In the mood for some serious barbecue? Then get yourself over to Pappy’s Smokehouse. If you think the name sounds quintessentially all-American, just wait till you dig into the food. This ever-popular place is famed for its house ribs, which are slowly smoked over cherrywood till the meat just slips off the bone. Never mind the inevitable queues – they serve food fast, and you’ll have somewhere to perch and feast on pulled pork and brisket in no time.
For something a little more elegant, try Tony’s. This has been a St Louis institution for generations, where impeccably dressed waiters serve up Italian dishes from lobster linguine to seared veal chops. It’s marvellously old-school, but if you’re after something a bit more hip, try Eleven Eleven Mississippi, where dishes include oak-roasted mussels and pork cheeks braised in ale.
The capital of Illinois lies just an hour and a half north of St Louis, and brings with it an iconic stop for any road trip in the region: the Cozy Dog Drive In. This is a veritable celebration of all things Route 66 – step inside, and you’ll find a nook filled with Route 66 memorabilia. As for the food, this is one of the earliest places to have served up corn dogs on sticks, so prepare for a genuine taste of American history. The cute logo, showing a pair of sausages hugging romantically, will also have you smiling.
Elsewhere in the area, the American Harvest Eatery takes a serious approach to farm-to-table eating. They source all their ingredients from local producers, meaning an ever-shifting menu that reflects Springfield’s best foods. Everything from shrimp ‘n’ grits to ricotta gnocchi may be on the menu. In the mood for something from the East? Little Saigon is a Springfield favourite, thanks to its pho soups and Thai curries.
Around 40 minutes north of Springfield lies Lincoln, which was named after Abraham Lincoln before he even became president. Don’t come expecting fine dining or edgy, experimental kitchens in this neck of the woods. Here, it’s all about hearty, unpretentious grub that’ll please hungry road trippers. Guzzardo’s Italian Villa is a case in point. This cavernous eatery is known for its prime rib special, as well as its big, colourful, rich pasta dishes – perfect for a family.
If Mexican food is more your thing, head to El Mazatlan. This is another Lincoln stalwart, serving up stuffed enchiladas, seafood molcajete served in a real stone dish, along with some tasty steak tacos. Again, it’s big, brash and bound to leave you pleasingly stuffed. When it comes to more unusual places to eat in Lincoln, the quirkiest has to be the Blue Dog Inn, which is literally a dog-themed restaurant with pictures of canines scattered everywhere you look. It’s as Instagram-worthy as anywhere on your trip.
Drive for around 3 hours and you’ll get to the biggest foodie haven in this region: Chicago. There’s something for every foodie whim here, including the intriguingly-named Band of Bohemia. It may be a brewpub, but it’s a brewpub with a Michelin star, set within an old factory decked out with vintage lamps. Here, you can enjoy 60-day aged beef among other esteemed ingredients, and – being a pub – it offers a beer pairing menu as well as the usual wine pairing.
One of the hottest places in the city is Parachute, co-owned by Top Chef veteran Beverly Kim. It offers a much-hyped fusion of Korean and North American flavours, and is a hit with critics, celebs and bloggers. If you really want to go big, make a pilgrimage to Alinea, Chicago’s most renowned fine dining restaurant, where the food is pure theatre. Just be sure to book well in advance for this one.
After Chicago comes the final stop on this culinary odyssey: Milwaukee. It sits further north on the shores of Lake Michigan, and offers its own range of tempting foodie temples. One of these is Mader’s, which was founded way back in 1902 and has seen so much history go by. During Prohibition, it put up a sign saying “Prohibition is near at hand. Prepare for the worst. Stock up now! Today and tomorrow there’s beer. Soon there’ll be only the lake.” These days it serves up sausages, sauerkraut, schnitzels and their signature pork shank in gloriously old European surroundings.
The Tandem is the complete opposite. While Mader’s feels like a Gothic grotto, the Tandem is an uber-contemporary spot with a shabby chic, industrial look. Its policy is to hire local young people who might not otherwise get to break into the food industry, and the cocktails here are as enticing as the food.
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