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Summer road trip stories: Discovering tasty local restaurants

By Robert Niles
Published: January 20, 2011 at 12:27 PM
(We're enduring the winter with thoughts of summer, with occasional posts on last summer's family road trip across America.)

One of the fun parts of any road trip is having the chance to try a wide variety of local restaurants around different parts of the country.

I have already written about Burgerville, the local chain around the Portland, Oregon area that we loved on our family road trip vacation last summer.

But Burgerville was just one of many different local and regional chains that we sampled on our trip.

When we drove across the Great Plains, we stopped in at Runza, a Nebraska-based chain that specializes in the Russian/German ground-beef-and-cabbage-filled stuffed sandwich from which the chain takes its name. (It also serves pretty good burgers and fries, too.) The kids were a bit perplexed when they were given their kids' meals, only to be told that they had to return to the counter to claim the "prize" after finishing their lunch. They figured at first it was a cheap way for the chain to get out of giving those cheap plastic toys to every child who ordered - since some kids might not come back up.

But when they discovered that the "prize" was actually soft-serve ice cream cones, they became big fans. And I did, too. A fast-food place that makes the kids eat their meals before getting dessert? Give them a parent point from me.

Ice cream at Runza, in Nebraska

In Evanston, Illinois, Laurie and I took the kids to one of our favorites places to eat when we were undergraduates at Northwestern: Buffalo Joe's. I fell in love with buffalo wings, thanks to Joe. But in the years since I graduated, my enthusiasm for the ubiquitous game-time munchie has waned. But, what the heck, let's give it a go for old times sake, right?

A few minutes later, after Laurie and I demolished two baskets of wings, we'd realized that it wasn't just buffalo wings that we'd loved. It's Buffalo Joe's buffalo wings. I haven't a clue what makes these so much more edible than any other wings I've tried. They just are.

Buffalo Joe's

We felt obligated to introduce the kids to Chicago stuffed pizza, too, so we stopped for dinner at Giordano's, just south of campus. (We insisted on the spinach-stuffed pie, to puzzled looks from our kids. They tried, but still don't get it. Sigh.)

Giordano's spinach stuffed pizza

In Indiana last year, we took the family to our all-time favorite pizza place, Mother Bear's. Driving across the Indiana Toll Road, we were surprised to find an outlet from our second-favorite, Noble Roman's. That chain's been through several owners and formats over the years, and now's found mostly inside food courts, convenience stores, bowling alleys and the like. But we found a stand-alone store in South Bend, thanks to a tip from my sister. The pizza was good, but the big attraction at Noble Roman's is the fluffy breadsticks served with spicy cheese (think nacho) for dipping.

Noble Roman's breadsticks with spicy cheese

Laurie's family moved to Cincinnati while she was at Northwestern, but she's learned enough about the city to know that if you want ice cream, you go to Graeter's.

Laurie with a cone of Graeter's ice crierm

We're split on Cincinnati's cinnamon-spiced Skyline Chili, though. Laurie likes their coney dogs, but I think it might be possible that they have too much cheese:

Skyline chili coneys

What's your favorite local or regional restaurant chain? Tell us in the comments.

Readers' Opinions

From Robert Niles on January 20, 2011 at 12:31 PM
I don't have a picture, but I also should throw in Laurie's favorite barbecue chain, located across Florida: Sonny's Real Pit Bar-B-Q.
From Anthony Murphy on January 20, 2011 at 1:12 PM
YAY Midwest! Living not to far away from NU, I will say that they have some great food options including Buffalo Joes (which my mother hates!)

Chicago Pizza is a must and Giordano's is probably the best because they are one of the few places that has branched out of Chicago and kept the quality. Don't mention Uno's its not the same. Still, I am a bit suprised you went all out with the Spinach. Personally, I would pick sausage since its unique to the area. Something that FL pizzas seem to miss the mark!

My favorite local chain (though they are not very close to my house and not from IL) is Culver's. Butter Burgers.........mmmmmmmmmmmmmm.... This is also probably why the steriotypical Midwesterner is overweight! LOL!

But do you know who is from IL? Jimmy John's, Potbelly and McDonalds!

You're Welcome! ;)

From Sandy MacGowan on January 20, 2011 at 1:15 PM
Robert, glad to see you made a stop in my neck of the woods! (We live about 20 miles southeast of South Bend!) One of our favorite "local" restaurant chains is Culvers... they're Wisconsin-based, but there's quite a few of them here in northern Indiana! Whenever we have a craving for a breaded port tenderloin sandwich, that's the place we go to! (While there are a lot of "mom-n-pop" restaurants that serve really great tenderloin sandwiches, we've found Culvers to be consistently YUMMY regardless of whichever one we go to!) Culvers, too, offers a frozen custard treat for dessert in their kids meals, too!

I'll have to look up the Noble Romans in South Bend! Haven't been to one in ages! Thanks for the info! ;-)

From Gavin McNabb on January 20, 2011 at 1:26 PM
I don't know about anyone else, but as for the State of Virginia there is really no good regional chains to speak of. The last regional chain we had (Five Guys) went National, and anything that is really good is usually not a chain.

EDIT: Now that I think of it there is Splitsville, but they are mainly an upscale bowling alley and are mainly in FL and TX. But their hot wings (which is not listed on the menu) are the best. Although they may melt you face off, and you can literally smell how hot they are tables away.

From m johnson on January 20, 2011 at 1:34 PM
Fentons Ice Cream in Oakland and Fairfield Ca. Great Ice Cream and huge portions and the guys over a Pixar like it so much they put in the movie UP.
From Joe Brown on January 20, 2011 at 2:51 PM
Mr. Pancake in Wisconsin Dells, WI. Simply awesome buckwheat pancakes.
From Robyn A. on January 20, 2011 at 3:16 PM
Next time you trek through the midwest, stop in Lee's Summit MO (just East of KC) to see us at The Fig Tree Cafe & Bakery. We opened last year and source our produce, meat, and dairy from local farms. Breakfast, lunch, dinner Wed-Fri, and the best carrot cake you'll ever eat!

My other favorite is Oklahoma Joe's - the best BBQ in town happens to be located inside a gas station :-)

From James Rao on January 20, 2011 at 3:54 PM
One thing I will say for the Greater Kansas City area is that we do have some really fine local chain restaurants. Here are a few of my favorites (you’ll notice seafood is not a specialty, at least not until the New Madrid fault goes active again and creates some beach front property in central Missouri!):

For the best chicken on the planet take your whole family to one of the two Stroud’s locations in the area.

For great toasted subs, Yellow Sub opened a single store in Lawrence, KS, about twenty years ago. Now they are called Planet Sub and stretch across five states.

KC is famous for its BBQ, and here are two excellent local chains: Smokehouse & Jack Stack.

On your way to Silver Dollar City in Branson, be sure to stop by the original home of “throwed rolls”: Lambert’s Cafe. Remember to bring cash or checks… no credit cards accepted!

Despite growing up in southern California, I can still get my Mexican food fix in if I visit La Fuente or Margarita’s.

And for killer Italian food in huge portions, you simply cannot beat Garozzo’s. Fine dining with amazing food, service, and ambiance.

Finally, though not a chain, a visit to the Kansas City area would not be complete without stopping by the one and only Swagger KC for some of the finest gourmet bar food ever imagined. The Dead Texan and Suribachi burgers are 2000 calorie monsters that have to be experienced to be believed!

From rick stevens on January 20, 2011 at 10:25 PM
Love the stops! It all looks great. I think my cholesterol would spike, but isn't that what road trips are for? getting away from the usual and exploring. I remember stopping by a road-side cafe when I was a teen and we had fritos covered with chili and cheese....damn it was good.
From Raymond Sydowski on January 21, 2011 at 12:52 AM
Pollo Tropical, man! That's one of the things I miss from Florida. Fast food that's just good food.

Though, we do have a growing Hispanic population here in Baltimore. So there are plenty of Peruvian chicken joints around here. If you happen to be stopping in Baltimore, Chicken Rico in Highland town is well worth the stop.

From Joshua Counsil on January 21, 2011 at 2:13 AM
Living in Canada, we are devoid of many classic American roadside chains. Believe it or not, we don't have Cracker Barrel, Bob Evans, Waffle House, Bennigan's, and hundreds of others. Many popular fast food joints, like White Castle, Jack in the Box, and Long John Silver's, are also absent. Thus, a trip down south usually entails at least one stop at at a greasy establishment, if only to watch the reactions of my friends who rarely visit the States. My favourite experience involved taking our vegan friend to Cracker Barrel.
From Joshua Counsil on January 21, 2011 at 2:13 AM
Oh, also - that is WAY too much cheese for one dog.
From Anthony Murphy on January 21, 2011 at 10:06 AM
As for Bennigan's, most of us can't go to them either. A majority of them closed down!

You got McDonald's right? That counts for something......maybe?

From Lori Schueren on January 21, 2011 at 10:41 AM
I LOVE Skyline! I live just north of Louisville, KY in southern Indiana and we have them here also. My favorite item on the menu is the chili cheese sandwich, which is basically a chili cheese coney with no coney. Just a bun stuffed with chili & cheese. I LOVE it when they have the habanero cheese for a limited time here and there.

My favorite chain around here would have to be either Cafe Lou Lou. Cafe Lou Lou has a lot to choose from, but my favorite dish is the black bean lasagna w/a small wedge salad on the side. Delish! Tumbleweed used to be my favorite local chain until they revamped their menu and some of their dishes. Their queso used to be to die for.

From Rod Whitenack on January 21, 2011 at 3:34 PM
I also live in Louisville, KY, and I'd like to add my endorsement for Culver's. We have a Culver's here in the East End of Louisville, and as far as fast food restaurants go, it's tops. You can get a good burger or a plated meal with chicken or fish and vegetables brought to your table. Their custard ice cream is very good and they have the best root beer float I've ever had. By the way, Culver's makes their own brand of root beer.

Skyline is a strange animal. They call it chili, but it doesn't fit my description of chili. At first I ordered plain chili; a HUGE mistake. It only works its magic in combination with spaghetti and a mountian of cheese. It's certainly unique.

For a fun night out or a crazy breakfast, I recommend Lynn's Paradise Cafe. It's a Louisville landmark.

From Joshua Counsil on January 21, 2011 at 10:45 PM
Oh, we've got McDonald's, alright. There's one 15 seconds away from my apartment. It's a terrible temptation at 4 am when I get off work and don't feel like cooking.
From Larry Zimmerman on January 22, 2011 at 8:26 AM
Skyline Chili also works well over rice -- you can buy it canned or frozen in our market area, and for those out of the local area, I think you can order it online. Oh, and Robert, there's no such thing as "too much cheese."
From Mike Gallagher on January 22, 2011 at 2:20 PM
I post on two other park/coaster forums. Interestingly enough, I had never heard of Culvers until I read about it on one of the other boards earlier today. Now here it is again!! Coincidence? I think not..probably just means it's good. But one of the posters above (possibly Anthony?) used the words "butter" and "burger" consecutively in reference to something edible. As those are my two favorite words in the English languange which begin with "bu" and end in "r"..I would like more details, please. Thank you kindly.
From James Rao on January 22, 2011 at 4:50 PM
Culver's are just about everywhere now, so I am not sure they fit the bill as a regional chain. While their fast food is better than McDonalds, Burger King, or their ilk, I think their burgers pale to insignificance when compared to Five Guys, Red Robin, Chili's, or any of the local gourmet burger places in vogue these days (B:2 Burgers being one of my favorites).

Anyway, the "butter" on the burger at Culver's is put on the bun, which does give the sandwich a richer taste. Here's a link to their website, check and see if you have one near you, Mike, and let us know what you think!

From Mike Gallagher on January 22, 2011 at 5:01 PM
Thank, James. I'd try the ButterBurger in a heartbeat(although a sandwich like that might ELIMINATE that heartbeat!) Alas, it appears that I won't be sampling one anytime soon...closest to me are in Ohio, Michigan and Kentucky! Stuck here in Jersey, the good news is we're about to get our first Five Guys in my town..they've had a presence in NJ for a little while, but not anywhere close to me. Be nice to have one near the entrance to Great Adventure..as long as it doesn't replace the Long John Silvers or WaWa. If it replaced McDonald's or Burger King? I can deal with that.

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