Food is an integral part of travel – especially for a travel writer. It’s just as important as lodging, even more enjoyable than a coffee shop, and just as necessary as fuel for the car. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and desserts – I enjoyed some amazing meals during my travels in 2021.
This ranking of my twenty favorite meals is just that – a ranking leading up to my favorite meal of the year. Along with some high-quality photos and vivid descriptions, I dare you not to drool just a little while browsing through this list.
Which of these meals would have been your favorite? Leave me a comment below!
Fayetteville Pie Company in Fayetteville, NC
Was I eating apple pie for lunch? Although I would not have entirely been set against the notion, I needed to broaden my understanding of “pie company.” My understanding changed once I stepped inside the Fayetteville Pie Company.
Meals start with choice of a savory pie – I chose the Homestyle Chicken Pot Pie. Then, pick a sweet pie. I went with the Chocolate Mousse. Their menu changes frequently, but that particular combination worked for me. It was a good start to exploring Fayetteville!
Britt’s Donut Shop in Carolina Beach, NC
A young boy ran across the parking lot clutching a white paper bag. A few minutes later, a man crossed the same parking carrying three white paper bags. It was early on a Monday in August and already a line extended from the entrance to Britt’s Donut Shop. Opened in 1939 by H.L. Britt, the local icon has been owned by Bobby Nivens for almost forty years.
The cash-only transactions were quick and within minutes I had placed my order for two glazed donuts. While most people took their donuts in the white paper bags and walked away, I decided to take a seat on the round bar stool inside the shop. Made fresh on-site, the donuts were warm and soft. The glaze was sweet, but not overbearing. They were finger licking good and kicked off my day exploring Carolina Beach.
Woodlands Barbeque Restaurant in Blowing Rock, NC
The rustic wood floors creaked with each step. The solid wood tables were sturdy and chairs comfortable. Lights were strung from the exposed beams across the ceiling. Woodlands Barbeque Restaurant was the very definition of a country restaurant and the best barbecue in Blowing Rock.
The barbeque platter came with a hearty serving of pulled pork, sweet cornbread, barbecue rice, and beans. Sweet tea is served in a Mason jar, a standard prop in restaurants striving to be called quaint. But the meal was fantastic to the last bite and one of my favorites of the year.
Cliff View Golf Club & Inn in Covington, NC
Jen Mann loves to cook. When I arrived in at the Cliff View Golf Club & Inn, checking into a comfortable room in the two-story inn beside the golf course, I had no idea the former club house had been converted into a commercial kitchen – with Jenn and Matthew Sponaugle cooking meals for diners.
When I told Jen I loved burgers, she knew exactly what to make. Served on a brioche bun, the 1/3-pound burger was cooked exactly as I’d asked, piled high with bacon and topped with a tangy barbeque sauce. Along with homemade fries, sitting outside at a table shaded by an umbrella, it was a fantastic meal and a perfect evening in Covington.
Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge in Shelby, NC
I could smell the pit cooked barbecue the moment I opened the car door. A dull red metal roof covered dark green walls of a building that’s been the home of Red Bridge Barbecue Lodge since 1966 – although the restaurant has been open since 1946. Inside, I found a class diner feel with faux leather booths, tables covered with epoxied pictures, and a stunning parquet wood tile ceiling.
It only took minutes for the waitress to place the platter of food in front of me. The pulled pork was tender, nearly melting in my watery mouth. Onion rings with just the right amount of crisp. Beans and barbecue coleslaw. I couldn’t finish everything at the restaurant, but about two hours later I pulled over on the side of the road to take another bite of the savory meal.
Kounter in Rock Hill, SC
Rob Masone only uses fresh ingredients for the meals at his restaurant, Kounter, in Rock Hill. Many of the ingredients come from local farms within a few hours’ drive. Fresh ingredients always mean a great meal – especially when it’s prepared by a world-class chef.
The fried ribs were one of the appetizers available on the lunch menu. Black ginger and burnt bourbon BBQ sauce served over a bed of pineapple and jicama pico. The ribs were so tender I never touched the knife. The barbecue was so savory I never touched the water.
Farmview Market in Madison, GA
In the countryside outside Madison, Georgia, the Farmview Market is a one-stop destination for fresh produce, dairy products, baked goods, and fantastic meals. Owned by Keith Kelly, the market is an extension of their Rock House Farm & Creamery, a “small garden” that turned into a big dream.
Food is served in the cafeteria for breakfast, lunch, and dinner throughout the week. I slowly made my way through the line, eagerly peeking through the glass partition at all the options. When I saw pan fried catfish, there was no other option. Along with sides of mac ‘n cheese and hashbrown casserole, it was one of the best meals I enjoyed on my road trip through Georgia’s Historic Heartland.
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Redneck BBQ Lab in Benson, NC
I was hesitant when I realized The Redneck BBQ Lab – certainly an interesting name for a restaurant – was in a shared space with a BP gas station. It was a busy place and at first, I couldn’t find a parking space. But all my worries were put aside when I swung open the door and smelled the air inside.
Since 2017, Jerry Stephenson has been crafted North Carolina style barbeque with a Kansas City flare. Everything from the pulled pork and ribs to sides of mac ‘n cheese and coleslaw are prepared fresh everyday – there are no freezers in the restaurant. I topped the pulled pork sandwich, served on a buttery brioche bun, with some of their homemade BBQ sauce and I couldn’t put it down until the entire sandwich was gone.
Mountain Fruit and Produce in Bedford, VA
My plans for a pleasant lunch at the Peaks of Otter were thrown into the air when I learned the restaurant was closed for the day. Teetering on the edge of getting hangry, I followed a tip from the local tourism folks and headed down Peaks Road toward Bedford. About halfway into town, I came across Mountain Fruit and Produce.
The small, unassuming market hides the wonderfulness inside. Fresh apples were stacked in bins, the shelves were stocked with jams, butters, and preserves, and in the corner a small home kitchen. That’s where I ordered a simple cheeseburger. There was nothing fancy about it. The meat had been frozen. The buns came from a supermarket. But the two patties were smothered in cheese, cooked to perfection, and topped with crispy lettuce. It was a cheeseburger like my mom makes and there was none if it leftover when I pulled away from the market.
Dockside Seafood House in Calabash, NC
The folks in Calabash, North Carolina know a thing or two about seafood. Nearly a dozen restaurants are scattered throughout the small coastal town, each serving fresh seafood straight from the boats. But I was only interested in calabash style seafood.
Sitting outside on the wooden deck, overlooking boats traveling along the water, I asked my waiter, Colton, was calabash style seafood meant. “Calabash style is lightly breaded and fried – nothing really special. But we marinate the seafood overnight in cultured milk to help the breading stick better.” That must have been why the plate of calabash seafood was so mouthwateringly good. Everything melted in my mouth and cut with a fork and left me feeling immensely satisfied.
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Cupcrazed Cakery in Fort Mill, SC
I spent a day exploring Baxter Town Center in Fort Mill, South Carolina. I had lunch at a local restaurant. Drinks at a bottle shop. I did some shopping at a crafts store. It was a good thing I’d done a lot of walking, because I was about to enjoy a heavy dessert.
Cupcrazed Cakery features those large glass display cases with racks of food tempting to be bought, devoured, and enjoyed. Pies, cakes, muffins, and cupcakes – there were so many options. I only chose three cupcakes, but it weighed as much as ten. Each bite fostered an urge to quickly take another bite while simultaneously demanding to be slowly savored.
Main Street Pizza Company in Johnson City, TN
I’m a big fan of pizza – it’s one of my favorite road trip meals because it’s easy to take the leftovers to go. For the most part, I can enjoy a pizza so long as the ingredients are fresh and its not over cooked. But at the Main Street Pizza Company, I found something else entirely.
I knew from the first bite that this would be my favorite pizza of the year. The red sauce was bold and slightly tangy. The crust was cooked perfectly. The supreme pizza toppings were delicious. Nothing was frozen. And the biggest surprise came when the waitress told me most of the ingredients were grown on the owner’s farm!
The Southern Grind Coffee House in Orange Beach, AL
When Jimmy and Jaime McPhillips opened The Southern Grind Coffee House in 2012, they wanted to create more than just a coffee shop. Jaime’s interior design career is evident throughout the coffee shop – turquoise painted ceilings, coastal décor, and comfortable seating can be found throughout.
But more than anything, their menu reigns supreme. Sandwiches, salads, and desserts are a few of the offerings all day long. They had a special the day I visited – a ginormous strawberry dessert topped with strawberry glaze and whipped cream. The plate was the size of my face and it took me nearly an hour to finish it all. And, yes, I finished it all because I was not about to leave any of that dessert on the plate.
Oceanic in Wrightsville Beach, NC
Built on the Crystal Pier near the southern end of Wrightsville Beach, Oceanic has a commanding view of the beach for diners inside the comfortable restaurant. But when I sat down for lunch, I didn’t realize the food would be the most photogenic thing I would see.
I’ve eaten more crab cakes than I can count, but I’d never had a crab cake sandwich. Served on a soft bun with crispy lettuce, the sandwich was a powerful punch of flavor that left me wanting more. I satisfied that desire with some of their homemade chips – all while enjoying a beautiful view through the large picture window.
The Crazy Comet Creamery in Clayton, NC
Massive milkshakes topped with cheesecake stuffed into a Mason jar is nothing new – I visited three places that featured the overwhelming dessert this year. But when I visited Clayton, a small town near Smithfield, North Carolina, I found more than just one of the best desserts of the year.
The Crazy Comet Creamery began at the Clayton General Store, but quickly outgrew the space with popularity. Moving to a new location closer to downtown, visitors can sit outside with their “Crazy Milkshake” and play a game of cornhole. Being a big fan of anything to do with peanut butter, I ordered a chocolate milkshake, rimmed with peanut butter, and topped with a peanut butter cup.
Ocean Isle Fish Company in Ocean Isle Beach, NC
Caper sauce. When Keith, my waiter at the Ocean Isle Fish Company, told me the fresh catch of the day was topped with caper sauce, I had to ask what it was. He paused for a moment before replying, “Well, I’m not really sure.”
When my fried grouper arrived – topped with a crab cake and the caper sauce – I quickly took a bite. It would have been rude for my mouth to hang open while stuffed with food, so I had to cover my mouth so gape. The bold sauce had the ability to be powerful and not overwhelming at the same time, leading to an explosion of flavor across my tastebuds. Kudos to whoever invented caper sauce.
Front Street Brewery in Wilmington, NC
Front Street Brewery is the oldest brewery in Wilmington and until about ten years ago it was the only brewery. The coastal city on the Cape Fear River has seen a boom in local breweries in recent years, but the original will always be the most iconic.
I supposed I could say the craft beer was fantastic – it was. I could also say the whiskey bar with over four hundred varieties from around the world was interesting – it was. But more than anything else, I have to say the nachos were amazing – they were. Piled high with savory pulled chicken, topped with sour cream and diced veggies, the nachos were one of those appetizers that could be substituted for an entire meal.
Vicious Biscuit in Mt. Pleasant, SC
The small parking lot surrounding the equally small building was packed with cars – a line of people extended out the front door. They had only been open for an hour, but the wait was already close to thirty minutes for the food and tables were rare. But it was all worth it.
After finding a parking space and standing in line for twenty minutes, I finally found myself in front of the giant menu hanging about the counter. Biscuits. That’s what they do at the Vicious Biscuit in Mount Pleasant. The moment I saw “Jalapeno Chicken Biscuit” I knew I had found breakfast. A fried chicken breast served on a buttermilk biscuit, topped with jalapenos, and smothered in jalapeno gravy – I barely needed a knife to eat the tender meal.
The Bristol Café in Statesville, NC
I parked outside The Bristol Café twenty minutes before they opened – there was already a line of people waiting outside. There was only seating for about fifty people inside, and they wanted the items on their famous brunch menu.
Settling into a high-backed chair at the bar, I ordered the Chicken and Waffles. A thick and fluffy waffle the size of the plate infused with jalapeno and bacon, a crispy chicken breast marinated in sweet tea, drizzled in a sweet and spicy cream sauce. The portion was more than I should have eaten at any one time, but I couldn’t stop. Bite after bite, I finished the entire plate of one of the best meals of the year.
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The Hangout in Gulf Shores, AL
Before I relay the story of my favorite meal of the year, I need to point out that my trip to Alabama’s beaches was my favorite destination of the year, I captured some of my favorite photos while visiting, and a local restaurant produced my favorite meal of the year. It was my first trip to the Gulf of Mexico, and I’ll never forget it!
I took a break from my workation at the condo to get lunch at The Hangout. It’s more than just a restaurant – with an outdoor amphitheater, sand volleyball course, and seating for hundreds inside, The Hangout is a complex.
Several of the items on the menu were tempting, but there could be only one. Ten minutes later, the waitress placed the plate with the towering Lifeguard burger on my table. The Lifeguard is two half-pound patties smothered in cheddar and pepper jack cheese, topped with fried onion straws, a fried egg, bacon, and Monarch pickles, and served on a brioche bun.
For a moment, I considered trying to take just one bite from the burger. But I quickly laughed at the notion. The only way to eat The Lifeguard is with a fork and knife. Disclaimer: there was no lifeguard on duty.