and put on a bib for an outdoor, New England seafood feast. Abbott’s is famous for its hot lobster roll: a quarter pound of lobster meat drizzled with melted butter and served on a toasted bun. Connecticut Magazine tagged another choice, the New England Seafood Feast, as a “dish to try before you die.” The meal begins with clam chowder and shrimp cocktail followed by steamed mussels and lobster. And who could forget the drawn butter and coleslaw?

This family-owned heirloom hosts groups of 25 to 200 on two acres of waterfront property. Motorcoaches are a familiar sight, says owner Jerry Mears. Abbott’s may operate only 128 days out of the year, but Mears still hosts 50 to 70 group events such as rehearsal dinners, birthday parties and tours from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Table service and special menus (including an appetizer, choice of entrée and dessert) are offered to groups. abbotts-lobster.com

Seattle, Washington
A Rainy City institution since 1967, 13 Coins is named after a Peruvian tale in which a poor young man asks a father for his daughter’s hand in marriage, pledging 13 coins and his undying love. This sweet story inspired a 24-hour diner known for its high-backed booths, swiveling captains’ chairs, live music and spirited staff.

The menu of late-night munchies alongside high-end entrées has more than 130 items, including everything from a ham-and-cheddar scramble for $8 to rock lobster tails for $80. Monday through Thursday, customers can order the “three for $25” special, which includes an appetizer, entrée and dessert. The most popular dinner dish, says manager Tom Gray, is “The Believer,” a breast of chicken parmigiana breaded and pan fried, then served with melted mozzarella and parmesan cheeses in a white cream sauce.

Gray hosts several large groups a week, “catering to anybody at any time,” he says. “You can show up in your robe or in a tuxedo.” There’s a second location 20 minutes away in Seatac. 13coins.com

Depew, New York
Outside Buffalo, an old-fashioned ice cream parlor and candy store beckons customers inside with its intoxicating chocolate aroma. Started in 1953, this family-owned shop is known for its big sundaes smothered in homemade syrups, thick hot fudge, marshmallow sauce and fresh whipped cream. Available in 15 flavors and served in tall tulip glasses or banana split boats, the sundaes are $3.95 for two scoops and $6.95 for three.

Antoinette’s scoops 30 specialty sundaes, but one of its most popular sweets is sponge candy, an aerated honeycomb drenched in milk chocolate. Other candies include truffles, nonpareils, molasses pops and more. The shop easily seats 70 customers, and a second location in West Seneca is less than 20 minutes away.

Nashville, Tennessee
With its country charm, down-home cooking and barrage of famous former guests (Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin and Faith Hill, for example), it’s no wonder locals and tourists alike love this landmark. In 1951, Lon and Annie Loveless set up picnic tables in their front yard and sold homemade fried chicken to people driving up and down U.S. Highway 100. Now that’s real road food.

The restaurant is famous for its fried chicken, country ham and biscuits, still made using Annie’s own secret recipe. Family-style menus start at $11.95 per person for an entrée and three sides. The cafe also bakes 30 different pies, cobblers and cakes. Best of all, groups receive complimentary meals for drivers and guides.

Pagers in hand, diners can peruse through pottery, oil paintings and garden art in the adjacent Motel Shops and fill shopping bags with homemade preserves and sliced smoked meats from Loveless Hams and Jams Country Market. lovelesscafe.com

Tulsa, Oklahoma
Chili-dog connoisseurs keep going back to Coney I-Lander for its Coneys — small, slow-grilled hot dogs topped with no-bean chili, raw onions and mustard. The dog’s named after New York’s famed Coney Island, and it can come “loaded” with grated cheese or cayenne pepper. Service is quick, and the food is cheap; three or four dogs are less than $10. The hot dog stand opened in 1926 and now has seven locations in and around Tulsa. “Our Coneys are something that, literally, you won’t find anywhere else,” says Kyle Cermak, general manager of the MEK Corporation, which owns the franchise. The Coney I-Lander, which can seat groups up to 50, is a tasty part of the city’s history.

Amarillo, Texas
Better bring your appetite to this showdown. If you can eat a 72-ounce steak along with a salad, baked potato, shrimp cocktail and dinner roll in less than an hour, you’ll get your $72 back — and your name on the list of champions, totaling more than 1,300 since 1962. For major bragging rights, beat the record and scarf it all down in less than 8 minutes and 52 seconds. Not that hungry? Try smaller entrées such as chicken fried steak or spare ribs with regional appetizers like fried rattlesnake and mountain oysters (and no, the latter isn’t seafood). Then top it all off with some homemade fudge.

The Big Texan has been featured on the Travel Channel and in several movies. Located off I-40, the restaurant has an unloading site for buses, and the main dining room can seat up to 600. Group tour leaders can work with the steakhouse on menu and budget, says co-owner Bobby Lee. Stop by the gift shop for a snakeskin belt and reserve a room at the adjacent Big Texan Motel with its Texas-shaped pool. Lee describes his restaurant as a perfect portrayal of the Old West, “right out of an old Clint Eastwood film.” Just look for Big Moo, the giant steer, out front. bigtexan.com

Gatlinburg, Tennessee
Tennessee’s first pancake house, dating back 50 years, has people lining up for its 24 varieties of made-from-scratch pancakes. The rustic establishment is still under original management and expanded to a second location in Nashville. The sweet potato pancakes served with cinnamon cream syrup are crowd pleasers, as are the Smoky Mountain buckwheat cakes and Georgia peach crepes. Waffles, omelettes, eggs, bacon and hash browns round out the breakfast menu, while lunch features burgers, gourmet sandwiches, homemade soups and salads. Box lunches can be prepared ahead of time for a group picnic in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Like a lot of restaurants in mountainous Gatlinburg, the Pancake Pantry doesn’t have extensive parking. Many hotels and motels, however, are located within walking distance. And tour buses can park on the street until 9 a.m. For breakfast, groups of 40 to 50 should make reservations before 7:30 a.m. when crowds start to form. Bus operators and tour guides for groups of 25 or more are treated to free meals.


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