The Best Casual Restaurant in Every State Gallery
July 18, 2018
These restaurants may not be temples of gastronomy, but they sure offer some mighty good food
The Best Casual Restaurant in Every State
Every year since The Daily Meal’s 2011 founding, we’ve set out to compile a comprehensive ranking of the 101 Best Restaurants in America, and in 2015, we published our first ranking of the 101 Best Casual Restaurants in America. In that annual ranking, however, we haven’t featured a restaurant from each of the 50 states, but that’s exactly what we’re doing today. From hot dog shacks to taco joints, from neighborhood hangouts to legendary barbecue spots, we’re pleased to present the best restaurant in each state (and Washington, D.C.) where the food is cheap and you’ll feel right at home in jeans.
With all that in mind, what makes a restaurant casual, exactly? It goes far beyond the dress code. Our main criterion was the price factor: Can two people fill themselves up and get out for less than $50, excluding tip and alcohol? Other factors we took into account were an overall comfortable and relaxed ambiance, a “destination” status (that is, is the place worth traveling for?), and a proven reputation and longevity.
To assemble our ranking, we dug through this year’s ranking of America’s best casual restaurants, as well as our rankings of America’s best purveyors of pizza, burgers, hot dogs, and more, ending up with a vast cross-section of America and the casual restaurants that make it great. So loosen your belt and get ready for a culinary tour of the best that America has to offer. Read on to learn about the best casual restaurant in all 50 states, as well as Washington, D.C.
Alabama: Big Bob Gibson's Bar-B-Q, Decatur
Bob Gibson worked for the L & N Railroad and hosted barbecues in his backyard on the weekends, and in 1952, he opened Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q on Decatur's Sixth Avenue. Gibson’s grandson, Don McLemore, took over in 1972. When the restaurant burned down in 1988, the family rebuilt it next door, salvaging the original neon sign. Today it’s helmed by legendary pitmaster Chris Lilly, who invented the rubs used on the meat as well as the sauces, the most famous of which is a zippy mayo-based Alabama-style white sauce that pairs perfectly with his smoked chicken.
Alaska: Tommy’s Burger Stop, Anchorage
This fun and eclectic burger joint is renowned in Anchorage, largely thanks to its wide variety of burgers, which start with 5.5-ounce patties of Australian beef that get a dose of Cajun seasoning before hitting the griddle. They adorn eight different types of burgers, ranging from a simple cheeseburger to the crave-worthy R.L.E. Hello Burger, two patties topped with bacon, grilled mushrooms, onions, jalapeños, and cheese. Veggie burgers, sliders, cheesesteaks, and po’boys round out the menu.
Arizona: Pizzeria Bianco, Phoenix
"There’s no mystery to my pizza," Bronx native Chris Bianco was quoted as saying in The New York Times. "Sicilian oregano, organic flour, San Marzano tomatoes, purified water, mozzarella I learned to make at Mike's Deli in the Bronx, sea salt, fresh yeast cake and a little bit of yesterday's dough. In the end great pizza, like anything else, is all about balance. It's that simple.''
Try telling that to the legions of pizza pilgrims who have visited the storied Phoenix pizza spot he opened more than 20 years ago. The restaurant serves not only addictive thin-crust pizzas but also fantastic antipasto (involving wood-oven-roasted vegetables), perfect salads, and homemade country bread.
Even though Bianco no longer makes every pie the restaurant turns out (a bout of “baker’s lung” nearly killed him), Pizzeria Bianco is now an American classic. This is another case where any pie will likely be better than most you’ve had in your life (that rosa with red onions and pistachios!), but the signature Margherita will recalibrate your pizza baseline forever: tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, and basil.
Arkansas: Big Orange, Little Rock
Little Rock = Big Orange. This popular hangout boasts a full bar, modern décor, and the best burgers in town. They’re made with all-natural beef and as many fresh, local ingredients as possible, and most of them have a decidedly gourmet twist: There’s the Farmer’s Burger, with havarti, a fried local egg, bacon from local Petit Jean Meats, butter leaf lettuce, tomato, red onion, and aïoli; the Spicy Pimento (with house-made spicy pimento cheese and pickled green tomato); the Hickory Smoke (sharp Cheddar, barbecue sauce, dill pickles, and fried onion strings); and the pièce de résistance, the White Truffle & Pecorino (with pecorino cheese, arugula, fig jam, white truffle, and mayo).
California: La Taquería, San Francisco
When it comes to leaders of a culinary genre, there are few restaurants in America with greater gravitas for their respective focus than San Francisco’s La Taqueria has for tacos and burritos. That gives it, and its tacos (carnitas among them, quite arguably the best), quite a heavy reputation to live up to. La Taqueria, just one of the Mission’s many casual Mexican joints, does Mexican the way it should be done: fresh. As if the amazing rice-free burritos weren’t enough (you’d never notice its absence), there are the tacos. To prepare the carnitas, chef/owner Miguel Jara slow-cooks chunks of pork shoulder in cauldrons of bubbling lard until tender, then roasts it until it’s crispy. When it's tucked into a double layer of corn tortillas (or a fresh flour tortilla) and topped with your choice of pinto beans, onions, pico de gallo, cheese, crema, or guacamole (or none of the above), there’s no better taco, or burrito, in America.
Colorado: Steuben's, Denver
Opened in 2007, but named in honor of a famous restaurant and nightclub that co-proprietor Josh Wolkon's great-uncles owned in Boston for several decades in the middle of the last century, Steuben's is a neighborhood diner serving American regional specialties. Representing Colorado's neighbor, New Mexico, the menu presents what is regularly named the best green chile (or chili, as Steuben's puts it) cheeseburger in Denver. Said to be inspired by the classic version at the Owl Bar in San Antonio, New Mexico, it's a fat burger patty topped with American cheese into which green chile strips seem to melt. Lettuce, tomato, onion, mayo, and mustard ornament the burger, which is served on a challah bun.
Connecticut: Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, New Haven
If you want to discuss the loaded topic of America's best pizza with any authority, you have to make a pilgrimage to this legendary New Haven pizzeria — whose "clam pie" has taken first place in The Daily Meal's ranking of The 101 Best Pizzas in America nearly every year. Frank Pepe opened his doors in New Haven, Connecticut’s Wooster Square in 1925, offering classic Neapolitan-style pizza. After immigrating to the United States in 1909 at the age of 16 from Italy, Pepe took odd jobs before opening his restaurant. Since its inception, Pepe’s has opened an additional seven locations. What should you order at this checklist destination? Two words: clam pie ("No muzz!"). This is a Northeastern pizza genre unto its own, and Pepe’s is the best of them all — freshly shucked, briny littleneck clams; an intense dose of garlic; olive oil; oregano; and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano atop a charcoal-colored crust. The advanced move? Clam pie with bacon. Just expect to wait in line if you get there after 11:30 a.m. on a weekend.
Delaware: Angelo’s Luncheonette, Wilmington
In business since 1967, this picture-perfect corner lunch counter is run by August Muzzi (who inherited the restaurant from his father, Angelo, and can usually be found manning the griddle) and his family. Full of regulars and dripping with old-school charm, Angelo’s has just 12 stools and a handful of booths, and still retains many of its original fixtures and just about all of its original menu. The bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich is a masterpiece of the form, the pancakes are flawless, and we’ll let you guess how great the grilled cheese is.
Florida: 4 Rivers Smokehouse, Orlando
4 Rivers is the brainchild of Florida barbecue master John Rivers, and since opening in October 2009, it has become incredibly well-respected, with nine operating smokehouses across the state. Rivers’ backstory is certainly nontraditional: He spent 20 years in the health care industry, but during his travels he decided to learn everything there is to know about barbecue, and after retiring he set about perfecting his own recipes, and the end result is some first-class barbecue. The smoker at each of the 14 Florida locations is on at full blast throughout the day and night, smoking everything from Angus brisket, St. Louis ribs, pork shoulders, and chicken to wings, jalapeños, and a “brontosaurus” beef rib. The meat alone is enough to leave you happy and satisfied, but don’t forget about the sandwiches, like the famed Texas Destroyer: smoked brisket, onion rings, jalapeños, and melted provolone smothered in house barbecue sauce.
Georgia: Busy Bee Café, Atlanta
An Atlanta landmark, the Busy Bee Café has been serving traditional soul food to hungry locals since first opening in 1947. The cozy restaurant features a long lunch counter and a handful of tables, and the food is homestyle, delicious, and inexpensive. You’d be hard-pressed to find better fried or smothered chicken, pork chops, fried fish, smoked ham hocks, oxtails, slow-smoked ribs, or baked macaroni and cheese anywhere else in town, and the desserts, including scratch-made cakes and Georgia peach and blackberry cobblers, are the stuff of legend.
Hawaii: Koko Head Café, Honolulu
You might have spotted chef Lee Anne Wong on Food Network and Top Chef (she was a contestant in season one and made a brief cameo in the most recent season), but you might not know that she also happens to run one of the hottest, funkiest brunch destinations in Hawaii, in a quiet Honolulu neighborhood (quiet, that is, until brunch rolls around). Koko Head Café has a huge menu of baked goods, pancakes, egg dishes, and skillets, as well as a lovely assortment of Asian- and Hawaiian-inspired dishes including black sesame yuzu muffins; breakfast congee (with bacon, Portuguese sausage, ham, soft-poached egg, and Cheddar); omelettes filled with miso smoked pork or poke; Wong’s spin on loco moco; and breakfast bibimbap.
Idaho: Bittercreek Ale House, Boise
This bar and restaurant has been going strong for 22 years, and has attracted legions of regulars thanks to a huge selection of craft beers and insanely delicious burgers. Just about every item on its wide-ranging menu is made with high-quality, locally-sourced ingredients, and that pertains to the burgers as well, which are made with 100 percent grass-fed, house-ground chuck and brisket and served on locally baked potato buns. You can have yours topped with cheese or bacon (or both), or you can opt for the popular Huntsman burger, topped with English Cheddar, Stilton, pickles, lettuce, onions, bacon, and special sauce.
Illinois: Little Goat, Chicago
A diner unlike any other, Little Goat is chef Stephanie Izard’s follow-up to her acclaimed (and perpetually mobbed) flagship, Girl & the Goat, which is a perennial member of our 101 Best Restaurants in America club. The menu includes all-day breakfast featuring items like dark chocolate chip crunch pancakes, Fat Elvis Waffles (with banana, peanut butter, and bacon maple syrup), and the insanely delicious Ooey Gooey Cinnabun. Sandwiches include the Los Drowned (braised beef, avocado, butterkäse cheese, pickled peppers and onions, and spicy mayo); a pork belly scallion pancake with hoisin, bok choy salad, and ginger maple dressing; a sloppy Joe made with goat meat; and a grilled cheese filled with smoked Gouda, MontAmore cheese, pork guanciale, and smoked tomato. And we haven’t even gotten to the burgers, salads, and desserts! Go and see for yourself how delicious the food here is.
Indiana: Shapiro's Delicatessen, Indianapolis
Shapiro’s Delicatessen and Cafeteria has been serving loyal customers in Indianapolis since 1905. Best known for its cured meats and sandwiches piled high on rye or egg buns, it’s also world famous for its smoked pickled tongue (don’t knock it ‘til you try it). Their corned beef is sourced from Vienna Beef in Chicago and the pastrami is shipped in from Brooklyn. Their most famous creation, however, is the peppered beef, which is made by salting, washing, curing, peppering, smoking, and seasoning lean beef, and it’s a must-order.
Iowa: Taylor’s Maid-Rite, Marshalltown
An Iowa staple that’s a true Midwestern regional specialty, the “loosemeat” sandwich (also called a tavern sandwich) can be thought of as a sloppy Joe without the sauce: crumbled seasoned ground beef on a bun, topped with mustard, pickles, and chopped onions. Even though you can find it in plenty of small local restaurants, the one to visit is Taylor’s Maid-Rite in Marshalltown. Going strong since 1928, it’s a truly historic institution; there are franchised locations all across the Midwest (just called Maid-Rite), but the original is the one to visit.
Kansas: Joe's Kansas City Bar-B-Que, Kansas City
Joe’s Kansas City, with its original location on the Kansas side of the city, offers smoky, tender, melt-in-your-mouth barbecue. This chain began as Oklahoma Joe’s in 1995 in none other than a corner gas station. Since then, it’s opened two more eateries and has achieved a level of renown in the city. The large menu offers smoked turkey and ham, beef brisket, ribs, barbecue sausage, and the house specialty, pulled pork. If you come in during lunch on Monday or Saturday, or at dinner on Wednesday, you may be lucky enough to indulge in Joe’s sought-after burnt ends (if you get there before the dish sells out). The menu also features chicken gumbo and a variety of sides, such as dirty rice and barbecue beans.
Kentucky: Lexington Diner, Lexington
Lexington Diner is a small and unpretentious restaurant with tile floors, formica tables, a four-stool counter, and some of the finest all-day breakfasts you’ll find anywhere. Owners Ranada Riley and Karin West have assembled a stellar menu of egg dishes, French toast, waffles, and spins on regional specialties, and the results are nothing short of breakfast perfection, with some serious surprises thrown in. The overstuffed omelettes, bananas Foster French toast, breakfast burrito, biscuits and gravy, and Cheddar garlic grits are nothing to sneeze at, but the menu’s true jaw-droppers include a play on the Kentucky Hot Brown with chorizo, scrambled eggs, gravy, grilled tomato, bacon, and Cheddar; biscuits topped with chicken tenders, pit ham, Swiss, and bourbon honey mustard; shaved ribeye, caramelized onions, an egg, provolone, and horseradish aïoli on a toasted bagel; and French toast topped with pulled pork and balsamic drizzle. And when lunch rolls around, you can’t beat the fish and chips, chicken and waffles, housemade pimento cheese sandwich, burgers, and “Kentucky nachos” with house-made potato chips, Cheddar, chili, and bacon.
Louisiana: Willie Mae's Scotch House, New Orleans
You haven’t truly had fried chicken until you’ve had it from Willie Mae’s, the legendary restaurant located in New Orleans’ Treme neighborhood since 1956. Look around the two no-frills dining rooms and you’ll see nothing but fried chicken, even though other offerings, like smothered veal, are available (and delicious). But if it’s your first time there, take a cue from the regulars and pilgrims alike. The chicken, perfected by Willie Mae Seaton (who passed away in 2015 at age 99) and today safeguarded by her granddaughter Kerry, is, simply put, otherworldly. Fried to order, the crust is shiny, craggy, light, not greasy, and shatteringly crisp and crunchy, coming away cleanly as you take a bite without dragging the rest of the breading with it. Underneath, the chicken is impossibly moist and juicy. We almost lost Willie Mae’s after it was destroyed during Katrina, but the community banded together to rebuild the restaurant exactly as it was before.
Maine: J's Oyster, Portland
Sure, it’s touristy, but the tourists are there for all the right reasons: The no-frills J’s is located right on the wharf and has a huge bar, a wide selection of oysters, and world-class lobster rolls. For $13, you get a toasted hot dog bun, some lettuce, and a pile of fresh-picked lobster meat, and that’s it. A couple packets of mayo and a container of butter come on the side so you can dress it up yourself, but the real star of the show here is the lobster, served with as few bells and whistles as possible. And thankfully it’s not too filling, so you can also get your fill of steamers, whole belly clams served in a big bucket.
Maryland: Chaps Charcoal Restaurant, Baltimore
Chaps Charcoal Restaurant came from humble beginnings, but has grown to serve some of the best barbecue-style sandwiches on the East Coast. It opened in 1987 in a 12-by-15 shack with no phones or electricity; fast-forward 25 years and Chaps is still in the same location and thriving (in a slightly larger space). The restaurant was on The Citys Paper’s “Baltimore’s Best” roundup from 1991 to 2013, and has been featured on Food Network’s Diners, Drive-in, and Dives and the Cooking Channel’s The Best Thing I Ever Ate.
Their best-known sandwich is without a doubt the Pit Beef sandwich, for which they take an entire bottom round and grill it whole before slicing it to order. It’s then grilled again to the perfect temperature and placed on a roll with your choice of toppings. They provide an assortment of creative sandwich options, such as The Bulldog, which comes with pit beef, sausage, and cheese.
Massachusetts: Santarpio’s, Boston
Left:Vicky H./Yelp Right: Amanda R./Yelp
Santarpio's Pizza, which opened in 1903, sticks to its traditional roots when it comes to the famous slightly chewy and satisfyingly wet slices. The menu consists of a variety of options, but includes a list of customers' favorite combos, like a pie that pairs sausage with garlic, ground beef, and onions, and even "The Works": mushrooms, onions, peppers, garlic, sausage, pepperoni, extra cheese, and anchovies. First-timer? Order Santarpio’s most popular pie — mozzarella, sausage, and garlic — to establish a baseline. (Regulars also swear by the pizzeria’s skewers of lamb, steak tips, and homemade sausage, grilled over charcoal — the only non-pizza items on the menu.)
Michigan: American Coney Island, Detroit
In Detroit, there’s an epic rivalry going back decades between two neighboring hot dog stands, American Coney Island and Lafayette Coney Island, but both belong on our list for serving legendary hot dogs. Family-owned and -operated since 1917, American’s claim to fame is the classic coney-style dog. A custom-made natural-casing hot dog from Koegel’s gets placed into a warm steamed bun, then topped with a Greek-spiced beef-heart-based chili sauce developed by founder Gust Keros, a heap of diced onions, and a squirt of mustard. No trip to Detroit is complete without a coney dog.
Minnesota: Matt's Bar, Minneapolis
Ah, the legendary Jucy Lucy (yes, Matt's spells it without the "i"). While the battle rages between Matt’s Bar and the nearby 5-8 Club over who invented this brilliant burger variation (basically a cheeseburger with the cheese inside the patty instead of on top), the one at Matt’s Bar is the superior specimen. Legend has it that shortly after the restaurant opened in 1954 a hungry customer came in and asked for two burger patties with a slice of cheese in the middle. He took a bite, proclaimed it to be "one juicy Lucy!," and an icon was born. Only fresh-ground beef goes into each hand-formed burger, and the first bite yields a river of molten, gooey cheese. These burgers are much more difficult to make than it may appear, and the one at Matt’s Bar is absolute perfection.
Mississippi: Big Bad Breakfast, Oxford
When it comes to dining in Oxford, John Currence knows what’s best. The renowned chef and restaurateur started his career with the casually elegant City Grocery, located in the heart of town. Since then, he’s opened a catering company along with six other restaurants, one of them being a popular brunch spot with an intimidatingly cool name of Big Bad Breakfast. The menu is chock full of classic breakfast staples like shrimp and grits, biscuits and gravy, chicken and waffles, and flapjacks, and biscuits and jellies are made from scratch. If you go for lunch, be sure to try the Southern Belly sandwich, loaded with house-made pimento, house-made bacon, bread and butter pickles, local tomatoes, and fresh slaw.
Missouri: Arthur Bryant's, Kansas City
This is probably the most famous barbecue restaurant in America — thanks largely to the efforts of Kansas City-born writer Calvin Trillin, who in 1974 wrote in Playboy, with a wink in his eye, that it was "possibly the single best restaurant in the world." Arthur Bryant’s grew out of a place owned by Henry Perry, the so-called "father of Kansas City barbecue." When Perry died in 1940, Charlie Bryant, one of his employees, took it over, and after his death, his brother Arthur assumed ownership. Baseball players and fans alike, along with U.S. presidents, movie stars, and other notables, have flocked to it ever since for its hickory- and oak wood-smoked ribs slathered in a tangy vinegar sauce. Arthur Bryant passed away at 80 years old in 1982, in the middle of working a shift, but the restaurant continues to thrive.
Montana: The Burger Dive, Billings
H Brant R./Yelp
The Burger Dive chef Brad Halsten might as well call himself “The Burger King of Montana,” because nobody around is turning out such well-made, award-winning, and creative burgers. His 1/3 pound burgers start with Angus beef, and his Jerk Burger (with house-made jerk sauce, pepper jack cheese, lettuce, tomato, and onion on a locally-made bun) took first place in beef at the 2012 Masters of Barbecue Challenge; his Best of the Bash Burger (a blackened patty topped with goat cheese, bacon, an onion ring, arugula, sriracha, and garlic basil mayo) won the South Beach Wine & Food Festival’s famed Burger Bash in 2014; and the I’m Your Huckleberry (topped with huckleberry Hatch chile barbecue sauce, bacon, goat cheese, roasted red pepper mayo, and arugula) won 2016’s World Food Championships. This guy is a burger wizard.
Nebraska: Block 16, Omaha
“Farm to table street food” is the name of the game at this beloved local standby, run by the husband-and-wife team of Jessica and Paul Urban. They source their humanely-raised, 100 percent grass-fed beef from a high-end Iowa butcher, and 1/3-pound patties are used on burgers including the Croque Garcon (topped with cheese, ham, a sunny-side-up egg, mustard, and truffle mayo on ciabatta). Believe it or not, this is the burger that none other than Alton Brown dubbed the country’s best, calling it “high art.” Make sure you get a side of Duck Duck Goose Fries, topped with duck confit, crispy duck skin, duck-fat mayo, and gooseberry gastrique. And if you’re not in the mood for a burger, the pulled pork, fried chicken, and poutine are out of this world.
Nevada: Peppermill, Las Vegas
No trip to Las Vegas is complete without neon lights, and you’ll find plenty of those at The Peppermill Restaurant. This 24-hour Las Vegas gem has been dishing up classic American fare on the Strip for more than 40 years, and its old-school décor (neon, neon everywhere!) and the classic booths are so distinctive that regular Penn Gillette had an exact replica installed in his house. The menu is expansive and creative, with something for everyone, from late-night revelers to early birds, and the burgers are legendary.
New Hampshire: Gilley’s PM Lunch, Portsmouth
Gilley’s is an adorable little restaurant that’s been in business since 1940; it started life as a lunch cart that was towed by horse into Market Square every day and has been in its present (permanent) home since 1974. The menu is simple — burgers, hot dogs, fries, and sandwiches — but a meal in this tiny little railcar, sitting on a stool and surrounded by ancient wood paneling, is one you’re not likely to soon forget.
New Jersey: White Manna, Hackensack
A North Jersey legend, White Manna is one of the last remaining diner-style burger joints that arose in the tradition of White Castle. What’s served here is the perfect interpretation of that form, perfected over decades and decades, unchanging. You walk up to the tiny counter, place your order with the grillman, and watch as he smashes a small wad of meat onto the flattop with a handful of thin-sliced onions, keeps careful track of it as it cooks, and sandwiches it into a Martin’s bun. Make it a double with cheese, and the burger that will end up on your plate next to some pickle chips won’t be pretty. It’s astonishingly delicious, however. Order a few — you won’t regret it.
New Mexico: El Parasol, Santa Fe
Since 1958, El Parasol has been serving traditional Mexican classics as well as no-frills American fare like burgers, hot dogs, and chili cheese fries. Only three types of tacos are available (chicken, ground beef, and shredded beef), but what tacos these are: The shell is deep-fried and crackling, and the standout shredded beef is boiled until it’s falling apart and then mixed with a sauce that’s a long-kept secret. Topped with either guacamole or salsa, it’s a crunchy, beefy, Tex-Mex (New Mex-Mex?) classic.
New York: Katz's Delicatessen, New York City
Katz’s Deli, on New York’s Lower East Side, is a New York institution. Its corned beef and pastrami, made on-premises and sliced to order, is legendary, and the simple act of taking your ticket, standing in line, bantering with the counterman, and finding a table has become as New York an exercise as, well, eating a hot pastrami sandwich.
Katz’s opened its doors in 1888, originally serving many of the immigrant families on the Lower East Side who landed in New York. Word to the wise: You’re doing yourself a great disservice if you leave without sampling the corned beef and pastrami on rye with some deli mustard. The corned beef is brined and steamed, the pastrami is cured and smoked, and nobody does it better. Receiving a small plate with a taste of what’s to come from the counterman as he hand-slices your meat is one of those can’t-miss New York culinary experiences, surpassed only by the first bite of your sandwich. Katz’s isn’t just a restaurant, it’s an experience. And more so than for any other deli in New York, no visit to the city is complete without a trip to Katz’s. While a towering high-rise is currently under construction next-door, the sale of the restaurant’s air rights by 29-year-old owner Jake Dell (as well as a quick-serve location coming to Brooklyn and plans to ship worldwide) has guaranteed that, thankfully, this New York legend won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. Katz’s isn’t just one of the best casual restaurants in America; it’s one of the best restaurants in America, period.
North Carolina: Poole’s Diner, Raleigh
Chef Ashley Christensen has done more to put Raleigh on the culinary map than just about anybody else, thanks to her stunning restaurants Beasley’s Chicken & Honey, Bridge Club, Chuck’s, Death & Taxes, Fox’s Liquor Bar, and Poole’s Diner. Poole’s has actually been in business since 1945, and today it maintains that retro-chic charm with a double horseshoe bar, red leather banquettes, and a large blackboard displaying that day’s menu. The offerings change weekly (and sometimes daily) based on what’s fresh and in-season, but should you go for brunch (which was re-introduced after a hiatus in April 2017) rest assured that whatever you order will be absolutely exceptional. Expect dishes like seasonal hotcakes, biscuits and gravy, a Benedict with house-made English muffin and house-cured pork shoulder, Carolina shrimp and grits, croquet madame, and cinnamon sugar doughnuts. Coffee is from Counter Culture, and the cocktails are also spectacular.
North Dakota: Kroll’s Diner, Bismarck
Kroll’s has five North Dakota locations, and has been going strong since 1972. The rich and hearty breakfast menu, served all day, is perfect for a North Dakota morning: Three- or six-egg omelettes (try the one topped with homemade chili and shredded Cheddar); six-ounce steak and eggs; country fried steak; and skillets (the Three Meat Skillet is filled with ham, country sausage, bacon, onions, green peppers, hash browns, and American cheese) served with two eggs and your choice of pancakes, toast, or a biscuit and gravy are sure to warm you up. Once lunch and dinner rollaround, there’s hot roast beef, fried chicken, a wide variety of sandwiches and burgers, and country fried steak. The restaurant’s German influence comes through in the fleischkuechle (seasoned ground beef; ground beef, sauerkraut, and cheese; or breakfast sausage, American cheese, and eggs wrapped inside a pastry and deep fried, served with hash browns and country gravy) as well as the knoephla, a thick and creamy, bright yellow chicken and potato soup.
Ohio: B Spot, Cleveland
There are hyped-up dishes and chefs that win so many awards, whose praises are sung so widely and so often, that you feel sure they can’t possibly live up to the hype. Those rules just don’t apply to Iron Chef Michael Symon. He’s won too many burger contests to recall, and with good reason — the man gets good food, he gets meat, and more importantly, he gets how to make a great burger. The Lola, one of the burgers he serves at B Spot’s 6 locations in Cleveland, Columbus, and Detroit, has a sunny-side-up egg, bacon, pickled red onions, and Cheddar, the height of an Alfred Portale dish at Gotham Bar & Grill, and the expressive flavors to match the vibrant personality and hearty laugh that are so characteristic of the chef. It’s going to be on the rarer side, the saltier side, and the gooey-dripping side, and if you’re really into burgers, and really know the way chefs like to make them, well… you’ll be into that.
Oklahoma: Nic’s Grill, Oklahoma City
Grab a seat at the counter in the diminutive Nic’s Grill, joining the hordes of other pilgrims who line up here daily, and watch chef/owner Justin “Nic” Nicholas work his burger magic. He forms passive patties by hand and sears them on a hot griddle, and if you order yours “with cheese and everything” (which we encourage), it’ll be served with plenty of cheese, griddled onions, pickles, mustard, mayo, and ketchup on a perfectly steamed bun. If you’re looking for a slightly more elevated experience, the burgers served at Nicholas’ Nic’s Diner and Lounge across town are also spectacular.
Oregon: Apizza Scholls, Portland
Apizza Scholls serves some of the best pizza in Portland — and, some argue, the best north of San Francisco. But if you want to choose toppings for their 18-inch pies, follow the guidelines: only three ingredients, and no more than two meats per pie.
So choose wisely from a list of toppings that, in addition to classics like anchovies, red onions, garlic, pepperoni, house-made sausage, and basil, includes Olympia Provisions capocollo, house-cured Canadian bacon, cotto salami, arugula, and pepperoncini. (Yes, you can also top pies with jalapeños, mushrooms, pepperoncini, ricotta, green and black olives, and, sigh, truffle oil.) Just remember: Bacon is not available on custom pies.
If you aren't up to building your own pie, there are 13 classics to choose from with names like Pig & Pineapple, Tartufo2 The Electric Boogaloo, and Sausage & Mama. Among them, you’ll find the signature Apizza Amore: Margherita with capocollo (cured pork shoulder) that has a spicy kick offset by the somewhat sweet mozzarella and balanced sauce. That’s amore!
Pennsylvania: John’s Roast Pork, Philadelphia
When John’s Roast Pork opened in 1930 in South Philadelphia, it was surrounded by factories. Time passed and the factories are gone, but John’s remains, and they’re still churning out their world-famous roast pork sandwiches. The sandwich shop has has been awarded the James Beard Foundation Award for Culinary Excellence!
The key to their delicious pork is the family recipe that has been used for over 90 years. It’s a closely guarded secret — only three people currently know how to make it. The pork is deboned in-house and then seasoned with the family’s spices and roasted for four hours. After that, the meat is soaked in its own gravy, sliced, and served. Simple is better with this sandwich; gravy-soaked pork on a torpedo roll with aged provolone and sautéed spinach is the key to lunchtime perfection.
Rhode Island: Olneyville N.Y. System, North Providence
Olneyville N.Y. System, with two locations in Providence, claims to serve "Rhode Island’s Best Hot Wieners," and while that will always remain a point of contention, they’re certainly the most legendary. The New York System dog is a regional specialty: Small franks (in this case, from Little Rhody) are steamed, placed atop a steamed bun, and topped with a cumin-heavy meat sauce, yellow mustard, diced onions, and celery salt. You’re going to want to order a few of these, because they’re little and addictive (see how many of them the counterman can balance on his arm). The "wiener sauce" is so popular that people have been requesting the recipe for years; you can purchase a packet of seasoning online and make it yourself at home.
South Carolina: Hominy Grill, Charleston
A Charleston must-visit, this comfortable and inviting 22-year-old landmark showcases the classic Lowcountry cooking of chef Robert Stehling as well as his dedication to using only the finest ingredients available. Stehling is taking the best aspects of Lowcountry cuisine — grits, biscuits, she-crab soup — and bringing them to new heights: Shrimp and cheese grits are kicked up with scallions, mushrooms, and bacon; biscuits are stuffed with fried chicken and Cheddar and topped with sausage gravy; and grits come topped with your choice of roasted mushrooms and leek cream, slow-smoked pork belly, or sesame-fried catfish with Geechee peanut sauce. Other brunchtime standouts include heirloom buckwheat pancakes with peach syrup and sorghum butter, an heirloom cornmeal waffle with hot chicken thighs and strawberry syrup, and some of the finest fried green tomatoes on Earth. Should you visit (and you should), remember that last year the restaurant stopped serving dinner, and is now only open until 3 p.m. daily.
South Dakota: Phillips Avenue Diner, Sioux Falls
This retro diner may have that old-fashioned malt shop vibe, but the food served here is no gimmick. Crowds flock to this Downtown Sioux Falls destination on a daily basis, but the wait for a table gets especially long on the weekends. Arrive before 11 and you’ll be able to select from a wide variety of breakfast specials including house-made corned beef hash, berry-topped Belgian waffles, banana bread French toast, a huevos rancheros burrito, house-made biscuits and gravy, and breakfast poutine (fried potatoes topped with cheese curds, bacon, tomatoes, gravy, and a fried egg. And after 11 the entire lunch and dinner menu becomes available (along with plenty of breakfast favorites), opening up possibilities like fried cheese curds, pork wings (made with the shank), salads, pot roast dip sandwich, hot mashed potato and fried chicken wrap, seven burgers, meatloaf, chicken and waffles, and a Tater Tot hotdish. Diners don’t get much better than this, folks.
Tennessee: Gus's Fried Chicken, Memphis
If you find yourself in Memphis and in the mood for quite possibly the best fried chicken you will ever eat, head on over to Gus’s — or even better, visit the original location, a small shack located 40 miles outside of town. You’d be wise to order a half-chicken so you can try a little bit of everything. Supremely crisp and crunchy on the golden-brown exterior, it remains moist and juicy on the inside. Seriously, time stands still while you’re eating this chicken. It’s insanely good.
Texas: Franklin Barbecue, Austin
By 10 a.m. on a Friday there will be more than 90 people in line at this modest establishment, which traces its roots back to 2009 and a turquoise trailer. The 90 people who show in the next half-hour wait in vain; a waitress will tell them that there's just no barbecue left. So it goes at Franklin, where Aaron Franklin serves some of the best of Texas's greatest culinary claim to fame (a devastating fire last year destroyed the smokehouse and caused $350,000 in damages, but it reopened four months later without skipping a beat). The brisket, with its peppery exterior, falls apart as you pick it up. The turkey is what presidentially pardoned birds aspire to be. (Former turkey-pardoner Barack Obama, by the way, is apparently the only person who has been allowed to cut the line here.) The sausage snaps loudly when you slice it, juice splashing out and up... You’ve heard the buzz. You’ve seen Franklin on TV. You’re heard his acolytes’ brisket gospel. It's not hype. It really is that good.
Utah: The Park Café, Salt Lake City
A quintessential SLC brunchtime destination since 1984, The Park Café serves a brunch menu that’s simple and essentially perfect. Three-egg omelettes with a wide and creative variety of fillings; steak or pork chops and eggs; its signature pork potatoes scrambled with eggs, Cheddar, sausage, mushrooms, onions, and peppers; French toast: pancakes: biscuits and gravy; cheeseburgers; deli sandwiches; homemade soup and chili… Nothing here really jumps out as blazing any new ground, but that’s exactly what makes The Park Café so good: It sticks to the classics, and it does them really, really well.
Vermont: Al’s French Frys, Burlington
If you live in Burlington, Vermont, you’ve heard of Al’s French Frys. The sprawling burger joint, located just south of downtown, started as a French fry stand run by Al and Genevieve Rusterholz in the late 1940s, and over the years it just kept growing. The latest incarnation still has a distinctly 1950s vibe, and a menu that appears to not have changed (in either offerings and price) in years. The patties are small, and sit between halves of a soft white bun. If you don’t order any toppings, which cost extra, all you get is meat on a bun, which certainly implies that they stand behind its quality. The never-frozen patties are indeed high-grade beef, but some lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, onions, cheese, and ketchup (as well as a second patty to balance out the meat-bun-toppings ratio) never hurt. This is a seriously good old-school burger, and a seriously tasty one at that.
Virginia: Dixie, Petersburg
An old-school swivel-stool lunch counter, Dixie is a Petersburg icon that fills up with regulars from the moment it opens at 7 a.m. daily (it’s closed Sundays). It’s been in business since 1939, but in 2011 it was purchased by Charlie Rawlings, who fixed it up and revitalized it while keeping the menu of simple Southern breakfasts and lunches largely unchanged. Today the restaurant is warm and welcoming, and diners line up for buttermilk biscuits topped with sausage gravy or creamed chipped beef, buttermilk hotcakes, French toast, salt herring, scrapple and eggs, country ham, grits, and omelettes topped with cheese and their famous chili sauce.
Washington: Paseo, Seattle
In Seattle, Paseo has been a household name for more than 20 years thanks to its Caribbean-inspired sandwiches. Just about everything on the menu is ridiculously delicious (seriously, repeated visits are necessary), but if it’s your first time, you need to order the Caribbean roast: pork shoulder that’s marinated and slow-roasted, pulled and tucked into a toasted baguette and topped (like all of their sandwiches) with aïoli, cilantro, pickled jalapeños, romaine lettuce, and caramelized onions. Other standouts include the Smokin’ Thighs (roasted skin-on chicken thighs, aïoli, cilantro, romaine, jalapeños, and caramelized onions) and the Paseo Press (roasted pulled pork shoulder, smoked ham, Swiss, aïoli, cilantro, banana peppers, and caramelized onions, pressed), one of the finest plays on the traditional Cubano you’ll find anywhere.
Washington, D.C.: Ben’s Chili Bowl
As bagels and pizza are iconic to New York, so the half-smoke is to the capital. The celebrity (and presidential) photos on the wall are clear indications of Ben's Chili Bowl's city landmark status, and the continuous lines out the door are evidence that the restaurant's chili cheese dogs are some of the best in the country. But those in the know don’t just order "dogs;" they get the half-smokes, a half-pork, half-beef smoked sausage which is a native D.C. specialty supposedly invented by Ben Ali, the original proprietor, whose sons took over the restaurant after his death. As the U Street Corridor/Shaw neighborhood around it has gentrified, Ben’s remains a more-than-50-year-old bastion of downhome D.C. where college kids, old-timers, and celebrities are all welcome as long as they're willing to stand in line like everybody else — though the president eats for free.
West Virginia: The Country Café, Harpers Ferry
The name doesn’t lie: This place is about as country as a café can get. Wooden floors, ceiling fans, a front porch with rocking chairs, plastic tablecloths, locally-made original art on the walls, a sign that says “Family & Friends Gather Here”… the works. Owners Mandy Armstrong and Lynn and Mark McDonough, who took the 20-year-old restaurant over in 2014 and spiffed it up a bit, also markedly improved the menu; locals flock for the Hearty Breakfast (two farm-fresh eggs, two sausage patties or three strips of bacon, home fries, and toast), French toast, pancakes, omelettes, breakfast sandwiches, and specials like creamed chipped beef or sausage gravy on toast, biscuits, or pancakes. And when lunch rolls around, don’t miss the sour cream and chive fries, pork barbecue sandwich, and custom-made footlong hot dogs.
Wisconsin: Solly's Grille, Milwaukee
Family-owned and -operated since 1936, Solly’s claim to fame is the butter burger, one of the last and finest examples in the nation. Fresh-ground sirloin is delivered daily from a local butcher, and the shakes, fries, and burgers, complete with a healthy dose of real Wisconsin butter, are prepared in full view of diners. About 15 toppings and burger varieties are available, but the trademark Original Solly Burger is the way to go. Each 3-ounce patty gets cooked on a large flat-top griddle and is topped with impossibly flavorful stewed onions and a pat of butter — at least 2 or 3 tablespoons’ worth — before being placed in between two halves of a soft white bun. The butter melts into the meat and into the bun, and it’s unlike any other burger you’ll experience.
Wyoming: Bella Fuoco Wood Fired Pizza, Cheyenne
Bella Fuoco started as a food truck back in 2012, and two years ago owners John and Maria Kopper turned it into their dream restaurant in a historic Downtown Charleston house. Today, they’re making fresh dough daily and turning out some astounding pizzas and breads in their old-school wood-fired oven. Try the weekly rotating chef’s special, design your own from 26 topping options, or try one of theirs, like the Veggie Galore, a red or white pie topped with onions, peppers, zucchini, olives, spinach, and mozzarella. There’s also a pleasing selection of appetizers, soups, salads, and spectacular pasta dishes as well.
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