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10 great places to take an exit to good
He makes no claim to being a dining critic, but Mark Watson has done his
share of eating at restaurants — especially those just off the highway.
He drives about 25,000 miles each year to put together
The Next Exit
(The Next Exit, $14.95), his guide to what's at every interstate exit
across the USA. "Clean windows and a busy parking lot" is what Watson
says he looks for when first picking a place to eat. Here, with Ron Schoolmeester for USA TODAY, he chooses some of his favorites:
Steamboat Bill's Restaurant
I-10, Exit 29 (traveling east), Exit 30A (traveling west), Lake Charles,
"Crawfish galore," says Watson. "Very busy, not fancy." The menu offers
crawfish fixed every which way, as well as gumbo, po' boys, jumbo fried
shrimp and more. The owners started selling shrimp by the side of the
road and now have three restaurants in Lake Charles (this one's on North
Lake Shore Drive). 337-494-1070;
Near Interstate 10 at I-49, Exit 2 (traveling north), Exit 4 (traveling
south), Lafayette, La.
"Upscale seafood" is how Watson describes the eating at this colorful
restaurant. The menu features what you'd expect in Cajun country —
crawfish, shrimp, oysters, crabs, catfish, even alligator, which
probably makes "Big Al" none too happy. Big Al is a 14-foot stuffed
alligator who presides over the dining room. Live music every night.
I-55, Exit 67, Sikeston, Mo.
Claiming to be "The Only Home of Throwed Rolls," this bustling place
features mostly country cookin' (fried chicken, catfish and the like) as
well as what they call "pass arounds" (fried potatoes and onions, fried
okra, black-eyed peas, etc.) and cinnamon rolls so big they're called
"hubcaps." Those "throwed rolls"? Back in 1976, a customer impatient for
his bread roll hollered out, "Throw the damn thing!" and they're still
doing it. "Very busy," says Watson. 573-471-4261;
Lena's Seafood Restaurant
I-95, Exit 60, Salisbury, Mass.
"Good fish sandwich and chowder," says Watson. The chowder is homemade,
as is the cole slaw at this no-nonsense New England establishment that
also features fresh scallops and fried clams. Order from the counter.
Win a free dinner with a hole-in-one at the adjacent miniature golf
course. Open every day in summer; otherwise, closed Mondays and
I-90, Exit 176 (N), Moses Lake, Wash.
"Just plain Mexican," Watson says of this place. "And the fajitas are
flaming hot when they come to the table." The décor, too, is South of
the Border, and the place is small (only about 20 tables, including
those on the patio). About 2 miles off the exit at 1075 W. Broadway.
Bubba's Bar-B-Q & Steakhouse
I-45, Exit 251, Ennis, Texas
Belly up to Bubba's might be more like it. "Plates piled high with all
varieties of barbecue, including huge briskets," says Watson. "Look for
a place to take a nap after this." On the main road between Houston and
Dallas (about 32 miles south of Dallas). 972-875-0036
I-15, Exit 37, Las Vegas
OK, it's a chain, but a very special chain, says Watson. "The menu is
simple ... hamburgers, three kinds of shakes, and fries. The fries are
cut from fresh potatoes right there in front of you." Decorated in
'50s-style red-and-white tiles, In-N-Outs are "how hamburger joints
ought to operate," says Watson. His favorite of the 200 In-N-Outs is off
Tropicana Avenue in Vegas. 800-786-1000; in-n-out.com
1-95, Exit 94, near Savannah, Ga.
"Good interstate-highway seafood if you don't want to make it all the
way to the beach," says Watson. Just don't expect the seafood to be from
Georgia — the menu features, almost overwhelmingly, Alaskan snow crab
legs. The décor is nautical, the atmosphere is casual (shorts and
flip-flops are OK), and use your fingers. "Ask for plenty of paper
towels," advises Watson. Open only for dinner, after 4 p.m. 912-927-3280
I-95, Exit 119 (traveling south), Exit 107 (traveling north), Wilson,
"It's probably 10 miles or so off I-95, but well worth the drive for the
world's best eastern-style North Carolina barbecue," says Watson. Not
much has changed at Parker's since it opened in 1946 — including the
recipe for its pork barbecue, less sweet and more vinegary than that
served in the western part of the state. Plenty of traditional sides,
too — from Brunswick stew to cole slaw and boiled potatoes. Located on
old U.S. 301 just south of Wilson. 252-237-0972
Gaido's Seafood Restaurant
I-45, Exit 1A, Galveston, Texas
We've saved the best till last. Watson says this is his "very favorite."
Founded in 1911, the place is now run by the fourth generation of Gaidos
— and they still peel shrimp, shuck oysters and fillet fish the
old-fashioned way. "Best scallops I've ever eaten," says Watson. Easily
worth the 3 to 4 miles it takes to get there from I-45. At 39th Street
and Seawall Boulevard. 409-762-9625;
Re-printed from USAToday Friday May 26, 2006