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Savor Route 66

Route 66 tastes like America.

Group travelers from around the world flock to Route 66 for a taste of a bygone era, but the Mother Road is known for more than just neon signs. Classic American food is a big part of the attraction. Here are a handful of the iconic restaurants that have made their mark along the famous road.

Big Texan Steak Ranch

Amarillo, Texas

Everything is bigger in Texas, and that includes the steak. Big Texan Steak Ranch, which opened in Amarillo, Texas, on Route 66 in 1960, has developed a major following through the years because of its 72-ounce steak dinner challenge. Participants must down a 72-ounce steak, as well as shrimp cocktail, baked potato, salad and a roll with butter, in one hour. If they complete the challenge, their dinner is free. If not, their meal is $72. The challenge first started in 1960 and, since then, many have tried and failed. But the legend has grown so large many movies have been filmed there, and the restaurant featured prominently in the debut of “Man vs. Food,” a Travel Channel show about food challenges around America.

Founded by R.J. Lee, Big Texan originally had a Western atmosphere. A cowboy on horseback greeted guests; a towering 60-foot neon cowboy sign beckoned travelers. The family-owned restaurant moved in 1969 to a bigger piece of land near Interstate 40 and added a 300-seat banquet hall for private events and overflow seating. The 60-foot neon cowboy sign came along.

Then, in 1976, the Big Texan burned, and everything was lost except the banquet hall. When the restaurant, in its current form, was rebuilt, it turned the banquet hall into its main entrance and added a two-story building that seats 480, as well as a large gift shop and arcade. Today’s 72-ounce steak challengers sit on a center stage so patrons can watch them struggle to ingest every bite. The Ranch’s campus now includes lodging, Starlight Ranch Music Venue and craft beers brewed on site.

Cozy Dog Drive In

Springfield, Illinois

Springfield, Illinois’ Cozy Dog Drive In was one of the first restaurants in the country to produce a hot dog on a stick. Restaurant founder Ed Waldmire Jr. saw corn dogs being baked, which took 20 minutes or more, and thought there had to be a quicker way to cook and serve them. He asked a friend, whose father was a baker, if he could come up with a batter that would stick to a hot dog as it was deep-fried. That was back in the early 1940s, when Waldmire was still in the military.

Waldmire forgot about his request until his friend’s dad sent him some batter to try five years later. It worked, and Waldmire and his friend came up with the recipe that “gave birth to the cozy dog,” said Josh Waldmire, Ed’s grandson and Cozy Dog’s current owner. “We have our own unique recipe and flavor that comes out of the dogs. They are still hand-dipped just like my grandfather did.” The first Cozy Dog restaurant opened in 1946; it was followed three years later by the Cozy Dog Drive In. That building was later replaced, and Cozy Dog is now located on South 6th Street.

Cozy Dogs are the restaurant’s main staple, but the eatery has always offered a full menu of burgers, sandwiches, chili, bean stew and tenderloins. “Unless you are vegetarian, you will be able to find something to eat on our menu,” Waldmire said.

Ted Drewes Frozen Custard

St. Louis

Ted Drewes Frozen Custard has been selling treats in St. Louis for more than 90 years. Founder Ted Drewes Sr. opened his first St. Louis store in 1930 and two more in 1931 and 1941. The Grand Boulevard and Chippewa locations remain, with the Chippewa location prominently located along Route 66.

Drewes is best known for its concretes, a recipe Ted developed in 1959 that results in a malt or shake so thick it is served upside down. The restaurant hasn’t muddied the waters with other food. Instead, it has perfected what it knows best: concretes, malts, shakes, sundaes, floats and ice cream sodas. Its concretes come in amazing flavors, such as Terramizzou, which combines chocolate and pistachios, and Twisted Caramel, with salted caramel and crumbled pretzels.

A famous St. Louis resident, Drewes was a top tennis player before he became a celebrated purveyor of frozen custard. He won MUNY Tennis Championships every year from 1925 to 1936 and the National Public Parks Singles title four times in the 1920s. In the 1930s, he traveled with his family to Florida every winter so he could continue to play tennis. There, he opened his first frozen custard stand in 1929.

Mine Shaft Tavern and Cantina

Madrid, New Mexico

Mine Shaft Tavern is on a spur off Route 66 in Madrid, New Mexico, but its history in the area makes it worth a visit. The tavern got its start serving coal miners in 1947. It was the last building constructed in the company town of Madrid before coal mining ended in the 1950s. The Albuquerque and Cerillos Coal Company built the town to house miners. Madrid was one of the first area towns to have electricity.

The tavern has the longest standup bar in New Mexico, built so lots of coal miners could stand up after crouching in the mines all day. Melinda Bonewell and Lori Lindsey bought the tavern in 2006 hoping to turn it into a fine dining and seafood restaurant but soon learned that customers were more interested in traditional tavern food.

The Mine Shaft is best known for its award-winning chile cheeseburger, topped with cheddar cheese, chipotle Dijon sauce and Hatch chiles prepared two different ways — lightly battered and deep fried and roasted. “It is not over-the-top hot,” Bonewell said. The same toppings can be placed on wagyu beef, a veggie burger or chicken. The burger even got the seal of approval from chef Paul Hollywood, who judges “The Great British Baking Show.”

The tavern property came with the former mining headquarters, a train and train station. The owners converted that building into functional space for weddings and events with a stage. The tavern has live music throughout the week and hosts two bands on weekends.

Sid’s Diner

El Reno, Oklahoma

Originally in the El Reno Hotel, Sid’s Diner moved to Route 66 in El Reno, Oklahoma, in 1989 when the current owner’s father and grandfather purchased the business and built a new location at the crossroads of America, the corner of Route 66 and U.S. 81, the old Chisholm Trail.

“There’s not another corner like it in America,” said Adam Hall, grandson and son of the founders. He and his wife Carmen own the restaurant.

Sid’s Diner is known worldwide for its onion-fried burgers and Coney Island dogs. It has been featured on the Food Network, and its onion-fried burgers were voted in the top five burgers in America. The diner was featured on “Man vs. Food” on The Travel Channel.

Onion-fried burgers were invented in El Reno during the Great Depression, when meat was expensive, but onions were cheap. Using onions as a filler made the meat stretch further, and the flavors were a hit. Most of Sid’s Diner’s customers are travelers. Along with the burgers, guests love the restaurant’s spin on the Coney Island dog, topped with chili and a sweet, peppery cabbage-based slaw that is mixed with mustard. The slaw is so popular the restaurant sells jars of it nationwide.

Everything at the diner is homemade, from 100 percent all-beef hamburger patties and hand-cut French fries to the slaw. Between 600 and 700 hamburgers are served daily, nearly 1,000 a day on weekends.