Vacationing in the Ozarks? You’ll soon find that most roads lead to Branson, Missouri. Specifically, they lead to Highway 76, a.k.a. Country Music Boulevard, a.k.a. “the Strip.” It’s packed with music theaters, miniature golf courses, knickknack shops and so many hotels you have to laugh at the sign that reads: “Last motel for 500 miles. Ha!”
Branson is also chockablock full of chain restaurants, where the food may be fine but regional flavor is nonexistent. For a more authentic eating experience, follow the locals—sometimes for a nice drive out of town—to find romantic dining à deux, rustic mom-and- pop cafés and ethnic treats, all in the Ozarks.
There are several downhome spots at the east end of the Strip in Branson’s hilly, old-fashioned downtown, including the Farmhouse and the Branson Café. Clockers narrowly tops the list, thanks to its unhurried feel. The décor is a mix of … well, clocks, along with vintage diner photos. At breakfast, the sunny-side-up eggs are golden-yolked fresh. Thick sausage patties come with thicker Texas-style French toast and the hash browns have a nice hint of onion. The quick-to-laugh waiters have a bit of sass but they’re ready with refills and offer a “go cup” before you can ask. 103 S. Commercial St.; 417.335.2328
For a special Sunday brunch, the Worman House at Big Cedar Lodge, about 10 miles south of Branson, offers an unbeatable combination: Soaring windows overlook a sheltered cove on Table Rock Lake, and the array of choices will keep you full for days.
The 1920s dining room, in a restored mansion, is decorated with handcrafted chandeliers and stuffed game animals. Corks pop regularly for free-flowing mimosas, and the huge buffet offers smoked salmon with trimmings, oysters on the half shell, omelets made to order and such savory dishes as duck breast, beef tenderloin and orange roughy. Save room for sweets like mini-parfaits of apple caramel mousse and tiny teacups of tiramisu.
Locals craving pizza head to Mr. G’s for sizzling Chicago-style slices. The menu also lists thin-crust pizzas, sandwiches and pasta, but cast-iron deep-dish pans crowd most tables. Mr. G’s is a no-frills joint: The frat-house décor relies heavily on beer company giveaways, and the bar sports year-round Christmas lights.
When the rooster crows, find your way to Billy Gail’s Café, where Billy and Gail Blong serve “pancakes the size of hubcaps” in a rambling, wood-sided building off the west end of the Strip. Inside, the feel is warm and inviting: think red-checked tablecloths, flea-market collectibles and a toy bowl for kids. Billy came up with the surprisingly light French Cakes, pecan pancakes cooked once, dipped in French toast batter and then returned to the griddle. The standards aren’t neglected: Biscuits arrive big and flaky, eggs are done right and sides of bacon and sausage are generous.
BREW AND A VIEW
Cold beer and great views of Table Rock Lake help the Altenhof Inn fill its double-decker patio with a casual flip-flop crowd. Though it’s billed as a pizzeria, the Altenhof proudly claims an “out-of-the-ordinary” German flair. How about a Bavarian Highlight pizza—topped with bratwurst or knackwurst, onions and kraut? If that sounds just a little too, er, special, there are plenty of other options, like salads, burgers and two types of schnitzels. (“Weiner” is the traditional breaded veal cutlet; “Jager” is topped with a creamy mushroom sauce.)
Tucked in a “holler” off the main highway about 3 miles north of Branson West, Papouli’s island-blue siding, twinkly lights and Greek-American comfort food have beckoned the lake crowd for more than two decades. On the Greek side of the menu, dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) come with a subtle lemon sauce. The make-your-own gyro dinner platter is a generous portion of gyro meat, grilled pita and the usual trimmings. On the American side, try the prime rib slathered in garlic. Don’t forget to join in the refrain of “Opa!” when the flaming Kaseri cheese appetizer arrives.
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