The best local joints beckon seasoned road-food fans with signs that flash brighter than any neon. A handwritten specials board. Doors that announce customers with a bang or jingle. And -- the most honest endorsement of all -- parking lots full of local license plates.
Click ahead to find 10 of Midwest Living® editors' favorite downhome restaurants from years of traveling Midwest backroads, plus 12 suggestions from our readers. Want to let us know about your own favorites? Leave a comment below!
Editor Pick Monty's Blue Plate Diner, Madison It's tough to get noticed in this food-savvy town, but this gas-station-turned-diner has a rep for some of Madison's best vegetarian dishes, dessert and breakfast. (Pictured at left: Monty's Blue Plate omelet.) Neon glows on cases filled with desserts and breads. Try the vegetarian meat loaf or salmon hash (608/244-8505; montysblueplatediner.com).
Reader pick The Red Barn Restaurant, Twin Lakes All-you-can-eat Friday night fish fry. "Never had a bad dinner here" (262/877-2500; twinlakes-country-club.com).
Editor Pick The Cozy Inn Hamburgers, Salina "Burgers served with onion and an attitude," says the menu at the nearly 90-year-old diner with six stools in a dining room the size of a single-car garage. Inside the blocky white building accented in red, cooks grill the tiny, juicy burgers to slap on custom-baked 3 1/2-inch buns (785/825-2699; cozyburger.com).
Reader Pick Kansas Old 56 Family Restaurant, Olathe Order the daily special, such as pot roast, and sour cream raisin pie (913/390-9905).
Editor Pick Roger Randall Bakery, Wakefield Inside the brown building, diners sit at a Formica lunch counter to savor Cornish pasties bursting with meat and potatoes. They're so good you don't need gravy (that's saying something with pasties). Locals also stop in for daily doughnuts at Randall, the only bakery in this U.P. town (906/224-5401).
Reader Pick Michigan DiMaggio's, Coloma They serve pizza only one way, thick and cut into squares. "It is so good" (269/849-1521).
Editor Pick Big Daddy's Old Fashioned Barbecue, Saint Paul Follow the barbecue smoke to the latest venture of friends Bob Edmond, Gene Sampson and Ron Whyte on Saint Paul's University Avenue West. Fans overlook the limited hours (Friday and Saturday only) and plain decor to get their hands on the so-tender ribs and chicken -- not too salty, just the right spice with the smoky taste of hickory (651/222-2516; bigdaddysbbq-stpaul.com).
Reader Pick Nicklow's Cafe and Bar, Blaine "Great Greek food overlooking a lake. A hidden gem" (763/784-8566).
Reader Pick Auburn Town Tavern, Auburn Go for the fish basket, pork tenderloin, and "great waitress, Dottie" (260/925-0555).
Editor Pick Kabob Korner, Indianapolis Nasir Ayoubi got bored after closing his formal Afghan restaurant. So he opened this fast-service eatery in 2007 featuring carryout and seating for about 40 in a room painted purple and orange. Try the manto (steamed dumplings) filled with ground turkey and sauteed onions, topped with yogurt sauce and served on paper plates (317/577-9610; kabobkorner.net).
Editor Pick Doherty's Pub and Pins, Decatur Have a split before dinner, and we don't mean ice cream. There's a bowling alley behind this redbrick storefront. Brothers John, Bob and Jeff Hawkins kept six lanes of the original alley in their pub-style eatery. Try the Irish-style shepherd's pie and listen as pins crash in the next room (217/428-5612; dohertyspubandpins.com).
Reader Pick Rip's, Ladd Hanging out while waiting for a table is part of the experience at this silverware-optional eatery that specializes in fried chicken (fish on Friday) (815/894-3051; ripschicken.com).
Reader Pick A Slice of Pie, Rolla "Their coconut cream pie is an unforgettable experience" (573/364-6203; asliceofpie.info).
Editor Pick Billy Gail's Cafe, Branson Blue gas pumps stand in front of this former gas station/log cabin on State-265. Named for owners Billy and Gail Blong, the comfy, casual 80-seat cafe with cheery red-checkered tablecloths might remind you of Grandma's. Regulars often get a hug when they walk in. Try fluffy hotcakes and the grits (417/338-8883).
Editor Pick That Place, Conrad Stranded on the prairie at a highway crossroads, That Place (pictured at left) is one of those joints that packs 'em in for the Friday/Saturday prime rib special. Can you find prime rib as good in nearby Des Moines? Sure. But will you eat it in the red wooden booth of an old truck stop under the gaze of a jackalope and owners who are always glad you came? We didn't think so (641/366-2911).
Reader Pick Northwestern Steakhouse, Mason City "Terrific small restaurant that serves the best steaks and roast chicken we've found" (641/423-5075; northwesternsteakhouse.com).
Reader Pick Root Beer Stand, Cincinnati The family brews its own root beer each season (513/769-4349; therootbeerstand.com).
Editor Pick New Sandusky Fish Co., Sandusky It's easy to see how this business works: There's a counter to order carryout, one to buy fresh fish, and one for pickup. There's only one bench, so you don't linger. But you can eat your fish in the park next door while taking in Lake Erie views. High marks go to the battered, fried lake perch piled on a bun (419/621-8263).
Editor Pick Stella's Bar and Grill, Bellevue, Nebraska Juicy burgers wrapped in napkins are greasy in the best possible way. Don't pass up fries or onion rings. Stephanie Francois, great-great-niece of Stella who started the 70-year-old business, continues the legacy using family recipes and Stella's well-seasoned cast-iron griddle (402/291-6088).
Reader Pick The Plainsman Steakhouse and Lounge, Juniata, Nebraska "They have a fabulous salad bar and prime rib dinner every Friday and Saturday night" (402/751-2512).
Reader Pick The Hitching Post Bar, Benedict, North Dakota "Good basic food, including steak specials with all the fixin's in a town with no paved roads" (701/679-2502).
Reader Pick Charlie's Cottonwood Lake Resort, Lake City, South Dakota "Best prime rib on Friday nights" (605/448-2226).
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® July/August 2010.)