Feast on this exclusive sneak peek at 10 under-the-radar eateries around the nation.
The definitive compendium of the astonishing and delicious from the curious minds behind AtlasObscura.com, GASTRO OBSCURA: A Food Adventurer’s Guide by Dylan Thuras and Cecily Wong, is a book for anyone who eats, is constantly dreaming of their next meal, or who longs to explore.
An immersive cabinet of culinary curiosities, this handsome coffee table book brims with over 500 compelling entries that span all seven continents and fifty states, from the world’s largest floating restaurant in Hong Kong to classical Ottoman cuisine researched by a culinary detective team in Istanbul.
The food-and-drink obsessed authors sipped beer made from the fog of the Chilean Atacama Desert, experienced the joys of bouncy meatballs in the Chaoshan region of China, downed a shot of what’s been dubbed the world’s worst liquor in Chicago, sampled Australian delicacies while enjoying the scenery on a historic train speeding across the Outback, and learned the glorious history of the seemingly humblest of foods: mustard and pickles.
Here, feast on ten under-the-radar American eateries recommended by the authors of Gastro Obscura:
Ray Turner’s smoked eels–which he catches in the Delaware River, smokes himself, and sells out of a wooden shack in the woods of Hancock, NY– are the stuff of local legend. Turner brines his eels in salt and dark honey before smoking them over applewood, resulting in a sweet and savory and hyper-local delicacy.
Getting these eels requires a pilgrimage: First follow the signs for “Delaware Delicacies Smoke House” on Route 17, then turn onto a dirt road, head past the quarry, and keep going until you hit the small store and smokehouse. Inside you’ll find Ray with his long white beard presiding over his case of smoked goods, which includes not just eels but shrimp, trout, salmon, bacon, and Gouda. Note: eel season is in the fall and supplies are limited, so call ahead before venturing into the woods
Each night in Mesa, Arizona, the largest theater pipe organ ever created rises on a rotating hydraulic elevator above a 700-seat dining room filled with patrons enjoying pizza, pasta, and sandwiches. Played by a virtuoso theater organist, the 276-key instrument is linked to a mind-boggling series of xylophones, glockenspiels, gongs, and cymbals.
The landmark attraction was the brainchild of the late William P. Brown, a real-estate developer, pizza enthusiast, and accomplished theater organist. The performance hall restaurant serves 300,000 visitors each year, while the organ plays classics like “The Flight of the Bumblebee,” “The Hills Are Alive” from the Sound of Music, and the theme from Star Wars.
Top of the Rock, a mountaintop bluff in the Ozarks, is the entry point into the area’s finest watering hole–a bat-filled bar that’s accessible only by golf cart. After renting a two-or-four person vehicle, visitors make their way through a 2.5 mile (4-km) woodland path over streams and bridges, with the option of stopping at a butterfly garden and scenic outlook. Shortly into the trip, the trail dips into the Lost Canyon Cave, which contains this one-of-a-kind bar.
While everyone on the journey must stay in the golf cart, the ride is filled with surprises: The lantern-lit cave contains a natural waterfall, a live bat colony, and skeletons of both a saber-tooth tiger and a short-faced bear. When it’s time for a drink, park beside the wooden bar and order up a Bat’s Bite (strawberry and peach lemonade) or a John L’s Lemonade (vodka, grapefruit, lemonade, and grenadine), then go for a loop around the waterfall pool. Note: Carts are available for rent from 8:00 a.m. until 45 minutes before sunset. Drivers are permitted alcohol, but not before signing a liability waiver.
Jones Bar-B-Q, a two-table eatery in the town of Marianna, is one of only two restaurants in Arkansas to ever receive a prestigious James Beard Award. The owners, James and Betty Jones, hadn’t even heard of the award before winning the “America’s Classics” category in 2012. The small diner takes up the ground floor of the couple’s home. The sign out front reads “since 1964” but the family operation dates back to at least 1910. James Jones’s recipes are the same ones his grandfather used when he sold barbecued meat out of his home and that his father used when he opened up an earlier iteration of the restaurant.
Today, James runs the pit and restaurant, while a man named Sylvester chops wood and operates the attached smokehouse, which is a shed. Oak and hickory logs burn in a cinderblock barbecue pit, where pork shoulders–the only meat Jones sells–smoke for 12 hours at a time. The menu includes pork by the pound and sandwiches: pork dressed in a slightly sweet vinegar sauce and served between slices of white bread. Beyond slaw, sides are non-existent. But with smoked pork this good, they’re also unnecessary. Note: The restaurant opens at 7 a.m. and closes when it sells out. This could happen at 10 a.m., so plan to eat pork for breakfast.
At least once a month, Bube’s Brewery throws a pirate-themed dinner party in their 19th-century basement restaurant, called Catacombs, located 43 feet underground. Actors in period costumes rub elbows with swashbuckling guests, dining in candlelight, beside enormous wooden beer-aging barrels. On non-pirate themed nights, Bube’s Brewery looks like a cross between a Renaissance Faire (which it becomes during monthly medieval festivals) and a Victorian haunted house (which it becomes during regular ghost tours). Established in 1876 by a German immigrant named Alois Bube, it still makes its own mircobrews.
A decade ago, Matthew Secich was working in the kitchen of a Michelin-starred restaurant. That was before he left the high-stress world behind, converted to the Amish faith, an opened a small charcuterie shop in Unity, Maine. Today, you’ll find Secich at the end of a long road in the middle of a pine wood, beard down to his chest, hand-grinding meat to make sausages. In line with his faith, Secich’s small shop is lit by oil lamps and heated by a wood stove.
His meat is kept cool in a pine room stocked with 80 tons of ice that’s hand-cut each winter after being harvested from a local lake. The low-tech kitchen produces high-quality charcuterie such as maple-tarragon kielbasa, smoked duck sausage, sweet bologna, and smoked cheddar–all marked by the finesse of an elite chef. Note: Charcuterie is open only Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, along Leelyn Road in Unity.
Have you ever dreamed of boarding an old-fashioned dining train and enjoying a leisurely Sunday lunch while chugging through open pastures of bison? At Terry’s Bison Ranch in Cheyenne, this dream could be yours. Established in 1993 as a bison farm, their property has a history that extends much further: In 1910, when the land was owned by F.E. Warren, Wyoming’s first territorial governor, bison enthusiast Theodore Roosevelt came to dine.
Today, Terry’s Bison Ranch is a working farm with interactive bison experiences and award-winning ribs. Custom-built trains take visitors through bison country, meandering past ostriches and camels before the main event: petting and feeding bison. You can also see the sights on horseback or on an ATV, then head inside for a bison burger. Feeding the bison, then feeding on bison, may seem like an incongruous experience, but the practice of raising bison like cattle was a key factor in keeping the species from extinction. Note: the regular train tour takes about 90 minutes and runs multiple times a day. The lunch train departs at 12 p.m. on Sundays and requires a reservation.
The Zombie has a reputation for subduing its victims. The rum-based cocktail, invented at Hollywood restaurant Don the Beachcomber in 1934, packed such a punch that customers were cut off after two. And, for decades, proprietor Donn Beach–Zombie inventor and “father” of tiki–was the only person who knew what was in them, until 2007, when tiki connoisseur and author Jeff “Beachbum” Berry solved the mystery.
After finding a black book of coded recipes from Beach’s restaurant, he worked with former Beachcomber staff to reverse engineer the cocktails. For an old-school Zombie-drinking experience, go to the tiny, cash-only Tiki-Ti in Los Angeles, which opened in the 60s.
Descend into the Russian bathhouse in Manhattan’s Financial District to find Matryoshka, the restaurant in this three-story underground spa. (Fittingly, matryoshka is the term for a Russian nesting doll.) Dine on pickle platters, beef tongue, pelmeni, borscht, and copious amounts of vodka–all made even more delightful by dining in a bathrobe.
The standard way to enjoy bitters is in moderation–a dash or two in a Manhattan or a Sazerac for a sharp, earthy tang. But on Washington Island, a remote islet in Wisconsin’s share of Lake Michigan, locals prefer to drink it straight, as they have for a hundred years. Their brand of choice is Angostura and they drink so much of it that the tiny island (population 700) has acquired the title of world’s largest consumer of bitters.
The tradition began when Tom Nelsen, a Danish immigrant who arrived on the island in the late 1800s and opened a dance hall and bar, cleverly got a pharmaceutical license during prohibition. Bitters, despite containing alcohol, could be classified and sold as “stomach tonic for medicinal purposes.” With a pharmaceutical license, Nelsen could legally sell bitters without a doctors prescription, so he began pouring shots of the 90 proof “medical tincture” for his “patients.”
When prohibition was repealed in 1933, the locals didn’t give up bitters, and in the mid-20th century the Bitters Club was founded. To join, you must take a shot. First-timers to the island often make going to Nelsen’s a priority because the shot comes with an official Bitters Club card that states you are “now considered a full-fledged islander and entitled to mingle, dance, etc. with all the other islanders.” Note: Nelsen’s Hall Bitters Pub is open 7 days a week.
List adapted from “Gastro Obscura: A Food Adventurer’s Guide” by Cecily Wong and Dylan Thuras. ©2021 Workman Publishing.