The South's Best Road Food

We've rounded up the best spots to pull off the road for a quick bite, proving even the most routine drive can take a delicious turn if you know which exit to take.
Story by Besha Rodell

The great American road trip—it's inspired everything from novels to movies to songs. The South's favorite highwayman Willie Nelson gets to cranking with "On the Road Again" and we feel the tug of the open highway. It's a lovely notion, but the truth is, during the holidays most of us are just trying to get to Grandma's house as quickly as possible. Nearly 90% of long-distance holiday travel is by car, according to AAA, and nearly 25% of the entire U.S. population is likely to hit the road during the holidays this year. And with all that driving, it can be tempting to turn to the convenience of fast food. But the South offers many delicious alternatives, right off the highway, if only you know where to look. We've picked the best road food stops along some of the South's most traveled interstates—from cafes and barbecue joints to meat 'n' threes and bakeries. And though the modern road trip may be more of a means to an end than a grand adventure, there's no need to lose the romance of finding great eats along the way. Use this guide to suss out your next memorable meal on-the-go. All of the stops are less than 5 miles off the interstate, which will have you back on the road to Grandma's house in no time.

I-40 | Nashville, TN, to Wilmington, NC

Magpies Bakery | Exit 289, Knoxville, TN | Miles from Interstate: 1.3
Fresh is the guiding principle at Magpies, whose motto is "All Butter All the Time." A box of 12 mini cupcakes ($11 and up) will help curb the "Are we there yet?" from the back seat for a minute or three. 846 North Central Street; magpiescakes.com

The Feed Bag Restaurant | Exit 174, Farmington, NC | Miles from Interstate: 4.2
Located in a former general store down a leafy rural road, this simple country restaurant serves up fresh, local food with no pretension and zero gimmicks. 2339 NC Highway 801 North; 336/998-1109

Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen | Exit 270, Chapel Hill, NC | Miles from Interstate: 2.8
North Carolina is the land of the breakfast sandwich. And Sunrise is king—there's no beating these giant biscuits stuffed with egg, sausage, cheese, or whatever filling you'd like. It's drive-through only—perfect for when you don't have time to stop and sit. Just get there before 2:30 p.m., when they close. 1305 East Franklin Street; 919/933-1324

I-20 | Jackson, MS, to Florence, SC 

Weidmann's | Exit 153, Meridian, MS | Miles from Interstate: 1
The exposed-brick Weidmann's has been serving Meridian since 1870, ever since Felix Weidmann, a Swiss chef, settled here. In a "Felix's Special," shrimp rémoulade salad shares a plate with a grilled pimiento cheese-and-bacon sandwich on sourdough bread. Gumbo and po'boys sit happily on the menu next to quiche Lorraine and Norwegian smoked salmon. And while you wait, it's tradition to snack on crackers and peanut butter, kept in a ramekin in an earthenware crock on each table. 210 22nd Avenue; weidmanns1870.com

Archibald & Woodrow's BBQ | Exit 71A, Tuscaloosa, AL | Miles from Interstate: 1
As you pull up to this squat red building, a wondrous aroma hits you: the smell of wood smoke and rendering pork fat. Locals have been following that lure through Archibald & Woodrow's unassuming door for more than 50 years, and it's easy to see why. Like most Tuscaloosa barbecue, Archibald's offerings are similar to Carolina-style barbecue, meaning no beef and a peppery, vinegary sauce. Even so, the menu is wide-ranging for a barbecue hut. But you're here for the pork: namely, the chopped shoulder or tender, smoke-swathed ribs. 4215 Greensboro Avenue; 205/331-4858

Yesterday's Cafe | Exit 105, Rutledge, GA | Miles from Interstate: 3
Yesterday's Cafe makes its home in a renovated turn-of-the-century drugstore in downtown Rutledge. It's a great weekend morning stop for fluffy pancakes or the hulking breakfast bowl: sausage and eggs, topped with a biscuit and thick sausage gravy. Later in the day, go for the three-napkin burgers and shrimp and grits. The place is justly lauded for its buttermilk pie, including a dense, fudgy chocolate version. 120 Fairplay Street; yesterdayscaferutledge.com

I-35 | San Antonio, TX, to Oklahoma City, OK

Miller's Smokehouse | Exit 294A, Belton, TX | Miles from Interstate: 0.8
Visiting the South's best barbecue shacks should feel like a pilgrimage. And even though Miller's is just off the highway, you still get that thrill of tracking down a treasure trove of meaty goodness. To find Miller's, look for the smoke rising from behind the modest building down a Belton side street. Inside, men in boots and cowboy hats hunch over plates of smoked brisket and house-made sausages. (Don't miss the links stuffed with jalapeño cheese.) If you're passing through on a Friday or Saturday, stop in for the pork ribs—rare in this part of Texas—that attract hoards of loyal locals and hungry travelers alike. 208 North Penelope Street; wildmillers.com

Babe's Chicken Dinner House | Exit 477, Sanger, Texas | Miles from Interstate: 1.5
You'll know you're at Babe's by the 10-foot-tall chicken standing outside the front door of this former hardware store, which dates to 1898. Inside, the decor—a cashier stand made from wagon wheels, light fixtures from an old schoolhouse, and a boat in the middle of the dining room—is salvaged from all over the place. But here's the real draw: crispy, golden fried chicken and chicken-fried steak, served with bottomless family-style sides. We love the biscuits, especially when doused with Babe's voluptuous cream gravy. 202 North Fourth Street; babeschicken.com

Fancy That | Exit 109, Norman, OK | Miles from Interstate: 2.8
This downtown storefront offers a sit-down "classic lunch" for $8 that includes an entrée and a side: a hulking meatball sandwich, perhaps, with a strawberry, blue cheese, and walnut salad, or a fat BLT on Texas toast with a basil-intense pasta salad. 215 East Main Street; fancythat.us

More Interstate Pit Stops!
Take a break and refuel off two more of the region's busiest routes

I-95

  • Wilson's BBQ and Grill | Exit 11A, Emporia, VA, Classic Southern BBQ shack with ribs, pulled pork, hush puppies, and pie. 434/634-4147
  • Broad Street Deli & Market | Exit 73, Dunn, NC, Gourmet lunch deli and wine/gift shop with free Wi-Fi, known for its homemade pimiento cheese sandwiches (served grilled or cold). broadstreetdeliandmarket.com
  • Clark's Inn & Restaurant | Exit 98, Santee, SC, Old-school, steak-and-seafood dining; expect white tablecloths and a clubby bar catering to road-weary travelers and folks staying at the attached Inn. clarksinnandrestaurant.com

I-77

  • Local Dish | Exit 85, Fort Mill, SC, Downtown cafe with a cheerful staff serving down-home staples like chicken pot pie, plus more modern eats such as kale chips with smoked paprika. localdishfortmill.com
  • Lake View Restaurant | Exit 8, Fancy Gap, VA, Meat 'n' three just north of the NC border serving honest home cooking. 276/728-7841
  • Taste of West Virginia Food Court | Exit 45, Beckley, WV, Not your typical food court (think: locally grown trout with lemon brown butter) with chefs from The Greenbrier, West Virginia's most exclusive luxury resort. tamarackwv.com

Fuel Up
Find these regional treats at a gas station near you

  • Blue Bell Ice Cream (TX) A 3-oz. cup of melt-in-your-mouth decadence churned with milk from Lone Star State dairy cows
  • Carolina Country Snacks Fried Pork Rinds (NC) Crispy pork skins seasoned with red pepper
  • Goo Goo Clusters (TN) Sweet and salty: milk chocolate, caramel, peanuts, and marsh-mallow nougat
  • Lone Star Western Beef Jerky (WV) Smoked, all-natural beef jerky made with lean round and dried in strips
  • Zapp's Potato Chips (LA) Thick cut and kettle fried in Gramercy, with flavors like Spicy Cajun Crawtators, Sweet Creole Onion, and Voodoo Heat

Check Your Fluids 
Trade in the big gulp for one of these Southern sodas

  • Ale-8-One (KY) Sharp and crisp with ginger and citrus; locally known as "A Late One"
  • Buffalo Rock Golden Ginger Ale (AL) Known for its deep, spicy bite; first batched in Birmingham as a tonic for stomach ache relief in 1901
  • Cheerwine (NC) A deep burgundy drink, known as the "Nectar of the Carolinas," that tastes of rich dark cherry
  • Nehi (GA) Orange, peach, grape, and strawberry fizzy drinks; these fruit sodas are pronounced like their original bottle's rumored height: knee-high
  • Old Dominion Root Beer (VA) Old-fashioned, caffeine-free soda—originally bottled in Ashburn—sweetened with pure honey and cane sugar