By Kelly Clarke
When the global pandemic struck, avid travelers Tim Carson and his wife, Marissa Fry, made a big leap: they rented out their California home, converted to remote work schedules and hit the pavement in their Ford F-150 with their two young children. They embarked on an epic, months-long road trip, traveling through Bend, Oregon, Victor, Idaho, Washington’s lush Olympic National Park and beyond. Carson said they quickly found an essential ingredient to road trip success is where you choose to eat. “Wherever we go, we try to eat as local as possible,” he said, noting that dining at mom-and-pop restaurants is a cheat sheet for feeling at home while you’re on the road. “It helps support [the town you’re visiting] and to boot—those spots are usually pretty great!” Food adventure made it possible to feel more at home anywhere.
Carson’s maxim holds true for vacations of any duration: sure, some of the appeal of a road trip is spur-of-the-moment discovery, but as the miles zip by, intrepid adventurers can quickly turn into hangry zombies. Amazing food experiences are often left in the rearview mirror in favor of convenient drive thru burgers and personality-free chain restaurants.
With a little forethought and sleuthing, any traveler can become a road trip locavore by dining at farm-to-table restaurants and small-town hidden gems that deepen the experience of your vacation with every bite. Here’s how to seek out the freshest, most authentic local foods on your next road travel trip.
FOLLOW THE INTERNET BREADCRUMBS
“I travel for food. And when you’re researching trips, the internet is your best friend!” said Michelle Bergey, who runs Oregon food tour company Lost Plate Portland, specializing in tours of chef-run and under-the-radar eateries. However, she admits the internet is a big place, and it can be daunting to know where to start finding information about a new city and its foods.
First Step: Map your route and familiarize yourself with towns you’ll pass on your way to your ultimate destination. For instance, if you’re planning a trip from Portland, Oregon to Southern Idaho, jot down the names of the little burgs you’ll pass as you make your way through the Columbia River Gorge, along the Snake River and through bigger cities such as Hood River, Boise and Twin Falls.
Next, get Googling. Start broad by searching cities’ names plus general keywords like “top restaurants,” “signature dishes” or “farm to table.” Each search will reveal stories and posts noting specific food and recurring restaurant names to jot down and cross-reference as you continue your research.
Shortcut Alert: The Food Network’s site hosts a “Fifty States of Must-Try Food” list (Idaho’s is a baked potato and Oregon reps a Marionberry pie). Meanwhile, Thrillist regularly posts their own solid lists like “The One Must-Eat Food in Every State.”
If you get overwhelmed, you can always simply pair city names with the term “foodie.” Googling for that theoretical Oregon-to-Idaho road trip may lead you to food blogger The Hangry Backpacker’s. The blog features an amazing rundown of rural Eastern Oregon town Baker City’s food scene, from restaurants decorated with elk heads to a family-run steakhouse that boasts an Oregon Trail-style Conestoga wagon salad bar in the middle of its dining room.
Don’t be afraid to crawl down a few internet rabbit holes. An example: Do you follow the James Beard Awards (the food world equivalent of the Oscars)? A quick search of James Beard plus Destination City may yield far more than you may expect. It turns out that the chef at Boise’s high-end Basque tapas restaurant, Ansots, was nominated for a James Beard award in 2022.
A quick secondary search of Basque food plus Boise reveals that Idaho has been a hotbed of cuisine for more than a century thanks to an influx of Basque sheep farmers who immigrated to the area in the 1800s.
ENLIST THE EXPERTS, OLD AND NEW
Next, narrow down your quest for culinary greatness by enlisting experts. Try searching town names and keywords paired with brands and experts you trust as well as social media influencers.
“Local food bloggers and foodies on Instagram are a great resource,” said Bergey. “I look at their photos and reviews and see what matches up with the [kinds of] food I want to eat.”
Long-haul road-tripper Tim Carson said he calls friends and family who previously visited a destination for insider info on the local food scene; however, his first research step is always to consult “Triple D”—the Food Network’s longtime road trip show “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”
“Did [host] Guy Fieri find a place [along our route] that we can go eat at? Seriously, that’s where we start,” said Carson with a laugh. “We watch the episode and if Fieri really liked it, we say, ‘okay, let’s go!’ It’s always good.” Visit foodnetwork.com to search featured “Triple D” restaurants by state, such as Boise’s Bar Gernika Basque Pub or Portland’s nearly century old Otto’s Sausage Kitchen.
The biggest influencers are locals themselves. It’s a time-tested fact that most humans are happy to share their opinions on food. Before you head out, take time to call local tourism bureaus for recommendations. You’ll be surprised how often staffers will be excited to talk to you. Once you’re en route, Carson reminds fellow travelers to ask restaurant servers or local shop owners where they love to eat. Adventure through a city by finding the best local food. “We get a ton of great recommendations that way,” he said.
GET YOUR HANDS DIRTY
Your tasty research doesn’t have to end at a restaurant table either. “Everywhere I travel, I try to find a neighborhood farmers market to go visit. They are different and unique in every city,” said Ali Nicole Noyer, Oregon culinary tour guide. “You get true local flavors at a farmers market, because they are using ingredients that are in season. You can just walk around, have a coffee and pastry, and see what the farmers have.”
Noyer hosts Farm 2 Fork tours featuring sustainable or regenerative Willamette Valley farms from cheesemakers to Oregon Coast oyster operations—all in an effort to connect people with “where their food comes from.” She reminds travelers that many farmers also host their own tours of their property. “It’s the kind of unique experience you won’t get anywhere else,” she said.
In general, it’s useful to check out any guided food tour options. Michelle Bergey hosts a Portland tour wholly focused on coffee and donuts—a true local passion. Bergey said if you can’t fit a tour into your trip itinerary, scan a company’s website for lists of food destinations and recommendations and craft your perfect food adventure.
Ready to really get your hands dirty? Take a cooking class for a food adventure or embark on your own guided food adventure; learn to make seafood paella at Boise culinary stalwart the Basque Market; join a chartered fishing expedition in the Columbia River Gorge or go kayak crabbing on the Oregon Coast.
Delicious experiences may be just a few minutes’ worth of research away. Or, you could just fuel up on rest stop peanuts and coffee during your next blacktop odyssey. A road trip is always a choose-your-own-adventure.
GO TO THE SOURCE: AAA
Seasoned traveler Jae Tauber, who road trips from her home in Southwest Portland to Minnesota each year, said she leaned on AAA for suggestions for decades. “We used to go to the AAA office, get maps and trip books and see what people had to say about the restaurants [along our route],” she said. “Now times are changing, so we go to AAA online!”
Download the digital editions of AAA’s time-tested tour books at tourbook.aaa.com, or plug in your destination on AAA’s TripTik Planner app for plenty of AAA-inspected restaurant recommendations capturing the vibe of the towns on your route, especially in lesser-known areas. Tip: Look for spots rated “Three Diamonds” for sure bets.