Three reporters, 15 plazas — one Pennsylvania Turnpike.
Billy Penn and The Incline recently embarked on an epic project to eat the Turnpike, visiting and dining at each of the plazas on the main drag from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. (Sorry, lovers of the Allentown and Hickory Run stops.) After this inspired story from Eater ranking the New Jersey Turnpike stops, we decided to look at our own options across the Commonwealth, ranking the options based on quality and ambiance.
These are the places we stopped, each of which is operated by HMSHost, a Maryland-based company that specializes in travel dining and holds a lucrative 30-year contract with the Pennsylvania Turnpike:
On our 360-mile journey, we ate bad pizza, discovered the joys of tater tot-topped sandwiches and found actual fresh food. We also formed some Very Definitive Opinions about the plazas, and they’re ranked below from worst to best. Argue with us on Twitter at @billy_penn and @theinclinepgh. Dig in.
Where it’s located and what it’s near: Located at mile marker 49.3 eastbound, it’s the closest rest stop to Pittsburgh.
Food and drink options: Burger King, Auntie Anne’s, Starbucks and a convenience store — that’s it.
Pros: For a tiny convenience store, there is a decent energy drink selection — Red Bull, Monster, Rock Star, Nos (but no Amp, if you’re into that one) — and a wide array of pre-packaged pastries.
Cons: Limited options. You’re better off waiting juuust a tad until the Monroeville exit for fast food options galore (Taco Bell, Chick-fil-a, Chipotle, Panda Express) not far from the highway.
Pro tip: If you have a collection of the worst Pennsylvania kitsch, this is your spot to shop. From a “Hillbilly Shot Glass” emblazoned with the word “Pennsyltucky” to a t-shirt with the message “Sometimes I’m a bear … Sometimes I’m a stinker … but I’m always a deer in Pennsylvania,” this store really has it all.
Best online review: “I ate dinner already, but sure, I’ll have a pretzel dog.”
Where it’s located and what it’s near: This stop is located at milepost 147.3 on Westbound 76. See the South Midway entry for info on nearby eateries.
Food and drink options: The options at this stop are very limited. There’s a Starbucks, Subway, an APlus convenience store and the Ladson Grill, which appears to be Sunoco’s version of the dining options at a Sheetz or Wawa. Some of the food is made to-order, like the grilled cheese I bought via a touchscreen system, but other items were sitting out. That unfortunately included the potato wedges I ordered, which were cold, a particularly bad condition for potato wedges.
Pros: This is a compact, get-in, get-out plaza. There’s one soda machine, with 20 options, and a F’real milkshake machine. You can also enjoy nachos in the outdoor dining area on a nice day.
Cons: Being at this little turnpike stop, with the glorious South Midway plaza just out of reach across several lanes of traffic, is quite honestly heartbreaking.
Pro tip: Skip it. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Best online review: “New plaza is worse then the old one less dinning options and is so small it isn’t funny. DON’T STOP HERE!!!!!!!”
Where it’s located and what it’s near: This plaza is a popular one for those traveling westbound out of Philly. It’s located at milepost 304, and is located near… a whole bunch of nothing.
Food and drink options: Roy Rogers, Starbucks, Hershey’s Ice Cream and a pizza joint called “PZA.”
Pros: The Hershey’s Ice Cream option doesn’t hurt, and this plaza has two warm food places — Roy Rogers and PZA — compared to some other locations that have just one. PZA also has a cute little side area where you can sit and spill grease all over your clothes. It also has a nice, circular seating area.
Cons: Despite it being close to Philadelphia, there was no concierge-like set-up. While the pizza place had some salads and fruit available, their fresh food didn’t look great.
Pro tip: Skip the pizza. It was pre-cooked and then popped in the oven, has a chewy, too-fat crust and the rest of the pizza was thin AF and collapsed under the weight of the gallon of grease that sat on top.
Best online review: “The namesake, a former head of the PA Turnpike Commission, would be appalled at the constant bathroom odor, which wafts even into the seating area where the overpriced food is eaten.”
Where it’s located and what it’s near: The Blue Mountain Service Plaza is located just west of Harrisburg at milepost 202 heading westbound.
Food and drink options: Roy Rogers, Pizza Hut Express, Auntie Anne’s, Hershey’s Ice Cream and Starbucks.
Pros: Of the crappy pizza places, Pizza Hut is one of the best … BUT it’s one of those teeny, tiny Pizza Hut Express places that puts its pies in boxes under heat lamps. So it’s a little risky.
Cons: Even though this location has a handful of options, they’re all bad options. Roy Rogers? Ew. Pizza Hut Express? Bad. Auntie Anne’s? I mean fine, but still not great. Maybe stick with Hershey’s Ice Cream, the real treat.
Pro tip: They had a decent selection of reasonably-priced T-shirts if you want to indicate to everyone that you love Pennsylvania.
Best online review: “Place was not well maintained. Tables and seating filthy. Ketchup on bench seat, grabbed a rag to wipe it off, came away BLACK! Food at Roy Rodgers was good, service was good. Restrooms were ok.”
Where it’s located and what it’s near: This stop is on the westbound side of I-276 and is located at milepost 328. It’s located near… a Red Lobster. The mall’s about 20 minutes away.
Food and drink options: The dining choices at this location are very basic: You’ve got Burger King, Starbucks and Auntie Anne’s pretzels. The classics. It’s also got an APlus convenience store, like every other stop along the Turnpike.
Pros: Along with its outdoor seating where you can enjoy your Whopper Jr., this location also has a visitor welcome center that’s stocked with information about tourism in the area. There’s a desk where a concierge-like person probably sits, but that person was apparently on vacation when we swung by.
Cons: Compared to other stops along the Turnpike, the King of Prussia location is sorely lacking in food and dining options. Good luck finding something hot to eat if you’re gluten-free, and the seating area in general is on the smaller side. The ambiance was just eh. Some of the other locations were decorated in warm and inviting ways, while this location felt pretty boring and elementary-school-cafeteria-ish.
Pro tip: Burger King starts serving breakfast at 1 a.m., which is perfect if you’re on the road at a weird time and have that after-midnight craving for a super-greasy sandwich named for a French pastry.
Best online review: “Nice clean place. Pennsylvania has bathroom issues though. I HATE the toilet paper in their rest areas and travel plazas on toll roads. It is microscopically thin and you need a ton of it to ensure against mishaps while using it.”
Where it’s located and what it’s near: This location is on the eastbound side of the Turnpike and is located at milepost 219 just west of Carlisle.
Food and drink options: This place has got a Roy Rogers, a Starbucks, a Hershey’s Ice Cream and an Auntie Anne’s.
Pros: Hershey’s Ice Cream is always a plus, and I thoroughly enjoyed a dish of Moose Tracks ice cream. Problem is: I was basically forced to order Moose Tracks because the only other flavors they offered was vanilla, chocolate and strawberry. What a travesty.
Cons: Why is Roy Rogers always an option? It’s gross. For Billy Penn and The Incline’s next big investigation, we’re going to see if Roy Rogers actually exists outside Pennsylvania Turnpike rest stops. We’ll report back when we learn more. The rest of the place is pretty lackluster, and the seating area isn’t as inviting as some of the other stops along the way.
Pro tip: This place is very boring, and unless you want Moose Tracks, skip it.
Best online review: “Clean bathrooms is all I can say about this rest stop, Roy Rogers food is terrible and way over priced, the KIDS running Roy Rogers and Aunt Annie’s place do nothing but clown around and service is horrible. And not to mention the music they play over the speakers omg I wanted to pull my ears off, believe me ppl use the rest rooms and be on your way ..”
Where it’s located and what it’s near: This stop is located at milepost 112.3 on the eastbound side of 76. In the nearby town of Somerset, there are a number of non-chain restaurants including the Chuck Wagon Restaurant, Stairs In Town Restaurant and Mel’s Restaurant and Lounge.
Food and drink options: This stop is a mecca for fast food options: Burger King, Popeyes, Pizza Hut Express and Auntie Anne’s Pretzels. If you’re in a rush and don’t really care about the garbage that you’re eating, the Pizza Hut Express (get it!) is the fastest way to get in and out. There are personal pie pizzas available to grab, as well as pasta dishes including Creamy Chicken Alfredo and Meaty Marinara. There’s also a Starbucks and APlus convenience store.
Pros: One of the soda fountains features Mello Yello, aka the Coca-Cola Company’s version of Mountain Dew, which kinda feels like something special. The highlight is undoubtedly the Tastykake display at the APlus.
Cons: The Popeyes features seafood dinners, which I suppose could be seen as a pro. But if my car companion bought $7.69 worth of cajun fish and then brought it back into the vehicle, I would leave that person at South Somerset.
Pro tip: There aren’t any milkshakes at the Burger King, but there is a do-it-yourself Hershey’s milkshake maker. Ice cream cups can be purchased at Auntie Anne’s.
Best online review: “Clean and no one killed me.”
Food and drink options: Roy Rogers, Famous Famiglia Pizzeria, Auntie Anne’s, Starbucks and a convenience store.
Pros: Roy Rogers and Starbucks are open 24-hours-a-day. Auntie Anne’s is a solid choice, with pretzels as good as any suburban mall Auntie Anne’s (but somehow less greasy, which is appreciated for a roadtrip, tbh). The convenience store boasts an entire product rack dedicated to beef jerky. Plus, it’s got a large selection of healthier food options, like yogurts, cheeses and eggs. And where else can you pick up a coloring book of Amish quilts, barns and buggies to pass the time on your travels?
Cons: Roy Rogers serves a limited menu after 11 p.m., so if you’re looking for late-night roast beef sandwiches, fried chicken, or chicken strips, you’re out of luck.
Pro tip: There’s a large outdoor patio, nicely landscaped with tall grasses to hide some of the Turnpike traffic from view.
Best online review: “As rest stops go, this one is pretty darn good.”
Where it’s located and what it’s near: This stop is located at milepost 172.3 and can be accessed from the westbound and eastbound sides of 76. The nearest non-Turnpike food option appears to be the Twist & Shake in Hustontown, which features some very affordable sandwiches.
Food and drink options: This plaza features some usual suspects — Popeyes, Burger King, Auntie Anne’s and Starbucks — as well as a Famous Famiglia Pizzeria and (yet again!) Hershey’s Ice Cream.
Pros: Surrounded by some very lovely mountains and farmland, this plaza is big and has got a lot of options, so there’s probably something to please everyone in your group. There are also four soda fountain stations.
Cons: Because it serves both sides of the Turnpike, it can get a little busy, especially at the fast food stands where people actually want to eat (no disrespect, Famous Famiglia). You’ll probably be forced to ask yourself: How badly *do* I want a Hershey’s milkshake? We don’t envy you that decision.
Pro tip: Sideling Hill is one of only three Turnpike plazas that features a farmers market on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays from April to November.
Best online review: “Good, fast service. Awesome selection of restaurants and a nice view to boot!”
Where it’s located and what it’s near: This service plaza is on the eastbound side of the Turnpike at milepost 324 just before the exit to hop on the Schuylkill Expressway into Philadelphia.
Food and drink options: There are technically only two food and drink options at this location — Starbucks and the Ladson Grill — but don’t let that fool you. The “Ladson Grill” has a good amount of options in all its Wawa-esque glory.
Pros: This location has a great serve-yourself coffee setup that’s more sophisticated than in other locations, and the “Ladson” did have a solid amount of food options including pre-made items and made-to-order offerings. It also has one of the most well-kept outdoor eating spaces we saw across the Turnpike. This place is also outfitted with a milkshake machine, an ICEE machine and a large fountain soda outfit. Most importantly: There’s a Starbucks drive-thru. Score.
Cons: The Ladson Grill is basically Wawa, but the food is not as good. We avoided eating anything because the food appeared to have sat under heat lamps for about a full month.
Pro tip: Hit up the Starbucks drive-thru or the larger-than-usual APlus and skip the Ladson Grill food.
Best online review: “Decent selection but poor design/direction. It’s set up like a Wawa, except they don’t tell you that you have to pay at the front… problem is they have a register at the food order counter making you think you pay there. After paying for other things and then waiting in at the food counter for 5 minutes or so someone finally told me I had to pay up front, which triggers them to make your food.”
Where it’s located and what it’s near: The Highspire location is on the eastbound side of the Turnpike and located at milepost 249 just outside the Harrisburg area.
Food and drink options: Starbucks and a STEAK ‘N SHAKE.
Pros: There’s a huge outdoor seating area where you can enjoy your Steak ‘N Shake burger anytime between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. But beware….
Cons: I was *extremely* excited for this rest stop. But the food from the Steak ‘N Shake — really the only thing this place has going for it — was subpar. The sandwich was poorly constructed and falling apart, while the side of fries was just undercooked potatoes that had very little salt. Not great!
Pro tip: Definitely still eat the Steak ‘N Shake, but temper your expectations.
Best online review (sic): “Plaza is great…steaknshake food is alwaus good, but U HAVE TO WAOT FOREVER TO ORDER AND GET FOOD!!!Been there 2x and both times the order process was a half hour! They musr be the slowest shakensteakof all! Crazy…but i will keep going because it is the only one around..”
Where it’s located and what it’s near: The Bowmansville Service Plaza is located heading eastbound at milepost 289 in the Reading/ Berks County area.
Food and drink options: Burger King, Starbucks, Hershey’s Ice Cream and (more on this later) Keystone Roadside BBQ.
Pros: This spot is very similar to its westbound counterpart Lawn (see below…) and offers the same food options. Keystone Roadside BBQ is where it’s at. This location also sports an electric vehicle charging station, which seems like something that should be at every location, but alas. There’s also an odd little back room with a big-ish table that seems perfect for… a children’s birthday party? Maybe?
Cons: The seating area is on the smaller side and while there is al fresco seating, there were no umbrellas so it was *very* sunny.
Pro tip: Don’t get the Burger King when you’re five steps from a good barbeque spot.
Best online review: “The reason for one star, is at 10:30, every night that the same 2 ladies are working, only House coffee is available. Non other. If there is even 1 alternate employee, there are choices. I love HMS Host service plazas, but not this one.”
Where it’s located and what it’s near: Located on the westbound side at milepost 258, the Lawn Service Plaza is located in between Harrisburg and Lancaster.
Food and drink options: Burger King, Starbucks, Hershey’s Ice Cream and a lovely place called Keystone Roadside BBQ. We’ll get to that soon.
Pros: Screw almost everything else about this place. I am in love with Keystone Roadside BBQ. I ordered a brisket sandwich that came with cole slaw, thousand island dressing and TATER TOTS. ON THE SANDWICH. The $9 sammy was actually quite good (it didn’t taste at all like it was from a rest stop!) and the tater tots stayed nice and crispy. You can polish off one of these sandwiches and end with a dish of Hershey’s ice cream. Beautiful.
Cons: Keystone Roadside BBQ is only open until 10 p.m. during the summer months and 9 p.m. through the winter. That means if it’s late at night? No barbeque for you. Sad!
Pro tip: Eat the brisket and then use the milkshake machine afterwards. You won’t regret it.
Best online review: “Great high functioning Highway Rest Stop and it’s a palace compared to some other states.”
Where it’s located and what it’s near: It’s the last plaza in Pennsylvania and the last food/fuel on the turnpike for 82 miles. The plaza is located at milepost 77.6 westbound, about 15 minutes from the Irwin exit, where you can get off the highway and try plenty of local food options (Colonial Grille Restaurant and Taproom, Cenacolo, The Firepit Wood Fired Grill).
Food and drink options: Burger King, Quiznos Sub, Hershey’s Ice Cream, Starbucks and a convenience store.
Pros: With fresh peaches, baked goods and jam, the seasonal farmers market is a snacking oasis on a drive filled with pre-packaged foods.
Cons: The panic-inducing “LAST FOOD OR FUEL” sign is enough to make anybody stop, so expect it to be busy.
Pro tip: Fresh farmers market jam makes even a pre-packed pastry better.
Best online review: “The food satiates your hunger, but not your soul.”
Where it’s located and what it’s near: This stop is located at milepost 147.3 on Eastbound 76. In nearby Bedford, there’s the Bedford Tavern and Bad Boyz Bistro.
Food and drink options: The usual suspects can be found at this plaza — Sbarro, Auntie Anne’s and Starbucks. But the real star of this stop is the 24-hour Steak ‘N Shake featuring burgers that actually taste good and milkshakes made from actual ice cream. I ate a very good burger covered in mushrooms and garlic mayo and suffered no immediate regrets.
Pros: For lovers of history and fake fires, this plaza is heaven. South Midway maintains its original look and features a historic marker as well as Turnpike opening photos, newspaper clippings and a display of memorabilia including a neon sign that says Hotdog City. Did we mention the 24-hour Steak ‘N Shake?
Cons: Um …. this is tough. Did we mention the 24-hour Steak ‘N Shake?
Pro tip: If you’re on your way to someone’s house and forgot to buy a host gift, you can pick up Fry ‘N Steakburger Seasoning for just $2.19.
Best online review: “Very clean travel plaza. Don’t pass up steak n shake. I grew up around steak n shake in Illinois, but there really aren’t any in DC, so I was super excited when I saw one here! The food was delicious as always. Don’t pass up steak n shake!!!!”