Start the car, and bring your appetite. Here are the absolutely best places to eat along Western highways.
Buckhorn Tavern, San Antonio, NM (pictured). The best roadside burgers are big and brawny and take-no-prisoners. Exhibit A: the green-chile burger at Buckhorn--a patty as big as a big rig's hubcap, sizzled on the griddle, then appliquéd with onions, cheese, pickles, and more. But it's the finishing touch of chopped New Mexico green chiles that lifts Buckhorn into the burger pantheon. 68 U.S. 380; 575/835-4423.
More New Mexico travel tips
Diablo Burger, Flagstaff, AZ. Like Flagstaff itself, this stylish burger joint with a pretty patio combines sustainable and cowboy in one package. Local, open range-raised and antibiotic-free ground beef is charbroiled medium rare, then joined by homemade pesto and fried egg, or bacon, beet, and blue cheese. 120 N. Leroux St.; 928/774-3274.
Burgerville, Kelso, WA. This Northwest chain specializes in great fast food--nothing fancy, but honest ingredients done right. Burgers are properly seasoned, and many ingredients are regionally sourced (e.g., the salad's blue cheese is from Oregon's award-winning Rogue Creamery). Must-try: Seasonal berry shakes; the cheeseburger. 600 W. Main St.; 360/501-4354; burgerville.com for other locations.
Rod's Steak House
Rod's Steak House, Williams, AZ. The original Rod was a cattleman and Route 66 entrepreneur in the '40s. Nods to his legacy are still here in the dinnerware, signage (that's Domino, the fiberglass steer, glowing atop the roof ), and cow-shaped menu, which serves up steakhouse classics. One deserved favorite is the sugar-charred sirloin, dripping with sweet beefy juices. But don't neglect the prime rib, equally tasty and substantial. Must-try: The Rocky Mountain trout, if you're not in the mood for red meat. 301 E. Route 66; 928/635-2671.
Hot dogs & sausages
The Linkery, San Diego (pictured). One of the nodes of San Diego's crucial beer culture, the Linkery is also sausage central, sourcing its meat more carefully than even Alice Waters. Must-try: Käsekrainer sausage, in a sandwich, in a taco, on a picnic plate. 3794 30th St., 3.5 mi. off I-5; 619/255-8778.
The New Moon Café, Olympia, WA
The New Moon Café, Olympia, WA. Vegetarians, this road food is for you. At New Moon, you'll be in touch with Olympia's hippie heritage, with emphasis on tofu and tempeh in the Benedicts and omelets. (Carnivores can chow down on the sturdy Howda Burger.) Must-try: The russet home fries. 113 Fourth Ave. W.; 360/357-3452.
Neptune's Net, Malibu, CA
Neptune's Net, Malibu, CA (pictured). Seafood-wise, it's not Manhattan's Le Bernardin or San Francisco's Swan Oyster Depot. But they don't have Malibu. And it can be very fine to pull up to the Net on a hot afternoon, jostle for a parking space near the dozens of motorcycles, then sit back on the patio and down a pitcher of beer with some fish and chips while you scan the Pacific for whales. Must-try: Shrimp tacos with pineapple slaw. 42505 Pacific Coast Hwy./State 1; 310/457-3095.
More California road-trip hints: Our guide to coastal Highway 101.
South Beach Bar & Grille, San Diego (Sunset reader favorite; pictured). As unofficial fish taco capital of the nation, San Diego had better serve good ones. This place, in Ocean Beach, serves great ones, grilled or fried. 5059 Newport Ave.; 619/226-4577.
La Super-Rica, Santa Barbara, CA
La Super-Rica, Santa Barbara, CA (pictured). Milpas Street's Mexican dive is famous for serving freshly made antojitos to people who don't necessarily know what the word means (little portions, aka appetizers). Must-try: La Super-Rica Especial (marinated pork and cheese-stuffed pasilla chile). 622 N. Milpas St.; 805/963-4940.
La Tarasca, Centralia, WA. At this family-run authentically Mexican restaurant, it can be tough to decide between carnitas from the cook's home state of Michoacán and other must-haves like rellenos or posole accompanied by fresh-made corn tortillas. Must-try: Chile verde. 1001 W. Main St.; 360/736-7756.
Quan Hy Restaurant, Westminster, CA
Quan Hy Restaurant, Westminster, CA (pictured). Quan Hy, in Westminster's Little Saigon, specializes in the dishes of central Vietnam, and it's spiffier than most of the pho parlors that surround it. Must-try: Great versions of the spicy soup bun bo hue, and clam salad with peanuts and rice crackers. 9727 Bolsa Ave., 8.3 mi. off State 1; 714/775-7179.
Grinders Hot Sands, Shoreline, WA
Grinders Hot Sands, Shoreline, WA (pictured). Homemade Italian meatballs, mozzarella, grilled onions....owner Mitch Gilbert has all the ingredients for flavorful, jaw-stretching subs. His secret weapon is his 78-year-old mom, who helps out with soups and dances "like she has a motor on her butt" during Grinders' live blues jams in this dimly lit hideaway. Must-try: The Sauball Sandwich, meatballs and sausage in one tasty package. 19811 Aurora Ave. N./State 99; 206/542-0627.
Skillet Diner, Seattle
Skillet Diner, Seattle, WA (pictured). Dressed-up diner food, with big mugs of coffee (from a local independent roaster, yes) and plates of pork belly (house-cured, of course) with cornmeal waffles. The mod-comfy diner anchors a thriving neighborhood that draws shoppers and fun-seekers from breakfast to late-night drinks. Must-try: Fried chicken sandwich; corned beef hash; pork belly and waffle. 1400 E. Union St.; 206/512-2000.
More: Discover Washington's Olympic Penninsula
Fremont Diner, Sonoma, CA
Fremont Diner, Sonoma, CA (Sunset reader favorite; pictured). Undoubtedly the most important meal of the roadtrip day. You have ground to cover, scenery to see, souvenirs to acquire. You need those American start-the-day classics--biscuits and gravy, smoked brisket hash--you never quite make at home. Fremont Diner does all the above. And the patio view into the surrounding Sonoma vineyards? More proof that, on this morning, the world adores you. 2698 Fremont Dr.; 707/938-7370.
More Sonoma travel tips
Orange Inn, Laguna Beach, CA. In a high-priced town, a low-cost surfers' and beachgoers' delight: strong coffee, homemade blueberry muffins, breakfast burritos, smoothies. 703 South Coast Hwy.; 949/494-6085.
Road Island Diner, Oakley, UT. The Sopranos meets Big Love with this New Jersey diner transplanted to the Utah mountains and brilliantly restored. But the chromey setting isn't the only lure: Green-chile scrambled eggs and homemade cinnamon rolls will thrill families criminal, polygamous, or ordinary. 981 W. Weber Canyon Rd.; 435/783-3467.
More Utah driving routes
K&R Drive Inn, Rice Hill, OR (Sunset reader favorite; pictured). Oregonians venerate K&R shakes the way they do Mt. Hood, as a symbol of the state's superiority. And while the drive-in off Interstate 5 may not look like much, the shakes (70-plus flavors, made from local Umpqua ice cream) are deliciously overwhelming. 201 John Long Rd.; 541/849-2570.
Park Cafe, St. Mary, MT
Park Cafe, St. Mary, MT (pictured). "Pie for strength" is the motto here, and we couldn't put it any better. Because, let's face it, even the most idyllic of summer roadtrips have their stresses. The wrong turn, the misread map, the must-see natural wonder inexplicably closed for the season. In those perilous why-did-we-go-on-this-vacation-and-by-the-way-why-am-I-married-to-you moments, what can make things magically all right? Pie--warm, sweet fruit spilling out of tender crust. Pie--chocolate cream with a cumulus cloud of whipped cream floating above. Pie, pie, pie. 3147 U.S. 89 W.; 406/732-4482.
Rock Springs Café, Rock Springs, AZ. "The Rock" has been in business here in Black Canyon since 1918, so it knows how to do classic road food right. The mesquite-smoked pork ribs are fall-off-the-bone succulent; the chicken and biscuits wholesome yet indulgent, like what you'd get at a really good church supper. Still, many travelers make the 45-mile drive from Phoenix for one thing: pie. Dozens of varieties are arrayed in glass cases like diamonds at Tiffany's, but tastier. Must-try: The Jack Daniel's pecan and the rhubarb crumb. Exit 242, 35769 S. Old Black Canyon Hwy.; 623/374-5794.
Linn's, Cambria, CA (Sunset reader favorite). Barely known outside California, the juicy, tart olallieberry stars in Linn's pies, available at its farm store and the in-town Easy as Pie Cafe. Store: 6275 Santa Rosa Creek Rd.; 805/927-8134. Cafe: 4251 Bridge St.; 805/924-3050.
Here at Sunset, we like to plan our itineraries around where we want to eat. But if you're still not sure of your route, here are some epic road-trip ideas to get you going.