Hear Me Out: We’re Doing Rest Stops All Wrong in America

We invented the roadside grill. Then we failed it.

byAaron Cole| PUBLISHED Jan 13, 2023 3:10 PM
Hear Me Out: We’re Doing Rest Stops All Wrong in America
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I think I once ate a breakfast burrito with one hand, gulped down a Diet Coke through my nose, and set the cruise control with the other hand. At least, I think so. If you think a 300-mph Hennessey is fast, wait until you see how quickly a quarter-pounder disappears while I’m navigating I-25. 

I like to drive. It’s the most beautiful way to see America; I just wish I could take a break while I do it. I don’t like rest stops in the U.S. because they’re less comfortable and convenient than iron maidens. The food is bad, the environment is worse, and the restrooms are only marginally better than Bonnaroo’s would be if they only sold prune juice and refried beans. Get in, get gas, get out. Americans don't want to stop for longer on the roads because they don't have a reason to.

We’re so lost on rest stops that New York is ditching McDonald's for healthy food from vending machines (a mistake on both fronts), décor that’s infinitely Instagrammable but uncomfortable, and WeWork desks that are neither useful nor necessary. Europe is rarely the answer to much beyond a Jeopardy! clue, but sorry, America: the folks across the pond beat our rest stops by a country mile. 

That’s because dotting almost all the 46,876 miles of U.S. interstates are rest stops that prioritize neither rest nor stop. Swipe your card at the pump, come in if you want, bring it up to the register, get back in your car and leave. One in 25 drivers has admitted to falling asleep behind the wheel (including yours truly, unfortunately) and part of the fault lies in the fact that we have few reasonable accommodations for road-weary drivers to rest, reset, refuel, and recharge without fear of catching something from a toilet seat we can’t wash off. 

I’m lucky enough to have visited Europe, and especially Italy, many times for significant stretches of time. Although my friends in Italy clown on me, I’m unabashed in my love for Autogrill when I’m there, which is the king among autostrada rest stops. If you’ve never been to Autogrill—or Little America in Little America, Wyoming, which is the best truck stop stateside—you’re missing out. Autogrill does everything a rest stop in America should, more conveniently and comfortably, and I believe, ultimately makes their highways a little safer.

Indulge me for a sec on a small primer for some of us in America: Driving in Europe is not enjoyable, regardless of what you’ve seen on Top Gear. The roads are tiny, many cars aren’t great, the rules are vague, and the costs are enormous. Almost every main highway is a toll road and none of them are cheap. Driving from Turin to Forli—a four-hour excursion—can cost 150 Euros in fuel, tolls, and food easily. Taking the same trip in the U.S., say from Denver to Durango? I could do it for $50, even if I eat like a king. 

But the autostrada is unlike any interstate we have in the U.S. Mostly because it’s completely fenced off (like the autobahn), maintained at regular intervals, and self-contained with infinitely easier-to-find rest stops or fuel stations than we have stateside. There’s no wandering through Nowheresville, Illinois, to find the town’s only pump three miles off the interstate, and no guessing on where the next stop will be or if it’ll even be open. It’s all right off the highway in Italy, at regular intervals, without stopping at toll booths.

But let me propose my ideal solution for rest stops in the U.S., which is basically more Autogrills. At first glance, it’s no more than a fancified gas station with better coffee. Except it’s more. Along major routes, Autogrills are placed in the median, straddling both sides of the highway with large cafeterias and *gasp* comfortable seats. The food isn’t extraordinary, but it’s warm and freshly made instead of questionable egg salad sandwiches with a sell-by date too far in the future to be made from anything other than straight preservatives. Like everywhere in Italy, there are Autogrill cafes slinging espressos and macchiatos at stand-up bars where you can chat, sip, and chill from the road. 

Around most Autogrills are small patches of grass that make driving with a pet much easier—my dogs have popped too many squats in rockpiles for me to count—and yeah, they’re updating the stations with fast chargers daily. A quick stop at an Autogrill is 20 minutes. That’s good when you need a break from the road. A long stop at an AutoGrill is 45 minutes. That’s better, but still not too long. 

Contrast that with the 45 seconds I’m lucky to be afforded outside a Circle K in Missouri before being shooed away like a feral cat. It’s not only inconvenient on long hauls, but it's also borderline unsafe. The same goes for a 7-Eleven, Wawa, or QT. Buc-ee’s is a notable exception thanks to decent BBQ and better nuggets, but their bent-on building 100-plus pumps surrounding a warehouse-size terminal is just too big for most areas. 

Instead, we’re forgoing the middle ground—safe, convenient, accessible, and fairly clean—for ‘Grammable, artisanal, and fussy. I don’t want a vending machine apple before snapping a pic near the angel wings painted on a barn; I want a decent sandwich, a clean table, and a coffee before I drive across Kansas. The best I get now is double-fisting cheeseburgers and snorting Red Bull in the parking lot while my tank fills up, and I get side-eye from grandad in his Buick for listening to hip-hop in the parking lot. No thanks.

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