Winter looms, so I have updated my list of alternatives to fast food for those driving south (and back north) along the East Coast. And, indeed, normally the only sensible thing to do when the weather promises to chill the very marrow in your bones is to head south. In light of COVID issues, special care and consideration must be taken before you decide to travel, and more care while you’re traveling. Many of you no doubt are planning to drive to Florida rather than fly. For those of us on the East Coast, that means a whole lot of time on dread I-95, and a lot of stops for sustenance at exits packed with fast food places. And you’ll probably have an overnight stop, maybe two. You’re pretty much on your own for food recommendations north of Washington if you’re coming from the Northeast. I really would love to have your suggestions — send them in. But if you’re looking for great meals involving real food — local food — south of Washington, you’ve come to the right place.
Of course, when you’re headed south from Washington on I-95 to go to Florida, you usually are on a mission to get there. The idea of taking an hour or more to detour over to Ayden (just outside Greenville, North Carolina,) for some truly sensational barbecue at the great and wonderful Bum’s Restaurant or at the legendary Skylight Inn, or both, probably is the farthest thing from your mind — although it would be a good idea. The alternative is usually a fast food place. Now, I’ve eaten at many fast food places myself, and I’ve grabbed food to go and eaten it while driving. That is not a good idea from a safety standpoint, not to mention the havoc that an extra-sauce meatball sub from Subway can wreak on your clothes and your car.
As a public service, therefore, I offer up genuinely good — often great — local places to eat within easy reach of the interstate, and all have speedy service. Note that this being pandemic season, you should check hours, outside seating, and other details before you go. Things change rapidly.
The next question is, where will you be when you want to eat? This will vary, of course, depending on where and when you start. Let’s take the good restaurants in order, from north to south. For a review of each place, click on the link.
For those traveling through Washington from the north, there’s a great place just 15 minutes down US 1 from the point at which I-95 hits I-495, the infamous Beltway: 2fifty Texas BBQ. It has sensational brisket — really, I’m serious, sensational — and everything else is very good. The trick, for the moment, is that it is only open Thursday through Sunday. But check for updates.
First, a note: humorless Virginia State Troopers are rife between DC and Richmond, and farther south local law enforcement generates much revenue around Emporia.
The first good opportunity on the way south is a bit off the interstate at a food truck — actually two food trucks — with separate locations north and south of Fredericksburg, the DoveShack. On the way south, you’ll probably be zipping along and only feel minor irritation at the Great Fredericksburg Back-up. Going north, you may need some barbecue therapy at the Even Greater Fredericksburg Back-up. That’s when you need a detour and a Doveshack pork sandwich.
Another Fredericksburg place is the Mason-Dixon Cafe, only 10 minutes from 95 at either the US 17 or VA 3 exits, north and south of town, respectively, and you can get off at one and back on the other. Or you can get off onto US 1 either above or below town to escape 95 a little longer
Things pick up as you hit Richmond. Just a few miles off the interstate north of Richmond is Buz and Ned’s Real Barbecue. They cook exclusively with wood — 100% hickory — and Buz is very selective about the wood. The pork is great, as is the smoked sausage, and Buz is especially proud of his ribs: he beat Bobby Flay in a Throwdown. With ribs, however, you’ll need a lot of wipes or a bath before you get back in the car.
But if you can, you should save your powder, and perhaps spend the night, to have a big meal at ZZQ Texas Craft Barbecue. The brisket is, as at 2fifty Texas, just sensational; and like 2fifty Texas, ZZQ is a top contender for the best brisket in the East. Eat at one or the other if you’re a brisket fan.
The next opportunity is in Petersburg, Virginia, which is just a couple of hours south of Washington with light traffic — and a bit off of 95 via I-85. If you’re already hungry, though, King’s Famous Bar-B-Cue is the place to stop. King’s is an old time place that knows how to cook pork — with wood in a brick pit — and has very good sides.
The next good opportunity is across the North Carolina line in Rocky Mount. But first, you should make a detour at the Dortches exit and go to Smith’s Red and White and pick up some of their sensational air dried sausage. You don’t need to refrigerate it, so why not? And what the heck is air dried sausage? Read this. Next door is a meat and three that I hear is good, but I’ve never eaten there.
The Hunter Hill Cafe has a lot of good food, and I know they use wood in cooking the barbecue. I cannot yet confirm that there is no gas or electricity involved. But they serve almost everything under the sun, with up to 18(!) entrees and 19 sides. You can hardly help finding something you like at Hunter Hill.
If you’re from New England, you may want to spend the night in Rocky Mount, which has a zillion motels. If you do, head over toward Nashville to the Oak Level Cafe for a breakfast biscuit that you’ll tell friends back home about for years.
Back to the road. Not far south of Rocky Mount is Wilson, North Carolina, long a regular stop for us. Nancy, Liza, and I are big fans of Parker’s Barbecue.
Parker’s has wonderful, wonderful corn sticks. If you have not eaten corn sticks — or if you want to try the very best — stop at Parker’s. Parker’s also has outstanding fried chicken; and their barbecue tastes very good, even though it isn’t cooked with wood any more. Parker’s has an excellent sauce — one of the best sauces around. It helps the pork a lot, and the sauce also really perks up the Brunswick Stew. The prices are shocking in a wonderful way: you won’t believe how little it costs. Even better, Parker’s makes you feel like home. That’s especially nice when you’re on I-95.
If you’re coming from New England or if the traffic has been bad, Wilson might be a great place to stop for the night. I’ve stayed at five different Marriott system hotels since the virus hit, including the Fairfield in Wilson, and I’ve been very pleased in each with the social distancing, and the cleanliness procedures that can only be described as excessive — which is what we want. If you stay in Wilson, you can have a great, great steak at the Beefmastor, and the tailgating there while people wait for a table is an experience not to be missed. In the morning have a memorable cat’s head breakfast biscuit at Flo’s before you get back on the road. Their pork tenderloin biscuit is legendary.
Also in Wilson is Marty’s. My Wilson cousins are Marty’s enthusiasts, Marty being a scion of the Bill’s family, the erstwhile local rival to Parker’s. Go there if you are a fan of fried gizzards, as am I.
A bit farther south, a 10 minute detour takes you to a gem of purest ray serene — Stevenson’s. Exit onto I-40 North and take the first exit west onto 210, then a right on 50. Or use your GPS. Stephenson’s serves some of the best Eastern North Carolina Barbecue around — certainly the best within such easy reach of I-95.
UPDATE: There’s another food opportunity just south of Stevenson’s. David Brent Keim, the leading Greek Orthodox art and cast iron cooking utensil expert in the US, touts the air dried sausage at Mac’s General Merchandise just about 6 miles east of the I-95 near Dunn. If you missed the air dried sausage at Dortches, try Mac’s version. If you did get sausage at Dortches, get some here and compare them and let me know.
The next good — no, great place is Schuler’s Bar-B-Que, just across the South Carolina line. Note: Do not stop at South of the Border. Shuler’s is an outstanding place to stop for lunch and for a break. Take exit 181A for Hwy 38/Latta and, just past the old cotton press on the right, you’ll notice a huge American flag. Turn in and look for a space. You can go through the buffet, on which the barbecue (with the best mustard based sauce I’ve ever tasted), fried chicken, and lots of other foods are kept fresh and hot. You can also order a la carte. Either way, the food is excellent.
Shuler’s has a nice deck overlooking a pond where you can sit and enjoy lunch if the weather is nice, and there’s abundant space for distanced indoor seating. Shuler’s also has a separate “country store” next door, and rocking chairs on the large porch. Make sure to buy some of their barbecue sauce.
If you pass Shuler’s, you can turn around and go back or go to McCabe’s Bar-B-Q in Manning. It, too, is a buffet and it, too, cooks pork over a pit and does it well. McCabe’s is family run, and a South Carolina favorite, with local specialities like hash and purlu.
After Manning, I haven’t tried many worthy places near I-95: Shuler’s is the place for me. You can, however, stop at the South Carolina Welcome Center (always stop at welcome centers) and check my invaluable post cross-referencing the Campaign for Real Barbecue South Carolina list of places that cook only with wood and the South Carolina Barbecue Association list of places worth a 100 mile drive. (Note — The Florence cluster of barbecue places includes no 100 mile drive places, but my Senior Maine and South Carolina Correspondents, Knapp and Ella Davies Hudson, tell me that Roger’s Bar-B-Q House is the place to go in Forence.)
You may want to make a big detour to Charleston, which is a wonderful place on many levels, or go there on a separate trip. Try Rodney Scott’s for great whole hog barbecue, Lewis for excellent Texas brisket and sausage, and Home Team for a new-style place in an old-style package and very good food. Or you can eat at one of Charleston’s famous high-end places.
As you enter Georgia, you come to Savannah, another great spot to overnight. I was thinking that when you get to Savannah, you should head to B’s Cracklin’ BBQ. The Campaign for Real Barbecue Georgia page lists three more places in Savannah that are certified as cooking True ‘Cue, Randy’s Barbecue, Rusty Dog’s BBQ, and Smoky’s Bar-B-Q. If you try one of those, let me know what you think.
Robert Moss he of The ‘Cue Sheet and Southern Living Barbecue Guy, etc., fame, recommends Gary Lee’s Meat Market just a mile or so west of Exit 29 near Brunswick, as does David Sanders. I’d heard good things about it but never got there. (That’s the sort of missed opportunity that can haunt you for years.) It sounds terrific, so go check out the pork and Brunswick Stew.
A couple of readers have suggested Southern Soul Barbecue on St. Simon’s Island. Anyone who reads Garden and Gun or Southern Living is familiar with Southern Soul. It’s only 20 or 30 minutes away from 95. I think it’s worth the detour — I usually think good barbecue is worth the detour — and Brunswick/St. Simons could be a good place to stop for the evening. I’m told that you should expect a line.
Farther down the coast in Kingsland, right at Exit 3, is Malson’s, a shack with a big cooker outside and picnic seating, right next to McDonald’s. I’m not sure I’ve eaten there — I ate at a similar place years ago — but Dan Kenney of the Annual Beer Snob Pig Picking liked it, and that’s enough for me. And it’s close. You could just about hit it with a rock from the interstate. But don’t, please.
Once you’re in Florida, those headed to the West Coast will head for I-75 by turning off either onto I-4 at Daytona Beach or onto 301 near Jacksonville. We once broke down on 301 and rolled to a stop at a garage across the street from a barbecue place. If that’s not proof of a benevolent Providence, I give up.
By now you’re really tired of driving and ready to spill Subway tomato sauce all over yourself if it will get you to your destination one minute sooner — and there’s a pretty big gap in my recent experience between Jacksonville and Palm Beach County. Once you do get to the Palm Beach, area, there are two barbecue places you might try: Off Tha Bone in West Palm Beach and Troy’s in Boynton Beach. Or if you’re ready to transition to Cuban food, try Havana in West Palm Beach or Little Havana in Deerfield Beach. Otherwise, just keep driving — carefully — to your destination.
Then change into beach clothes, grab a cold beverage, and bask in the sun. And search “Florida” in the Blog — you’ll find lots of good places in southeast Florida, as well as Key West and the Upper Keys. And please, don’t forget to let me know of any additional good places to eat.
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