The Best Restaurants in the Middle of Nowhere Gallery
June 21, 2018
High-quality restaurants don’t need to be in locations with large populations
The Best Restaurants in the Middle of Nowhere
When it comes to the best restaurants in the world, big cities like New York, Paris, and Tokyo get all the love. But what’s to stop a high-quality restaurant with skilled chefs and delicious food from opening up in a smaller city? Or a town? Or even out in the countryside in a place that most people have never even heard of?
Short answer: Nothing. Obviously the “best” restaurants often open in large cities because they’re looking for a larger clientele base and a higher chance of success, but a truly great eatery only needs a dedicated group of more-or-less local regulars to keep it going — or food so good that out-of-towners are willing to make the trip.
Although most of these eateries aren’t completely cut off from towns or people (they do need some customers), they are located in places with small populations, sometimes along back-country roads, and often in areas that the Google Maps Street View car apparently chose to skip. Of course, if you live near one of these restaurants, they probably don't seem like they're in the middle of nowhere — but chances are, they're in places that out-of-towners would never think to visit if these wonderful places weren't there.
Antebellum, Flowery Branch, Ga.
Far from the city of Atlanta, the small town of Flowery Branch, Georgia possesses an absolute gem: Antebellum, a contemporary Southern restaurant housed in a charming 1890s-style home complete with a large wraparound porch and numerous lanterns. Chef Nicholas St. Clair uses local products whenever possible on the exceptional seasonal menu, which has included fried green tomatoes, smoked or grilled Atlantic salmon, pan seared wild scallops, country-fried steak, and root beer braised boneless short rib.
Damon Baehrel, Earlton, N.Y.
One of the best restaurants (or at least one of the most exclusive) in America is Damon Baehrel in New York. No, not New York City, but upstate New York. No, not Albany, Syracuse, Rochester, or even Saratoga, but Coxsackie (population: 9,000), in the Catskill Mountains. And even then, the restaurant is actually located Baehrel’s house in the small hamlet of Earlton, which basically has a population of however many people live or are dining with Damon. The menu is always changing, and everything is 100% local, with Baehrel doing almost all of the legwork himself, including preparing dozens of varieties of his own homemade aged cheeses, cured meats, flours, vinegars, pressed oils, butters, and breads right on premise. Good luck getting a reservation though, as the restaurant is apparently booked solid through 2025.
Fearrington House Restaurant, Fearrington, N.C.
Fearrington, North Carolina, might be less than an hour from the Raleigh-Durham area, but anyone who has driven through Fearrington Village (which takes about three seconds to do) will tell you that it's not much more than a few shops, a residential area, and an elegant inn surrounded by farmland. The inn, however, houses the Fearrington House Restaurant, which is consistently ranked a top 10 restaurant in America by OpenTable’s two-million-plus diners, has been recognized numerous times by The Daily Meal, and is also the only AAA Five Diamond and Forbes Five-Star restaurant in the country to be green-certified. The Fearrington House offers a four-course menu Wednesday to Sunday featuring local apples with vanilla crème fraiche, beef short rib with red onion confit and black garlic, sheared foie gras with confit onions and potato butter, maple glazed duck breast with sunchokes and blood orange, and carrot cake with cream cheese ice cream and caramelized white chocolate.
Fortify Kitchen and Bar, Clayton, Ga.
If I described a restaurant that won a statewide “Silver Spoons” award for best restaurant in 2015, a certificate of excellence in the same year from TripAdvisor, a Best Chefs America award for the past three years, and a diners’ choice award from OpenTable, you probably wouldn’t guess it’s located in the small town of Clayton, Georgia — probably because you’ve never even heard of Clayton, Georgia. Yet this is the case for Fortify Kitchen and Bar, which co-owner/chef Jamie Allred has put on the map with offerings like gouda fritters, Buffalo pork belly bites, a chicken and shrimp grit bowl, local pork loin chops, and cracker-crusted blue crab cakes. Prices might seem high for a restaurant in a random Georgia border town, but then again, so is the quality.
Hawk’s Crawfish, Rayne, La.
Even the website for Hawk’s Crawfish in rural Rayne cautions that the restaurant “may be a little hard to find, but it’s worth the drive.” The restaurant also claims to have the world’s best crawfish, and according to folks who have dined there, this might actually be true. The restaurant opened in 1983 with the goal of providing boiled crawfish to appreciative customers, and by using a perfected technique called purging (keeping crawfish in a “live well” with a current of fresh, aerated, unchlorinated water for 48 hours), owner Anthony Arceneax has been serving clean and tasty crawfish for 33 years. There are a few other menu options (try the bread pudding), but of course it’s the mouthwatering crawfish that make the long trip to Rayne, the so-called “Frog Capital of the World,” actually worth it. Just remember the restaurant’s advice: “If you’re lost or at the end of the world, you’re almost here.” (Note: Hawk’s is only open seasonally, from January to June.)
Hell’s Backbone Grill, Boulder, Utah
If a bend in the road going through the mountains of Utah can be called a town (it can, it is, and it’s called Boulder) then consider the location of Hell’s Backbone Grill as one of the most remote towns in America. That hasn’t stopped owners Jen Castle and Blake Spaulding from running a fantastic restaurant that mostly features locally-sourced food — mainly because that’s the only option available. (Really.) Their organic farm contains over 75 heirloom fruit trees, 130 heritage-breed laying hens, and grass-fed beef and lamb, which leads to dishes like the farm vegetable delight (with house-baked spiced tofu), spicy meatloaf, braised beef, and lemon chicken. There’s also a diverse wine and beer list, and tasty desserts like the chocolate chile cream pot and dark chocolate pecan pie.
Home Ranch Bottoms, Polebridge, Mont.
If you ever find yourself in the middle of Glacier National Park on North Fork Road (the part that the Google Maps car apparently gave up on), and are looking for food and something that resembles civilization, pull off at the log cabin with the sign that says “Home Ranch Bottoms.” In addition to carrying the essential wilderness supplies, this haven near the Canadian border has a fully-functioning tavern and log bar, and serves “the coldest beer in the North Fork” — although I’m uncertain how stiff the competition is. The current owner is from Texas, so the food has an authentic barbecue taste when it comes to burgers and brisket, but there’s also a taco Tuesday promotion, and delicious local huckleberry pie and ice cream. They even offer a huckleberry margarita. Try one or three; you’re probably not going anywhere anyway.
Knik River Lodge, Palmer, Alaska
What would a middle-of-nowhere article be without an entry from America’s 49th state? The Knik River Lodge and its restaurant are listed as being in Palmer (population: 6,400), but not only is the center of that town a 30-minute drive from the lodge, you also have to cross two decent-sized rivers to get there. However, it’s worth it for the true Alaskan wilderness experience, the unbelievable views, and offerings like fresh grilled salmon, pan-seared rock fish, beef Wellington, slow-braised lamb shank, and organic free-range pork loin with a house-made apple-bacon chutney. Of course, being so remote also has its drawbacks: The restaurant is only open during the summer months.
Moonshine Store, Martinsville, Ill.
Martinsville (located along the Illinois-Indiana border), has a population of 1,155, and from the looks of it, every one of them has lunch at the Moonshine Store every day. How else can one explain the line that constantly seems to form and stretch not only out the door of the old one-room general store, but across the dusty parking lot as well. And the people here show up for one thing: Moonburgers. These burgers are nothing fancy either, just a misshapen hunk of beef cooked to perfection and served on a store-bought bun with basic DIY condiments and toppings. The only thing you can add while ordering is a second patty and/or some American cheese. Then again, that’s all you really need; the patties are so juicy, you might even want to skip the ketchup.
Renaissance Cafe, Assaria, KS
Located in the teeny tiny town of Assaria (population: 500; blink and you’ll miss it) smack-dab in the middle of Kansas, Renaissance Cafe still manages to routinely get recognized for its food, which is simple-but-impressive Italian homemade pastas dishes, as well as entrees like chicken saltimbocca, wild grilled salmon, pork tenderloin stuffed with raisins and spinach, and porcini-dusted filet mignon. Food aside (*gasp!*) the place is still worth a visit, as the restaurant itself surrounds a sunken gymnasium in a 97-year old former high school. The prices went up recently, following the menu overhaul by new executive chef Shana Everhart, but it’s still a reasonably priced eatery — and well worth it for high-quality fine dining in the heart of rural Kansas.
Ski Tip Lodge Restaurant, Keystone, Colo.
When the snow isn’t falling and the tourists aren’t touring, Keystone, about 70 miles west of Denver, is a town of only 1,000 residents. However, the local Ski Tip Lodge —within an 1800’s stagecoach stop that was once the home of Keystone’s founding family — has a restaurant that makes a trip here worth the trouble. Executive chef Kevin McComb offers a four-course meal daily that constantly changes, with dishes like porcini mushroom and potato purée with truffle whipped cream, hoisin cured crispy pork belly, braised and glazed al natural beef short rib, and bourbon marinated Colorado lamb chop. The romantic dining experience is enjoyable and slow-paced, which is possible because the restaurant only offers two seating times per night.
The Barn at Blackberry Farm, Walland, Tenn.
If it weren’t attached to a luxury resort, it would hard to imagine any restaurant could survive in Walland, located on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, population: 259. Yet owners Kreist and Sandy Beall and executive chef Joseph Lenn make it work at The Barn at the 4,200-acre Blackberry Farm thanks to the epitome of a farm-to-table experience, an impressive and ever-changing tasting menu that has featured a beet and brebis cheese salad, wild Burgundy snails with ham hock broth, and braised pork cheek, and a barn that’s so fancy it requires men to wear jackets while dining.
The Copper Door, Hayesville, N.C.
The Copper Door really tops the list when it comes to being in the middle of nowhere. Located between two national forests in the tiny town of Hayesville, The Copper Door is at least two hours from Atlanta, Ashville, or Chattanooga — but who needs bigger cities when the local food is so good? The hidden gem offers crawfish crêpes and oyster or shrimp shooters as starters, scallops casino and grilled chipotle chicken as mains, and a number of delicious steaks in other meal-focused options like grilled pork rib chops, roast rack of lamb, and sautéed veal chop — all courtesy of chef Dennis Barber, who personally saw the conversion of the restaurant from an old service station.
The Inn at Little Washington, Washington, Va.
The Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Virginia, might have the word “Washington” in it a couple times, but the town is actually a 90-minute drive from the nation’s capital, and only has a population of 134 people. Of course, the restaurant was also once a garage, and now it looks like the Queen’s living room, so all judgement should probably be reserved. Except that which involves praising Patrick O’Connell’s eatery that has been serving high-quality, imaginative dishes — like the beet trinity (beet tartare, golden beet carpaccio, and beet sorbet with kale and black truffle crostini), carpaccio of herb-crusted lamb loin with Caesar salad ice cream, or aged gouda macaroni and cheese with Virginia country ham — in a fine dining setting since 1978.
The Joel Palmer House, Dayton, Ore.
You might not think to look for new American dining in an 1859 farmhouse (which even has its own Wikipedia page), but then again, you also might not think to look for a high-quality fine dining restaurant over an hour outside of Portland, Oregon. Yet the small town of Dayton is the home of The Joel Palmer House, which has been praised for the last 20 years for its prix fixe tasting menu of locally-foraged produce and Oregon-focused wines. Chef Christopher Czarnecki is a fourth generation restaurateur and chef (and also a US Army vet), and his experience shows in mushroom-heavy dishes like wild mushroom risotto, a three-mushroom tart, beef stroganoff with wild mushrooms, filet mignon with porcini pepper sauce, and elk ribeye with mushroom-braised chard. And in case you were wondering, there is a mushroom dessert: the “Candy Cap Mushroom Crème Brûlée.”
The Irish Shanti, Elgin/Gunder, Iowa
The Irish Shanti is located so far in the middle of nowhere that the town in which it gets its mailing address — Elgin; population: 683 — isn’t even the town in which the restaurant actually exists. That would be Gunder, which is not much more than one street. Yet for some reason we’re talking about it here, and that reason is the signature Gunderburgers — the sandwiches that literally put the town on the map (or the menu). Each patty of fresh Iowa beef weighs in at half-a-pound (and the Gunderburgers have two each), is served on a homemade bun, and comes with a large variety of topping options from which to choose. There are other casual American fare and seafood choices, but you should obviously opt for the Loaded Gunderburger with cheese, bacon, grilled mushrooms and onions, lettuce, tomato, and pickles — because if you’ve driven to this no-man’s land that’s three hours from Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Des Moines, you’re probably hungry.
Willows Inn, Lummi Island, Wash.
Lummi Island, population 822, is located at the southwest corner of Whatcom County, Washington, which shares a border with British Columbia (although it’s 2.5 hours from both Vancouver and Seattle). Chef Blaine Wetzel (formerly of Noma in Copenhagen) runs the show at the island’s best B&B, Willows Inn, serving seasonal, local fare as part of an extensive tasting menu experience. The restaurant has its own smokehouse on premise, features berries picked from its own fields, and uses seaweed gathered from the nearby beach while offering dishes like spring lamb, Dungeness crab, smoked sturgeon with cured pork, and charred oysters.
Wyebrook Farm Market & Cafe, Honey Brook, Pa.
Of course you’re not likely to find a place with “farm” in the name in any major city, which is the case with Wyebrook Farm Market & Cafe. Honey Brook is a little over an hour outside of Philly, but it feels like much further with town’s endless green pastures, foliage, and rolling hills. As one would expect, the meats (beef, pork, chicken, lamb, and goat) and vegetables served for lunch, dinner, and Sunday brunch are all raised at the 360-acre farm, and the menu features several permanent favorites as well as seasonal and daily specials. If you can’t stay for a meal (or even if you can), there’s a butcher shop onsite that offers delicious cuts for guests to take home.
Earth at Hidden Pond, Kennebunkport, Maine
This legendary Maine restaurant is located at Hidden Pond, a luxury resort nestled amid 60 acres of pristine birch forest. Its restaurant, Earth, focuses on “farm to fork” dining, with locally-sourced meats and seafood, fruits and vegetables picked from two on-site gardens, handmade pastas, house-made charcuterie, wood-oven pizzas, and a spectacular wine list. Earth is Maine dining at its finest.
Restaurant Latour, Hamburg, N.J.
Located inside the bucolic Crystal Springs Resort, New Jersey’s most expensive restaurant is the playground of chef Anthony Bucco, who works closely with local farmers and purveyors to source the finest seasonal ingredients available and craft them into very pricey dishes. Two menus are available: a five-course “Anthology” tasting for and a seven-course degustation. The tasting menus change seasonally, but sample menu items include black trumpet mushroom cappelletti with onion ash, hamachi with seckle pear and pineapple, Hudson Valley rabbit with romaine and heirloom carrots, domestic lamb with broccoli and smoked potato, and Wagyu ribeye with smoked tomato and Brussels sprouts. The wine cellar here is also very impressive, home to more than 6,000 labels.
Jenny Lake Lodge Dining Room, Moose, Wy.
Jenny Lake Lodge Dining Room/Yelp
Located at the foot of the Grand Tetons, the Jenny Lake Lodge is an upscale AAA Four Diamond resort hiding inside a series of rustic-looking 1930s-era log cabins. Inside, however, it’s all sumptuous elegance (even though the log cabin vibe certainly carries over into the interior design). There are plenty of dining options on the property, but the crown jewel is called simply The Dining Room. Upscale and elegant, it boasts a five-course prix fixe dinner menu that changes nightly depending on what’s fresh, local, and in-season. Open annually from June to early October, it boasts high timbered ceilings, plenty of windows, large tables spaced far apart and topped with white tablecloths and flowers, and a rustic log cabin vibe. Not only is it tucked away, it's also the best hotel restaurant in the state.
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