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Route 66 Road Trip

Route 66 Road Trip

It stretches out and undulates along the contours of the landscape, a patchwork of sun-bleached concrete and rippled black asphalt. It’s the road we affectionately – and sometimes somewhat ironically given its condition in places – call “Mother,” United States Route 66. At its conception in the 1920s and ’30s, 66 was a loose collection of interconnecting county roads and byways that joined Chicago in Illinois to Santa Monica in California. This system of roads was then redrawn and straightened with brute force, eminent domain and the judicious application of government spending in the 1940s as well as interstate construction funds in the postwar period.

FEAST TV: Take a trip up Route 66 for a dose of nostalgia at Cozy Dog Drive In. Watch the segment here now!

Subsequent decades led to interstate highways that have largely replaced U.S. 66, leaving the Mother Road to fade like a jagged scar on the countryside and disappear from most maps. In its place are modern mega-structures that are wide, fast and mind-numbingly efficient – a highway system optimized to facilitate the frenetic pace of American transportation. Yet for all their immediacy and the ability to move people and things rapidly from point A to point B, we’ve lost the intimacy of traveling roads like 66 even as we romanticize the ethos of it in our popular culture. Making your way across America on 66 brings to mind an adventure adorned in history, bright neon and a healthy dose of the absurd. Traveling Route 66 is a trip in itself, with the potential to be every bit as interesting as a final destination – and not just because it’s a journey that comes complete with actual corners.

THE FIRST LEG

The first leg of route 66 runs from Chicago to St. Louis, covering roughly 300 miles before passing the arching steel of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial and heading south and west through Missouri toward the panhandle of Texas and on to the Pacific Ocean. One way, the trip between the Windy and Gateway cities can be completed on Interstate 55 in around five hours and with a tank of gas, but Feast wondered what we would find – and, more important, eat – if we slowed down and followed the Mother Road between these two great American cities.

Given the changes to the route over the years, travelers leaving St. Louis can choose one of three egresses out of town. The first crosses the Mississippi near the Arch and meanders around Interstate 55 and East St. Louis before joining the highway outside Collinsville. To the north, a path can be found along the frontage road that follows Interstate 270. The third crosses the McKinley Bridge, leaving Downtown St. Louis and progressing through Venice, Madison and Granite City before meeting up with the northern route and heading northeast into the city of Edwardsville and the village of Hamel. This path can be slow and congested at times, especially as you make your way out of St. Louis, but the transition is worth it for lovers of Route 66 architecture and signage, even if much of it has been out of useful service for some time.

Passing through Hamel, travelers have an opportunity to take one of two routes into Springfield. The first is alongside and on 55 for most of its leg into the capital. A better option is to take the western leg, a winding two-lane passage through the countryside, far from the interstate on present-day Illinois Route 4, which is the older of the two Route 66 alignments. It is this stretch of 66 – rural and sparse – that offers the finest segments of road for driving. It snakes through dense fields of corn and soybeans that slowly transition to cozy small towns with inviting storefront-lined squares to explore if you need a chance to get out of the car and stretch. This is also the leg where travelers will come across roadside monuments and folk art dedicated to Route 66; a unique stretch of road in Auburn that transitions from blacktop to 1.4 miles of pristine red-brick road and back; and, eventually, the first of the Illinois “giants” – the Lauterbach Tire Muffler Man, which stoically oversees arrivals to the capital of Illinois. Then there are two can’t-miss 66 landmarks where you can grab a bite: the Cozy Dog Drive In and an original Maid-Rite Sandwich Shop claiming the oldest drive-thru window in the United States.

Cozy Dog Drive In

The Cozy Dog Drive In is one of the most well-known restaurants along Route 66 in Illinois, where multiple generations of founder Ed Waldmire’s family serve up their take on the beloved corn dog – in this case an Oscar Mayer wiener, skewered and cradled in a blanket of cornmeal that has been deep-fried to a flawless golden hue. The portability of a Cozy Dog lends itself to getting out of your seat and passing some time investigating the memorabilia and tchotchkes that cover the walls and ceiling of this Route 66 landmark. When pressed, members of the staff may sheepishly cop to adorning Cozy Dogs with a wide swath of ketchup. However, we’re partial to a trail of classic yellow mustard drizzled lazily across that crisp, savory crust.

2935 S. Sixth St., Springfield, Ill., 217.525.1992, cozydogdrivein.com

Maid-Rite Sandwich Shops

Maid-Rite Sandwich Shops have seen a resurgence in recent years. However, their loose meat sandwiches – essentially sauceless sloppy joes of steamed ground beef aggressively seasoned with onion and served on steamed hamburger buns – never seem as good as when they are passed from one of the original locations’ compact and efficiently run kitchens. Travelers in a hurry can and do make for the speed of the famous drive-thru window, but it’s worth taking a moment to belly up to the small wooden tables – reminiscent of vintage schoolhouse desks – just off the kitchen with a pile of wax-paper-wrapped Maid-Rites and a large mug of homemade root beer for an authentic and soul-satisfyingly delicious Route 66 meal.

118 N. Pasfield St., Springfield, Ill., 217.523.0723, maid-rite.com


ON TO ATLANTA, ILL.

One of the last views on the way out of Springfield is “the rail splitter,” an ax-wielding 30-foot-tall statue of a beardless Abe Lincoln that looks over the entrance to the Illinois State Fairgrounds. The monument marks the transition of Route 66 from meandering country roads to a frontage road running parallel to the faster-moving Interstate 55. Don’t be swayed to deviate from 66 and take the speedier highway, as this path brings you through a series of sleepy towns and villages that the interstate largely circumvents, save the occasional off-ramp to stop for fast food and gas. What this uneventful stretch of 66 lacks in sights, it makes up for in eats, namely German schnitzel sandwiches and plates of award-winning pie served in the shadow of the “Bunyan Giant,” another of the Illinois highway giants. He stands roadside, presenting a massive hot dog to all who travel down the quiet main drag in Atlanta, Ill.

HALLIE'S ON THE SQUARE

Hallie’s sits on the edge of a classic American downtown in Lincoln, among the storefronts and offices that surround a public square. This unassuming family restaurant serves lunch and dinner to the surrounding community and Route 66 travelers nostalgic for the gigantic schnitzel sandwiches that were served at another – now shuttered – Lincoln landmark: The Mill. Hallie’s starts with an 8- to 10-ounce pork chop that is pounded thin with a mallet, breaded and then fried before being sandwiched between comically inadequate halves of an enriched-white-flour hamburger bun. With golden fried pork spilling out the edges of the bun, the packaging does little more than hold lettuce, onion, pickle and tomato in place. The best method for attacking this sandwich is to adorn it with hot sauce and work in concentric circles, eating around the pork and making your way inward toward the bun. Diners looking for an even more substantial gastrointestinal challenge should opt for a schnitzel horseshoe – an open-faced version of the sandwich that stacks pork, fries and cheese sauce atop toasted halves of bread.

111 S. Kickapoo St., Lincoln, Ill., 217.732.6923, halliesonthesquare.com

PALMS GRILL CAFE

Atlanta, Ill., is easy to miss as you travel along Route 66, but the pies served up at Palms Grill Cafe make this sleepy main street a stop worth making. Take note of the Illinois State Fair blue ribbons that reside on the wall as you pass through the entrance and grab a seat at the sandwich counter. Make no mistake; pie at Palms is a most serious business. Strong black coffee pairs with a decadently moist and tender pie crust that testifies to the culinary magic of vegetable shortening and its importance to memorable baked goods. By all means ask what flavors are available for the day if you must, but a better idea is to place your fate in the skillful hands of piemaker Lumi Bekteshi by simply stating: “I will gladly try them all, so line them up. Please and thank you.”

10 S.W. Arch St., Atlanta, Ill., 217.648.2233


BETWEEN ATLANTA AND BRAIDWOOD

Route 66 between Atlanta and Braidwood offers travelers vast stretches of frontage road to drive as it runs alongside Interstate 55 through the heart of Illinois, but it also provides easy access to a host of roadside attractions: midcentury and classic Route 66 architecture and roadside advertising pieces, jugs of pure “maple sirup” for purchase in Funks Grove, a fully restored Standard Sinclair service station that offers a photo op in Odell, and the memorabilia-filled Polk-A-Dot Drive-in, which serves up burgers and dogs under neon lights in Braidwood. Travel on this leg is easygoing, with few alignment changes to get sidetracked on. Most important, this stretch passes through the Bloomington/Normal area, offering hungry travelers an Illinois take on thin-crust pizza from the 77-year-old Lucca Grill and a can’t-miss burger from a newcomer to Route 66 eats: the DESTIHL Restaurant & Brew Works.

LUCCA GRILL

The first thing you notice upon entering Lucca Grill is how the green-tinted tin ceiling plays tricks with what little light is available, no matter the time of day. Large sections of the dining room are shrouded in a cozy, murky darkness, and the bar running the length of the building is cast in the soft glow of incandescent lighting. Even at midday, between the lunch and dinner crowds, regulars fill the seats and listen to early 1990s modern rock while alternating between sips of light American lager and bites of square cuts of crisp thin-crust pizza. If there is a pizza at Lucca Grill that is a must-try, it’s the “A La Baldini,” which is dressed in a coat of sweet and fragrant tomato sauce and topped with thin slices of deli-style mozzarella cheese, savory sausage, spicy slices of pepperoni and ham, whole pepperoncini, strips of onion and green pepper, and thick slices of mushroom. The thinness of this pizza means that a piping-hot pie pulled from the pizzeria’s deck oven cools quickly, necessitating the rapid consumption of slices to get it at its very best. While the act of eating rocket-hot pizza as fast as one can might not be the most attractive endeavor, take heart: That’s when the lighting – or lack thereof – starts to seem absolutely perfect.

116 E. Market St., Bloomington, Ill., 309.828.7521, luccagrill.com

DESTIHL RESTAURANT & BREW WORKS

Just off Veterans Parkway (Business Route 55) in Normal resides what is possibly the best burger on Route 66 in Illinois. This burger is not from a drive-in or roadside diner but at DESTIHL Restaurant & Brew Works, where travelers can sample a flight of craft beer – including a rotating selection of funky, tart beers known affectionately as a “sour.” Our advice? Order a dark beer and the Beer-Battered Bacon and Egg burger, an impressive sandwich that stacks slices of the aforementioned beer-battered jalapeño bacon and fried egg with a sweet tomato-bacon jam and smoky white Cheddar cheese atop a half-pound prime-cut Angus beef patty. Grill char and salt lay a tasty foundation for this burger, but it’s the one-two punch of deep-fried bacon mingling with the runnings of an over-easy egg yolk that elevates the dish from a solid hamburger to one that quickly approaches life-changing.

318 S. Towanda Ave., Normal, Ill., 309.862.2337, destihl.com


THE FINAL LEG

Along 66’s final leg in Illinois, it becomes hard to not stare at and ponder the long stretches of abandoned pavement, broken up at regular intervals by berms of dirt and overrun with weeds and grass. These are original sections of Route 66 between Braidwood and Chicago, seemingly cast aside in favor of the newer pavement that runs parallel to the road. The distraction slowly becomes a curiosity as the road bends away from Interstate 55 and heads along Route 53 through the picturesque Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie (the first of its kind in the United States). It’s a buffer between the rural beauty of central Illinois and the gritty, urban vibe of Joliet and the southwestern suburbs of Chicago. This last leg of Route 66 leads to the road’s terminus, near Grant Park and the Art Institute of Chicago, and the end of our journey – or the beginning, depending on which direction you’re headed – along the eastern end of the Mother Road.

PUERTO ESCONDIDO TACO TRUCK

Lucky travelers passing just south of Interstate 80 may spot a baby-blue food truck parked off to the side of the Southeast Auto Sales parking lot. It belongs to Puerto Escondido Restaurant in Joliet. A brief menu offers a roster of traditional Mexican tacos to lunch and dinner crowds, which – judging by the lines in the parking lot – have little trouble finding this out-of-the-way location. Adventurous eaters will find tacos filled with lengua, cabeza and tripas (tongue, beef head and tripe, respectively) and topped with cilantro, red onion and a dusting of crumbled cotija cheese. However, it is the pastor that stands out, with chunks of rough-chopped and grilled pork mixed with the pleasing hit of sweet pineapple. Need further convincing? Every taco rings the register at a single dollar, making this a must-stop for a mid-journey snack.

1513 S. Chicago St., Joliet, Ill., 815.723.1225, puertoescondidojoliet.com

WHITE FENCE FARM

White Fence Farm is a sprawling complex of buildings containing an antique car collection, a petting zoo and a series of dining rooms with seating for more than 1,000 people. Anytime the dining room is open, it is full of folks tucking into family-style fried chicken dinners complete with red bean salad, bowls of cottage cheese, pickled beets, mashed potatoes, gravy and corn fritters. The key to White Fence Farm’s chicken is how it’s prepared: liberally seasoned and precooked in massive custom-built pressure cookers before being refrigerated until orders are up. Right before being served, each order is tossed into soybean oil to fry until a thin, crisp coating of crust and chicken skin is formed. This tasty shell offers a bit of resistance before breaking to expose the moist meat contained within.

1376 Joliet Road, Romeoville, Ill., 630.739.1720, whitefencefarm-il.com

HENRY'S DRIVE-IN

The best seat in Henry’s Drive-In is one in view of the kitchen, which disappears into clouds of steam each time a set of stainless steel covers is lifted so someone can access the hot dogs and rolls contained within. In a town known for its hot dogs, on a road known for its drive-ins, Henry’s bucks the trend and skips the Vienna Beef products that make up most Chicago-style dogs, opting instead for a custom-blended, garlicky, all-beef frank that is topped with a line of yellow mustard, chopped onion, a pickle spear, sport peppers and a generous helping of french fries. The package is one that begs for a knife and fork but requires that you make an honest effort to eat it with your bare hands – literally cramming it into your waiting mouth – before reaching for the utensils.

6031 W. Ogden Ave., Cicero, Ill., 708.656.9344

LOU MITCHELL'S

When it comes to diners, Lou Mitchell’s is a Chicago institution, holding court within blocks of the sticker-covered sign signifying the start of Route 66. Make your way through the narrow entrance and find yourself rewarded with an offering of fresh, sugary donut holes or a small box of Milk Duds to nosh on as you wait for your seat. Expect a cup of house-branded coffee and a glass of fresh-squeezed juice while a steady stream of diners make haste to take down plates stacked high with pancakes, Belgian waffles containing bits of fried and chopped bacon, and an unconventional take on eggs Benedict that swaps out ham for fillets of tender smoked salmon hidden beneath a crown of poached eggs and a lemony, rich, taxi-cab-yellow hollandaise sauce. It is little wonder that Lou Mitchell’s has been the starting point of Route 66 journeys since 1923.

565 W. Jackson Blvd., Chicago, 312.939.3111, loumitchellsrestaurant.com


FOR THE ROAD

Getting off the interstate and following Route 66 across the countryside is an adventure, and to make the most of it, it helps to have resources – and an able co-pilot – that can assist you as you navigate the Mother Road and all of its twists, turns and alignments. The following websites, books and smartphone app were indispensable when it came to planning and ultimately taking our trip along Route 66.

Historic Route 66 (historic66.com)

A great starting point for planning any trip on Route 66. Includes state-by-state overviews, links to manufacturer-specific GPS point-of-interest (POI) maps and a vibrant travel forum.

Illinois Route 66 Scenic Byway (illinoisroute66.org)

The official Illinois Route 66 tourism site. Includes region-by-region details, attractions, a calendar of events and lodging information.

EZ66 Guide For Travelers

Published by the National Historic Route 66 Federation, this spiral-bound resource covers all the basics of traveling 66, guiding users along the easiest-to-navigate alignments and to must-see attractions. Detailed maps and turn-by-turn directions come in handy, especially for preplanning your trip, although the content layout lends itself to active reading by a navigator versus passive reference by a driver.

Route 66 Dining & Lodging Guide

Also published by the National Historic Route 66 Federation, this regularly updated resource is compiled by members of the Route 66 Federation and contains brief overviews of local eateries and places to overnight. Newer versions are spiral-bound, but we were more than happy with an older edition that was a perfect size to keep in the glove compartment for a quick reference.

Road Trip 66 (roadtrip66.com)

For our trip, this was our go-to resource for on-the-fly navigation, especially when it came to making our way around the varied alignments you’ll find across Illinois. Alignments are clearly marked on an easy-to-read map, and the application leverages your phone’s GPS to help you keep track of your present location relative to the route. Highlighted along the way are convenient references for things like landmarks and restaurants, each expanding to include a photo, history, a detailed map of the area and links to related resources. Currently available only for the Apple iOS devices.


FEAST TV!

Take a trip up Route 66 for a dose of nostalgia at Cozy Dog Drive In. Watch the segment here now!

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