Branson, Missouri. Home to practically nobody but a steady stream of Southern travelers, this densely packed bump in the Ozarks is the true embodiment of a tourist trap. And since the tourists here skew simultaneously very old and very young, Branson is far from ideal for food adventurers. Most restaurants are either generic versions of generic Southern buffets (true fact: Branson has the world’s largest Golden Corral) or old timey dive bars that practically assault you with their 50’s and 60’s themes. When it comes to Branson food, the vast majority of restaurants slapped a 13-cent stamp on it (actual cost of postage in 1975) and mailed it in.
Still, if you find yourself in this foodie desert, all hope is not lost. On a recent trip, I found five restaurants in Branson that are doing it right. In fact, this first one really did blow me away:
I left my family to play while I checked out Dobyn’s on the campus of The College of the Ozarks. The college is unique in that no student pays tuition. Instead, students work at least 15 hours a week for the school, and several of them end up at Dobyn’s. My server, Shelby Jo, was approaching my table when I got the text: my family was done playing and wondering where I was.
Sheepishly, I explained to Shelby Jo my dilemma and asked for the quickest item the kitchen could prepare. That was the pot roast, and she raced off to place my order. I’m not joking when I say my food arrived in less than three minutes, simultaneously with my iced tea and rolls. I was astonished. To top it off, the pot roast was exceptional, with tender slabs of beef served over mashed potatoes and some gorgeous Swiss chard. Oh, and the apple butter served with the rolls is some of the best I’ve had. Even though I was there for all of 15 minutes, it was the highlight of the trip, with excellent food and a world-class level of service. This one is a must for dinner while you’re in Branson.
Expect to wait for a table at this former gas station about 10 minutes away from the strip. There’s a reason for the wait: in a town full of forced smiles and facades, Billy Gail’s serves up an authentic Southern experience, with warm service and competently prepared food. And yes, Billy Gail’s serves lunch, but you’re going to want breakfast here. I’m talking pancakes the size of hubcaps (nearly 20 inches in diameter) that are actually tasty; hot, fluffy biscuits that melt in your mouth; perfectly cooked eggs; and French-Texas toast kissed with cinnamon. Get the “sloppy biscuit” layered with sausage, an egg, cheese and gravy for a guaranteed fill-up or the fried bologna breakfast that comes with a thick-cut layer of smoky meat. And while you’re waiting, you can enjoy the unlimited free coffee that Billy Gail’s serves in the lobby. This is one place that I refuse to miss when I’m in Branson. Just be sure to visit the ATM first, Billy Gail’s does not take debit or credit cards.
This is the only buffet on this list, but that’s because everything on it is delicious. India Clay Oven is good enough to stand up to anything I’ve had here in Central Arkansas, with aggressive seasoning that stays balanced and wonderfully cooked naan and basmati rice. My pick here is the Keema Mutter, a dish of spicy ground lamb and sweet peas that shows off just how big Indian food can feel. The chicken tikka masala, samosas and chicken tandoori are all very well done, meaning everyone from the diehard Indian food lover to the newbie will have something they’ll enjoy.
This is one of those places that piles on the 60’s dairy bar feel, complete with jukebox and a burger-and-shake themed menu. But of all those old-time joints, this is the only one that made me actually want to go back in time for a while. The burgers are huge, with a half-pound of ground beef for just the single burger. The onion rings are delicious, and the milkshakes are made just right. TripAdvisor this summer ranked Billy Bob’s fourth in the nation for burgers. While I think that rating is nowhere close to right (it might not be in the top four in just Little Rock), there’s still a lot to love here. Don’t forget to visit the ATM first; Billy Bob’s is a cash-only business.
Technically, this isn’t in Branson, but you’d be missing out if you didn’t take half an hour to drive to this Southern staple in Ozark, Missouri. Branson’s is famously home of the “throwed rolls,” which are actually really good, but it’s the rest of the menu that should make you very happy. Specializing in traditional Southern food, Lambert’s massive portions are made well and worth checking out. Of note, the center cut ham steak, chicken pot pie, chicken tenders and rib eye steak were all delicious. Lambert’s makes sure you are never hungry or thirsty. Servers are constantly topping off your fried okra and black-eyed peas, and drinks are served in 32-ounce travel mugs. Again, hit the bank before coming, because Lambert’s doesn’t take debit/credit cards. But don’t let that keep you away from a memorable dining experience.