Some restaurants don’t stand the test of time for various reasons, while others are considered the lucky ones — they linger on, earning legions of fans and a place in history along the way. These are the restaurants that can be considered old-school, evoking feelings of nostalgia for diners over vintage decor and recipes frozen in time. We all appreciate sentimental remembrances of days gone by, so we tracked down America’s best old-fashioned eateries.
Arbetter's Hot Dogs/Yelp
In order to compile our list, we took a deep dive through America’s culinary heritage and identified restaurants that have taken on a rarefied air in the years since they’ve opened, in most cases exceeding well over 50 years. Most of these storied restaurants serve recipes that haven’t changed in years, with vintage architecture and decor to match. None are especially expensive (even though we can certainly think of plenty of old-school, high-end steakhouses), so you can eat a little bit of history without breaking the bank.
If you’re in search of legendary soul food in Charleston, South Carolina, head to Martha Lou’s Kitchen. For more than 30 years, Martha Lou Gadsden has been serving her famous fried chicken, lima beans, mac and cheese and other Southern comfort food staples from a bright pink shack housing a charming, no-frills dining space decorated like a scrapbook from days gone by.
Founded in 1946, Camellia Grill is a New Orleans staple that often sees long lines for its retro charm, friendly service and fabulous food. Some standouts include the chocolate pecan pie, double-scoop freezes and gigantic omelets. While it’s a contender for best breakfast place in New Orleans, a popular time to go is late at night.
In 1904, Nick Freienstein began selling hamburgers at night from a pushcart with a dim lantern on the courthouse square in Huntington, Indiana. It became so popular that he built a 10-by-10 structure under a stairway at a street corner. Then in 1908, he moved into the present brick-and-mortar location. Though the burgers still hold true, the pork tenderloin sandwich, a game-day favorite from Indiana, is a menu standout. It’s made with the same recipe Freienstein used.
An Atlanta landmark, the Busy Bee Cafe has been serving traditional soul food to hungry locals since first opening in 1947. The food at this cozy restaurant is homestyle and inexpensive. It has some of the best smothered chicken, smoked ham hocks and oxtails in town. And the desserts, including cakes and Georgia peach and blackberry cobblers, are top-tier too.
Pizza lovers must make the pilgrimage to Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana in New Haven, Connecticut. The restaurant, which opened in 1925, serves a clam pie that is definitely one of the 101 best pizzas in America. This is a Northeastern pizza genre unto its own with fresh clams, grated pecorino Romano, garlic, oregano and olive oil atop a coal-fired crust.
Teresa H./ Yelp
Located in a narrow, tiled space that’s barely changed since 1919, Casamento’s is synonymous with one thing: Gulf oysters. This legendary Louisiana seafood spot dishes up hundreds of the bivalves daily, on the half-shell, in a creamy stew and in its famous oyster loaf.
While the battle of the best hot dogs is a fiery debate, many Michigan locals will point you to Lafayette Coney Island. It’s been serving wieners to Detroit since 1917, making it one of the oldest businesses in the downtown area. The secret to success at this restaurant is a specially seasoned natural casing hot dog and a decades-old secret family recipe for chili sauce.
Louis’ Lunch opened in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1895. It’s famous for being the rumored birthplace of the hamburger. That’s all you’ll find on the menu here — besides potato salad, chips and pie. The burger is hand-rolled from a blend of five cuts of meat, ground fresh daily and cooked to order on the restaurant’s original cast-iron grills from 1898. Each is simply served with cheese, onion and tomato on white toast.
Before it was a restaurant, Red’s Little Schoolhouse in Grady, Alabama, was Hills Chapel Community School, built in 1910 and closed in 1960. In 1984, a local family placed a winning $3,500 bid on the 2.2-acre property. Red’s Little Schoolhouse — named after the owner’s father, Red Deese — opened in 1985, and business has been steady ever since. On the menu, you’ll find chicken wings, skillet fries, burgers, fried chicken livers, ribeye, salmon and more.
Loveless Cafe in Nashville, Tennessee, is famous for its fried chicken. The recipe has remained unchanged since 1951 when the owners opened their home to serve fried chicken and biscuits to hungry travelers on the highway. These homemade Southern dishes became a hit, so the home was converted to a restaurant and a 14-room motel, with the rooms eventually being turned into gift shops.
Katz’s Delicatessen in New York City opened its doors in 1888 and has been serving some of America’s best sandwiches ever since. Corned beef and pastrami are the stars here, both of which take up to 30 days to cure. The finished product is hand-carved and slapped on rye with mustard, Russian dressing or mayo (if need be).
White Manna has been serving award-winning sliders in Hackensack, New Jersey, since 1946. Each one is made from fresh, extra-lean ground beef delivered daily from a local supplier, cooked with onions and cheese, and served on a potato roll. You may recognize this retro-looking diner-style burger joint from TV, as it’s been highlighted by many of the biggest celebrity food stars of the 2010s, including Guy Fieri and the late Anthony Bourdain.
The Original Pantry Cafe in Los Angeles is a 24-hour diner that opened with just one room and 15 stools in 1924. Back in the day, if you were looking to see famous faces, you may have spotted Marilyn Monroe or Martin Luther King Jr. — both of whom have dined here. The cash-only California restaurant is renowned for its throwback spirit and ample portions of comfort food, like sourdough French toast, country fried steak and burgers.
Papa’s Tomato Pies in Trenton, New Jersey, is still operated by the same family that opened it in 1912, and it claims to be the oldest continuously run pizza restaurant in America. This cash-only joint offers made-to-order pies featuring everything from garlic, meatballs and pepperoni to anchovies, pork roll and even mustard. If you’re not in the mood for a slice, there are tons of Italian favorites on the menu, and even chicken wings.
Pristine C./ Yelp
Patsy’s opened in 1944 and became a New York City dining destination thanks to signature dishes including chicken cacciatore, stuffed veal chop marsala and sausage pizzaiola with peppers and mushrooms. Prior to his death, Frank Sinatra ate here often — Patsy’s credits the singer for making the restaurant famous. This is a solid spot for celeb sightings in New York. In recent history, Ben Stiller, Alec Baldwin, Tom Hanks, Chevy Chase, Oprah Winfrey and many other high-profile figures have enjoyed a meal here.
Philippe the Original/Yelp
Philippe the Original in Los Angeles has been turning out its coveted “French Dipped Sandwich” since 1908. It features either roast beef, roast pork, leg of lamb, turkey, pastrami or ham on a freshly baked French roll dipped in the natural gravy of the roasts. To accompany your sandwich, grab the tart and tangy coleslaw, homemade potato and macaroni salads and other superb side dishes for hot days.
Canter's Deli has been a Los Angeles mainstay since 1931. The menu is long with Jewish classics and then some, and its signature Reubens — like pastrami, corned beef and oven-roasted turkey — are served on rye unless the customer requests otherwise.
If you want to experience what a burger tasted like in 1963, head to Pie ‘n Burger in Pasadena, California, where not much has changed in decades. Go for beef, turkey or veggie topped with lettuce and homemade Thousand Island dressing, all tucked into a toasted white bun and wrapped in wax paper. You won’t regret it.
P.J. Clarke’s has been serving the same food and frosty drinks in New York City since 1884, two years before the city’s most iconic landmark lit her torch. Here’s another fun fact: Legend has it that in 1958,Buddy Holly proposed to his wife here just five hours after they met. In the same year, Nat King Cole proclaimed P.J.’s bacon cheeseburger “the Cadillac of burgers.”
Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack in Nashville serves plain, mild, medium, hot, extra hot, XX hot and — for the people who enjoy super spicy sauce — XXX hot whole chickens, half chickens, legs, breasts, wings and tenders. The origin story is an interesting one. Thornton Prince’s girlfriend suspected him of cheating so, knowing he liked fried chicken, she put a devilish amount of peppers and spices on some for him hoping it’d pain him, but it didn’t. He perfected the recipe, opened a restaurant and nearly 100 years later, it’s just as craveable as ever.
The Red Arrow Diner in Manchester, New Hampshire, has breakfast, lunch and dinner on offer 24/7, with old-school diner favorites including pancakes, corned beef hash, biscuits and gravy and chicken-fried steak. Over the years, the diner, which opened in 1922, has attracted a legion of celebrities and politicians — many of whom can be seen on photographs on the walls — though the owners are most proud to be a favorite of Adam Sandler. The comedian even has a burger named after him here.
Established in 1928 as a roadside stand, Rutt’s Hut in Clifton, New Jersey, is known for its “Rippers” — hot dogs that are fried, causing the casing to split. A trip here is incomplete without the relish, which is made with a secret blend of mustard and spices. The ripper, topped with said relish, is one of the 101 most iconic restaurant dishes in America.
Swett’s has been in Nashville, Tennessee, since 1954. The family-owned restaurant serves homestyle Southern cuisine cafeteria-style, attracting a melting pot of locals, politicians, celebrities and college students. Some of the most popular menu items here include fried chicken, pork chops, mac and cheese and all the pies your sweet tooth can handle. Think pecan, sweet potato, fudge and more.
Top Notch has been turning out charcoal hamburgers, fried chicken, fried fish and other timeless classics since 1971. The retro Austin, Texas, joint has a full dining room and carhop-style curbside service, and every year, it hosts after-parties for a classic car show. Vintage vehicles and malted milkshakes make for double the nostalgia.
Opened in 1959, Ted’s in Meriden, Connecticut, isn’t your average burger joint. Instead of grilling or griddling its patties, cooks steam them with cheddar cheese in custom-designed steam boxes. The burgers lose very little bulk while cooking and stay moist and flavorful. A cheese sauce is then spooned over the patties and cloaks them thickly. Add lettuce and tomato (or complimentary sauteed onions and mushrooms) and you've got an unusual — and unusually good — burger for under $10.
Jill O/. Yelp
A true Chicago classic, The Berghoff Restaurant first opened its doors in 1898, serving free sandwiches to guests who bought a mug of beer for 10 cents. Over the years, a full roster of German classics made their way onto the menu, including Bavarian pretzels, potato pancakes, sausages and wiener schnitzel. It might go without saying, but the beer selection is nice too.
Totonno’s opened on Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York, in 1924. The tough-as-nails old-school pizzeria survived two fires in 1997 and 2009, and Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Today, the James Beard Award-winning family business imports ingredients from Italy to create coal-fired pizza with blistered edges and spotty mozzarella laced over red sauce.
Union Oyster House/Yelp
Union Oyster House dates back to 1826, and it’s even alleged that the first toothpick in the U.S. was used here. Today, it’s a popular place for diners to enjoy oysters with world-famous cocktail sauce and other sought-after seafood like pan-seared scallops, clam chowder and New England lobsters boiled or broiled. The Boston hotspot isn’t far from Fenway Park, where you’ll find the most popular Major League Baseball team in the state.
Phoenicia Diner was built in 1962 and moved to its current location in Phoenicia, New York, in the early 1980s, nestled away in the picture-perfect Catskill Mountains. Everything served here is made fresh from ingredients sourced from Catskills and Hudson Valley farms when available. The dishes are traditional — sometimes with a modern twist — and the diner and everything in it will have you feeling like you’ve stepped back in time.
Willie Mae’s Scotch House opened in New Orleans in 1957 as a bar, and a year later, it moved locations to reopen as a bar, barbershop and beauty salon. In the early 1970s, the beauty salon closed and the restaurant opened. Today, the James Beard Award-winning restaurant is best known for serving the best fried chicken in all of Louisiana.
Not only is Breitbach’s Country dining one of the greatest old-school restaurants, but it’s also one of the oldest restaurants in America, period. The family-owned Balltown, Iowa, establishment was opened in 1852 and purchased by Jacob Breitbach in 1862. The original tavern was destroyed by a fire in 2007, and a second structure was built to replace it within six months. That, too, burned down just 10 months after the first. The current restaurant was completed in 2009.
Red’s Java House has existed on the waterfront of Pier 30 in San Francisco since 1955, serving generations of sailors, dock workers, businessmen, military personnel, yachtsmen, families and even celebrities. While there are other options on the menu, the specialty here is the burger served on local sourdough bread with onions, pickles and yellow mustard — no lettuce or tomatoes allowed. Get it single or double, with or without cheese, with a soda or a beer and fries.
Winstead’s claim to fame is its steakburger, which has been around since the diner opened in 1940. So, what exactly is a steakburger? It’s a hamburger made with freshly ground, high-quality, lean beef that’s been grilled and placed on a plain toasted bun. Order it with “everything” if you like mustard, ketchup, pickles and onion with mayo and grilled onion for no extra charge. Winstead’s steakburgers come single-, double- or triple-stacked. Ice cream fans should save room for a Skyscraper Shake, which comes in all the best flavors: chocolate, vanilla, strawberry and more.
Al’s Breakfast occupies an old alleyway in the Dinkytown neighborhood of Minneapolis. The hidden gem — squeezed between two towering stores — has just 14 stools at the counter, and it’s the same size as it was when Al Bergstrom purchased it in 1950: just 79 feet long and 10 feet wide. Back then it was called “Al’s Diner” and served breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week. In 1961, Al began to offer breakfast only from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m., and that’s when Al’s Breakfast was born.
Sam’s No. 3 is a tourist trap that locals love. It all started in 1927 when Sam Armatas came to Colorado from Greece and opened shop in downtown Denver. Today, there are currently three locations — Denver, Aurora and Glendale — serving American diner favorites as well as Mexican and Greek specialties.
Arbetter's Hot Dogs/Yelp
Arbetter’s came to life in 1959, and the famous chili recipe was created by the original owner Robert “Bob” Arbetter’s wife, Flaminia Arbetter, who came from a family of incredible cooks in Central Italy. Today, the beloved Miami hot dog restaurant prides itself on the same morals it always has: work hard, be honest and treat your customers like gold.
Nite Hawk opened in 1931 as a place for Portlanders to bring their car in for an oil change and enjoy a cup of coffee with apple pie or a meal while they waited. Over time, it turned into a bottle bar, a barbecue restaurant and a dance hall. In 1980, it shifted its focus back to diner-style food featuring all the classics: chicken-fried steak, fried chicken, greasy burgers and more.
Opened in Minneapolis in 1954, Matt’s Bar’s claim to fame is for having the best burger in Minnesota: the Jucy Lucy. As the story goes, a customer came in asking for two hamburger patties with a slice of cheese in the middle. When he bit in, he exclaimed, “That’s one juicy Lucy!” and the rest is history.
Workingman’s Friend has been in business since 1918, and it’s been turning out stellar burgers in Indianapolis ever since. Order a double and you’ll receive two cheese-topped patties stacked on top of each other with a segment of bun in-between to absorb some of the juice. It’s beautiful, it’s old school, and it’s one of the best burgers in America.
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