Convenience stores aren't just places to go when you run out of cigarettes, need to get your lottery fix, or find yourself short on diapers or baby formula and everywhere else is closed. Convenience stores have become part of the global fabric, sometimes worthy of a visit on their own merits. Kids who did terrible kickflips in front of them on skateboards become adults who visit them them for pop-up restaurants, hidden boutiques, and secret bars and lounges. Yes, the microwavable burritos, candy and chip aisles, and walls of beverage coolers are still there, but there are many with hidden gems and sweet deals.
Saxapahaw General Store, North Carolina
Calling itself a "five-star gas station," Saxapahaw General Store outside of Raleigh prides itself on selling the work of local artisans as well as on locally grown produce and locally sourced meals. It's rustic yet refined for a convenience store, but still has functional gas pumps.
The first clue that this is no ordinary grocery or convenience store is that there's no way that a stacked-window bodega could ever afford the rent right off of Massachusetts Avenue in Boston's Back Bay. If you're looking for Jordans, Yeezys, or Y-3s, just walk into this stylized bodega and take the secret entrance into the showroom. Because all Bostonians eventually go to Los Angeles, there's a shop there as well.
Chef Point Cafe, Watauga, Texas
Tucked inside a Conoco gas station and surrounded by a whole lot of nothing, Chef Point became a favorite of Guy Fieri and others by building out a huge back patio and hosting wine and beer events and live music. Oh, and there's the food, which includes lobster mac and cheese, maple leaf duck, and a $25 Angus rib eye that far exceeds its modest surroundings.
Cookin' From Scratch, Newburg, Missouri
Cookin' From Scratch is going to try to lure you with its King of the Road: A 66-ounce burger with nine pieces of American cheese and 1.5 pounds of French fries that must be consumed within 66 minutes without standing up. If you're hungry, but not a masochist, stick with the Big Pig sandwich and its half-pound of breaded tenderloin.
P&H Truck Stop, Wells River, Vermont
Nothing about the P&H Truck Stop website would lead you to believe there's anything special about this gas station and mini mart. And its menu doesn't make any especially fervent claims about its fresh-baked breads (including maple walnut and cinnamon raisin) or fresh pies. But this little diner bakery is a destination all its own.
Super Deli Mart, West Seattle
It's been a while since Super Deli Mart was strictly a convenience store; owner Brian Park is a huge supporter of Pacific Northwest craft beer and turned a simple hoagie-and-cigarette shop into a Northwest beer library. You can still get bags of chips, packs of smokes, and hoagies here, but fans are more likely to drop in for Skookum Brewing IPA, Mac & Jack's African Amber, or Seattle's own Georgetown Brewing's Super Deli IPA.
Pepito's Plaza, Doral, Florida
The late Anthony Bourdain not only ate at this Venezuelan food stand tucked away in an Exxon station, he relished it. Pepito's Plaza draws crowds for arepas and pepito sandwiches, but you're here for the doralzuela, a pile of hamburger, chicken, pork chop, ham, fried egg, american cheese, potatoes, lettuce, tomato, avocado, and six sauces.
Dave's Grill & Grocery, Aiken, South Carolina
The Hopps gas pumps outside and even the small grocery store under the Dave's sign give no indication of what's waiting at the cafe counter. With Dave's doubling as a butcher's shop as well, the meat-and-two on the menu often includes pork chop, leg quarters, or ribs straight from the house. The butcher shop makes the cafe's sausage as well.
The Market Deli, multiple locations
Located in three Tiger Fuel locations around Charlottesville, Virginia, The Market Deli is known more for its artisanal sandwiches than its unleaded or energy drinks. The sandwich you should be getting, the Batesville, features cajun-spiced roast beef, smoked gouda, lettuce, tomato. onion, brown mustard, and horseradish mayonnaise on whole grain ciabatta bread.
Green Spot Market, Dallas
It's an unconventional convenience store for an unconventional gas station. While the pumps still pump unleaded and diesel, they also pump biodiesel recovered from waste cooking oil. The Green Spot convenience store reflects that commitment to organic and local goods by showcasing local artists, brewing fair trade coffee, locally sourcing its meats, using cage-free eggs, pouring soda with real cane sugar, making its sauces from scratch, and pouring kombucha on tap.
The Goods Mart, Los Angeles
The Goods Mart carries the idea of the healthy, sustainable convenience store far beyond the snack aisle. It focuses on toiletries that use organic cotton, minimal plastic, and a transparent list of ingredients — hence its toilet paper, shampoo, kombucha slush, and, yes, vegan and fair-trade condoms.
El Carajo, Miami
We could go on all day about secret Miami convenience store stops such as Biscayne Gas (best Turkish food in town), Mendez Fuel (almond butter smoothies), Kwik Stop (Thai curry), or the West Avenue Texaco (Milk Gone Nuts and almond milkshakes). But there are few better hidden gems than El Carajo, once well-hidden in a BP station convenience store, now poorly hidden in Mobil shop (in fairness, there's been a sign outside for some time). There's still a minimal convenience store up front alongside a bakery and cafe, but the large wine shop in back, restaurant seating, and extensive online menu kind of give it away.
76 Grill, Deli & Fuel, Wolf Creek, Oregon
Just outside Medford in southern Oregon is the Wolf Creek 76 that understands the state better than most convenience stores or truck stops. Fried chicken and jojos — potato wedges, to those beyond the Beaver State — are beloved here and a staple of any supermarket deli that wants to stay in business for more than a month. Taking time with the fried chicken and using as many parts of the bird as possible enhances the Oregonian quick-dining experience.
Joe's, Kansas City, Kansas
Joe's Kansas City Bar-B-Que is some of the best in the world, yet its original location is still part of a Shamrock gas station where you can fuel up and buy a pack of cigarettes and a sixer of Miller Lite. People in the know swear by the Z-Man Sandwich (smoked brisket topped with smoked provolone and onion rings on a kaiser roll), but we advise coming hungry and getting the three-rib and one meat platter. Inspired customers can shop among the store's sauces — and buy it in sizes up to a gallon.
Parker's Urban Gourmet, Savannah, Georgia
This Georgia and South Carolina gas-and-go chain looks like any other at most locations, but its Drayton Street location in Savannah is something special. Its menu includes fried catfish, chicken livers, and fried whiting, but its location is a gorgeous bit of historic architecture that hides a selection of imported cheese, organic foods, sustainably sourced coffee, gourmet dessert, and fresh-cut flowers.
Fuel City, Dallas
The Dallas Observer had itself a good cry over the fact that people discovered Fuel City's tacos and liked them, but the customers are right. The barbacoa, al pastor, and picadillo tacos may not compare with the newsroom's favorite hole in the wall, but they make for amazing gas-station convenience store fare (which is kind of the point). If you're there before 11 a.m., get the chorizo-and-egg.
Gustafson's, Brevort, Michigan
Gustafson's is just one reason Michigan's upper peninsula is an incredibly special place. Tucked behind a Sunoco station just off Lake Michigan, this convenience/party store sells booze, soda, jerky, and candy like every other convenience store out there, but is also a full smokehouse that makes its own jerky and smokes lake fish including whitefish, menominee, chubs, and trout.
Tillamook Country Smoker, Bay City, Oregon
Ever wish a gas-station convenience store had more jerky and less of everything else? Tillamook Country Smoker heard you and transformed a gas station convenience store into its factory outlet. You can still get gas, newspapers, and beverages here, but most of the aisles and coolers at the Tillamook Country Smoker outlet are filled with jerky. That includes 2-foot sticks for the road.
Czech Stop, West, Texas
Located in a Shell gas station just off of Interstate 35, with working pumps and public bathrooms, Czech Stop is just a reminder that West is basically Texas' mini-Czechia. Heavily flavored by Czech immigrants, West is replete with spots selling Czech pastries. We recommend this very Americanized — and very Czech-Texan — plate of spicy sausage chunks coated in cheese.
Uptown Chevron, Maui, Hawaii
Lots of convenience stores and groceries on the islands will scoop you some rice and mac potato salad with your meat of choice. But the Uptown Chevron will not only fix you a plate to go with your Icee and pack of jerky, it will bake you fresh-caught snapper every friday.
The Growler Guys, Bend, Oregon
The Growler Guys used the beer-friendly Pacific Northwest to their advantage by filling 64-ounce growlers and 32-ounce growlettes with local beers and sending customers on their way. Now, with 14 locations in four states (but only one non-Northwest location in Wisconsin), it's still a fairly humble chain that has to share space with a Chevron mini mart on the westside of Bend.
Panino Gourmet, Washington, D.C.
Functioning as the mini mart of a Valero station in D.C.'s Cardozo neighborhood, Panino Gourmet's sandwich-heavy menu is built around the Uruguayan chevito, made with tenderloin steak, Black Forest ham, bacon, green olives, hard-boiled or fried eggs, escabeche, lettuce, and tomato. There's only one problem: The popular spot that preceded it, Fast Gourmet, claims Panino has ripped them off.
Sting-Ray's, Cape Charles, Virginia
Located in the market of an Exxon station, Sting-Ray's took on its "Chez Exxon" nickname for serving up some ridiculously good Chesapeake Bay seafood and sweet potato ham biscuits. You could dip a toe in and get the crab cake sandwich, but we recommend going all out and getting the $28 crab imperial: crab meat mixed with mayonnaise and seasoning, topped with breadcrumbs and Parmesan cheese and baked into a crab shell.
Bombay Frankie Company, Los Angeles
Tucked inside a Chevron Station on Santa Monica Boulevard, the Bombay Frankie Company was the brainchild of entrepreneurs looking to blend Indian cooking tradition with L.A. takeaway food culture. The menu of Frankies, the namesake Indian naan burritos, is extensive, but Bombay Frankie encourages mixing it up.
Fayard's, Biloxi, Mississippi
Fayard's gets top billing at this BP gas station, but is still very much a mini mart. There are candy and chip aisles, a beer cooler, a section for fishing tackle, an ice-cream counter … and one of the best shrimp-and-oyster po' boy sandwiches in the country. It doesn't look like much from the pumps outside, but one trip inside will make you question why anyone would go to the Pizza Hut next door.
ABC Stores, Hawaii
The ABC Stores chain really leans into the tourist perception of Hawaii and sells lots of aloha shirts, Kona coffee, macadamia nuts, island scents and lotions, dried fruits, and other souvenir-worthy goods. But tourists who've ever gone to a Disney theme park will love the Dole Whip dairy-free pineapple soft serve found for far less at these shops.
Cilantro Mexican Grill, North Hollywood, California
Chevron Stations are doing wonders for L.A. restaurateurs. Under the same roof as a Chevron Food Mart, Cilantro Mexican and Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef Adolfo Perez took over the Food Mart's snack station seven years ago and began sending out plates of carne asada, chicken al pastor, barbacoa, carnitas, and beef tongue. While Cilantro offers tostadas and tortas, any of the above burritos would fare well out of a food truck and are well beyond the microwaveable nightmares that put customers off convenience store burritos in the first place.
Singleton's Mini Mart, New Orleans
Some of New Orleans' best po' boys are found in convenience or grocery stores. Verti Marte is a full-on grocery store with a 24-hour sandwich counter. Singleton's, meanwhile, pulls from a variety of New Orleans' cultural influences by offering traditional lowcountry po' boys, Korean barbecue, banh mi (called "Vietnamese po' boys" here), and traditional Vietnamese fare such as pho.
Wawa, various locations
This mid-Atlantic convenience store chain celebrates its anniversary on the second Thursday in April and, this year, it gave fans a secret menu option on its touchscreen ordering system that let them order birthday cake shakes and smoothies — treats likely to show up again. They're even better "secret" items than Tastykakes, Herr's chips, or the other Pennsylvania-born snacks that makes the growing Wawa chain so sought-after to begin with.
Weikel's Bakery, La Grange, Texas
This Shell station on Highway 71 has served the food of Czech pipeline workers since 1929, but since Weikel's opened as a bakery and convenience store in 1985 it has ballooned into three locations. With the original location now a deli, grill, and, gift shop as well as a bakery, people still flock to it for traditional Czech Kolaches, its Danish-like pastries.
7-Eleven, multiple locations
There are few culinary secrets or surprises at 7-Elevens, but the chain knows what customers want and gives it to them. On one day a year, July 11 (7/11, get it?), the giant convenience store chain gives away its Slurpee slushies for free. Its loyalty club members get freebies such as free drinks and snacks with purchases for days afterward.
Fusion Restaurant and Bar, McDonough, Georgia
You might want to consider cleaning yourself up before hitting this spot, even though it shares a roof with a Sunoco convenience store in suburban Atlanta. It's a hookah bar, sure, but it's also a place where you can eat a baba gannouj mezza plate beneath some lounge lighting before getting right back on the road.
Veranda Bistro, Roanoke, Virginia
The front veranda of Veranda Bistro is shared with an Exxon mini mart and faces the pumps. But the restaurant's calzones, pizzas, spanakopita, moussaka, souvlaki, dolmades, and Oinos wines are enjoyed either inside or on a lovely back veranda overlooking wide-open spaces, capped by some sweet baklava.
Surf Shack, Coeur D'Alene, Idaho
This little A&D Mini Mart has a legacy of making the best burgers in town. Gary Kender, a surfer from Long Beach, California, opened Longboard Burger here in 2004. After losing the rights to it in a divorce, he opened Surf Shack in 2013. Serving up a menu of flat-patty California-style burgers, Surf Shack has made this mini mart and gas station more popular than its gas or cigarettes ever have.
Whoa Nellie Deli, Lee Vining, California
In the Tioga Gas Mart, a Mobil station right outside Yosemite National Park, sits the humble Whoa Nellie Deli and its not-so-humble menu. Sure, it serves as a dump station and water stop for people heading to the park, but it also hosts live music and serves a breakfast, lunch, and dinner menu blending Mexican, Polynesian, and Asian fare. The sashimi isn't to be missed, but get the fish tacos if you feel like running for them.
Andrae's Kitchen, Walla Walla, Washington
Amid Cenex gas pumps in this small college and wine town, Andrae's Kitchen cooks well above its station. Founded by Andrae Bopp — a former landscaping business owner who attended the French Culinary Institute in New York and worked in kitchens at Le Bernardin, Bouley, and Balthazar — it began with a food truck in the parking lot after the chef's Boise restaurant seemed to be buying a lot of wines from an up-and-coming wine region in Washington called Walla Walla. The menu is understated and reasonably priced; poutine remains the standout.
Pig Trail Bypass Country Cafe, Elkins, Arkansas
Still very much a gas station, grocery store, and ice shop, the Pig Trail built its name on founder Hooshang Nazarali's namesake Hooshburger. Using a secret blend of Persian spices, the Hooshburger is flavored like kebab (think onions and turmeric), but given a healthy coating of American cheese.
Billeaud's Grocery, Broussard, Louisiana
It's a simple grocery on its face, but it's long made its own Boudin sausage, pork belly cracklin', and seasonings. You can get standard convenience store items here, but you're wasting time if you go home without crawfish boudin, hog head cheese, or pork tasso.