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Restaurants Along Route 66

Updated on September 18, 2017

When Route 66 was built in the 1920s it opened endless possibilities of adventure for thousands of American families.  For four decades it was the Mother Road, America’s Main Street, and along its dusty wind from Illinois to California, thousands of diners popped up to quench the thirst and hunger of weary travelers.  Some of those historic diners still cater to the intrepid souls searching for the historic experience of by-gone eras

66 Diner - Albuquerque, NM

Though the 66 Diner was not in business as a diner during the Mother Road’s heyday, the original diner was converted in 1987 from a 41 year old Philips 66 gas station.  The original restaurant literally burned to the ground in 1995 but the owners rebuilt and kept the nostalgic feel of a 1950s Route 66 diner, complete with old signs, a map of Route 66, built-in hopscotch game on the black and white tile floor, and art deco pink and turquoise accents.  The food runs to Southern favorites, such as chicken fried steak, meat loaf, and liver and onions.  There are also monthly specials and blue plate specials to choose from.  The 66 Diner has won numerous local awards, including best jukebox which still plays Oldie Goldie favorites.

Ariston Cafe - Litchfield, IL

Originally opened in 1924 by Greek immigrant, Paul Adam, Ariston Café may be the oldest café along historic Route 66.  Though it was first located in Carlinville, Illinois, it moved to old Route 4 in Litchfield and later in 1935 to its present location on Route 66.  In 1992 the café was inducted in the Route 66 Hall of Fame.  Ariston Café offers a huge assortment of meals to cater to any taste.  Appetizers range from American fare like chili cheese fries to Chinese crab rangoons.  They offer salads for those who prefer something light, Italian dishes such as manicotti, and traditional Southern favorites like chicken livers and gizzards.  From five different steak dinners to chimichangas to coconut shrimp, the Ariston aims to please all of its patrons.  The café is still run by the Adam family.

The Big Texan.
The Big Texan.

The Big Texan

A world-famous stop for weary travelers and migrating families, The Big Texan gained its legendary fame in the 1960s when it was located on Route 66.  The huge cowboy out front was a landmark and billboards cropped up all over the Mother Road inviting hungry travelers to try their hand (or stomach) at a free 72 ounce steak dinner.  The steak dinner is only free if you can eat it in one hour.  When I-40 replaced Route 66 as the main highway through the Texas panhandle, the Lee family bought land alongside the new road and moved the restaurant, along with the big cowboy landmark.  The restaurant was partially demolished in a fire in 1976 but with the help of family, friends and employees was only closed one day.  Today The Big Texan continues with the free 72 ounce steak dinner and offers much more to travelers, including a motel, full service saloon, gift shop, horse hotel, and Texas-shaped pool.  The Lee family still owns and runs The Big Texan, which has been named one of the Top 10 Steak Houses in America by Maxim.

Cafe on the Route
Cafe on the Route

Cafe on the Route - Baxter Springs, KS

Café on the Route offers a unique dining experience, quite different from other diners and cafes along Route 66.  It is located in the old Crowell Bank, a two-story brick building built in 1870 and reputedly robbed by Jesse James in 1876.  The menu is more reminiscent of what you might find a big city café – loaded baked potato soup, reubens, flatbread sandwiches and wraps – its location on the historic Mother Road, Chef Richard Sannell’s excellent creations, and the history surrounding the Crowell Bank building have made Café on the Route a popular Route 66 eatery.  The restaurant has been featured on the Food Network.  Weary travelers who need a place to sleep may enjoy The Little Brick Inn, a bed and breakfast located above Café on the Route.

Dell Rhea's Chicken Basket
Dell Rhea's Chicken Basket

Dell Rhea's Chicken Basket

Another legendary Illinois restaurant, the Chicken Basket began humbly as a gas station lunch counter in the late 1940s.  With the huge popularity of its fried chicken drawing more patrons than the counter could handle, the gas station’s work bays were converted into a dining room and in 1946 a new restaurant was built beside the gas station.  The Chicken Basket has remained there ever since.  It was inducted into the Route 66 Hall of Fame in 1992, was voted “The Best Fried Chicken in the Chicagoland Area” in 1993, was featured in a Route 66 documentary in 1994, and inducted into the National Register of Historic Places in 2006.  The majority of dishes served are chicken in one form or another – Buffalo Wings and Chicken Gizzards for appetizers, several chicken sandwiches, chicken salads, and fried chicken baskets – but there are also hamburgers, catfish filets, and several other diner favorites on the menu.

Emma Jean's Holland Burger Cafe.
Emma Jean's Holland Burger Cafe.

Emma Jean's Holland Burger Cafe

The Holland Burger began serving customers in 1947 with Mr. and Mrs. Holland the proprietors.  Since that time the café has become famous for its burgers and to this day looks very much like it did when the Hollands ran it.  A low-roofed green building with large windows, the Holland Burger Café is rather nondescript but has been featured in the movie KILL BILL 2 and the TV show DINERS, DRIVE-INS AND DIVES.  The menu features chicken fried steak, biscuits and gravy, the famous Brian Burger, and Tucker’s Sandwich, a huge meal of roast beef, bacon, chilies and cheese.  Everything on the menu is homemade from scratch.

Gemini Giant, the landmark in front of Launching Pad Drive-In.
Gemini Giant, the landmark in front of Launching Pad Drive-In.

An historic Route 66 diner, the Gemini Giant spaceman is a landmark similar the The Big Texan, welcoming visitors to the Launching Pad and Wilmington.  The diner was opened in 1960 and has stayed busy and true to its roots.  Inside the space theme continues with memorabilia from the 1960s moon launch.  The food remains diner-style with affordable hot dogs, hamburgers, chicken and sandwiches, as well as old-fashioned malt shakes.

The chicken fried steak breakfast at Rock Cafe.  Photo by Michael Stern.
The chicken fried steak breakfast at Rock Cafe. Photo by Michael Stern.

Rock Cafe

The Rock Café was built in 1939 from rocks removed from the highway as Route 66 was finished and paved.  It burned in 2008 but reopened in 2009 with double the seating.  The menu at the Rock Café, like so many Route 66 diners, features Southern favorites such fried green tomatoes, burgers, and chicken.  One of the specialties is a chicken fried steak breakfast that is made out of a pork cutlet rather than beef and is smothered in gravy, hash browns and two eggs sunny side up.  Customers say the food is just as tasty as ever after reopening and the increased seating allows more visitors to enjoy this Route 66 favorite.

Ted Drewe's Frozen Custard
Ted Drewe's Frozen Custard

Ted Drewe's Frozen Custard

Ted Drewe’s has been famous in St. Louis for frozen custard and Christmas trees since 1930.  The store located on old Route 66 opened in 1941 and has become a family tradition for many in the south side.  Ted Drewe’s may not be a real restaurant (in the sense of sitting down to eat a meal) but it’s probably the best ice cream shop on Route 66, offering hot and thirsty visitors a wide variety of custard, malts, shakes, ice cream drinks, floats, sundaes, cones, and of course at Christmas, trees.

Historic Route 66 still offers great diners to history seekers.  These legendary eateries have survived the dying of an era when dusty family vacations began with breakfast at family-owned diners and ended with dinners at the same kind of places.  The traditions of the Mother Road’s hospitality lives on in these diners and cafes.


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