For lunch on this trip, we made an unplanned stop at a restaurant because the one we had chosen had shut down. But it all turned out okay, and we enjoyed some really good barbecue.
If you are looking for a simply gorgeous mountain road trip with nobody else but coal trucks around, I have a simply super suggestion. This will take hours, so stretch your legs around exit 141 on I-75 and then head down the mountain via TN-63 and pick up TN-297. If you have ever traveled on 75 from Knoxville toward Lexington, you may recall that 75 is built high above the valley below, and that if you glance west along the way, you’ll see some roads and towns beneath you. That’s where we were on this trip, enjoying this absolutely beautiful valley. 297 makes its way into Jellico. From there, take US-25W South across I-75 to TN-90, and then things get real fun.
90 makes an awesome climb up into Kentucky, where the road’s name changes to KY-74. For miles, we didn’t see anybody. Eventually, we got behind a few coal trucks as the highway makes a fairly amazing switchback going down the mountain. 74 takes drivers to Middlesboro KY, home of Conley’s Drive-In, which perhaps one day we’ll try, and from there we took US-25E south through the fabulous Cumberland Gap Tunnel back into Tennessee, then almost immediately we hopped on US-58 into Virginia. This carried us to Jonesville, and from there we took 58-ALT through the town of Pennington Gap and we finally pulled into our destination, the Patio Drive-In, which sadly shut down several months ago after a run of fifty years.
We were disappointed to have missed out on this treat – this 2013 story from The Bristol Herald-Courier made it sound fabulously fun – and also a little discouraged because Pennington Gap is a very small town without many restaurant choices and we were really quite hungry after almost four hours on the road. Fortunately, we spotted a place called Countryboy Cafe and really enjoyed it.
We’d have all been satisfied with burgers, probably, but I asked about their barbecue, not expecting greatness. Then our server told us that the owners smoke butts back at their house for thirteen hours and make their own sauce. That sounded a whole lot better than what you often find at little restaurants like this, and it was.
It was a shame that the Patio has gone, but let’s get real for a second. There, we would have enjoyed some frozen fast food burgers and smiled at the history. Here, we got some terrific, smoky pork that honestly shames much of what I’ve sampled in eastern Tennessee thus far, some of which I’m not even bothering to write about. It was flavorful and very tasty, a good mix of bark and moist, and the sauce was sweet and tangy. The meat did not need very much of it.
The service was a little unhurried, but we were in no great rush. Eventually, though, we moseyed on to our next destination, Natural Tunnel State Park. This place is fairly small for a state park, but incredibly neat, and Marie and I really liked it. The trail down to the tunnel, which has been used by a railroad for more than a hundred years, is incredibly steep. There’s a chairlift, which our son loved, and which I really appreciated. Going down’s a whole lot easier than climbing back up, you know.
41751 E Morgan Ave
Pennington Gap, VA 24277
You can see all the restaurants that we have visited for our blog on this map, with links back to the original blog posts. It’s a terrific resource for anybody planning a road trip through the southeast!