Refined dining has its time and place — white tablecloths, beautiful sparkling wine glasses, and proper place settings in a peaceful environment are welcomed during special occasions. But, if you’re not going out on a fancy date and what you’re really looking for is an elbows-on-the-table kind of eatery with excellent home-cooked food, then we understand. It’s not everyday that you get to slouch over a table and chow down on a burger that’s the size of your face, so when you’re ready for some serious indulgence, you’ll want to look for the best restaurant dive possible. Dives are known for having a modest appearance on the outside and with the opposite being true on the inside. Packing in the flavor, locals know where you can find the best and freshest cuisine around. From omelets to tacos and from burgers and fries to vegetarian fare, you’ll have to take a road trip to check out these five dives.
1. Doumar’s Cones & Barbecue, Norfolk, Virginia
If you ever find yourself in Virginia and have a strong hankering for North-Carolina style barbecue and homemade ice cream, then you’ll have to check out Doumar’s Cones & Barbecue. The restaurant dive founder, Abe Doumar, made the first waffle cone in 1904 at the St. Louis World’s Fair, and from there, it was history. The waffle cone was an enormous hit among ice cream lovers, and Albert is still around today baking fresh waffle cones on the original cone machine he used in the early 1900s. What makes this curbside restaurant extra special is that when the weather is nice, the restaurant staff brings the cone machine outside so you can see your fresh and delicious cone being made in front of your eyes. Enjoy homemade chocolate, vanilla, butter pecan, or strawberry ice cream, as well as homemade sherbet.
As for the barbecue, this stuff is the real deal. You can get pork barbecue sliced with fresh coleslaw for under four dollars, and it’s cooked fresh each and every day. The hamburger meat is ground on the premise for fresh burgers, too, and they keep it really simple by adding just cheese, lettuce, tomato, and relish or mayo if you so desire. Burgers are less than three dollars each, so we recommend ordering as many as you can eat. If breakfast is more your style, order one of their many egg dishes and a limeaide made with fresh fruit.
2. Bob’s Clam Hut, Kittery, Maine
When the sun is shining and the beaches are packed you know it’s time to grab some fresh seafood for dinner. If you love fresh breaded and fried fish that comes piled with homemade fries and tarter sauce, then you have to make a trip up to Bob’s Clam Hut in Kittery, Maine. It may not look like much from the outside, but since 1956, this restaurant dive is the place that locals have come to again and again for the best fried seafood you can find. Bob’s mission is to deliver fresh seafood dishes with no frills — it’s straightforward delicious fare fresh from the water.
If you’re less of a fried-food lover and into soups, then you’ll have to try the New England clam chowder or Lobster stew that guests love. If you’re down to try a classic Bob’s dish, then go for the fried clams, as these are also a town favorite for their freshness, full flavor, and simple seasoning. They’ve got scallops, shrimp, calamari, oysters, and crab cakes, too, so there’s a little something for every seafood enthusiast who makes the trip. One of the most unique things about Bob’s is that they’re also dedicated to keeping the environment clean and building a more sustainable future — they compost their cutlery and utilize reusable baskets for their dishes, too. This is food you can really feel good about eating.
3. Hood Grub, San Francisco, California
San Francisco is loaded with trendy, upscale restaurants and local eateries that are awesome, but if you’re looking for a fresh, affordable, and local restaurant dive that’s also attached to a dive bar, then you’ll have to check out Hood Grub. The Broken Record Bar is stocked with a full bar for your choice of cocktail and drinks, and if you visit the bar on Tuesdays, you can enjoy bottomless PBRs and bingo. When you get tired of drinking and your stomach starts growling, that’s when you head right over to the Hood Grub food window, which has tons of fantastic fare for you to try.
The coolest part about Hood Grub is how unassuming it is — it sits in the back of the local dive bar, so you might be expecting burgers that had been frozen, pizza, and chicken fingers. But don’t be fooled by its looks — Hood Grub offers homemade falafel with a house-made Tzatziki sauce, warm kale salad, and a Moroccan spiced pot pie with fresh mint and cilantro to give your taste buds a serious wake-up call. For the veggie lovers (San Fran has a lot of those), there’s a homemade veggie burger that’s made from mushrooms and lentils and topped with Swiss cheese, crispy onions, and kale for a truly unique burger that even meat-lovers will want to try. There’s food for those who want something a bit heartier as well, such as the meatloaf sandwich and tater tots topped with braised brisket, gravy, and queso fresco.
4. Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket, Willowbrook, Illinois
Fried chicken lovers, rejoice — not every restaurant dive in the U.S. is just serving classic burgers and fries fare, and Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket is all about serving up some of the best fried chicken you can find in the state of Illinois. This restaurant got its start in the late 1930’s at a gas station lunch counter. When two farm women that lived locally approached the owner at the counter about a fried chicken recipe that he should try, he learned the recipe and bought his chickens from the women. From there, the business outgrew the lunch counter and eventually became the dive that it is today. Locals as well as out-of-state visitors venture far and wide to visit this restaurant dive and enjoy the classic recipes.
Because Dell Rhea’s is right off of Route 66, it’s been part of multiple Route 66 documentaries and travel books, so if you think you’ve heard of this place before, then you very well might have. When you’re here, you’ll have to try the famous fried chicken dinner, which is served with homemade mashed potatoes, green beans, biscuits, and the soup and salad bar. The chickens that are used at Dell Rhea’s are always free of GMOs, antibiotics, and hormones, and they’re never frozen, so you can feel good about eating as much fried chicken as possible. For an appetizer, try out the fried chicken livers or chicken gizzards for something slightly off the beaten path, and their homemade jalapeno poppers and potato chips are also not to be missed.
5. Boots & Kimo’s Homestyle Kitchen, Kailua, Hawaii
Not only is Hawaii a dream destination for most, but it’s also packed with excellent island cuisine that’s totally unique to the state and unlike anything you’ve ever had before. Boots & Kimo’s Homestyle Kitchen is a restaurant dive that you can’t skip out on if you’re in the area. Whether you’re there for their stacks of pancakes or you’re looking for a lunch plate filled with fresh ribs, there’s a little something for everyone. Just make sure to get there early — this joint opens at 7:30am on weekdays and 7:00am on weekends, and after 3:00pm, the place closes down. Get your island fare while you can, even if it means waking up earlier than your usual time when you’re on vacation.
If you’ve never had fish and eggs for breakfast, then you’ll have to try the mahi-mahi breakfast special, which comes complete with lightly battered mahi-mahi, two eggs, and a choice of rice, hash browns, or toast. If short ribs are more your style, then you can have those for breakfast, too — try the Hawaiian-style kalbi short rib breakfast, which also comes with two eggs and your choice of sides so you’ll feel full for the entirety of your day. You might not know that Spam is a favorite food among Hawaiians, and you can try this pre-cooked canned meat here if you’re feeling daring. For those who love the mix of salty and sweet, the sugar cured crispy bacon is sure to please.