The north wind doth blow and we shall have snow, and what will poor robin do then? (Poor thing.)
Well, the robin will hide in a barn to keep himself warm, and hide his under his wing, but I’m guessing that’s not an option for you. You’ll need to head South for at least part of the winter. I’m about to change your life for the better. I’ve updated and expanded my ever-popular key to happiness throughout the long road to Florida.
It’s time to plan your trip South. Drive or fly? These days, with airlines suddenly canceling flights by the thousand, the popularity of driving is up, and then there’s the greater global warming impact of air travel (if there are two or more of you in the car.) For those of us on the East Coast, the drive portends long hours on I-95 and, worse, endless unhappy meals at the infestation of fast food at exits.
You deserve better, much better. You deserve places to eat that (1) are really good, (2) are locally owned (no chains!), (3) are no more than 15 minutes off I-95, and (4) that serve the food pretty quickly so you can get on your way again. And here they are, presented in order from north to south. You can project where you might be getting hungry and where you might want to spend the night, and hone in on places in that region. Some folks keep a hard copy of this post in the glove compartment, just in case. Just sayin’.
There also are some top places to eat at likely overnight places along the way, especially once you get settled in Florida from the Palm Beaches all the way to Key West. Below you’ll find a review of each place (click on the red-text link), or if I don’t have a review, there’ll be a link to it’s website, if there is one. Be sure to check hours, outside seating, and other details before you stop. Things change rapidly in the restaurant world these days.
For those bypassing Washington from the north on the dread Beltway — and some people choose to skirt Washington and take US 301 and reconnect with I-95 in Virginia — the Beltway takes you to 2fifty Texas BBQ is a truly great place with sensational brisket just 15 minutes down US 1 from the point at which I-95 hits I-495, the infamous Beltway. Everything else is very tasty, too, especially their sausage. Check for updates on hours, as their hours have been expanding, to Wednesday-Sunday at last report.
First, a warning: aggressive Virginia State Troopers lurk between DC and Richmond, and farther south local law enforcement generates much revenue around Emporia.
The first city after Washington is Fredericksburg, and an old favorite barbecue place that fell into decline has been reborn and the food has been upgraded by new owner Matt Deaton. Allman’s Bar-B-Q now, or once again, has delicious barbecue, and it’s about to get even better, with actual pit cookers (rather than offset) that cook barbecue the way the best places in the South cook.
Another Fredericksburg gem 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. You can get off at one exit and back on the other. The food is tasty, the architecture is striking, and Carl’s a legendary ice cream place, is right next door.
The next opportunity below Washington 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. After the DC traffic, a huge slowdown will be a relief. Coming home north-bound, you may need some barbecue therapy at the Even Greater Fredericksburg Back-up. That’s when you need a detour and a pork sandwich.
Just a few miles off the interstate north of Richmond is Buz and Ned’s Real Barbecue. Buz cooks exclusively with wood and the pork is graced with smoke flavor. Buz is especially proud of his ribs: he beat Bobby Flay in a Throwdown, but if you want ribs — and I don’t advise eating ribs while driving — the best place near Richmond is The Original Ronnie’s, a short drive east of 95. Ronnie’s also serves other meats, jackfruit, and some fried dishes. It’s a very good place. There’s a picnic table outside, but check for indoor service.
If you can, you should save your powder, and perhaps spend the night, to have a big old meal at ZZQ Texas Craft Barbecue. The brisket is just sensational, and ZZQ’s a top contender for the best brisket in the East. The rest of the menu also is top notch.
The first opportunity is just across the North Carolina line just before you hit Rocky Mount. Take 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, or at least not in the same way as regular sausage, so why not? What the heck is air dried sausage? Read this. Next door is a meat and three that I hear is very good, but I’ve never eaten there. Lots of people 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 haven’t tried corn sticks, definitely stop at Parker’s. Parker’s also has exceptional fried chicken, and their barbecue tastes very good, even though it isn’t cooked with wood only any more. Parker’s barbecue sauce is one of the best sauces around, and it helps the pork a lot. It also really perks up the Brunswick Stew. The prices are shockingly low. Even better, Parker’s has a very homey feel, and that’s especially nice on a long trip. For the local competition (and for some fried gizzards and chicken pastry), head over to Marty’s, a favorite of my ex-Wilson cousins.
Wilson can be a great place to stop for the night. 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 cat head breakfast biscuit at Flo’s before you get back on 95. Their pork tenderloin biscuit is legendary.
Down the highway, you come to Smithfield and White Swan Bar-B-Q & Fried Chicken. There are two locations on Smithfield, one close to the highway and the other 14 minutes away in a gas station, so you have to pick between convenience and atmosphere. I haven’t tried White Swan, but I hear it’s good, and they get extra respect because their barbecue is at play in the Barbecue Bowl. If Gardner-Webb wins the football game, everyone eats White Swan barbecue. If Campbell wins, everyone gets barbecue from the truly wonderful Red Bridges. There’s also an attractive trophy.
A bit farther south, a 10-minute detour takes you to Stephenson’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 on earth — certainly the best within such easy reach of I-95. Definitely try it. Their chicken is another standout.
There’s another food opportunity just south of Stephenson’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 I-95 near Dunn. If you missed the air dried sausage at Dortches, try Mac’s version. Or get both and let me know which you prefer.
Farther south, Lumberton is a long-time stopping point for trips to Florida. Long-time means that a lot of places on the interstate are, well, beyond their sell-by date, but there are a bunch of new hotels, and my Hungry Onion food discussion group friend, vinouspleasure, likes Arnold’s, a local place just off the interstate, for their bar food (get the fried dill pickles. I’ve also heard some good thing about an Italian place, Adelio’s.
Schuler’s Bar-B-Que, just across the South Carolina line, serves what may be the best barbecue South Carolina, and it’s 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. That’s Shuler’s. You can go through the buffet, on which the barbecue (with the best mustard based sauce I’ve ever tasted), fried chicken, and many, many 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 Shuler’s 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 a South Carolina favorite, with local specialities like hash and purlu.
After Manning, I haven’t tried many worthy barbecue places near I-95: Shuler’s is the place for me. Sweatman’s in Holly Hill has been good, but will take more than 15 minutes, and I hear it’s under new management, so …. 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 Florence. But wherever you eat, and whatever your schedule, Florence now has a must-see location. A Buc-ee’s has now opened there. If you have never experienced a Buc-ee’s, you have a wonder in store.
After Florence and before the intersection with I-16, you come to Santee just after the bridge over Lake Marion. Extra onto US 15 going west, and you’ll find an excellent Meat andThree, Lone Star BBQ and Mercantile, aka Lone Star BBQ Tavern and Grille. The barbecue is pretty good (with the sauce) but the vegetables and desserts are rock stars. Definitely get the Lima beans and the banana pudding. It’s a-pleasant place with good food.
You may want to make a big detour to Charleston, a wonderful place well worth a few days. If you do, try Rodney Scott’s for whole hog barbecue, Lewis for 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. It’s a great food city.
As you enter Georgia from the north, you come to Savannah, yet another great spot to overnight or spend an extra day. The Campaign for Real Barbecue Georgia page mentions three spots in Savannah or, again, you can try some great high end restaurants. For my vegan readers, whom I have not forgotten, you can almost reach the Hungry Vegan in 15 minutes, and there are other vegan places, like Fox and Fig, if you have more time.
Robert Moss, he of The ‘Cue Sheet and Southern Living Barbecue Guy fame, recommends Gary Lee’s Meat Market just a mile or so west of Exit 29 near Brunswick, as does David Sanders. I’ve heard high praise for Gary Lee’s but have never been there. That’s the sort of missed opportunity that can haunt you for years. It sounds terrific, so go check out the pork and the Brunswick Stew.
I’m excited to add a number of great local places to stop suggested by David Sanders, who travels to visit friends and eat at top local food places along the Georgia and upper-mid Florida coasts periodically. I’m also adding some of my own favorites, mainly in Palm Beach County and the Keys.
If you’re ready for an admirable seafood buffet, B & J’s Steaks & Seafood has one for lunch. It’s about 2 miles off 95, exit 49 to GA 251, in Darien, Georgia. Or you can just grab a shrimp basket or another less ambitious menu item. Farther down I-95 (Exit 42), in Brunswick, is an old school barbecue place and meat and three, Mack’s BBQ. Try their barbecue and fries and some Brunswick Stew. It’s about 6 1/2 miles off 95.
A brisket-oriented spot in Brunswick (exit 38), South of Heaven BBQ, offers inventive options like “Pit tacos– sliced brisket, fried egg, bacon, white bbq sauce, pickled onions, guajillo sauce and fried garlic”. It’s open Wednesday through Saturday for lunch and maybe an early dinner. The hours seem to vary, so call ahead. A Brunswick lunch option that’s open every day but Saturday is Sistas’ Kitchen,
just a couple of miles off 95 at exit 36A. They offer a changing menu of soul food specials (neck bones!) served cafeteria style.
Understandably, David and numerous other 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 20 or 30 minutes away from 95, and thus outside the normal 15-minute limit, and you should expect a line. On the other hand, life is short, and there are some great places to stay in and around St. Simon’s over a night or three, and some affordable ones, too. Bonus: if one or all of your party is vegan, the Sea Salt Healthy Kitchen is right there nearby.
If you do spend a night or three in St. Simons-Brunswick, stop by Bennie’s Red Barn for dinner. It’s the oldest locally owned restaurant on St. Simon’s, and they are known for their steaks, seafood, and southern sides. Note: Sometimes a guy sings at the tables. He’s supposed to be good, but I know that’s an issue for many people.
Beyond Brunswick, if you’re traveling on a Friday or a Saturday, you really should stop at Doo Dad’s Express for some outstanding fried shrimp, fish, oysters, or anything else from conch to gizzards. It’s in Woodbine, Georgia, just off the interstate at exit 7. Farther down the coast in Kingsland at Exit 3, is Malson’s, a shack with a big cooker outside and picnic seating, right next to McDonald’s. I may have eaten there — I know I ate at a similar place years ago, and Dan Kenney of the Annual Beer Snob Pig Picking liked it, and that’s enough for me. And it’s so close you could just about hit it with a rock from the interstate. But don’t, please.
Once 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 don’t know what is. If you’re taking the western route, here is where to eat in Southwest Florida.
For those continuing down I-95, you’ll be a frustrating distance from many beachside places, but you’ll also be hell-bent on getting to your ultimate destination. I’m afraid my recent experience is pretty thin in that part of the state, but David Sanders has come to the rescue with a series of great local places.
His first recommendation in Florida for those southbound on I-95 is Mixed Fillings Pie Shop, which is about 1 1/2 miles or less off 95. Take either exit 351A (for Park St) or 351C for (Stockton St), as your GPS directs when you get to Jacksonville. It’s open 10-5, Thursday through Saturday. If you want more than pie, try the Southern Grill, just across the St. John River, for a solid breakfast or lunch, with Southern and Greek options.
When you get to the 9 Mile Rd/International Golf Pkwy exit (323) as you approach St. Augustine, definitely make a pit stop and gawk at one of the Wonders of the World — Buc-ee’s. Famed for its size, incredibly clean bathrooms, and huge range of offerings, Buc-ee’s must be seen and experienced to be believed.
Hazel’s Hot Dogs is about 6 miles off 95, exit 318 (toward St. Augustine). It offers hot dogs with toppings to suit every taste, and then some, and the French fries are a highlight. It’s open during prime hot dog hours, from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm, Tuesday through Saturday. A couple of miles more and you’ll come to O’Steen’s, about 8 miles off 95, exit 318 (toward St. Augustine).
Osteen’s offers a Minorcan clam chowder and a range of seafood dishes, plus a cocktail sauce made with datil peppers. Osteen’s has been in business for over 50 years. They’re closed Sunday and Monday.
Continuing south, if you missed the one in St. Augustine, or even if you didn’t, there’s another Buc-ee’s to fill your heart with wonder at exit 265 (LPGA Boulevard) in Daytona Beach. Let all your dreams come true.
If you stop to see Cape Canaveral, a great place to eat is Jazzy’s Mainely Lobster, just down the beach in Cocoa Beach. It’s perfect for those of you already missing New England, with lobsters as well as local seafood. Jazzy’s is about 14 miles (25 or so minutes) from 95 in Cocoa Beach, but they offer lunch and dinner, and a chance for a breath of salt air.
Oh Biscuit is a small place about 5 miles off 95, exit 183 (Eau Gallie Blvd), in Melbourne. It’s open from 8:00 am to 1:00 pm, and boasts various breakfast plates, but the stars are excellent biscuits that you can enjoy by themselves or on a breakfast sandwich of your own design. (Sorry, no country ham.) Order and pick up at the counter and dine outdoors or on the go, and don’t forget a cinnamon roll.
At the next exit down I-95, for US 192 in Melbourne, you can get whatever you want (almost) at Pane E Vino, an Italian bakery/deli/restaurant with an Italian chef using lots of imported ingredients, and pleasant outdoor seating. They have a worthy wine list if you’re stopping for the night. It’s just four or five miles off 95.
In Northern Palm Beach County, you can spend the night in Jupiter and head to the 706/Indiantown Road exit east to U-Tiki for dinner. It’s right on the water and serves well-cooked fresh local seafood, and they have those U-Tiki Potatoes. Just a little farther south in Juno, the Donald Ross Road exit takes you to an even better place for dinner if you’re spending the night, Captain Charlie’s Reef Grill.
In Palm Beach gardens, take the PGA Boulevard exit to Cod and Capers Seafood Market and Cafe for lunch, or for dinner if you’re staying the night. Take the PGA Boulevard exit and then turn right on US 1. The marketplace is a seafood market, with fresh-as-can-be seafood, while the Cafe serves it up beautifully cooked.
It you take the Palm Beach Lakes exit east and then go left on N. Tamarind, you’ll arrive at Off Tha Bone in West Palm Beach for a delicious lunch. It’s a small, friendly place with ribs cooked over wood and reasonably priced.
The best Cuban restaurant in Palm Beach County is Havana in West Palm Beach. Just take the Forest Hill Blvd. exit east and when you hit US 1, you’re there. Get the lechon asado with extra mojo or, if you’re in a hurry, a Cuban sandwich. If you’re in a real hurry, just go to the carryout window. Farther south, another good Cuban restaurant near I-95 is Little Havana in Deerfield Beach. You can take the West Hillsboro exit east and then a right on US 1, then enjoy your lunch and take US 1 south to 10th Street and then right back to I-95.
In between those two another worthy Florida barbecue place well worth a stop is Troy’s in Boynton Beach. Take the Woolrich exit and a right on US 1. Again, get the ribs.
If you’e going on to the Keys, you’ll leave I-95 and jump over to the Turnpike, which will be much faster and dump you off after the end of I-95 in Homestead, and the beginning of the Keys. You’ll be within 15 minutes of a whole lot of good Cuban restaurants but, alas, I can’t remember any of their names. Just search “cuban near me.” If you ever overnight in Miami eat at Versailles.
At least once, drive all the way down to Key West. Here are some places along the beautiful drive through the Keys. There’s a wonderful (and pricey) place to stay in Key Largo at the top of the Keys, Playa Largo, and here are a couple of really interesting places to stay in Key West: Havana Cabana and the Barbary Beach House, now rebrand as the Margaritaville Beach House. Once you’re in Key West, be sure to have dinner at Salute on the Beach, Louie’s Backyard (lunch or dinner), and upstairs at Louie’s Cafe. The seafood is fresh and very well prepared. And visit nearby Stock Island for Cuban Food at El Siboney and, to the Hogfish Bar and Grill for first class seafood at lunch and, if you can find a place to park and don’t mind the wait, dinner. If you’re looking for a, uh, dive with good seafood, B.O.’s Fish Wagon is the perfect place.
Key West is a great place for Cuban sandwiches.
There are many types, one for every taste. Popular versions include Cuban Coffee Queen, Kim’s Kuban, Five Brothers, and Sandy’s Cafe. There are more, and l hope you’ll let me know which you think is best. Other must-stops are for The Best Coffee in Town, and for the breakfast sandwiches at Kim’s Kuban. Search “Key West” in the Blog for many more places to eat. Most of all, sit back and relax and have fun. Enjoy your vacation.
Wherever you stop, change into beach clothes right away, grab a cold beverage, and bask in the sun. When you get a chance, please let me know in the comments of additional good places to eat near I-95, either north or south of Washington. Or anywhere else. And please feel free to challenge my recommendations. Most of all, drive carefully.
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