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8 roadside diners worth the road trip

On your summer road trip, steer your way to authentic experiences and delicious fare at these noteworthy diners. Photo courtesy Strawn’s Eat Shop

The Great American Road Trip. It is a part of who we are as Americans, woven into our DNA. And one of the ingredients 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. With road trips enjoying a resurgence because of the global pandemic, now is a great time to load up the car, explore area destinations, and fill up on delicious cuisine as you go sightseeing. Here are a few favorite roadside eateries worth a stop when you head out this summer.

Best diners in the Midwest

Cozy Dog Drive In

Springfield, Illinois; (217) 525-1992

Chefs in the kitchen at Cozy Dog Drive In

Cozy Dog Drive In has been making corn dogs since 1950 using the same batter recipe developed by its founder. 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, 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 them 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.

Billy Bob’s Dairyland

Branson, Missouri; (417) 337-9291

A burger and fries

Diners can dig into plump hamburgers, foot-long chili dogs, and more in this ’50s-themed diner during Branson road trips. Photo courtesy

Billy Bob’s Dairyland is a flashback to the ’50s, with a shiny jukebox belting out golden oldies and a statue of Betty Boop holding the fried pie menu that boasts a whopping 19 flavors.

Branson locals and visitors dig into plump hamburgers, foot-long chili dogs, pork tenderloin sandwiches, battered onion rings, hand-dipped malts and shakes, and those famous fried pies. Duck into this popular diner on The Strip (state Highway 76) to recharge between shopping, music shows, and all the outdoor activities that a Branson road trip offers.

Fritz’s Railroad Restaurant

Kansas City, Kansas; (913) 281-2777

The train food delivery system inside Fritz's Railroad Restaurant

At Fritz’s Railroad Restaurant, burgers and other menu items are delivered to tables by 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. Both the train concept and the classic diner-style food are so popular, the family opened branches in Shawnee, Kansas, and in the Crown Center shopping mall in Kansas City, Missouri.

The Hilltop Inn

Evansville, Indiana; (812) 303-3732

Hilltop brain sandwich served with pickles and onions

A smart choice to fuel up during an Evansville, Indiana, road trip is a brain sandwich at The Hilltop Inn. Photo courtesy Roger Angermeier

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, fried pork brain served on a bun with pickles and onions, or go small with Pork Brain Sliders, mini versions of the original.

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

Best diners in the South

Doe’s Eat Place

Greenville, Mississippi; (662) 334-3315

Doe's Eat Place tamales arranged on a plate

Before expanding its menu to include steaks and more, Doe’s Eat Place in Greenville, Mississippi, started serving hot tamales in 1941. Photo courtesy Greenville and Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau

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

Today, there’s a second family-owned place in Paducah, Kentucky, and 12 franchises around the Midwest and South. Yet in the minds of many, the original, with its unvarnished atmosphere, reigns as the best.

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.

Ozark Café

Jasper, Arkansas; (870) 446-2976

The Cheese Volcano Burger fills an entire plate

A savory lava of golden melted cheese surrounds the delicious Cheese Volcano Burger at Ozark Cafe, located just off Arkansas Scenic 7 Byway. 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 with lettuce, pickles, tomatoes, and red onions tucked between two grilled cheese sandwiches and smeared with Ozark sauce (mayonnaise with Worcestershire sauce, pepper blend, and apple cider vinegar).

If that’s too big for your appetite, 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.

Domilise’s Po-Boy and Bar

New Orleans, Louisiana; (504) 899-9126

Domilise po-boy piled high with shrimp

A shrimp po-boy in the making at Domilise’s Po-Boy and Bar, which has been serving up sandwiches in New Orleans since 1918. Photo courtesy Joanne Domilise

Louisiana is quite possibly the country’s most food-obsessed state. Trips in the Pelican State are often designed around where to eat. Such was the case for Karin Endy, a consultant and educator from Bentonville, Arkansas.

To battle cabin fever during the pandemic in 2020, she and her family retrofitted a van and made one of their first road trips in it to New Orleans. For lunch they headed straight to Domilise’s Po-Boy and Bar, an unassuming sandwich shop established in 1918 that is considered by many as the standard for po’boys in New Orleans.

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

Strawn’s Eat Shop

Shreveport, Louisiana; (318) 868-0634

Plates with slices of strawberry pie

Known for its strawberry pie, Strawn’s Eat Shop in Shreveport, Louisiana, serves up a host of other pie flavors along with classic diner fare. Photo courtesy Strawn’s Eat Shop

Longtime Louisiana resident Cheré Dastugue Coen, a travel and food writer, agrees with Endy’s choice of Domilise’s as a mecca for po’boy enthusiasts.

Another of Coen’s favorite places, Strawn’s Eat Shop in Shreveport, bills itself as the “home of the ice box pie.” Coen typically opts for Strawn’s signature strawberry pie, but the other flavors merit a try—chocolate, coconut, butterscotch, banana, and peach when the fruit is in season.

Established in 1944, Strawn’s serves classic diner fare at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It’s a delectable choice for those 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 from Gerald, Missouri.

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