While the most direct driving route from Washington, DC to Nashville, Tennessee, is along I-81, the more interesting route — foodwise, anyway — is via Kentucky. Traveling across West Virginia and into eastern Kentucky provides pastoral Rust Belt vistas and as you make your way to the larger cities of Louisville and Nashville, you’ll be rewarded with authentic bluegrass and country music, innovative Appalachian and Southern food, and, of course, lots and lots of bourbon.
If you’re making the drive from DC to Nashville, here’s a list of restaurants that are miles better than mediocre rest-stop food, from new, hip spots and acclaimed regional classics to casual "meat and threes" and top-notch fried chicken.
Washington, DC — A Baked Joint
A friendly bakery in Mount Vernon Triangle by the owners of the much-loved Baked & Wired, this newcomer serves hearty breakfast sandwiches and jam and nut-butter slathered toasts in the morning. Or grab a pastry for easy mobility — get the cinnamon roll if they have it. And of course, coffee is a must — or tea, its selection is robust and includes everything from matcha to maté.
440 K St. N.W., Washington, DC; 202-408-6985
Courtesy of Dem 2 Brothers and a Grill
Charleston, WV — Dem 2 Brothers and a Grill
After years of selling his ribs from a food cart, owner Adrian Wright opened up this no-frills restaurant in 2014 on Charleston’s west side. Highlights include those finger-licking ribs, which are made with a brown sugar spice rub, as well as pulled pork and sides like sweet potato casserole and mac 'n' cheese. You’ll be hard pressed to find better barbecue in West Virginia and Wright has since opened up a second location in the town of London, WV.
423 Virginia St. W., Charleston, WV; 304-400-4977
Lexington, KY — Stella’s Kentucky Deli
How often does a deli list the farms and producers they work with? This beloved Downtown institution has been doing it since before it was trendy, serving fresh salads and sandwiches all day long, including the famous Kentucky invention, the Hot Brown. Complement your meal with one of its housemade sodas and be sure to save room for a slice of pie — the owner created the Mary Porter pie (pictured), which is made with a layer of chocolate that’s spread across the bottom shell and then topped with sliced almonds, cream cheese, toffee and whipped cream. It’s as good as it sounds.
143 Jefferson St., Lexington, KY; 859-255-3354
Courtesy of Middle Fork Kitchen Bar
Lexington, KY — Middle Fork Kitchen Bar
Opened in 2015, this stylish restaurant is located at the old Pepper Distillery campus and features reclaimed wood tables and benches and an open kitchen. Shareable plates are the focus; try the Vermont cheddar–scallion pancakes made with a sourdough batter or the greens and semolina, made with pot liquor. The duck confit is perfect on a chilly day. For dessert, you may want to head next door to ice cream shop Crank & Boom, which excels in using local ingredients — including bourbon — in its frozen treats.
1224 Manchester St. #110, Lexington, KY; 859-309-9854
Shelbyville, KY — Claudia Sanders Dinner House
Yes, you’re in KFC country, but that doesn’t mean you need to eat fast food in order to experience the legendary fried chicken. This large dining room was opened in 1968 by Colonel Sanders and his wife, Claudia, after the couple moved to Shelbyville and subsequently sold their business. While the original building burned down in 1999, the recipes remain the same — get Claudia’s chicken special, which comes with biscuits and cornbread, soup or salad, two pieces of fried chicken, mashed potatoes with gravy and your choice of vegetable side (all for $10.99). Plus, the Dinner House has way more ambiance than a KFC — there’s even a fireplace.
3202 Shelbyville Rd, Shelbyville, KY; 502-633-5600
Courtesy of Nord's Bakery
Louisville, KY — Nord’s Bakery
This family-owned bakery is famous for its donuts, particularly the maple bacon, which features an entire strip of bacon (the donut isn’t round and instead a long stick). That donut will likely be gone if you arrive in the afternoon but not to worry, the buttercream-filled Holland cream, apple fritter and glazed twist are all stellar. Skip the coffee here and head next door to Sunergos Coffee where they roast their own beans.
2118 S. Preston St., Louisville, KY; 502-634-0931
Courtesy of Butchertown Grocery
Louisville, KY — Butchertown Grocery
This recently opened restaurant in the Butchertown neighborhood is already raking in the acclaim. The industrial-chic space features exposed brick and wooden beams with marble tabletops and a checkered tile floor. Comfort food like burgers, chicken and waffles and various pastas reign, but there’s also a section of the menu devoted to seasonal vegetables. Head upstairs to cocktail lounge Lola for handcrafted drinks and live music.
1076 E. Washington St., Louisville, KY; 502-742-8315
Courtesy of Arnold's Country Kitchen
Nashville, TN — Arnold’s Country Kitchen
A classic “meat and three” open since 1982, this place is a gem but it’s not hidden: Expect a line no matter what time you get to Arnold’s. A winner of a James Beard Classics award, the food is filling, cheap and delicious. Grab a tray and choose from various meats and fish like roast beef, battered grouper or pork chops, and then add as many sides as you like — classics like mac 'n' cheese, green beans and fried green tomatoes are all favorites. And definitely spring for a slice of pie or cup of banana pudding.
605 8th Ave. S., Nashville, TN; 615-256-4455
Courtesy of Dave Krugman
Nashville, TN — Urban Cowboy Public House
With veteran chefs and bartenders from beloved Nashville spots Rolf & Daughters and Catbird Seat, this new spot opened in East Nashville in late 2016 to much fanfare. Located in the stable house behind the Urban Cowboy B&B, the beautiful wood and brick indoor/outdoor space offers craft beer and cocktails as well as seasonal dishes from a food truck and wood-fired cooking station. Grab a seat on the patio by the 16-foot fireplace and settle in for a good night.
1603 Woodland St., Nashville, TN; 347-840-0525