There’s a sandwich on the outskirts of Irmo with my name on it.
Or at least that’s what I assume: About 15 minutes after I recently ordered a cheesesteak to go, there still wasn’t a sandwich ready, so I left. Clearly a restaurant that takes that long to produce lunch isn’t an ideal road trip stop. And my mission was to find the best place to eat at every Interstate 26 exit.
I’d taken up the project at the suggestion of a reader, who wondered about the homegrown alternatives to the chain restaurants I reviewed earlier this year. While there are still swathes of the country where chain restaurants are the only choice for highway travelers, it seemed well worth digging into what else South Carolina has to offer.
As I discovered, you don’t have to stray far from the interstate to find distinctly regional tastes. As my list of recommended restaurants came together, it quickly took on the contours of a state culinary portrait. Barbecue was well-represented, as were fried seafood and slaw dogs. Newer elements of South Carolina’s cuisine popped up, too, with a number of immigrant-owned restaurants making the cut.
Along the way, I ate some marvelous meals. But it’s important that this isn’t mistaken for a list of the state’s best restaurants. In most cases, these are not restaurants around which you’d want to build a trip. These are restaurants to enhance the trip you’re already taking.
For this project, I applied a very specific set of criteria. Here are the standards I kept in mind:
- The restaurant must be located no more than 5 miles or 10 minutes from the exit. (Distance was a paramount consideration: A restaurant located 4 miles from the exit would have to be twice as good as a restaurant located 2 miles from the exit to rate a recommendation).
- Service should be speedy.
- Food should be both delicious and easy to digest.
- Opening hours should be extensive; a dinner-only restaurant is of little use to most travelers.
- The restaurant must be either independently owned or part of a small South Carolina chain.
Additionally, I tried to diversify exit clusters, so if a traveler didn’t want pizza, he or she wouldn’t be stuck with four exits in a row serving pies.
Initially, I’d hoped to find a restaurant at every exit. But there are a number of exits at which the only food within the established 5-mile range is a Subway in a gas station, which obviously doesn’t qualify. Additionally, there are exits at which the only eligible restaurants are so bad that drivers are better off logging a few more miles before eating. I didn’t include those exits either.
Still, I had about twice as many successes as strikeouts, which is a fine reminder that a rewarding food experience is often closer than you think. Drive safe.
Exit 1 (S.C. 14 East)
Stone Soup Café
0.8 miles from the exit
1522 E. Rutherford St., Landrum
Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m.-9 p.m.
Stone Soup Café is situated on the South Carolina side of the state line, but it’s well within the Asheville vortex. The homey foothills restaurant, done up in sunlight and checkered gingham, is so devoted to togetherness that owner Suzanne Strickland recently made room for dogs to join the fold. “This is our vision to bring the community together,” Stone Soup’s website says of the adjoining dog park she created in 2016. Inside, there’s a wood-fired pizza oven, along with a menu that’s somewhat global and mostly local, although the kitchen makes exceptions for imported goat cheese and avocados. Horse people who travel to Polk County, N.C., for show season (Stone Soup’s knick-knackery is equine-themed) swear by the salads and wild mushroom lasagna.
Exit 5 (S.C. 11)
Lake Bowen Fish Camp
4.7 miles from the exit
8580 S.C. Highway 9, Inman
Wednesday-Friday, 4 p.m.-9 p.m.; Saturday, 3:30 p.m.-9 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 4 p.m.-9 p.m.
According to signs posted along the banks of Lake Bowen, there’s no fishing allowed behind Lake Bowen Fish Camp. While it’s doubtful many anglers would believe they could outdo the restaurant’s skill at frying seafood from fresh and salty waters, the vast blue lake still provides scenery and a reminder of how South Carolina’s fish camps got started. A century ago, entrepreneurs offered to cook up millworkers’ catches, and sell them hush puppies, too. The restaurants they spawned were “small, nothing fancy,” as USC Lancaster professor Stephen Criswell says in a Southern Foodways Alliance documentary short. Lake Bowen, which dates back to 1979, is a delicious example of second wave fish camping, with trompe-l’oeil columns on the wall and clouds painted on the ceiling.
Exit 10 (S.C. 292)
1.4 miles from the exit
7124 S.C. Highway 9, Inman
Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5 p.m.-10 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5 p.m.-10:30 p.m.; Saturday, noon-10 p.m.
For an up-the-minute glimpse at the ways in which Mexican-American food is evolving, it’s hard to beat a meal at El Mex. Tony Mata grew up in his parents’ restaurant, El Mexicano, which sits alongside the Bi-Lo in Boiling Springs. In 2015, the 24-year-old Mata opened El Mex, drawing on the flour tortilla dishes that define his parents’ place; family cooking traditions and the typical interests of an American kid: $8 buys a cheesesteak burrito with grilled onions, nacho cheese and guac. But other dishes are considerably more elaborate, including pineapple fajitas and a whole fried fish. “Did not taste like authentic Mexican to me,” a disgruntled Yelper wrote. “I’ve never had fajitas filled with squash.” Consider it authentic now.
Exit 15 (U.S. 176)
2.8 miles from the exit
16 N. Howard St., Inman
Monday-Thursday, 6 a.m.-2 p.m.; Friday, 6 a.m.-2 p.m., 4 p.m.-8 p.m.; Saturday, 6 a.m.-11 a.m.
On certain mornings, every vinyl-covered booth and diner stool at Granny’s is occupied within an hour of the modest restaurant’s 6 a.m. opening. At least, that’s been the situation since Ronald Turner in 2017 gave up corporate work and bought the 20-year-old breakfast haven. “A lot of people say it’s our hospitality,” says his daughter, Reid Turner, one of a number of servers adept at refilling coffee cups before they’re emptied and making sure customers have ketchup for their eggs and butter for their biscuits. “They feel like they’re coming home when they eat here; I’m not trying to brag or anything.” Kindness is so customary at Granny’s that a Facebook post touting its brown gravy warns it’s “so good you will smack your mama. Maybe not literally.”
Pig Out BBQ
2.4 miles from the exit
3001 New Cut Road, Inman
Wednesday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; Thursday-Friday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
In traditional barbecue joint style, Pig Out doesn’t go in for gussying up: Unless it’s the weekend, when ribs and chicken are added to the lineup, the only choice most customers at this converted gas station make is whether they want their hash with barbecue; over rice or on a sandwich. Holdouts can get a hot dog. In 2014, founder Joe Crook opened a second, larger location of his 15-year-old smokehouse. But the late Crook’s Spartan spirit endures at his original counter-service spot, which on a recent Saturday afternoon was being happily manned by an older white man and an older black man, suggesting a plot for Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine’s next buddy flick. It probably wouldn’t be as satisfying as Pig Out’s smoky pulled pork.
Exit 17 (New Cut Road)
1.6 miles from the exit
8047 Asheville Highway
Daily, 7 a.m.-9 p.m.
When long-distance travelers pull off the highway, they tend to want something easy on the stomach and stimulating for senses dulled by mile upon mile of pavement. Sabor Latino delivers handsomely on both scores, serving mild Colombian and Honduran dishes in a dining room with walls brightened by the yellow, blue and red of the Colombian flag; its soundtrack of high-tempo Latin music is surely as rejuvenating as any gas station energy drink. The carefully made dishes include a hearty corn-and-beef stew and a standout grilled meat platter, rounded out by borracho beans; white rice; a fried egg and half an avocado. Dollar wise, the price for sausage this good is ludicrously low, but the one traveler amenity that Sabor Latino lacks is speed: Plan on taking your time here.
Exit 19 (I-85 Business)
Holmes Hot Dogs
1.8 miles from the exit
925 W. Blackstock Road, Arcadia
Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., plus occasional Saturdays
Holmes deals in massive quantities of chili dogs, especially during football season: The 65-year-old restaurant will sometimes deviate from its standard schedule and stay open on Saturday if it has a catering order of close to 1,000 dogs to fill. Despite the scale of its operation, the counter-service restaurant remains the kind of intimate place where a cashier asks after your hospital stay when you come in and calls you “darling” when you go. That attitude was inherited from founder Walter Holmes, who carried a copy of the New Testament and let hard-up customers eat for free. The starring menu item is the traditional slaw dog, burrowed into a soft bun; swaddled with subtly spiced chili and served with a pile of crinkle-cut fries.
Exit 21 (U.S. 29)
Le Spice Restaurant and Bakery
2.2 miles from the exit
8881 Warren H. Abernathy Highway, Spartanburg
Tuesday-Sunday, 8 a.m.-3 p.m. (Bakery service only before 11 a.m. on weekdays)
Crepes are oddly popular in the Upstate, with half a dozen self-styled creperies from Travelers Rest to Simpsonville serving thin French pancakes filled with eggs; cheese; Nutella and blueberry cream. But Le Spice owner Nick Dhers is more interested in the crepe itself. “A lot of people here get a recipe off Google,” he says dismissively. “I’m French. I was born in France, and moved to the States when I was 12.” And at some point during his childhood, he mastered the art of making crepes that are simultaneously rich and light. Yet they’re substantial enough to anchor the Thai-French fusion menu at the eight-year-old Le Spice, located in a sunlit house on a wooded hillside that’s an ideal brunch backdrop.
Exit 22 (S.C. 296)
1.9 miles from the exit
205 Blackstock Road, Spartanburg
Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sunday, noon-6 p.m.
There are two Smokin Wings in close proximity, but the one worth seeking out is the concession at WestGate Mall, where Jesse Edward Canty sells 120 different varieties of wings. “Honestly, I started out with 150, and my daughter said let’s cut it down,” says Canty, who broke with his former partner over their business philosophies: Canty was reluctant to sacrifice quality for profit. Also the pastor at Living Waters Christian Ministries, Canty received his first smoker from his congregation for Father’s Day and four years ago became a wing professional. Now Canty fries ribs and smokes wings, which — despite available sauces ranging from Dr Pepper Barbecue to Plum Sweet & Spicy — are best appreciated with a basic dry rub and fries on the side.
Exit 35 (Walnut Grove Road)
Mustard Seed BBQ and Country Cooking
1.0 miles from the exit
2000 SJ Workman Highway, Woodruff
Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Saturday, 7 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
In a state that doesn’t want for great barbecue, Mustard Seed’s pulled pork doesn’t stand out as anything special. But the cozy restaurant is gloriously country: On a recent Saturday morning, a young boy in full-on camo pointed to a silver tray on one of Mustard Seed’s two steam tables and asked, “Daddy, is this back fat?” There wasn’t any fatback on the buffet, but the lodge-looking restaurant serves just about every other dish that a Southern food fan could fancy, including salmon cakes; baked spaghetti; stewed greens; green beans; mac-and-cheese broiled until its top turns russet brown and spectacular barbecue beef hash. And that’s just the breakfast array. At any hour, don’t miss the homemade desserts, including chocolate cake and lemon meringue pie.
Exit 52 (S.C. 56)
Blue Ocean Seafood Restaurant
0.1 miles from the exit
12763 S.C. Highway 56, Clinton
Tuesday-Thursday, 3 p.m.-9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 1 p.m.-10 p.m.
Greek immigrants have shaped the restaurant landscapes of cities across the South, including Greenville, where the five-location Silver Bay Seafood is headquartered. Before the Sialmases turned their business into a small chain, they had just one restaurant: Blue Ocean, opened alongside the highway in 1996. Its menu isn’t recognizably Greek, unless a side of rice pilaf counts, but Blue Ocean offers 23 fried seafood plates and 17 broiled seafood plates, as well as steaks; pastas and sandwiches, which means every member of a traveling party ought to be happy with something. The immense Blue Ocean knows how to nail a square meal, a talent convincingly demonstrated by a sturdy wedge of fried grouper, served with a tender baked potato, coleslaw and sweet oblong-shaped hush puppies.
Exit 54 (S.C. 72)
Whiteford’s Drive In
4.8 miles from the exit
711 S. Broad St., Clinton
Monday-Wednesday, 5:30 a.m.-9 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday, 5 a.m.-10 p.m.
Whiteford’s has gone through a few different incarnations in its 61-year history, so it no longer looks like the squat white building with Streamline Moderne signage that’s pictured in murals celebrating the restaurant. In its current state, it’s not even a drive-in: Customers order from a backlit menu board hung behind the counter, same as at any fast-food restaurant. And it’s best to know beforehand that folks who didn’t grow up on Whiteford’s vaunted burger are likely to be confounded by its scrawny size and flavor. But it’s worth visiting Whiteford’s during hunting season just to sample its phenomenal chicken stew. Crammed with corn and potatoes, and threaded with red pepper, the stew is warming; soul-settling and just about perfect with Whiteford’s cakey cornbread.
Exit 60 (S.C. 66)
3.6 miles from the exit
110 Main St., Joanna
Monday-Saturday, 7 a.m.-9 p.m.
Wendy Orvin has owned Joanna Grill for just shy of two years, but the restaurant isn’t new to her family: Her father sold it 30 years ago. Since taking over, Orvin hasn’t made any changes to the unadorned dining room or straightforward menu, preferring to let good food and neighborly conversation command attention. “We just cook with love,” Orvin says, but cooking with fat has helped make Joanna’s burgers locally legendary: The burger’s griddled on a flattop, so its drippings form a crust as it sears. A burger with fries costs $3.49, but customers willing to pay double can get a Willie Burger, made with hamburger steak instead of plain seasoned ground beef. Joanna’s also serves hot dogs, wings and a 14-ounce rib-eye.
Exit 66 (Road 32)
Wise Bar-B-Q House
3.9 miles from the exit
25548 U.S. Highway 76, Newberry
Friday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-9:30 p.m.
Wise’s Bar-B-Que has every element a culinary sentimentalist would want from a barbecue joint, save one. It’s a charmingly stripped-down operation with paper towel rolls and plastic pitchers of sweet tea set on every folding table in the fluorescent-lit buffet room. It keeps an idiosyncratic schedule, and furnishes its steam table with a brimming pan of cracklings. But as South Carolina barbecue connoisseurs know, the family switched from wood to gas after founders Johnny and Jimmy Wise died. Nowadays, the Wise method calls for salt brine and high heat, which produces something akin to roast pork. Yet the hash picks up a bit of smoke residue from an aged cast-iron kettle, and is spiked with enough vinegar to qualify as a folk remedy.
Exit 74 (S.C. 34)
Bill & Fran’s
0.1 miles from the exit
11746 S.C. Highway 34, Newberry
Monday-Thursday, 6 a.m.-8 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 5:30 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sunday, 7 a.m.-3:30 p.m.
The hybrid diner-pancake house layout of Bill & Fran’s will be instantly familiar to anyone who’s patronized a Perkins, Big Boy or IHOP. But it’s rare these days to encounter an independently owned restaurant that came of age when the format ruled the casual dining sphere. Korean War vet Bill White, who also owned a skating rink and a mobile home park, in 1977 opened Bill & Fran’s with his wife, Fran. They twice expanded the restaurant, but never strayed from their original commitment to cheerful service and good food. It’s evident in something as simple as a bologna sandwich on white bread, distinguished by expertly toasted bread; terrifically crisp iceberg lettuce and its server’s kindness, undiminished by a $6.03 guest check.
Exit 82 (S.C. 773)
Mid-Carolina Club Snack Bar
1.0 mile from the exit
3593 Kiblers Bridge Road, Prosperity
Monday-Thursday, 7 a.m.-6 p.m.; Friday-Sunday, 6:30 a.m.-6 p.m.
It’s conceivable that some golfers would rate the 50-year-old Mid Carolina Club’s proximity to the interstate as a drawback, since the whoosh of an 18-wheeler might not be welcome when lining up a putt. But for travelers in search of an instant pastoral, it’s a stroke of luck that the golf course is just a healthy tee shot from the highway. Its restaurant keeps very limited hours, serving only lunch on Sundays and prime rib on the first Friday evening of the month, but the full-service snack bar’s grill is a reliable source of eggs in the morning and oversized quesadillas in the afternoon. There’s also a water station with an enormous vat of ice for folks who want to fill their bottles before driving.
Exit 85 (S.C. 202)
Cannon’s BBQ & More
5.4 miles from the exit
1903 Nursery Road, Little Mountain
Thursday-Friday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Saturday 11 a.m.-6:30 p.m.
Most working odometers will place Cannon’s a few tenths of a mile beyond eligibility for this list, but it’s worth bending the distance rules in this one instance, since there may not be much time left to get to this sanctuary of barbecue traditions. Currently, the best way to find the vinyl-sided trailer housing Ray and Brice Cannon’s wood-fueled operation is the massive “for sale” sign out front. The Cannons report “a guy’s interested” in keeping their joint going, but nothing’s certain in real estate or barbecue: Make the detour now for pork shoulder, shot through with hickory smoke, and mustard-sauced hash cooked in a wash pot. It’s a stretch to say customers’ feelings about the ribs and bologna rival the Cannons’ love for Clemson, but both items have passionate devotees.
Exit 91 (Columbia Avenue)
Higher Ground Char House
5.0 miles from the exit
211 Chapin Road, Chapin
Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.
Big city restaurants have long promised burgers as good as those served at roadside diners and rural cafes, but Chris Hamilton two years ago flipped the script with Higher Ground Char House, which is supposed to give Chapinites a taste of the burger practices popular in Atlanta and Charlotte: Even the lettuce is labeled as “artisan,” which means there’s no iceberg in the mix. Hamilton, a former Applebee’s recruiter, didn’t stint on toppings that sound trendy: The turkey burger’s dressed with cranberry pecan aioli and one of the beef burgers features both pesto and a fried egg. But the meat’s decent, the fries are freshly made and customers with smaller appetites or billfolds can order off an all-ages menu featuring mac-and-cheese, chicken nuggets and a 4-ounce cheeseburger.
Exit 103 (Harbison Boulevard)
1.3 miles from the exit
340 Columbiana Drive, Columbia
Sunday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m.
Of the world’s many great cuisines, highway eats would probably finish close to the bottom when scored on nutritional value. But there’s a dish on the menu at M Kitchen, one of 10 restaurants in the Columbia-based Miyo’s group, simply called “Healthy Bowl.” And eaters who’d rather not fuss with vegetarian broth can find its component spinach, bok choy and edamame in an array of other presentations, including salads, sushi and customizable noodle plates. Michelle Wang, a Shanghai native who opened her first restaurant in downtown Columbia in 1996, has described advancing wellness as her business purpose: The philosophy feels consistent with the sleek-and-glassy West Coast look of the sunlit restaurant, which has an inviting bar at its center.
Exit 104 (Piney Grove Road)
Zorba’s Greek Restaurant
1.8 miles from the exit
6169 St. Andrews Road, Columbia
Monday-Thursday, 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 10:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sunday, 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m.
Before Jimmy Kokolis settled in Columbia, the young cook from Sparta stayed with relatives in Connecticut. Kokolis hated the snow, but he picked up on New England’s affection for Greek-style pizza, which he made the centerpiece of a buoyant restaurant he opened in the Seven Oaks Shopping Center. Decades later, Kokolis is a Columbia Restaurant Hall of Fame inductee, and his pies are considered so essential to the area’s identity that The State featured them in a city guide for newcomers. Zorba’s serves all of the standard Greek-American dishes, but its pizza is a sterling example of a form that’s easy to flub: Baked in a pan greased with olive oil, the pizza has a lacy bottom crust and just the right amount of cheese on top.
Exit 106 (St. Andrews Road)
Sandy’s Hot Dogs
0.5 miles from the exit
640 St. Andrews Road, Columbia
Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday, noon-5 p.m.
What’s most striking about the hot dogs at Sandy’s, which have apparently been famous since Bud Sanderson opened his first restaurant in 1979, is the beef quotient. It’s not unusual for hot dog stands in slaw dog country to swear by all-beef wieners, but Sandy’s makes a point of reminding customers that both its regular and super-sized dogs come from a Certified Black Angus brand cow. The hot dog’s natural flavor is amplified by exceptionally meaty chili, which is well served by slaw and a blitz of chopped raw onion. Or you could deviate from tradition and order a dog topped with pimento cheese instead. Either way, consider sticking around for dessert: Sandy’s is equally famous for its banana splits.
Exit 108A (Bush River Road)
1.0 mile from the exit
245 Bush River Road, Columbia
Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5 p.m.-9:30 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” a 2 Gingers employee said, pressing his palms together and bowing his head. As he explained to the customer, the pans of naan and vegetable biryani would be replenished shortly. Fleeting food shortages are recurrent at 2 Gingers, because its daytime buffet is so popular. Beyond the buffet, chef Bhadresh Patel serves a variety of dosas, crepes, kebabs and Indo-Chinese dishes, but customers in a rush to get back on the road don’t have to resort to the menu for diversity: 2 Gingers offers an estimable bhindi masala and a comforting dal that’s more defined than typical buffet fodder. But the crowning touch is a vibrant gajar halwa, or carrot pudding, which pairs beautifully with the masala chai kept in an insulated carafe.
Exit 110 (U.S. 378)
0.6 miles from the exit
2234 Sunset Blvd., Columbia
Daily, 6 a.m.-9 p.m.
Known to Midlands eaters as The Lizard or The Thicket, Lizard’s Thicket is no longer unique to the Columbia area, or even this particular highway exit: Should you miss your chance to tango with The Lizard here, you can enter The Thicket up by Dutch Square Mall or down near the airport. The company claims to serve more than 12,000 meals a day at its 15 locations. Still, it’s worth pointing out that this 41-year-old institution provides an important service for travelers in the mood for a mid-afternoon coffee break: Along with its full complement of savory Southern standards, Lizard’s Thicket keeps a standing list of almost one dozen desserts, including a jammy blackberry cobbler; grilled pound cake and banana pudding.
Exit 111 (S.C. 12)
Casa Oaxaca Mexican Restaurant
0.4 miles from the exit
2410 Augusta Road, Suite H, West Columbia
Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
If you keep a close eye on Casa Oaxaca’s Facebook page, you’ll know when the small restaurant has scored purple corn for the base of its splendid tlayuda. But even absent a dramatic near-black canvas, the assemblage is a wonderful thing for a few eaters to share. Most Americans think of tlayuda as the Oaxacan version of pizza, a comparison encouraged here by gobs of quesillo, which fiercely recall buffalo mozzarella. Yet in the case of tlayuda, the underlying tortilla crunches like a cracker. Smeared with pork drippings and mashed black beans in traditional fashion, the tlayuda at Casa Oaxaca is distinguished by resoundingly seasoned chorizo and extremely fresh produce: In short, no need to worry about pale tomatoes spoiling an Instagram shot.
Exit 113 (S.C. 302)
1.3 miles from the exit
2333 Charleston Highway, Cayce
Monday-Saturday, 6 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sunday, 6 a.m.-3 p.m.
When I left George’s Southside with a takeout box holding the gravy-drenched liver and onions; mashed potatoes; stewed kale and black-eyed peas that I couldn’t finish, a manager raced out after me. “Tell your friends about us!” he urged, waving a stack of paper menus. And so, friends, I’m telling you now: George’s Southside is worth a stop. Opened more than three decades ago by George Xanthakos, George’s Southside serves a few Greek-inspired items that locals know to seek out, including an omelet with onions and feta cheese. Mostly, though, George’s is a formerly smoky diner, with a knack for making hash browns and a weakness for oversalting. It’s not a great restaurant (was I supposed to tell that part?), but it’s a comfortable one.
Exit 129 (U.S. 21)
Katie’s Sandwich Shop
3.2 miles from the exit
1576 Old State Road, Gaston
Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
Your GPS is likely to insist that Katie’s Sandwich Shop is located in the next-door gas station, since memorable road food is often found in the vicinity of Slim Jims and motor oil. But in this case, the sandwich counter’s housed in a flower shop, where you can buy stuffed animals; monogrammed sweatshirts and a BLT on Texas toast. Katie’s pimento cheese is a revelation: Made with a mix of coarsely grated cheeses, it should shame the orange-tinted mayonnaise that’s become commonplace in commercial settings. It’s especially lovely with a cup of hot vegetable soup. “I let my eyes overlook my stomach is what I did,” said a customer who was so besotted by the robust mingle of green beans, carrots and corn that he asked for a bowl.
Exit 145 (U.S. 601)
The Regional Medical Center
0.8 miles from the exit
3000 St. Matthews Road, Orangeburg
Monday-Friday, 7 a.m.-9:30 a.m., 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 4 p.m.-7 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 7 a.m.-9:30 a.m., 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Social and professional lives may have migrated online, but there’s no digital substitute for a hospital, where community members still come together. That’s especially true at The Regional Medical Center, home to a cafeteria good enough to make people look forward to a doctor’s appointment in the building. The cafeteria long had a reputation for serving magnificent fried chicken, but staff nutritionists have lately rewritten its menus to emphasize grilling, steaming and whole grains. Still, right alongside the plain grits and scrambled eggs on the breakfast steam table, there sits another two pans, one filled with cheese grits and one holding scrambled eggs with cheese. Locals know to visit the cafeteria on Fridays, when crisp fried fish anchors the lunch menu.
Exit 149 (S.C. 33)
Dukes Bar-B-Que, Whitman Street
4.1 miles from the exit
1298 Whitman St. SW, Orangeburg
Thursday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
The other Dukes in town is where you might go for barbecue, but Earl Dukes’ original Dukes Bar-B-Que on Whitman Street is the leading local choice for hash. Made from smoked Boston butts ground with onions and potatoes, the hash leans harder on ketchup than mustard, despite Orangeburg’s position on the South Carolina sauce map. Owner Tony Kittrell told a Southern Foodways Alliance oral historian that when he was a kid, he referred to the signature mix as “rust gravy.” Served over rice made to satisfy customers who’ve been appreciating rice all their lives, hash is the star of a plate rounded out by coleslaw, pickles and a dinner roll, but Dukes receives nearly as much acclaim for its sweet tea.
Exit 172 (U.S. 15)
Cross Roads BBQ
3.8 miles from the exit
179-201 County Road S-18-175, St. George
Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m.
Cross Roads serves ketchup-hued hash with a shimmer of liver and mustard-sauced barbecue, but the highlight of its barbecue plates is a handful of seasoned pork skins, a terrifically brittle counterpart to the saucy hash. Although Cross Roads likely takes its name from a nearby intersection, if not the all-important meeting of I-26 and I-95 that’s due north of the boxy counter-service restaurant, the skins hint at another kind of crossing: Cross Roads’ dining room is decorated with a few identifiably Mexican elements, including a sombrero on one wall and a molcajete near the cash register. Pork rinds, of course, are common to both Mexican and Southern cuisine. More critically from a traveler’s perspective, though, Cross Roads sells them in bulk.
Exit 173 (S.C. 453)
Just Desserts Bakery and Café
1.5 miles from the exit
113 W. Main St., Harleyville
Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-8 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m.-4 p.m.
Never mind the name. It’s possible to leave Just Desserts with a boxful of cupcakes, but it’s better to stay for lunch. Owner Dottie Villeponteaux, who completed a career as a home ec teacher before getting into business, intended to run a bakery, but discovered customers wanted soup, salad and sandwiches too. The latter are served on homemade bread, including an accomplished herb focaccia, which makes an ideal cold weather lunch when pressed around roast beef and horseradish sauce. For warmer days, there’s chicken salad on a baguette. Despite Just Desserts’ small size, it doesn’t stint on niceties: Every table in the brick-walled room is clothed, and iced tea is served in glass goblets, rather than the disposable cups that prevail in luncheonettes.
Exit 187 (S.C. 27)
Jearlina’s Ice Cream Parlor
0.3 miles from the exit
1107 Old Gilliard Road, Ridgeville
Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.- 6 p.m.
Perhaps the most local establishment on this list, Jearlina’s is missed by the vast majority of highway followers who don’t realize Volvo is starting to transform Pringletown. Jearlina Ravenell has been running a small café there since before the Swedish auto giant announced its factory plans, but has welcomed the workers who were introduced by the plant’s location to her burgers, fried pork chops and fried seafood, all served with crinkle-cut fries generously dosed with seasoned salt. Still, the room’s vibe is ruled by the regulars, such as the woman who recently settled into an oversized Pittsburgh Steelers chair labeled “Do Not Sit.” It wasn’t clear whether she was friendly enough with Ravenell to ignore the sign, or if the sign was meant to reserve the chair for her.
Exit 203 (College Park Road)
Nigel’s Good Food II
1.2 miles from the exit
9616 US-78 #11, Ladson
Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
When Nigel Drayton opened his own place, he and his wife, Louise, set their sights on franchising and becoming “the most popular restaurant in town.” Drayton, an alumnus of downtown Charleston’s high-end restaurant scene,, hasn’t achieved the first goal yet, but Nigel’s Good Food was so popular in North Charleston that the couple in 2016 opened a second location in Ladson. Like the original, Nigel’s Good Food II is distinguished by warm service and winning renditions of hearty dishes, such as smothered turkey; chicken and biscuits and shepherd’s pie made with oxtails: People flock to the no-frills dining room for Drayton’s chicken wings. (And if you’re getting off the highway for good, Nigel’s Good Food II is the rare country kitchen with a full bar.)
Exit 205 (U.S. 78)
La Cocina de Lucy
3.4 miles from the exit
933 Red Bank Road, Goose Creek
Daily, 9 a.m.-10 p.m.
Even before politicians were fixated on the border, tacos were contentious. Every taco fan is a partisan, with unswayable allegiance to a certain taqueria or elusive truck. So it’s not universally accepted that La Cocina de Lucy serves the tri-county’s best tacos, but even devoted customers of other taco stands would concede that the Lucy crowd has a pretty good case. Among the points in their favor are griddled tortillas that taste of fresh corn; tender beef cheeks and superb al pastor, served per tradition beneath a torrent of chopped onions and vivid cilantro, with a spring onion and lime provided for those who want to turn up the volume. The convenience store also serves burritos, tortas and a bracing seafood soup.
Exit 209A (U.S. 52)
0.5 miles from the exit
7685 Northwoods Blvd., North Charleston
Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m.
The online reviewers who’ve dismissed Mei Thai’s curries and stir-fried noodles as just so-so can be excused for thinking they were in a Thai restaurant, given its name. But since early 2018, when former employee Lyn Jones took over, Mei Thai has emerged as the area’s foremost interpreter of Filipino cuisine. (At the same exit, Lanna Thai is covertly serving an estimable Vietnamese menu, including one of the better phos in the region.) There’s plenty of island pride mixed into the tart sinigang and vinegar-forward adobo, both marked on Mei Thai’s menu as “National Dishes of the Philippines,” but eaters craving dishes which haven’t been bowdlerized for American palates will be even gladder to know there’s pig ear in the sisig and blood in the dinuguan.
Exit 211B (Remount Road)
The Seafood Pot
0.5 miles from the exit
5629 Rivers Ave., North Charleston
Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m.
If you’re ordering food to go, there are few items less suitable for car travel than a giant plastic bagful of boiled shrimp and crawfish, splattered with butter and seasoning while still secure in their shells. A driver’s need to keep his or her hands relatively clean also rules out garlic crabs, the Lowcountry’s native version of seafood slippery with flavor, although a few trusted purveyors aren’t too far from the highway. But there’s no pragmatic reason to sit out KT Trinh’s rich gumbo, darkened by a traditional roux and served over rice. When Trinh was a boy, his family emigrated from Vietnam to Louisiana, where he learned to cook: Prior to selling seafood in North Charleston, he ran restaurants in gumbo-savvy Lafayette, La. Use a spoon!
Exit 213 (Montague Avenue)
Istanbul Shish Kabob Buffet
0.8 miles from the exit
4940 Centre Pointe Drive Suite C, North Charleston
Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Sunday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m.
Rice will always be the Lowcountry’s signature starch, but in the bread realm, the freshly made pitas at Emad Hammad and Gheath Dahat’s lively Istanbul Shish Kabob Buffet deserve a spot in any carb conversation. The little puffed flatbreads are fed through a conveyor toaster for warming, producing a mesmerizing cascade of pita to support a sampling tour of western Mediterranean salads and dips. In addition to the expected hummus, tahini and muhammara, Istanbul is forever ready with lentil soup; roasted vegetables; juicy kebabs; a selection of Turkish specialties and a hauntingly good garlic sauce that smart diners will apply to everything with a spreading surface. As it happens, it’s downright delicious on fresh pita bread.
Exit 215 (Dorchester Road)
1.0 mile from the exit
3309 Rivers Ave., North Charleston
Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m.
Caribbean restaurants have proliferated in the Charleston area since New Yorkers who grew up on the cuisine started moving back to where their parents or grandparents were born. Native Jamaican chefs, some of whom first came here as tourist industry workers, have been happy to supply the returnees with a taste of home. But the appeal of Ambrose Campbell’s cooking transcends nostalgia: It’s found in tender pigeon peas nestled into supple rice; pepper vinegar-packed steamed cabbage and glossily sweet plantains. And those are just the sides! Caribbean Delight is justly acclaimed for its savory brown stew chicken, served on Wednesdays and Fridays, and pickle-topped escovitch. As for Campbell’s jerk, it comes by its intoxicating aura honestly: Its signature ingredient is blackberry brandy.
Exit 216 (Cosgrove Avenue)
1.6 miles from exit
2332 Meeting Street Road, North Charleston
Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Saturday, noon-5 p.m.
What’s left to be said about Bertha’s Kitchen? The woman-owned restaurant has appeared in every significant food publication, usually with words like “institution” and “essential” attached to it. One of just two South Carolina restaurants (and one of four soul food restaurants nationwide) ever to be named to the James Beard Foundation’s list of America’s Classics, Bertha’s is the best place in the state to feast on fried pork chops; mac-and-cheese; collards and lima beans. But for travelers who need another reason to visit with the Grant family, the stupendous okra soup is a liquid welcome to the Lowcountry — or, for those on their way out of town, a powerful reminder of what’s being left behind. That’s worth a short wait in line.
Exit 219A (Rutledge Avenue)
0.4 miles from exit
1503 King St., Charleston
Monday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; Tuesday-Thursday, Sunday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Charleston has a statewide reputation for being out front on dining trends, and there’s no venue more trend-driven than the Workshop food court, where the tenant list changes so quickly that a customer interested in a certain vendor is likely to learn the seller departed a few months ago. So it’s best not to count on finding what a friend recommended, or reconnecting with a dish you liked on your last visit. Created by Michael Shemtov of Butcher & Bee and The Daily, Workshop was designed for turnover: The space is supposed to function as a real-life lab for chefs trying out new concepts and non-chefs trying out new jobs. In other words, no telling if you’ll get Czech dumplings or Congolese stew. It’s all fun, though.
Exit 219B (Morrison Drive)
0.3 miles from exit
804 Meeting St. #102, Charleston
Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.
Obviously, if you’re on the cusp of a very long road trip, it can’t hurt to have a stash of good cheese and charcuterie in the car. The retail counter at goat.sheep.cow’s second location can certainly help on that front. But if you’re traveling in the other direction, the preternaturally calm goat.sheep.cow North is also equipped to supply a glass of French wine and food that comforts without sacrificing sophistication. In most cases, that means melted cheese, whether in the form of a sandwich or French onion soup, but the puff pastry capping a chicken pot pie is no slouch in that department either. The two-year-old offshoot of Patty Floersheimer and Trudi Wagner’s downtown cheese shop serves espresso and cookies too.
Exit 221B (Meeting Street)
Rappahannock Oyster Bar
0.6 miles from exit
701 East Bay St. #110, Charleston
Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Short of driving directly into the Charleston Harbor, one of the finest ways for new arrivals to get their bearings in the city is a tray of pristinely shucked oysters on the half shell. Even though Rappahannock’s home office is up in Virginia, the restaurant is exceedingly respectful of the local harvest, and its shuckers are among the best in town at explaining what they serve. Should you decide to stay for dinner, chef Kevin Kelly brings the same grace and restraint to prepared plates, including charred octopus and grilled whole fish. And it’s hard to think of a better setting for locating oneself in Charleston and recognizing its history than the surrounding Cigar Factory, where “We Shall Overcome” first emerged as a protest anthem.
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