New England’s Best Road Food: A Guide

On our many travels around New England, Ben and I have often found ourselves wishing for an app that would somehow merge Google Maps with Yelp to help us find great food along the major highways, not just at isolated junctures between points A and B. Alas, we are writers, and not coders, and while we can’t build what would surely be a million-dollar app, we can at least make a list of the great road food we know about so that during a weekend jaunt or a holiday trek, you can better plan your pit-stops. Goodbye, McCracker King Donuts Barrel! Hello, excellent local eats!

Special thanks to all the friends who offered their suggestions. Please leave any places we missed in the comments.

I-95 (North to South)
Seadog Brewing Co., Brunswick ME. The beer is good, the food is fine, and the service is efficient. Overlooks the river. What more do you want?

Various Places in Portland ME. Portland is a great place to stop for a bite; there are more restaurants and bars per capita than in any other city in America. Somehow, we always find ourselves back at Duckfat, where the selection of savory panini, great Maine microbrews, and of course their twice-fried-in-duckfat fries make you feel like you might die of heart failure at any moment and it would still be worth it. Other options: pizza at Flatbread or Otto, a big brunch (served from 7-2pm every day) at Bintliff’s, or some obscure beer affordable food at Novare Res (which, in the warmer months, has a truly delightful beer garden). I’ve also heard good things about The Holy Donut, but I’ve never been. Bard Coffee is where I get my kicks.

Bob’s Clam Hut, Kittery ME. All the juicy, tiny, fried Maine shrimp you could want. And all the fried clams you could want. Also, anything that comes from the sea and is also fried, that you could want. A little bite of New England, right off the highway.

Portsmouth Brewery, Portsmouth NH. When we’re driving down 95, Ben and I find it almost impossible not to stop here and have a beer (or a beer sampler!) and a few of their pretzel rolls.

Roundabout Diner, Portsmouth NH. After hearing such strong recommendations for this place from Laura and Brian, perhaps we’ll have to tear ourselves away from the brewery and give it a shot. While we’ve never eaten here, multiple friends extol its virtues, and say its location on the Portsmouth traffic circle makes it an easy trip from the highway.

Venda makes me feel like a kid in a candy store, except that instead of being a kid I’m an adult and instead of being candy it’s insanely good Italian food.

Venda Ravioli, Providence RI. This eye-popping Italian grocery is a great stop for a cheap (but huge) deli sandwich (named after your favorite Rat-Packer) and for picking up a hostess gift for wherever you’re headed. Or a plate of hors d’oeuvres. Or some digestivi from the old country. Or a mini stove-stop espresso maker. Or some handmade lobster ravioli. Or some real, actually-from-Italy-and-therefore-not-the-sugary-crap-they-export-to-America Nutella. While there is lots of great food in Providence, we recommend Venda (and all of Federal Hill) for road eats because it’s not only Providence’s mouth-watering Little Italy, it’s an easy off/on from the highway — just exit and turn up Atwells Avenue. You’re there.

Various Places in the Mystic CT Area. This quiet corner of Connecticut makes the perfect place to break up a long drive. There’s touristy Mystic Pizza (made famous by an early Julia Roberts flick), Abbott’s Lobster in the Rough (where the summer people go in Noank, open seasonally), Ford’s Lobster (where the locals go in Noank, open seasonally), Noah’s (somewhere between fine and family dining in Stonington), Paul’s Pasta (in Groton) and the relatively new Oyster Club in Mystic (farm-to-table fine dining). If you’re driving by early in the day, there’s the delightful Kitchen Little, also in Mystic, open from 6:30 to 1pm on weekends. It is hard to go wrong, unless you instead decide to press on and stop in New London. There’s nothing in New London.

Pepe’s Pizza, New Haven CT. I have yet to try the delights of Pepe’s, but it comes highly recommended by Paul. And they have a few other locations around Connecticut in case your travels take you further off the beaten path.

City Limits Diner, Stamford CT. Another spot that’s new to me, this recommendation came from Sue and was quickly seconded by Brian. If it’s really that good, it may be Stamford’s only redeeming quality.

Nudel, Lenox MA. This is not road food so much as a destination restaurant that will make any long car drive seem like a small price to pay for such gastronomic heights. Chef Bjorn could easily compete with the finest chefs in Boston or New York, but prefers to spend his time in the bucolic Berkshires. The result is simply amazing food that doesn’t cost a whole lot. (Ben and I had a $55 tasting menu there last fall that included almost everything on the menu and left me too stuffed to comfortably sit or lie down. The white chocolate risotto with mango curd dessert was probably overkill, but I could not resist. So I stood for three hours reading a book afterward until it felt safe to move.) Plan your departure time to arrive at 5:30, when they open (they don’t take reservations and are closed Sunday and Monday). The menu changes daily based on what local ingredients are available, but recent menu items include: Orecchiette with pork sausage and white beans (and bitter green pesto, and sunflower seeds) and bone marrow Welsh rarebit (with roasted kale salad, pickled peppers, fried egg, and spicy ketchup). I’m so hungry right now.

BT’s Smokehouse, Sturbridge MA. I have a confession to make. I actually read how great BT’s was on Yelp, made us get off the highway, find it, pull into the parking lot… and then I made us turn around and leave. No one else was there and the place seemed abandoned, and I was sketched out. Well, I’m kicking myself now. It turns out that people I actually know (not just crazy Yelpers, who’ve led me astray many times before) will in fact drive all the way to Sturbridge, get the barbecue they crave, then drive home. (Rafi, I am looking at you.) One thing is clear: I have egg on my face. But not BBQ sauce.

Rein’s Deli, Vernon CT. I remember I-84 as the wasteland of any long family drive. Barely had we left the Pike after the Charlton, Mass. rest stop than I’d start my litany of “Whenner we gonna get theeere?” That’s because my family didn’t know about Rein’s New York Style Deli. I thought it was just Ben’s secret pit stop, but as it turns out, it’s an open secret — without a doubt the most popular eatery in our informal poll. Sit down and let the bowls of pickles flow.

Treva, West Hartford, CT. Among the first things I learned when my cousin enrolled at Trinity is that West Hartford is very different from Hartford. And the second thing I learned is that Treva, in West Hartford, is a great way to break up any long drive. Their antipasto martini along is enough to take the edge off a “hangry” passenger (the olives are stuffed with blue cheese and wrapped in prosciutto). The rigatoni with sweet fennel sausage bolognese will more than keep body and soul together for the rest of your journey, and if you’re worried about slipping into a post-carbs coma, just wrap things up with their sweet-bitter-cold-hot affogato.

Route 2 (East to West)
Various Places in Concord MA. A new favorite of mine, and of the good people at Boston Magazine, is 80 Thoreau. Full disclosure: I went to school with some of the investors in this place. But I’d recommend it even if it were Karl Rove’s pet project. Locavore menu, well-balanced cocktails, blah blah delicious blah. There’s no reason road food has to be cheap, greasy crap. And anytime we’re in Concord, I always make the case that we should stop off here. If you’re looking for lunch, however, we love the Concord Cheese Shop for its hearty sandwiches. You can also pick up a block of, say, unpasteurized hard Sardinian cheese laced with crumbled black truffles. Finally, there’s La Provence. Their three-salad plate is fast, inexpensive, and healthy. I especially love their artichoke salad, beet salad, and lentil salad.

The Lady Killigrew’s sunny interior.

The Lady Killigrew Cafe, Montague MA. In the Book Mill, probably the best bookstore in the entire world, is the Lady Killigrew Cafe, where you can get good local beer and great food from 8am to 11pm. The warm brown rice salad is the perfect healthy vegetarian plate that somehow always makes me feel better about spending all that time in the car. But the grilled brie-and-apple sandwich is the one that makes me wish I weren’t lactose intolerant. Set in a faded red New England mill, overlooking a rushing stream, it’s the perfect spot in any weather.

I-91/Route 2
The People’s Pint, Greenfield MA. I have to credit Ania for introducing me to the simple joys of the People’s Pint, a microbrewery with hearty, delicious food conveniently located at the intersection of I/91 and Rt. 2 in Greenfield, MA. Fortunately, they sell growlers, so if you don’t need to worry about all the great beer you’re missing out on in the name of driving safely on to your final destination. They’re open daily for lunch, and serve dinner from 4 – 10. From 10 pm midnight, there’s a late night menu. Only caveat: they just take cash. Fortunately there is an ATM close by. This is a good pick for those traveling in a group of picky eaters, as the menu is an eclectic mix of traditional pub fare (a ploughman’s lunch, their house-made sausage, and so on), vegetarian hippy food (various salad and noodle dishes) and melting-pot food (green thai curry bowl, burritos, etc).

93 (South to North)
Republic Cafe, Manchester, NH. Late one Friday night, Ben and I were driving to the White Mountains when we (OK, I) grew so hungry that we just had to pull over. We pulled up Yelp, trying one restaurant, then another. We couldn’t get a table anywhere. Finally we wandered into Republic Cafe, I feeling as famished as a wagon train full of pioneers whose bison have all died from dysentery, and Ben looking as if I might go all Donner party on his ass. We collapsed in front of their antique marble bar, clutched a few intelligently made whiskey cocktails, and dove in to the hot, creative food in front of us. Ah, I thought, home at last. Now we make a point of checking in here when we’re headed north.

The Tilt’n Diner, Tilton, NH. I used to love coming here as a kid. There’s 50s kitsch everywhere, and bin after bin of vintage magazine advertisements. For my parents, this meant a brief respite from my whenner-we-gonna-get-theres. For me, it meant an hour of quiet entertainment before we got back into the car.

The Common Man, Ashland NH. There are several restaurants in the Common Man “family” (and actually, the Tilt’n Diner is part of it, too), but my favorite is the one in Ashland. It’s a big, homey, rambling old barn full of decent food, and Ashland is a very pretty northern New England town. I’d just stick to the sandwiches and basic fare; you’re not coming here for something fancy.

Mad River Coffee Roasters, Campton, NH. Great coffee, and their bagel breakfast sandwiches put to shame anything you’ll find at the Stardunkbuckonuts across the street. They do lunches, too.

Route 1 (North to South) — for those who love the scenic route

Cappy’s Chowder House, Camden ME. I know, I know; there are much foodier places in Camden. Somehow I just always go back to this comfortable old touristy cramped simple spot.

Moody’s Diner, Waldoboro ME. This spot comes highly recommended by Deb, but Ben and I have yet to dine here. Something that’s sure to be remedied on our next trip north to Acadia National Park.

Damariscotta River Grill, Damariscotta ME. An upscale dining experience (actually off of Business Rte 1). Worth the detour.

The Soda Fountain, Ocean Park ME. Ben’s sisters have worked here during the summer, which of course has nothing to do with it being on this list, or with our recommendation to leave large tips for the hardworking staff. Seriously, you could follow Route 1 all the way to the Florida Keys and you wouldn’t find a homier spot.

The Beach Plum, North Hampton NH. One visit to their website has convinced me that Scott is right: I must eat here. I want that lobster roll. I also want that crazy hand-carved wooden lobster holding an ice cream cone in each claw.

Aunt Carrie’s, Narragansett RI. Another untried by me, but vociferously supported by Kathleen, eatery. Specifically with regard to the “bag of clam cakes.” This must be tried.

What others would you add to the list?

A Day of Food and Art in Providence

"Painting Air" at the RISD Art Museum.

“Painting Air” at the RISD Art Museum.

Providence is overlooked by most day-trippers I know, which is a shame, since it offers a host of fantastic restaurants and fun things to do — and is surprisingly affordable. Spring is the city’s best season.

For Providence’s best shopping, think beyond the mega-mall.

Just an hour south of Boston (or 35 minutes on the Acela!), Providence is New England’s second-largest city. On the historic East Side, home to Brown and RISD, attractive buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries line sidewalks dotted with gas lamps on Benefit Street, while colorful Victorians populate College Hill. On the Brown campus, April and May see a rash of flowering trees exploding with pink and white blossoms. Take a stroll through Brown’s interconnected quads and enjoy watching the students pretending to study beneath them. Ramble through the streets of College Hill, settled by Baptists expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and remark upon the ceaseless optimism of the street names: Hope; Power; Friendship; Benevolent; Benefit. (Yes, Hope and Power do intersect. Yes, Friendship really is a one-way street.) Wickenden Street, just south of campus, offers a strip of antique shops and cafes. I particularly recommend The Coffee Exchange, a funky little spot where I wrote almost my entire senior thesis.

On Benefit Street, it’s worth stopping in to Providence’s charming old Athenaeum, a lovely independent library. The rare book room usually has something worth looking at (and admission, of course, is free). On a recent trip, they were featuring an exhibit about Oscar Wilde’s US speaking tour.

Just across from the Athenaeum is the RISD art museum, where admission is free the last Saturday of the month. Not surprisingly for the region’s premiere art school, the museum includes a little something for everyone, with a wide range of examples from most of America’s important artists. A diverse array of special exhibitions mean there’s always something different coming through. A recent trip featured both a Spencer Finch installation called “Painting Air,” for instance, and “Pilgrims of Beauty,” a more traditional exhibit of British and American artists painting on location in Italy.

If you’re sticking around into the evening, Providence also has several fun performing arts venues, from the famous music club Lupo’s to Trinity Repertory Theater to my sentimental favorite, the Cable Car cinema, which serves beer and offers sofa seating.

Warm pear-pecan scones at Cook & Brown Public House.

But enough about art and literature and such. Let’s talk about food. From Federal Hill, Providence’s Little Italy, to the Johnson & Wales Culinary Arts Museum, this is a little city with a big appetite. Brunch is my favorite meal, and PVD offers several fantastic options. My current favorite is Cook & Brown Public House, just outside the College Hill bubble. But I’ve also been a frequent eater at Rue de L’Espoir (on Hope Street, of course), Julian’s, and, in my college days, Brickway on Wickenden. For lunch, some favorite spots include Olga’s Cup and Saucer, Meeting Street Cafe (with their notorious, dinner-plate-sized cookies), and CAV, down in the jewelry district. But save room for dinner, because Providence’s downtown offers some really tasty options. Serious foodies should try New Rivers, but go for a drink first at The Dorrance, where they mix classic cocktails in the impossibly ornate lobby of an old bank.

Of course, serious Providence aficionados will point out that this little tour has barely scratched the surface of what New England’s second-biggest city has to offer. And that’s true. So leave your own recommendations in the comments!