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A dozen roadside diners worth the road trip

Casper's Diner has been a stalwart on the dining scene in Springfield, Missouri, for about 115 years. Photo by Rhianon Brown Photography

The Great American Road Trip. It’s part of who we are as Americans, woven into our DNA. One ingredient that makes a road trip so appealing is the food enjoyed along the way.

Searching for roadside diners is a time-honored activity that pays big dividends in good eats and fun surroundings. Road trips never go out of style, so load up the car and fill up on tasty treats as you explore area destinations. Here are 12 favorite roadside eateries worth a stop when you head out this summer.

Jump to: Arkansas | Indiana | Illinois | Kansas | Louisiana | Mississippi | Missouri

1. Cozy Dog Drive In

Springfield, Illinois

Cozy Dog Drive In sign in Springfield, Illinios.

Cozy Dog Drive In owner Josh Waldmire makes corn dogs using the same batter recipe developed by his grandfather, who opened the restaurant in 1950. Photo courtesy Illinois Office of Tourism

When you’re getting your kicks on the portion of Route 66 that runs through Springfield, pull off at the Cozy Dog Drive In. It’s home of the original battered and deep-fried hot dog on a stick—better known as a corn dog.

This family-owned restaurant still uses the batter recipe developed by founder Ed Waldmire Jr., who first served Cozy Dogs at the Lake Springfield Beach House in 1946 and at the Illinois State Fair that same year. Waldmire also sold corn dogs at small stands, which he called “Dog Houses” or “Cozy Huts,” until he opened the drive-in restaurant on Route 66 in 1950.

The restaurant moved to its present location in 1996. Breakfast items, burgers, hot dogs, and—of course—corn dogs satisfy today’s road trippers as they did back in the Mother Road’s heyday.

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2. G-B Grill

Alton, Illinois

While you’re enjoying the scenery along the Great River Road in southwest Illinois, take a short detour to G-B Grill in Alton. You’ll travel back in time to 1954, when the diner was last remodeled. The long counter with swivel seats parallels cozy booths, each with a mini jukebox connected to the big Seeburg jukebox up front. The menu board lists plate lunches, sandwiches, gyros, soups, salads, pies, and daily specials.

The grill was established in 1910 by Gust Boukas, a Greek immigrant and great-uncle to James “Jimmy” Boukas. Jimmy and his wife, Joann, left Athens and headed to the United States in 1968 with just 2 suitcases, $200, and their infant son, Angelo. Living the American dream, the couple bought into the family business and eventually purchased it outright in 1990.

Jimmy, now 84, still enjoys serving breakfast and lunch to regular customers who have become like family. Joann comes in on Fridays to make her special chicken and dumplings, and Angelo works alongside his dad every day.

You may also like: Check these Midwest adventures off your bucket list

3. Mel’s Hard Luck Diner

Branson, Missouri

Singer at Mel's Hard Luck Diner in Branson, Missouri.

Members of the wait staff at Mel's Hard Luck Diner are also professional singers who serenade the guests. Photo courtesy Mel's Hard Luck Diner

Mel’s Hard Luck Diner is a flashback to the 1950s with its checkerboard tile floor, quintessential booths, and vintage decor. But this isn’t just a diner. It’s a live music venue where the talented servers and bus staff are professional singers, songwriters, and musicians who’ll break into song at any moment. Many of the entertainers also perform in Branson’s array of theaters.

While you’re enjoying the impromptu tunes, your stomach will be as pleased with your restaurant choice as your ears. The menu features delicious diner fare with creative musical names, like the Hunka Hunka BLT and the Sixteen Ton Chili Burger. Wash down your meal with a hand-dipped shake or an old-fashioned ice cream soda.

Duck into this popular lunch and dinner spot in the Grand Village Shops on The Strip (SR 76) to recharge between music shows, shopping, and all the outdoor activities that a Branson road trip offers.

Banana Split at Mel's Hard Luck Diner in Springfield, Missouri.

In addition to lunch and dinner fare, Mel's Hard Luck Diner serves an array of sweet treats like gigantic banana splits. Photo courtesy Mel's Hard Luck Diner

You may also like: Midwest comfort food restaurants to visit during fall and winter

4. Casper’s Diner

Springfield, Missouri

Chili at Casper's Diner in Springfield, Missouri.

Casper's Diner is known for its secret-recipe chili that overflows the bowl. Photo by Rhianon Brown Photography

Casper Lederer began serving chili in 1909 from a downtown storefront behind a fruit stand on Walnut Street. In the years since, Casper’s Diner firmly established itself as a beloved Springfield institution as it moved from Walnut Street to Glenstone Avenue and back to a Quonset hut on Walnut. Since July 2023, it’s back on Glenstone.

Some folks may miss the quirky atmosphere of the corrugated steel building that housed the eatery for almost 40 years. But the menu still includes the foods that built the loyal customer base, including the original, secret-recipe chili that brims over the bowl’s edges.

Other popular items include burgers, shakes, coney dogs, onion rings, and fried pickles. With classic, eclectic diner ambience, the eatery fits in perfectly with nearby historic Route 66.

5. Fritz’s Railroad Restaurant

Kansas City, Kansas

Ordering by phone at Fritz's Railroad Restaurant in Kansas City, Kansas.

Guests at Fritz’s Railroad Restaurant place their orders on a phone, and they are delivered via an overhead train system. Photo courtesy Visit Kansas City Kansas

All aboard for fun and good food at Fritz’s Railroad Restaurant in Kansas City. This family-run restaurant, established in 1954, is known not only for its juicy hamburgers with grilled onions seared into the meat, but also for its unusual food delivery system. Customers order by telephone and then watch as an overhead train delivers their meal right to their table.

Sink your teeth into the Gen Dare burger, which is topped with hash browns, grilled onions, and melted cheese. As you dine, admire the toy trains and rail memorabilia that decorate the walls. The train concept and the classic diner-style food are so popular that the family opened branches in Shawnee, Kansas, and in the Crown Center shopping mall in Kansas City, Missouri.

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6. The Hilltop Inn

Evansville, Indiana

It’s been a stagecoach stop, a tavern, a restaurant, and a bar. Today, The Hilltop Inn, established in 1888, is best known for its brain sandwich. Go big with the Jumbo Brain Sandwich, a fried pork brain served on a bun with pickles and onions. Want to start slow? Opt for the Pork Brain Sliders, mini versions of the original.

Those who might wince at this uncommon, but delicious, menu item can order other sandwich varieties, including grilled German bologna served with pickles and onions on your choice of bread. The Hilltop Inn is a smart option for southern Indiana road trippers after exploring the USS LST Ship Memorial and the Mesker Park Zoo & Botanic Garden.

7. Doe’s Eat Place

Greenville, Mississippi

Shrimp at Doe's Eat Place in Greenville, Mississippi.

Shrimp, steaks, and hot tamales highlight the menu at Doe's Eat Place. Photo courtesy Greenville and Washington County CVB

It all began with the hot tamales, a true taste of the Mississippi Delta. Then things expanded to include mouthwatering steaks, house-made chili, and shrimp. The result was Doe’s Eat Place, established in 1941 in the back of a grocery store.

Today, there are 2 other family-owned locations in Paducah, Kentucky, and Jackson, Tennessee, and multiple franchises around the South. Yet in the minds of many, the original reigns supreme, with its unvarnished and unfussy atmosphere. In fact, you enter through the kitchen at this eatery that earned a James Beard America’s Classic Award in 2007.

Whether you’re exploring blues heritage on the Mississippi Blues Trail or seeking the ultimate tamale on the Mississippi Delta Hot Tamale Trail, Doe’s will nourish your wanderlust.

8. Fratesi Grocery & Service Station

Leland, Mississippi

Deli counter at Fratesi Grocery in Leland, Mississippi.

You can fill up on more than fuel at Fratesi Grocery & Service Station, including delicious po'boys and muffulettas. Photo by Deb Thompson

While in the Mississippi Delta, you must sample gas station cuisine (which is a thing in the South). One of the best practitioners of this art is Fratesi Grocery & Service Station, which lures locals and travelers alike.

The store, started in 1941 by Tony and Larry Fratesi, is now run by Tony’s sons. Mark, Kenny, and Louis also share farming duties on the corn and soybean fields out back. Mark considers it a general store, selling fuel, fish bait, groceries, and ammo, as well as homemade food that has made Fratesi’s a road trip destination for breakfast or lunch.

The Philly steak and Philly chicken po’boys receive raves, as do the muffulettas. The fried olive po’boy was designed for vegetarians, but it’s a hit with meat-eaters, too. Chopped black olives are mixed with mozzarella cheese and seasonings, then rolled into small balls. Battered and fried, they’re served on a bun with toppings.

Fratesi’s is more than a gas station or deli; it’s a social gathering spot. Many of today’s customers first visited with their parents and are now bringing their kids, carrying on the tradition.

9. Ozark Café

Jasper, Arkansas

Excaliburger at the Ozark Café in Jasper, Arkansas.

The Ozark Café's Excaliburger features a half-pound patty tucked between 2 grilled cheese sandwiches. Photo courtesy Jaiden Lydick

When you drive curvy, hilly Highway 7, you’ll see why it became Arkansas’ first state-designated scenic byway. In fact, it’s consistently ranked among the country’s top scenic drives.

A must-stop along the 290-mile byway is the iconic Ozark Café in Jasper. Established in 1909, the café is on the National Register of Historic Places and home to the Excaliburger. A half-pound meat patty, lettuce, pickles, tomatoes, and red onions are tucked between 2 grilled cheese sandwiches and smeared with Ozark sauce (mayonnaise with Worcestershire sauce, pepper blend, and apple cider vinegar).

Need a more modest serving? Choose among traditional burgers, steaks, omelets, fresh-cut fries, chili, hand-dipped milkshakes, and biscuits with signature chocolate gravy. Visitors often stop in after exploring the nearby Buffalo National River—a floating, fishing, and hiking paradise.

10. P.J’s Rainbow Cafe II

Mountain View, Arkansas

Pie at P.J.'s Rainbow Cafe II in Mountain View, Arkansas.

Make sure to save room for a slice of homemade pie after a meal of Southern specialties at P.J's Rainbow Café II. Photo by Barbara Gibbs Ostmann

Owner Robert Baker has been whipping up country eats from scratch at P.J’s Rainbow Cafe II since 2002. “I grind my own meat for the meatloaf, and hand-bread the chicken-fried steak,” he says. Longtime employee Reda Cartwright has been baking the restaurant’s pies all that time, too.

Taking a tip from a local at a pickin’ and singin’ performance on the courthouse square, my friend and I ambled down the street to the café. We ordered 2 specials—chicken-fried steak and chicken and dumplings—along with 2 pieces of pie for good measure. We were soon initiated into the wonders of Baker’s and Cartwright’s culinary creations.

Visitors to nearby Ozark Folk Center State Park or Blanchard Springs Caverns stop by, as do musicians playing on the square. “We’ve been here long enough that people going to Branson will drive an hour out of their way just to eat here,” says Baker.

11. Domilise’s Po-Boy & Bar

New Orleans, Louisiana

Shrimp and oyster po'boy at Domilise's in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Among the popular menu items at Domilise's is the shrimp and oyster po'boy. Photo courtesy Domilise's Po-Boy & Bar

Louisiana is quite possibly the country’s most food-obsessed state. Trips in the Pelican State are often designed around where to eat. For Karin Endy, a consultant and educator currently living in Connecticut, that place was Domilise’s Po-Boy & Bar. The unassuming sandwich shop, established in 1918, is considered by many as the standard for po’boys in New Orleans.

To battle cabin fever during the pandemic, Endy and her family retrofitted a van and drove it to New Orleans from their home at the time in Arkansas. For lunch, they headed straight to the sandwich shop.

Lines can run out the door for the savory sandwiches served on fresh crusty bread. Options include shrimp, ham, roast beef, and more. When she bit into her oyster po’boy, Endy recalls, “It was so good, I did a happy dance in the van.”

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12. Strawn’s Eat Shop

Shreveport, Louisiana

Strawberry ice box pie at Strawn's Eat Shop in Shreveport, Louisiana.

The signature strawberry ice box pie at Strawn's Eat Shop. Photo courtesy Kyle Johnson/Shreveport-Bossier Travel Magazine

Strawn’s Eat Shop in Shreveport bills itself as the “home of the ice box pie.” Established in 1944, Strawn’s serves classic diner fare at breakfast and lunch.

It’s a favorite of Cheré Dastugue Coen, a travel and food writer who lived in Louisiana for much of her life. Coen typically savors Strawn’s signature strawberry pie, but the other flavors merit a try—chocolate, coconut, and peach when the fruit is in season.

The Gauthier family’s operation includes 2 other area locations: Strawn’s Eat Shop Too in Shreveport and Strawn’s Eat Shop Also in nearby Bossier City. They are delectable choices to fuel up for a trip on the Boom or Bust Byway, a peaceful route just north of Shreveport featuring bayous, shady forests, antique shops, and oil field graveyards along with new oil and gas developments.

Barbara Gibbs Ostmann is a contributor, and food lover, from Gerald, Missouri.

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