Chef Joel Mahr did the big-city thing for half a decade in Omaha. He helped launch Lot 2, a restaurant that skyrocketed to star status. The buzz rolled in, and a three-month waitlist filled out. Then he left in 2016, with a dream to open his own spot—in a southwest Iowa town with just 1,450 residents. Joel already sourced ingredients from his in-laws’ farm in Corning (80 miles from Omaha), and he felt rural life calling.
“It’s city dining in a small town. And it makes sense,” Joel says of Primrose, which opened last spring. “I get to pull stuff right out of the ground and bring it in with dirt still on it.”
Primrose isn’t the only delicious surprise hiding far from big cities. Some pivot on chef-crafted menus. Others offer novelty, like dining on a Kansas runway or in a zero-resident town. Consider this a map to the foodie detours in your next road trip.
French onion arancini at Primrose in Corning, Iowa. Photo: Brie Passano
1. Moonshine Store Moonshine, Illinois
Don’t let the Population 2 sign deceive you. It dropped to zero after Roy Lee Tuttle died in 2015 and his widow, Helen, moved out of the town’s lone building. None of that has stopped their century-old Moonshine Store from serving up hundreds of Moonburgers daily. Context is everything at this cash-only hub where people rave about a hefty plain patty on a white bun. The Tuttles’ daughters-in-law now run the grills, which still shut off at 12:30 p.m. sharp. As for the booze? No moonshine. The moon’s reflection in a puddle inspired the name of this blip on the radar in eastern Illinois. The absurdity of it all has wooed travelers from all 50 U.S. states.
Menu star: A Moonburger runs $4.50. Drop $7.50 to make it a double bacon cheeseburger.
Moonshine Store. Photo: Jason Lindsey
2. Primrose Corning, Iowa
Before Primrose opened last May, convenience-store pizza and a couple of mom-and-pop cafes rounded out Corning’s food scene. Owner-chef Joel Mahr and his wife, Jill, have thrown a weekly rotating menu into the mix. They specialize in seasonal dishes but also serve a standby $8 burger that draws regulars from multiple counties. Finding affordable space in Corning expedited Joel’s dream of owning a big-city restaurant. The building was once a funeral parlor, and the name Primrose leapt out of Jim Harrison’s poem “I Believe,” an ode to rural life. “For me, it’s the true definition of community out here,” Joel says.
Menu star: Look for seasonal rarities, such as foraged mushrooms and ramps, on the menu.
Faroe Islands salmon at Primrose. Photo: Brie Passano
3. Malabar Farm Restaurant Lucas, Ohio
Malabar Farm State Park packs outdoor escape, cultural history and memorable food into one stop. Since 1976, the historic site in north-central Ohio has preserved the legacy of Louis Bromfield. The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and advocate for sustainable farming lived here until 1956. After a brief closure, the 1820s home-turned-restaurant on the property will reopen this spring with a menu featuring farm-fresh produce.
Fill the day: Explore miles of trails in the park and book a tour of the farm or Bromfield’s home.
4. Eat Restaurant Dodge, Nebraska
The tile floor and walk-in vault in the corner are original to the bank that shuttered in 1929 with the stock market crash. “That, or we’ve heard the banker ran off with all the money,” chef Michael Glissman says of his building in a town of 600. The eastern Nebraska native opened Eat with his mom, Lin Schwanebeck, after 20 years working in California wine country. Early menus were heavy on steak, but demand has nudged Michael toward more creative entrees, like rabbit fricassee and fisherman’s stew.
Menu star: The mallard duck breast is a popular regular on a menu that changes weekly.
5. Stearman Field Bar and Grill Benton, Kansas
Twenty miles northeast of Wichita, listen and watch for the biplanes buzzing over the prairie. They’ll lead you to a small landing strip that butts against a restaurant, open breakfast through dinner daily. Garage-door walls can create a huge patio beside the runway action. A menu of elevated bar fare includes locally raised Hereford beef steaks and the house-favorite fried pickles, served extra-kicky, with homemade ranch.
Fill the day: Visitors can book a ride in the blue-and-yellow Stearman biplanes, once used to train World War II pilots.
6. Chef Shack Bay City, Wisconsin
James Beard semifinalist Lisa Carlson and Carrie Summer channel their Twin Cities food-truck fame into a weekend-only destination on the Mississippi River. Try beef bourguignon, duck confit and other French-inspired classics from mid-April to New Year’s Eve in tiny Bay City.
Find these easy stops right off an Interstate ramp.
7. Firefly Grill Effingham, Illinois
Like a secret garden, Firefly Grill lies just beyond the chain restaurants where interstates 70 and 57 meet in southern Illinois. The heavy use of barnwood is no schtick here. You’re on a 4-acre farm that grows peppers, heirloom tomatoes and other seasonal veggies for the kitchen.
Firefly Grill. Photo: Courtesy of Illinois Office of Tourism
Firefly Farm consomme with cucumber, squash blossom and chive flower. Photo courtesy of Illinois Office of Tourism.
8. Jay Bros.Taste of India Overton, Nebraska
Slip past the mud-flap decals and mega refill mugs at this Interstate-80 truck stop for a bounty of tikka masala, malai kofta and garlic naan. Expect to find yourself digging in with in-the-know truck drivers, who flag Exit 24B as home to one of the best (and least likely) road-trip meals in south-central Nebraska.
9. Al’s Oasis Oacoma, South Dakota
Neither secret nor subtle, Al’s rises up like Wall Drug’s little brother 150 miles to the east. Among faux bison and kitschy cowboy motifs, westbound road-trippers fuel up on pie made in-house and 5-cent cups of coffee. On the Missouri River, it truly is an oasis after big stretches of nothingness along I-90.