The Best…Food on Route 66
America was young, and the urge to explore ran high. And in 1921, an amendment to the Federal Aid Road Act was passed, requiring the establishment of an interconnected state highway system. The most famous of those was Route 66, the 2400-mile trail running from Chicago to Los Angeles and winding through small towns throughout Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Arizona, New Mexico, and Oklahoma. Called the “Mother Road” and the “Main Street of America”, it embodied the spirit of freedom and adventure.
Along Route 66 sprang up motels, diners to cater to the travelers criss-crossing the country. Unfortunately, with the birth of the interstate system, many of these mom ‘n pop shops became little more than dusty reminders of good times gone by. But the ones that remained—and the ones that came afterward—continue to cater to the folks who walk in the front door.
So to learn more about these special hot spots, we turned yet again to the experts: you. We asked campers on Facebook where they liked to stop and eat along Route 66…and here’s what they told us:
“Gotta be The Big Texan in Amarillo,” said Sharon Levee Sadilek. “[It’s] just a fun place to go.” Kevin Potter and Amy Ditonto Grethel agreed.
Founded by R.J. “Bob” Lee in 1960, the Big Texan Steak Ranch boasted a long-legged cowboy on its sign and a steak dinner quite unlike any other—eat all 72 ounces of it in an hour and you got it for free. With the advent of the interstate, Lee built a new Big Texan along Interstate 40, with the original sign moved via helicopter to its new digs. After a fire in 1976, the steakhouse was rebuilt from the ground up. And the free 72-ounce steak dinner? Yep, it’s still on the menu.
To take another big step back in time, Mark Hurd has just the spot. “Going through Joplin, Missouri, stop off at Fred and Red’s and have a steaming plate of Spaghetti Red,” he said. “This spaghetti noodles, topped with red chili and all the garlic bread you can eat.”
Fred and Red’s was founded by Fred Herring in 1923 on Joplin’s Main Street. Thirty years later, “Red” Wilcoxson joined Fred as his partner. The diner, now run by Red’s son, is best known for its chili, tamales, conies, fruit pies and, of course, Spaghetti Red. With its U-shaped counter, this 22-stool diner is so loved that it has a Facebook following all its own.
Mark also suggested that campers would also enjoy a stop at the Fat Elvis Diner in Yukon, Oklahoma. Carla Yocum, however, countered that Sid’s in El Reno is “the real deal.”
Another Oklahoma favorite, according to David Haddock, is Clanton’s Café in Vinita.
“[They’re] famous for their calf fries, but the chicken fried steak is the real star,” he said.
Opened in 1927, the Clanton Café has been operated by the Clanton family for over 80 years. It’s a classic diner at its best—complete with a vintage “EAT” sign, wood paneling and cozy booths. It’s been featured in Gourmet Magazine and on the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” And what about those ‘calf fries’? Well, if you’re not sure what they are, you’ll just need to stop in at Clanton’s to find out.
If you’ve ever eaten concrete (frozen custard, that is), Robert Nellesen and Cari Martinez have the Route 66 place for you: Ted Drewes. Started by Ted Drewes Sr. in Florida in 1929, it has been a St. Louis, Missouri fixture ever since the second store was opened there in 1930. Although there were four locations at one time, only two remain, including the Chippewa location along Route 66. At Ted’s, you can get malts, sundaes, cones, ice cream sodas and more. Oh—and in December you can also pick up a Christmas tree, another St. Louis/Ted Drewes tradition.
“We have been in New Mexico and Arizona on Route 66. What fun we had,” recalled Teresa Mosher. “The best place to eat is in Winslow, Arizona, the LaPosada Hotel. Wow! It is an historic hotel, with a wonderful restaurant.”
Designed by Mary Colter, La Posada was built in 1929 for the Santa Fe Railway, and boasts classical Southwestern architecture. It operated for less than 30 years, closing in 1957. Forty years later, it was reopened and restoration began. The Turquoise Room, the hotel’s well-known restaurant, was named after a private dining car for the Super Chief—also designed by Colter. It features Native American and Contemporary Southwestern food.
“My husband had pork carnitas and I had shrimp penne pasta,“ Mosher said. “Best meal ever! The papaya salsa and the spicy chipotle sauce with peppers were so good; the penne pasta had such a great combination of veggies, in the wonderful sauce.”
A few other places that our campers recommended? Café on the Route, in Baxter Springs, Kansas is a favorite of Debbie Myers, while In-n-Out Burger in Pomona or Claremont, California hit the spot with Cory and Carissa Robideaux (they suggest ordering them “animal style”.) And for Michelle Gagnon Lindholm, it was breakfast at the Road Kill Café across the road from the Seligman, Arizona KOA. But for Sabrina Frieberg, there’s only one place that came to mind.
“We’ve done the whole trip from Chicago to Santa Monica,” she said. “One very good restaurant is Rusty’s Surf Ranch directly on the Santa Monica Pier. [It’s] just the right place on the very end of Route 66.”
Did we miss any? Share your favorite Route 66 spot below–and make sure to watch for our new “The Best…” column next month!