I’m about to change your life for the better. I’ve updated and expanded my key to happiness on the road to Florida.
Winter looms. Again we find ourselves growing grim around the mouth and feeling a damp November in our souls. It’s time to plan a trip South. Some good news: a least for now, Florida has the lowest COVID rate in the US proper, and COVID rates are low in other states along the way. (Really. I was surprised, too.) Apparently, rates have declined where the weather’s cooled enough that folks there can go outdoors again — and you certainly want to be where it’s warm enough to be outdoors again. And you’re vaccinated anyway, right?
Drive or fly? These days, with airlines suddenly canceling flights by the thousand, the popularity of driving is up. For those of us on the East Coast, the drive portends endless hours on dread I-95 and endless unhappy meals at exits enchained by fast food.
You deserve better. You deserve genuinely good, often great food at places all along the trip that (1) are 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 once you get settled in Florida from the Palm Beaches all the way to Key West — plus two special hotels in Key West itself.
For a review of each place, click on the red-text link. The review will include a link to the restaurant’s website, if there is one. Be sure to check hours, outside seating, and other details before you go. Things change rapidly in the restaurant world these days.
For those bypassing Washington from the north, 2fifty Texas BBQ is a 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 good, too. 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 very good 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. And Matt will use his experience at the legendary Skylight Inn and Sam Jones BBQ to cook whole hogs.
The next good 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. 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.
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 good and the architecture is striking, and Carl’s a legendary ice cream place, is right next door.
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 quite good, as is the smoked sausage. Buz is especially proud of his ribs: he beat Bobby Flay in a Throwdown.
If you want ribs — and I don’t advise eating ribs while driving — the best place 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 next good opportunity is 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, so why not? And 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 outstanding 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. It helps the pork a lot, and 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), 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 the road. The 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 around — certainly the best within such easy reach of I-95. Definitely try it.
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 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.
A good, actually great place is Schuler’s Bar-B-Que, just across the South Carolina line. 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. 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 places near I-95: Shuler’s is the place for me. Sweatman’s in Holly Hill is good, but will take more than 15 minutes. 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.
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 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. It’s a great food city.
As you enter Georgia, you come to Savannah, yet another great spot to overnight or spend an extra day. Alas, B’s Cracklin’ BBQ is no more, at least for now. The Campaign for Real Barbecue Georgia page mentions three other spots in Savannah or, again, you can try some great higher end restaurants.
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’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.
Understandably, 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 a real detour, and you should expect a line. On the other other hand, there are some great places to stay on St. Simon’s over a night or three.
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 give up. If you’re taking the western route, here is where to eat in Southwest Florida.
It you’e going down the eastern coast, 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 sooner — and there’s a pretty big gap in my recent experience between Jacksonville and Palm Beach County. I will, however, suggest that you make a pit stop in either St. Augustine or Daytona Beach and gawk at one of the Wonders of the World — Buc-ee’s.
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. Otherwise, just keep driving — carefully — to your destination.
Now, if your destination is in Palm Beach County, which covers a whole lot of territory, be sure to try Cod and Capers, Captain Charlie’s, and U-Tiki, and search “Palm Beach” in this Blog for more restaurants. The best Cuban food is at Havana in West Palm.
After Palm Beach comes Broward County, famous for mis-conducting elections. If you stay in Broward, be sure to go to Calypso in Pompano Beach for sensational seafood, and to Little Havana in Deerfield Beach for Cuban.
If you’re staying in Miami-Dade, don’t miss the Cuban food at the classic Cuban restaurant, Versailles, and at many, many other places. And after I-95 turns into US 1 in Homestead, there’s a place, Shriver’s Bar-B-Q, that Robert Moss recommends.
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. Once you’re in Key West, be sure to have dinner at Salute on the Beach, Louie’s Backyard, and upstairs at Louie’s Cafe, and have breakfast at The Best Coffee in Town, and Kim’s Kuban. And don’t miss El Siboney and the Hogfish Bar and Grill. Search “Key West” in the Blog for many more great places to eat.
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 feel free to challenge my recommendations. And please drive carefully.
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