It’s not surprising that great restaurants dot the landscape of America’s big cities. After all, that’s where the diners are.
Discovering wonderful eateries in small towns is tougher, although some restaurants are so unique that they put their burgs on the map. A few are well known, like The Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Virginia, and The French Laundry in Yountville, California. But others are among the best-kept dining secrets, in tiny towns off the beaten path like Smithfield, Missouri; Kinston, North Carolina; and La Mesa, New Mexico.
Justus Drugstore | Smithville, Missouri | Population 8,500
Jonathan Justus has made Smithville, Missouri, population 8,500, a destination spot. It’s a half hour north of Kansas City.
His Justus Drugstore features Midwest “country food on steroids.” The menu is replete with local ingredients, ranging from his handpicked morels to pork from nearby Paradise Locker Meats, which supplies meat from small family farms to top eateries nationwide.
“There is so much available here,” says Justus, taking a break one morning from foraging for nettles, feral daylilies, peach blossoms, and other items, which he describes as “cool flavors no one else is using.”
A long and winding road, that included a job repossessing cars and cooking stints in San Francisco and France, finally brought him back to his hometown in 2007, where he and wife, Camille Eklof, transformed his family’s 1950s drugstore into a restaurant.
“It’s ironic, I guess, because when I was growing up I knew I didn’t want to stay here,” the 48-year-old chef says.
Dining at Justus Drugstore takes time and the cooked-to-order menu items are “very tightly strung compositions, so we request people not make changes,” he says.
For instance, the short ribs ($32) are a deconstruction of a perfect Manhattan: House-made sweet vermouth braised ribs; sweet potato purée with chamomile-infused bourbon and smoked honey; pear poached in house-made dry vermouth and orange peel pickled cherries; pickled Brussels sprout leaves for the sour flavor; and broccoli rabe for bitter.
The bourbon is just one of a number of infused liquors created by the chef and his mixologists. All total, they have created about 100 different bitters.
Justus is a particular fan of Paradise’s four-rib-bone country cut, which is served as part of his Duroc Pork 2 Ways ($36), now in its 18th variation.
The citrus-brined pork rib and house-cured shoulder ham are served over two millet cakes, with wild onions, greens, and a sauce that includes distilled wild violet flowers, white wine, and thyme.
A number of items on the restaurant’s menu include pork, and that makes sense because “this area is all about the pig, not cattle,” Justus explains. And, he adds, anyone cooking real food in the Kansas City area can’t go without referencing barbecue—“I do use a lot of smoke at the restaurant.”
Chef and the Farmer | Kinston, North Carolina | Population 20,000
When Vivian Howard moved to New York City from rural eastern North Carolina, it was to work in advertising. She eventually drifted into the restaurant scene, serving as a line cook, going to culinary school, and learning from cutting-edge chefs.
With her husband Benjamin Knight, a Chicago native and artist who met Howard while he was working at a New York restaurant, the couple decided to move south to open a farm-to-fork dining house.
“We were offered the opportunity in Kinston,” a town of 20,000, just 15 miles from the hog and tobacco farm where Howard grew up, says Knight, fresh from a trip hunting for ramps in the North Carolina mountains.
He handles the front of the house and beverages, and his art also adorns the walls of their 90-seat restaurant, Chef and the Farmer, which opened in 2006, serving local and seasonal modern Southern cuisine.
Finding farmers in the area to provide the type of ingredients they wanted wasn’t easy at first, however. “It took a lot of time to find people we could work with,” Knight says. “We had to cultivate relationships and have farmers grow things in a certain way.”
Over time, however, Howard began to focus more on food native to the region, rather than what they were accustomed to in New York.
Today, Chef and the Farmer procures about 80 percent of its ingredients from farms within 60 miles of Kinston. Many guests are from that far away or beyond, including travelers heading to the beach during the summer.
“It’s wonderfully flattering, but that comes with a tremendous amount of responsibility,” he explains. “We work very hard to make sure people are not disappointed and have a wonderful experience.”
The menu constantly changes. “If it sells really well, my wife will change it,” Knight says, laughing. Some ideas come from Howard’s background, like her take on Tom Thumb, a dense, quick-cure sausage with field peas and watermelon rind relish ($11). At the same time, the bill of fare may include Wagyu flank steak, along with lemon and garlic creamed new potatoes, with a cucumber and charred red onion salad ($29). As testament to her culinary prowess, Howard was a semifinalist for the James Beard Best Chef of the Southeast award this year.
Chope’s Bar and Café | La Mesa, New Mexico | Population 800
Unlike Justus or Howard, Amelia Rivas, Cecilia Yanez, and Margie Martinez never left the 800-person Mesilla Valley farming community of La Mesa, New Mexico. The women are the third generation in their family to operate Chope’s Bar and Café.
“I guess we joined the business the day we were born,” Rivas says. “We have worked here since we were little girls.”
The family’s house is where the business began in the 1930s. Their grandmother set a lantern outside to let people know she had enchiladas for sale, and customers would bring their own plates and walk through the bar, run by their grandfather, to buy the food.
The bar, often frequented on weekends by motorcyclists, is now located next door to the late 19th century adobe house and restaurant.
Locals are the bulk of the luncheon crowd at the 110-seat restaurant that features traditional, real-deal New Mexican cooking. The dinner clientele is largely from Las Cruces, New Mexico, and El Paso, Texas, both a half hour away, but tourists from all parts of the country who happen to be traveling nearby also make a beeline here.
The most popular items are the enchiladas ($6.95) in a red sauce made with chiles from Cervantes Enterprises farms a mile away, and the lightly battered chile rellenos ($7.95) that employ Joe E. Parker-variety Anaheim peppers grown at local farms that supply Biad Chile Products.
“We sell 18 tons of that chile a year,” Rivas says.
The recipes are the same ones her grandmother used, passed along by her mother who began using the same recipes when Rivas’ grandparents died in the early 1940s.
Restaurant Taste | Plymouth, California | Population 1,000
Quality of life and close proximity to three dozen wineries led Mark Berkner and his wife, Tracey, to locate their modern American restaurant in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, an hour drive from Sacramento, California.
“We’re in the heart of America’s produce-growing center,” the chef says. “It’s a huge, diverse agricultural center, with all kinds of smaller organic producers, as well as farmers and ranchers raising cattle, lamb, poultry, duck, and more.” And, of course, making wine.
Whatever’s in season makes its way to Restaurant Taste, located in the town of Plymouth, population 1,000. About half the customers are from a 40-mile radius, while the other 50 percent are from bigger cities, including Sacramento, an hour away.
“Being a small-town community, you will find the winemakers or winery owners sitting at the bar or here for dinner,” Berkner explains. “I can be talking with a customer who tells me how much they enjoy the wine, and I can point and say: ‘That’s who makes it.’”
Veterans of the Marriott hotels and resorts, the Berkners opened their first California restaurant in tiny, nearby Volcano—but closed it to launch the upscale Restaurant Taste in 2006, in a building that previously housed a run-down bar.
“Being in a small town, it takes time to get noticed,” he says. “We were not an overnight success, as can happen in a metro area by being the hot new thing. It takes longer to build the reputation and clientele [in a small town], and you do that in customer service and great, great food.
Since Restaurant Taste opened, the Berkners have won a variety of awards, and earlier this year the chef prepared dinner at the James Beard House. They also have opened another restaurant in Volcano, the tavern-style Volcano Union Inn and Pub.
The diverse menu at Restaurant Trace features small and large plates, and the signature item is Mushroom Cigars ($9.50). It has Oyster, Crimini, and Shiitake mushrooms, fresh herbs, and goat cheese—all rolled in phyllo dough, baked, cut, and served with Porcini mushroom sauce.
The menu is chock full of mentions of the farms and ranches that supply local flavors, such as the sturgeon from Passmore Ranch (served with fingerling potatoes, house-cured bacon, fava bean hash, arugula, preserved kumquat, and truffled Dijon, $32) and the duck from Grimaud Farms of Stockton, about 90 minutes away (confit with Umbrian faro, dandelion greens, pistachio, macerated blueberries, port wine reduction, and rhubarb, $31).
Berkner, like other small-town restaurant owners, says it’s crucial to focus on his guests and not rest on his laurels. “When people travel a long way, you can’t let them down.”