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Eating I-95

Preston-Schlebusch Authors, Ted Lee (front) and Matt hit South of the Border, just off I-95.

Photo: Preston-Schlebusch

On the outskirts of Baltimore, a mere quarter-mile from the relentless whoosh and ba-dump of U.S. Interstate 95, is a serene corner table warmed by the glare of the sun off the Chesapeake Bay. Four hours into a journey from New York City to our hometown of Charleston, South Carolina, we'd ducked into Nick's Fish House for the best kind of road food: iced platters of Malpeques, bluepoints, and littlenecks.

Typically, we bomb down I-95 in 11 hours with two stops: one for lunch at Sally Bell's Kitchen in Richmond, Virginia, and a second for a barbecue dinner at Fuller's, in Lumberton, North Carolina. This time, we'd determined to stretch the journey into a few days, to hit our favorites but also to size up a few new spots we'd collected from more I-experienced friends.

We discovered years ago that the key to interstate bliss is finding a few sure things—local restaurants like Nick's and a well-run independent hotel or two—that are just as convenient (or nearly so) as the familiar chains but make you feel as if you have stepped into a real community. On any interstate marathon, the sense of forward motion is heightened when the foods and the inflections (the waitress at Nick's let slip a Baltimorean "hon" as she took our order) keep step with the changing landscape.

Stops like these are also restorative: careening tractor-trailers and traffic jams somehow seem tolerable when you've just inhaled one of the best crab cakes of your life—which is what we did at Nick's after the exquisite oysters and before the classic Baltimore pit-beef sandwich.

We merged back onto the asphalt river headed to Richmond. This 160-mile stretch, which passes around Washington, D.C., and its traffic-choked suburbs to the south, can be critical: ideally, it takes 2 1/2 hours, but rush times get grisly. On this trip, we sailed through—a bonus, because the next stop, Sally Bell's Kitchen (a takeout-only bakery), closes promptly at four o'clock. We called ahead to place our sandwich orders; the sugary drawl on the other end was the first sign that we had crossed the Mason-Dixon Line.

Less than a mile from I-95, Sally Bell's bakes on the premises all manner of Southern breads, pies, and cakes, but it's the white cardboard lunch boxes, tied with butcher's string, that have locals lined up 10 deep at midday.

In addition to your choice of dainty sandwiches (the pimento-cheese or country-ham biscuits are best) and more than a dozen kinds of cupcakes, each box comes loaded with celery-spiked potato salad, a cheddar-cheese cookie, and a deviled egg in a twist of waxed paper. Mamie Eisenhower, whose husband signed off on the interstate system 50 years ago, would be proud.

Typically, we'd race back to the highway, but on this trip we checked into Richmond's Jefferson Hotel, a few blocks from I-95. The grand hotel's porte cochère, restored along with the rest of the Moorish-revival edifice in 1992, is attended by ranks of valets in red-tailed coats, who graciously overlooked our road-wrinkled attire to ogle our ride—a 1969 Dodge Super Bee muscle car with sparkle-flake bronze paint, fat racing slicks, and chrome mag wheels. We'd cajoled it out of our friend Zack, who helps run the Manhattan Classic Car Club. The unholy rumble the Super Bee emits sounds menacing, but turned out to be an icebreaker—and a boon to drivers in unfamiliar territory.

The next morning, we left the Jefferson in the dust, feeling on top of the world—perfectly rested, with a full $75 tank of Super and about 165 miles between us and a midday date with Ava Gardner. The screen star (you know, Sinatra's second wife, Mickey Rooney's first, The Barefoot Contessa?) ascended from Smithfield, North Carolina (population 11,702). Her hometown's museum is equal parts immaculate, respectful, and breathless. The 1941 screen test of young Ava, fresh off the farm, radiantly mugging for the camera, is alone worth the price of admission, but so are 33 Magritte-like oil portraits of her painted by an obsessed fan from Holland.

Just a few miles across the east side of the highway from Smithfield is Hinnant Family Vineyards, perhaps the only winery from Maine to Miami with official signposts on I-95, and another reason to choose this sunbaked stretch of North Carolina for a pit stop. The Hinnants have grown the South's beloved native muscadine grapes amid the cotton fields for more than 35 years. In 2001, they installed stainless-steel tanks and began to make serious wine from it—the kind of foxy-fresh, semisweet wines that Southerners like us love to sip in the late summer afternoons (and that others, weaned on Europe's vinifera grapes, consider swill). We loaded the trunk with a couple of cases, including a delicious strawberry wine made when a neighboring farmer found himself overloaded with fruit.

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