The personal authentic travels of a world-wide drifter, you'll always see pics of me at the locations being described (if the other blogs you're reading don't do that, odds are they were NEVER there, just saying…)
Located on Route 66 in Oklahoma city, Ann’s Chicken Fry House & Gift Shop is touted on all of the “what to do on route 66” sites as one of the MUST-sees if you want to have that classic 66 experience, and the best Chicken Fried Steak in town. In retrospect, I was really annoyed to discover that the place only opened up in 1971 (i.e, barely a historic 66 restaurant, if at all), and I didn’t really enjoy my meal… NOT worth the calories.
First, Let’s keep in mind, that I-44 was bypassing Route 66 in Oklahoma city as early as 1958, when it was first built to link it to Saint Lewis. In fact the interstate STARTED there, and then worked itself out sideways… That said, HISTORICALLY even though 66 hit its cultural hey-day in the early 1960’s, and wasn’t officially disbanded till 1985, by the late 1960’s/early 1970’s it had essentially been made irrelevant. By the late 1980’s, when I tried driving parts of it, it was sort of an impossible struggle — and it’s revival as a scenic byway (the program officially began in 1991) really didn’t start till 1990. As such, I’m sorry, but for Ann’s place falls right into the years of 66 irrelevance as anything other than highways that people don’t even think of AS highways because of just how many paved roads there now were, and their function eclipse by the expressways. As such, for Ann’s to promote itself as an authentic route 66 business is kind of false advertising. I’m sorry but it is. That, and, to add insult to injury, it isn’t even considered one of Oklahoma city’s better restaurants by any of the locals (seriously, read Yelp, or any of those other sites) … i.e., it’s essentially a MAJOR tourist trap and nothing more.
That said… Be warned, they are a CASH ONLY business… they do NOT accept credit cards. (The mind boggles)…. and they are closed on Sundays and Mondays… Their specialty is supposed to be the chicken fried steak… so that is what I ordered… but I didn’t take any photos of it (it looked like chicken fried steak, and there was nothing impressive about the plating)….
that it was much better than the previous order of the stuff I’d had along the route — And I ate so much chicken fried steak over the few weeks I was doing 66 that when I got back to Chicago my liver numbers had once again spiked.
Chicken Fried Steak is one of my very favorite dishes, so I HAD to try ever one of the places that was advertised as offering the best example of the stuff.
One day someone should count up the number of Route 66 restaurants that tout their Chicken Fried Steak as the best in the city or the best in the state, or the best along the route …. the number of restaurants is probably very high…
but, all said and done, 9 times out of 10 when I’ve eaten it at these places I’ve been seriously let down to discover it is still just a hamburger fried in chicken batter … and RARELY, is it the much tastier and more expensive pounded filet-of-steak — and personally I’m spoiled; I MUCH prefer it when it’s a piece of steak that’s been pounded —- I love how in republican states they will insist that somehow its NOT a hamburger, and will call it ground steak as though somehow that isn’t just hamburger without a bun. And I’m sorry but hamburgers, no matter how good, don’t taste like steak. So NO, I do not really suggest their Chicken Fried Steak.
That said, I DO suggest finding an excuse to go inside the place as the interior is very kitschy and fun. Its one of those place where not only will they allow you to write on the walls…. they’ll even hand you the pen
That and, according to the owner, her husband (R.I.P.) had been kind a huge Star Wars fan, hence all the high-priced paraphernalia of the sort I’ve always lusted over but would never purchase because … “where would I put it?” … well I guess if you own a kitschy tourist trap restaurant… you can legally deduct it as a business expense.
Built in 1935 (and on the National Register of Historic Places), the Ariston Cafe located on Route 66 in Litchfield, Illinois is the longest continuously running cafe along the route’s whole stretch. So I planned my trip so as to include a meal here.
According to Wikipedia, with the exception of having added a banquet room and a few other minor tweaks, the interior of the Cafe has not been altered substantially since it first opened. In most other locations would be a bad thing, but on Route 66, it’s a selling point.
As restaurants go it has a highly confused menu; they have: Mexican, Greek, Deli, classic American, Southern, Italian, Steak, and Seafood … with 7 different kinds of fish — where most places would do one or two
but I guess if you’re a restaurant in a small town you sort of have to be all things to all people. That said, they also have an all you can eat soup and salad bar which had some tasty stuff on it… even if it is kind of seriously old-fashioned.
I asked the waitress what the difference was between the pond and fillet catfish dishes. The pond catfish is two big catfish served on the bone for $15, while the fillet is one catfish filleted for $14… as two would have been too much food me, I got the fillet… but if I lived nearby I’d have ordered the pond for $15 and taken home leftovers.
That said, the Catfish was rubbery and had a funny after taste …which I think the chef was trying to hide with all the spices. But with seven different kinds of fish, unless fish is VERY popular in this town, I don’t see how they can be serving anything remotely close to fresh.
There was a large selection of HUGE slabs of various kinds of cake… but passed. When the owner noted that I was keeping notes about meal, posting to social media, etc., he came over and gave me two postcards and a refrigerator magnet.
Meadowlark Restaurant is located on the outskirts of Dayton Ohio, pretty much in its suburbs… and is so impressively good that it’s almost worth the trip. And because it is in a relatively small city the prices are utterly reasonable; were it in places like Chicago or New York they could charge double or triple what they can in a town like Dayton.
(Barely took any photos while here, sorry)
This place ROCKS…and I’m not the only one who thinks so; pretty much ever one of the customer driven review sites gives this place between 4 or 5 stars. Appetizers are around $6-8 each and mains were around $20-$30, so for what it is, amazingly affordable. It is a farm-to-table chef-driven restaurant, i.e., fresh ingredients picked at the height of ripeness at nearby farms, cooked by an honest to goodness chef… I am sorry to say that I forgot to take photos of our appetizers.
I ordered a watermelon Gazpacho with peanuts, mint and a Fried Pork rinds garnish (which I asked them to NOT include) that was good enough that my travel buddy enjoyed it even though he is NO fan of watermelon… While my friend ordered the Shishito Pepper Hushpuppies with pimento cheese (which were deep-fried so not allowed on my diet) which he said were AMAZING… although not quite as good as my soup
For Dinner I ordered blackened catfish with sweet corn butter and “hambalya” which was really really good (I had recently passed my liver blood test with flying colors, and was expanding my diet a bit to include fish dishes cooked as the chef intended… but still steering clear of anything fried.
My friend, who is vegetarian, had the Ricotta&Goat cheese Tacos with Green Chiles in fresh corn Tortillas, topped with Capers and Spicy Tomatoes and served with a dressed cabbage and radish counterpart along with Lemon-scallion rice and creamy, smoky pinto beans ($22), which he also said was more than worth the price — he is not one for pricy restaurants.
For dessert we ordered the Homemade Pecan Pie Ice Cream with pie crust crumbles, which was as good as it sounds.
Located on Historic Route 66 adjacent to I-55 in Willowbrook, IL, Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket opened in the late 1920’s as a lunch counter in gas station.
As the story goes, in 1938 two women who ran a chicken farm overheard the owner, Ervin ‘Irv’ Kolarik, complaining about how much he hated running the gas station part of business and wished he could just run the food counter. They promised to share their secret chicken recipe with him on condition he bought his chicken from them. The chicken was so popular that by the mid 40’s it was clear he needed a bigger place and in 1946 he opened a restaurant adjacent to the gas station.
One of the cute things that happened was it was the birthday of one of the customers and the whole staff came out to sing her happy birthday, only they clucked the words … as in made chicken noises instead of singing the words
This is one of those places that has been a chicago are institution but I have never been because this is not a part of town I’d normally go to. As such, the odds of me being here again were equally low, so I had to try their specialty, the fried chicken. That said… The chicken was very good… but I’ve had better … the fried chicken at Disneyland’s Plaza Inn was in fact MUCH better. So I’m not in fact sure it was worth the damage to my diet (and in fact when I got back to Chicago I failed my blood test… my liver numbers had jumped again).
My waitress was an obese middle-aged woman with the smile planted firmly on her face who was scurrying around the place checking on everyone regularly, Really friendly and asking all the right questions without being overly in your face about it…all while limping really badly with a sort of waddling walk. At the end of the meal I asked her what was wrong with her leg and she said it wasn’t her leg it was her back and by the end of the day she was in a lot of back pain. To which I exclaimed, “And you waitress?!!!” That woman deserves a reward… I gave her a $20 tip on my $18 bill.
Clanton’s cafe on Route 66 in Vinita was one of the places I had marked as MUST try their foods… and I even planned my day to arrive there around dinner time… only to find it was closed!
Clanton’s was one of the restaurants along the trek I was really looking forward to trying. This place has no shortage of accolades from TV and magazines, not to mention getting almost 5 stars on TripAdvisor and 4 on yelp. AND they’re supposed to have the best Chicken Fried Steak on Route 66, which is one of my favorite dishes
But MY good luck, between me planning my trip and arriving there, they’d posted NEW hours which include being closed on Sundays. So
Falling into my “big things” category, but not for the usual reasons…. This restaurant is sort of famous in the US (really, how many restaurants that aren’t major chains warrant a Wikipedia page?), not because the food is so amazing — it’s good, but I wasn’t deeply impressed (and even sent back the first dish)… but more for being an impressive tourist trap. In the vein of “everything is bigger in Texas” this place challenges the consumer to snarf down a HUGE 72 oz steak, a bread roll with butter, a side salad, and a fried shrimp appetizer in under an hour.
IF the customer can, then the meal is free, if they can’t, it costs $72 (the other large steaks cost slightly over $1 an oz, so still a discount); and the challenge comes with a very specific set of rules.
As this was the question asked most by my Facebook friends…. According to the Wikipedia page: The challenge began in 1960 and “as of February 2018, over 9,500 people out of about 62,000 have accomplished this feat”… so in about 58 years, about 1,070 people try a year…
According to the manager I spoke with, HE said they average about 35 challenges a week — which sort of jives with my math (20 people a week) if you figure it took some time for the word to spread and with the number of people stepping forth to try it escalating over time.
That said the restaurant has evolved over the years from just being a restaurant to being a “road side attraction”… aka tourist trap
Not only is the main building kind of huge (this is a picture of it from the front and side)
It property comes complete with its own Motel (and sufficient parking for Trucks and RV’s)
I arrived on a Saturday night and the poor girl who meets you at the front door essentially has the job of standing there and saying “It’ll be a 15 to 20 minute wait” while handing out buzzers… almost once every 30 seconds….
for folks who show up single there’s a bar in the waiting area which gets very little traffic, where you can sit almost immediately (I didn’t take a picture of it, but it’s fairly long and there at least 10 spots held for solo eaters that I could have sat at, had I wanted to). This is because waiting sections of the place are HUGE and diverting. There’s a massive gift that is as big as if that were their sole business…. and stuffed to the brims
I was tempted by this … but where would I put it? (This sign is particularly funny in Amarillo as they’ve NOT marked where 66 is… they sort of designated one area of town to 66 but it doesn’t seem to link to the rest of the road in any meaningful way, and almost feels arbitrary and resurrected for the tourists, unlike in say LA or Albuquerque, where the are actually roads that link to form a whole)
AND there’s a gaming area with a shooting gallery for the kids/families AND gaming machines (see right side of image) for the adults
Behind THAT there’s a section with tables for people who just want to sit with a drink and talk while waiting, but on a Saturday night it was pretty empty
And behind that is the hallway to the bathrooms, which was lined with those moving pictures that change based on where you’re standing… all of which were historic portraits that changed into horrific images…. these sorts of things…. which kept me and a few other people entertained for a good 10 minutes as we decided which were the worst (and which could be purchased at the gift-shop). I.e., the “customer holding pen” is designed to separate you from your money, is almost as big as the eating room (which is two stories), and I’d bet is probably more profitable.
Only then do you enter the main eating area…
It is two stories high (happily I didn’t have to climb stairs), and is (I believe) set up so that anyone taking the challenge is sat in the central area and becomes part of the attraction; they are not only observable by most of the other customers.
But there’s a clock located below the massive cow-head, that can accommodate up to six competitors at once. But, no one was competing when I was there, which is why I think they have these guys walking around entertaining the guests (sort of a country western Tex/Mex nod to the Hispanic tradition)
I arrived at the restaurant having not eaten all day… other than a cup of coffee. So I was pretty hungry. I consulted with the various guests around me, and one of them … who was eating Chicken fried steak convinced me to order that. It is very much NOT on my allowed diet (both steak and fried) but its one of my very favorite things. I ordered it with the vegetable soup and baked sweet potato (sweet potatoes are MUCH MUCH MUCH healthier than normal ones, and are even diabetic acceptable). I was also drawn to try the baby-back-ribs, which this place sells in a sampler menu of three as an appetizer.
The ribs were tasty … although, as I explained to the people next to me when they asked, “I’m Jewish”… they went quite for a second and then broke into laughter… “so really, I think they’re tasty but in 50 odd years it’s only like my 3rd time eating them.” The guy next to me asked if the meat was falling off the bone, which it was… and was it tasty, which it was… so he declared that meant they were good.
The soup was a bit thin… it was watery sort of soup with mushrooms and potatoes and other veggies in it, with a little bit of a kick (spice). But it was good, and since it had been a cold rainy day and my nose was running a bit, it was satisfying.
Then the “star” of the meal, my Chicken fried steak with white sauce, which is how they do it in Texas. (It was very pretty, but I didn’t take a picture of it, sorry.) I had my first bite and…. BLECH!!!! Firstly, it was neither cubed steak nor an actual fillet (which is how I prefer it), it was hamburger … and FATTY hamburger at that… and pretty much ALL I could taste in my mouth was a mouthful of fat. BLECH! I pushed it to the side and continued to eat my soup, with an intention of then starting on my sweet potato.
After a while a waiter finally came by (wasn’t impressed with the wait staff’s attentiveness) with an obligatory “how’s everything” which wasn’t genuine and I could tell he assumed would be “ok” only to be shocked when I pointed to the now cold plate of chicken fried steak… that was pushed to the far side of the table… which he REALLY should have noticed if he were any good at his job… and said, “I don’t like that.”
He went, and got the manager, who asked why I hadn’t like it… so I described my diet and how Chicken fried Steak is really one of my favorite foods, but that this one wasn’t good enough to justify breaking the diet… so he then suggest I order the grilled Salmon instead, which I did. And, unlike the day before when I had ordered salmon and got served trout… today it was actually salmon, and a fairly large slab of it.
It was well cooked (by US standards), but firm but not dry… and sort of heavily spiced with spices I’d normally reserve for steak. But, by the time it had arrived I’d had 3 ribs, a cup of soup, a piece of Texas toast and 3 bread rolls… so I ended up packing up it and the sweet potato to have for lunch the next day (I had booked in a rest day from my travels, which a forecast of really lousy weather ensured I’d take…)
That said…If you’re hungry but not THAT hungry, they also offer 12, 18, 24 and 36 oz steaks (see menu), which is what the owner originally was selling and referred to as his “Texas sized steaks”, before coming up with the challenge. Oh and if that weren’t enough…
Then, as you’re leaving you are forced to walk past this gauntlet, A a gelato, fresh fudge and pastries stand…
….even though this is technically in the front area right by the entrance to the restaurant area, I noticed most people bought from it just as they were leaving the store… to take home for later (so that your full stomach shouldn’t be the master of your eyes… which is kind of brilliant if you think about it from a marketing perspective)
Del’s Restaurant in Tucumcari New Mexico, which Yelp ranks as one of the top three restaurants in town was kind of a major let down. But in a town with only 27 options, half of which are national chains… well beggars really can’t be choosers.
Looking at the exterior you’d assume it was a steak place … because cows…
BUT NO! It’s sort of a Mexican/Southern American combo type place that can’t quite make up its mind what it is….
other than all the staff have to wear white cowboy hats… Oh and note the upper right corner of the menus… the woman next to me ordered the “light bite” of macaroni and cheese, and it was this MASSIVE plate full of the stuff… and note that there’s NOTHING low-calorie on that list… Light bites in the southwest apparently doesn’t mean what it means everywhere else
The place has a fairly large gift shop (the room after the tables, AND the check out counter) that sells pretty much all the obligatory goods and not much else.
and an all you can eat soup and salad bar, where most of the salads are swimming in mayonnaise (welcome to culinary sophistication of the southwest)
I got my salad (blue cheese on the side) and the mushroom soup (because a waitress told me the bean soup wasn’t very good)…. and then I ordered the grilled salmon. I am pretty sure I was NOT brought salmon… it was fish, and other than it was woefully over cooked it wasn’t bad… but it sure as shit wasn’t salmon… Sockeye salmon possibly… but that’s not Salmon… it’s in the trout family… and to be honest what I was eating tasted more like something in the tuna family than trout.
I’ve been to Fair Oaks Dairy restaurants twice now, but have yet to visit their theme park. Apparently, it the ONLY theme park devoted to dairy in the who country. The first time I was in 2015 when I was driving from Chicago to Florida, and spotted the road side advertising for the place (there’s a lot of them, and they are all way cool, MUCH nicer than the shoddy billboards you usually see — when researching this I learned the dairy had been bought out by Coca-cola in 2014), and they are one of the biggest and most high-tech dairies in the country.
Last time I was here I was able to grab a meal at their cheaper food option, which is off on the other side of the parking lot from the restaurant and theme park (above)
but that closes at 6pm (I didn’t show up there till about 6:30 today).
which they call the Cowfé… it’s a no frills cafe that serves produce and food items fresh from their farms…
and from what I could tell it’s SOME of the same foods as at their restaurant called ‘The Farmhouse,’ (the cafe has a MUCH smaller menu), for about half the price… I know this because I apparently ordered the same dish both times I’ve been there (hey, I like cuban sandwiches… )
but without the table service, massive order of fries, and the all you can eat jalapeno cornbread… So the Cuban sandwich which was $7.75 at the cafe, is $14 at the restaurant. (I’m also willing to consider that the cafe sandwhich might be a bit smaller in size — I could only eat half of the restaurant’s sandwhich.) Looking at the foods offered, a lot of it is the same stuff you’d expect to find in Appalachia, which is not surprising as the culture extends about this far north.
while walking back out to the parking lot I passed the table where some people who I had gotten friendly with when I entered were sitting, and they allowed me to photograph their food (I was amazed at how MASSIVE their portions were)…
and the woman gave me one her disturbingly large fried chicken wings (I was utterly underwhelmed by it, almost no flavor at all). On my way out of the parking lot I realized that the BP (British Petroleum) gas station adjacent to the Fair Oaks Dairy was actually sort of an extension of it (the gas station store ALSO sells their food).
Bell Buckle, TN is a very cute, tiny (population of under 400) town located well away from any highways, but on an active train line. It is a well-preserved historic town full of well maintained Victorian homes, many of which have very pretty gardens, as well as a well maintained downtown (it is a whistle-stop town on the train line from Nashville to Chattanooga) that has done everything feasibly possible to be appealing to tourists.
Approaching the town you pass some impressively palatial homes, which is not what one expects to see in such a small town in Tennessee. Then, the moment you drive into town you’ll have to slow down to 15 mph, as you pass The Webb school. Looking at it I could tell it was a fairly affluent boarding school (its tuition is between 40-50K a year, which is up there with the price of sending your kid to University) whose presence in the town, I was pretty sure, probably explained why the homes I was passing were SO nice. That said, when I got home and did some research; I discovered that it was in fact a college prepboarding school, founded in 1870 (one of the oldest ones in the south); and that the school had been moved to Bell Buckle in 1886 (because the town was dry while its original location was going wet); and, that it was at one point SO good that it was responsible for producing more Rhodes scholars than any other secondary school in country (that said, I was looking on their website that lists where their current crop of seniors will be going for university, and the list was NOT a very impressive one — the public high school I went to, it does way better).
A little further up the road you’ll come to a still active train line (none of the trains I saw actually bothered to stop at the town, confirming its whistle-stop status), and a small collection or historic storefronts which make up the “down town.” I parked my car and walked around, exploring the shops.
In every shop I entered I asked what the history of the town was, and none of the staff seemed to know. In each case they said they were actually new to the town, or didn’t actually live in town. Which was interesting.
The shops consist mostly of women’s clothing shops, shops that promote local artists,
antique shops and
and four different food places, a coffee shop, an ice cream and sandwiches shop (with homemade fried pie), a meat and three and ladies high tea place…. with the exception of the coffee place (which was just a coffee place), all of the other three places were so southern as to represent stereotypes of the south, or tourist trap heaven.
This is supposed to be the best restaurant in town, a traditional Southern ‘meat and three‘ but the guy in the wellness store told me that everything they serve is actually produced by Sysco foods (i.e., almost nothing is made by them, it all arrives in bulk already made), which is kind of shocking as it apparently is one of the major draws to the town (one store owner told me that it alone generates most of the towns income), and was, according to their resturant web site, listed as one of the top 10 resturants in the state
The shop that surprised me the most was the Wellness Emporium place that sold things like tonics, Kombucha and CBD Hemp oil. The guy when talking to the women described how he runs an organic farm and produces most of his products himself.
What I now know is that food in Dollywood comes in TWO varieties, 1) quantity over quality, or 2) quality over quantity.
Mea Culpa back in May of 2016 I visited the Dollywood area for the first time and had nothing but horrible meals. Just recently I visited the town for second time with a friend who is a vegetarian, and as such, opted away from all of the tourist spots that promised massive portions and/or all you can eat options — as none of them were going to be vegetarian friendly, and instead opted for smaller local/places that offered normal sized meals where we cold pick and choose … and to my delight was MUCH happier with everything that was served to us. In fact I found TWO very tasty places in Pigeon Forge, and another down the road in nearby Gatlinburg.
Hidden among the shops right behind the Old Mill restaurant (where I had a TRUELY awful meal during my last stay) is an eatery owned by the same company called the Old Mill Pottery House Cafe & Grille
It’s a MUCH smaller place (easily 1/10th the size of the old Mill), that seems to attract an older crowd (I’m guessing snowbird types who come through town on a semi-regular basis) and locals, and neither I nor my friend were served anything we didn’t enjoy… and the prices are very reasonable. I had the salmon cakes appetizer with a baked sweet potato and Cheese grits, while my friend had the vegetarian sandwich. (Google maps for some reason refuses to load for the cafe, so I’ve loaded the Old Mill instead, but it’s right next door.
Across the street and about a quarter mill from the Old Mill we found a tiny hole in the wall Cuban place embedded in a strip mall called Smokies Cuban Cafe, which was also very tasty, where we could talk to the cook who directed my friend to what he could and could not eat; essentially she warned us that they only had one fryer, and as such all meat and vegetable dishes that were fried, were done so in that same single fryer. My friend, who has been a vegetarian for many years was given a mental heads up by this … having only really lived in places where vegetarians were normative, he’d never thought to ask about that before.
In this case I had the Cuban sandwich, while my friend had black beans and rice and a side of yucca with garlic sauce — the yucca fries being verboten (see above)
Finally, at the next town over, Gatlinburg, we took the suggestion of a shopkeeper and ate our dinner at Loco Burro Fresh Mex Cantina, a two story restaurant hidden above a Jonny Rockets burger joint and two small shops selling tourist junk. Even though it was a bit chilly we opted to sit in the roof top bar so that we could continue to enjoy the night view. I opted for a collection of side dishes: grilled shrimp, guacamole and black beans while my friend opted for a cheese quesadilla and a margarita.