The Encyclopedia of Diners

So many of my book recommendations are about serious topics, it’s time to have some fun. But if you don’t eat anything with fat or grease in it or on it, this may not be the book for you. On the other hand, I have been known to drive two hours out of my way to get a real American down home meal. And the ultimate experts on knowing where to find it are the perhaps unlikely couple, Jane and Michael Stern from Connecticut.

These two wonderful people seem to have driven every backroad in America in search of the best classic American food and regional favorites. They have written books with such creative titles as Eat Your Way Across the USA, and even a great autobiography called Two for the Road: Our Love Affair with American Food. But their ultimate contribution to society is the current edition of Roadfood: The Coast-to-Coast Guide to 700 of the Best Barbeque Joints, Lobster Shacks, Ice Cream Parlors, Highway Diners, and Much, Much More (Broadway Books, 2008). 
The book is complemented by their excellent website at, where you can find the comments of hundreds of other food lovers, and even food tours of the best places in America.
As I travel the US – and the world – making speeches, my hosts seem to want to take me to the poshest restaurants in town. It’s Italian cuisine in the South, French in Dallas, Thai in Seattle. As great as some of these meals are, doesn’t anyone respect our own culinary traditions?  I can get great Italian food when I am in Italy, I can eat Thai in Bangkok. How about some local pot likker or some good old Brunswick stew?
Others complain about the McDonaldization of America and the world, but they drive right by the mom and pop places that often have delicious food. My favorite cities here and abroad offer a wide array of choices, from chains to locals. And don’t get me wrong – I sometimes need my McDonald’s fries fix or my Egg McMuffin as much as you do. But I like to mix it up!
I have driven in 49 states (I will get to you sooner or later, Alaska!). I have gone out of my way to get to about 70 of the places recommended by the Sterns. If my memory serves me right, I was only disappointed once. That was a giant farm restaurant in rural Virginia where I had to wait two hours on the lawn swing until a table opened up – and then I was the last person served and my food was cold. That place is no longer in the book, and may not even be open these days.
But the tastes of Mobile’s Dew Drop Inn, Atlanta’s Mary Mac’s Tea Room, Manchester Connecticut’s Shady Glen, Conneaut Ohio’s White Turkey Drive-In, Nashville’s Rotier’s, Milwaukee’s Speed Queen (BBQ), New Orleans’ Mother’s, and San Francisco’s Sears Fine Food still linger in my mouth. At the 24-hour Lafayette Coney Island in downtown Detroit, they do magic tricks at your table when they bring the luscious chili dogs. 
At Lagomarcino’s in Moline, Illinois, home of one of the world’s great hot fudge sundaes, I took a photo of the three generations of women who own and work in the store. Great-grandpa started it all in 1908. Little has changed at Lagomarcino’s, and you can visit the wonderful John Deere historic center footsteps away – they’ve been around since 1837. These places not only serve great food, but they are alive with real people, real stories, real history. Talk about the experience economy!
I have two copies of Roadfood – one my bookshelf that I use when planning trips, the other in the trunk of my car so I am never without it.
For years the Sterns were a lonely voice in the wilderness, the only folks writing up these places. Even local magazines obsess on the best fine dining in town without noticing the truly great centers of local culture and tradition. That is beginning to change. Perhaps it is because an aging baby boom is getting more nostalgic about the America they grew up with. Or perhaps we are just coming to our senses. 
TV shows like Dining on Asphalt and Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives – the latter with an accompanying book – are successfully hitting the airwaves. There have been a ton of books come out on barbeque in the last two years. Living near Austin, I live in one of the top four or five epicenters of the barbeque world – watch out North Carolina, Memphis, and Kansas City! I hope to review some of these books, and even some of my favorite restaurants in the future. But at this time, the Sterns still offer us the most comprehensive look at all types of great American regional cooking. Even if you never leave your armchair, get this book and your mouth will start watering. In fact, I can’t write any more right now, I gotta hit the fridge.





  1. Love Jane and Michael. They have a regular spot on NPR’s The Splendid Table and they are great. Can’t wait to read the books.

  2. I love diners drive-ins and dives ever since I went on a trip to Portland to visit the Byways Cafe. The breakfast was awesome and now I’m a huge fan of the show.