The New Jersey Turnpike, like so many things in New Jersey, is horrible, which is also why it’s magnificent. It’s 122 miles long, bisecting the state on the diagonal — the southwest terminus is just short of the Delaware Memorial Bridge, where the turnpike is a blandly bucolic four-lane highway edged with dense wall of trees; by the time you reach the northeast terminus, at the George Washington Bridge, it’s morphed into an asphalt-tentacle beast, engorged, at its widest, to 12 lanes on four distinct roads, surrounded by oil refineries and other forms of outer-city industrial sprawl, all of them plaited with exits and sub-exits and interchanges. The signage is atrocious and the urban planning is deranged; you are never going to take the right exit for Newark Airport, but that’s okay, because there are three other rapid-fire exits that will get you there.
The one thing the Turnpike really has going for it are its service areas. These are run by “global restaurateur” HMSHost, the mega-operator behind food and retail concessions in 116 airports and 99 of what they describe as “motorway travel plazas,” 12 of which are the exclusive providers of food, gas, and bathroom facilities to the good people traversing the New Jersey Turnpike. The rest stops are all named after deceased individuals with some sort of connection to the state, which is a perfect representation of New Jersey pride: sort of pointless, but nevertheless endearing.
Any New Jerseyan, road trip aficionado, or habitué of the New York-to-D.C. corridor has a favorite Turnpike rest stop, but of course only one can be the actual best, which means a whole lot of people out there are wrong. In the interest of journalistic rigor, I got up extra early on a recent rainy Thursday, picked up my friend Martha, and the two of us hit the road. We drove the whole Turnpike from top to bottom and back again, stopping at every rest stop along the way. (Plus a quick afternoon detour to Six Flags, where the earlier rain meant we got to ride the tallest roller coaster in North America twice in a row without waiting in line. It’s not a rest stop, I’m just bragging.) Here, definitively, is the true ranking of New Jersey Turnpike rest stops.
12. Alexander Hamilton
Southbound, mile marker 112
Roy Rogers is usually is my favorite rest stop option, because you can get an order of really very good curly fries and then go to Roy’s “Fixin’s Bar” and load up on a lot of iceberg lettuce and sliced tomato and banana peppers and make yourself a nice little ersatz salad. The Roy’s Fixin’s Bar at Alexander Hamilton, which is an overall fairly dingy and unlovable service area, has a sign taped to it that says “Salads are available at the front counter,” which is VICIOUSLY AGGRESSIVE and made both Martha and me feel truly bad about ourselves even though we had no plans to salad-lifehack this particular Roy’s Fixin’s Bar.
Alexander Hamilton has two positive attributes, which aren’t nearly enough to make up for the salad shaming. One, there’s a toy machine where you put in two quarters and tinny circus music plays and an animatronic clown goes back and forth on a swing and the machine poops out a plastic egg containing a rubber Jolly Roger ring. Two, the convenience store attached to the gas station sells Flamin’ Hot Ruffles. There’s really no reason to stop here, though: It’s less than five miles down the road from the significantly better Vince Lombardi; the drive from one to the other takes exactly as long as “Thunder Road,” the first track on Martha’s meticulously curated New Jersey playlist, and also the actual best Bruce Springsteen song, do not @ me.
11. Joyce Kilmer
Northbound, mile marker 78
Joyce Kilmer is the person responsible for “I think that I shall never see / a poem as lovely as a tree,” which is maybe a useful example of extended metaphor, but is also a truly horrible piece of poetry. It’s absurd that a poet like Kilmer is given, through their mutual service-plaza honoring, any equivalence to a titan like Walt Whitman. Kilmer’s given first name, as I learned from reading the honorary plaque, is Alfred, and Martha and I overheard two different sets of parents informing their kids that no, despite the name, Joyce Kilmer isn’t a woman. Beyond that delightful object lesson in the pitfalls of gender assumption, this is a dour and unexciting rest stop. They don’t even have the text of the tree poem! I would be completely comfortable with Joyce Kilmer being replaced with Bruce Springsteen, who is also undeniably a poet, even though he isn’t dead.
10. John Fenwick
Northbound, mile marker 6
There is absolutely nothing interesting to say about this rest stop as a retail, gastronomic, or architectural entity. John Fenwick was the leader of the first English settlement in what would become New Jersey, but was not, at any time during his life, actually New Jersey. Compare this to Whitney Houston, who was born in the state during a time when it was, epistemologically speaking, actually the state, and who also was the single greatest pop singer of all time. Someone please start a Change.org petition to rename this stop after Whitney Houston, I will happily sign it.
9. Thomas Edison
Southbound, mile marker 93
There’s a Sbarro (Martha got a breadstick), a Popeyes (I got a side of green beans), and a Burger King, which is a nice range of options. This is also the rest stop where we saw a publicly posted letter from the CEO of HMSHost to his employees, assuring them that the company “welcomes, appreciates, and supports everyone regardless of race, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, or national origin,” which is really quite wonderful, but it’s probably posted at every service plaza, so no extra points.
8. Richard Stockton
Southbound, mile marker 59
Honestly, Richard Stockton is lovely. It’s got a double-height entry foyer with a sunny clerestory, and there’s a full-size wrought-iron bicycle mounted above the entrance to the market, complete with faux baguettes jauntily tucked in the basket. I thought the bicycle was amusingly nonsensical; Martha, an observational genius, pointed out that it’s an essential part of the rest stop’s theme: Paris! All the décor — framed stock art and massive murals — pay homage to Parisian café culture. Other rest stops do not have themes! Don’t get carried away on the wings of Francophone fantasy: Food options here are mostly Pizza Hut and Quiznos.
Richard Stockton, according to the framed piece of printer paper giving his biography, did the following in his life: Was elected to the Senate for an abbreviated term, declined renomination, ran and lost for governor three times, was a congressman for one term, and again declined renomination. I move we replace him with Lou Reed.
7. Clara Barton
Southbound, mile marker 6
Clara Barton is the only verified human woman to have a rest area named in her honor (Molly Pitcher, who we’re getting to shortly, is a ~figure of legend~), which shamelessly earns this service plaza a higher spot on the list than its goods and services alone would garner. Barton founded the Red Cross, and its flag flies next to the American and New Jersey flags just outside the main building entrance. That’s nice! There is a Pizza Hut, but no Quiznos. (A unidirectional causal relationship Martha and I observed on our journey: Wherever there’s a Quiznos, there’s a Pizza Hut. The converse, however, is not the case.)
6. Vince Lombardi
Both directions, mile marker 116
Vince Lombardi is the Turnpike’s most northerly service plaza, and also is the only one accessible to cars going in both directions. The truth is it’s quite good: Spacious, clean, and recently renovated, with a wide variety of fast-food options and a big, well-stocked Starbucks that (unlike many other rest stops) serves all of the hot Starbucks food. If you get confused in the course of leaving New York and getting onto the Turnpike, and realize you’ve accidentally gone in the wrong direction, Vince Lombardi’s bi-directionality presents a useful opportunity to reorient your trajectory. Arriving at 11 a.m., Martha and I were informed by a Burger King employee that they were no longer serving Croissan’wiches, but there were five of them right there under the heating lamps. We felt deceived.
5. Walt Whitman
Southbound, mile marker 31
The Roy Rogers here doesn’t salad-shame its customers, which is nice, and the parking area is surrounded by trees on three sides in a way that feels very serene and secluded in a way I feel like Walt Whitman would appreciate. Most Turnpike rest stops have a Hershey’s Ice Cream and a Dippin’ Dots vending machine; Walt Whitman also has a Carvel counter. No Fudgie the Whales to be seen, but they sell Carvelanches, a far more eating-in-the-car-friendly ice cream option.
4. James Fenimore Cooper
Northbound, mile marker 39
This is competent, generally unremarkable rest area with some nice nature photos and, like Walt Whitman, a Carvel. As we were getting out of the car in its parking lot, Martha and I met THE TINIEST PUPPY EVER, her name is Diamond, she is a pit bull, and she was celebrating her eight-week birthday that very day. I cannot guarantee that Diamond will be there if you go, but what if she is and DIAMOND oh my god DIAMOND I LOVE YOU DIAMOND YOU ARE SUCH A GOOD GIRL YES YOU ARE.
3. Grover Cleveland
Northbound, mile marker 92
This gloriously airspacey building of glass and steel looks utterly unlike any of the other service plazas, which rock more of a faded ’90s aesthetic. For this, let us credit climate change: The original Grover Cleveland was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, reopening in 2015 with an open floor plan, midcentury-ish seating, and a massive un-branded counter where you can get made-to-order pizzas, salads, and sandwiches — including the signature “I-95 Burger,” which for whatever reason is reuben-themed, the beef patty topped with pastrami, Swiss cheese, and Russian dressing. Sure! Okay!
Look, really, this rest area is just super pretty — maybe too pretty to be named for Grover Cleveland, who is described on the framed biographical explainer as, and this is a direct quote, “generally ranked among the second tier of American presidents.” This rest stop should be named after Judy Blume, who is far more inspiring than Grover Cleveland, but alas (or maybe not alas) is not dead yet.
2. Woodrow Wilson
Northbound, mile marker 58
There are plants in the corners — big, green, healthy looking ones. There’s a lot of sunlight. The floors are clean and the trim is un-chipped and the tables aren’t sticky. There’s a Quiznos and a Pizza Hut and a Roy Rogers, which has a lush, frequently refreshed Roy’s Fixin’s Bar that doesn’t carry with it so much as the faintest whiff of salad shaming.
Any of these would be enough to clinch a high-ranking spot for ol’ Woodrow, but it also brings the goddamn pain with a slam-dunk move, the single best item a person can purchase and consume on the whole up-and-down stretch of the New Jersey Turnpike, and it is this: A fresh-squeezed orange juice machine, with a tray of plastic half-pint bottles next to it, that you can place under the tap and fill with orange juice that you get to watch being squeezed right in front of you, a mechanical wonder of oranges rolling out of a basket and down a track and being sliced in half and squished until all their sunset-hued lifeblood sluices out into your waiting vessel, sweet and fresh and tart. Martha and I almost wept. It was the most beautiful moment of our day.
1. Molly Pitcher
Southbound, mile marker 72
My friends, Molly Pitcher is the best rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike. I’ll admit now that I knew this outcome going in; for decades, for nearly my entire Turnpike-traversing life, this building named for a perhaps-fictional Revolutionary War heroine has been my rest stop of choice. I had considered, when Martha and I hit the road, that maybe this would turn out to have been an error, my frequent visits reinforcing my affections which would then translate into further visits, the mere-exposure effect in action. But her objective companionship confirmed what I’d already known: You can’t do better than Molly Pitcher.
The rest stop has many things you’ll find at other rest stops along the New Jersey Turnpike: a Roy Rogers (pleasantly sans salad-shaming), a Nathan’s Famous, a Cinnabon, a Dippin’ Dots vending machine, a counter where you can buy designer perfumes, for some reason. But it also offers gracefully arching windows and airy ceilings, a grassy picnic area, a standalone Starbucks with a separate entrance (which means it also offers the full Starbucks menu) and, semi-permanently, a Starbucks coffee truck parked just outside.
It also ups the game on the convenience shops, with a total of three: one in the gas station, one standard HMS market offering the exact same selection of beef jerky and state-branded gummy candies and (inexplicably) plush-animal sloths as all its brothers and sisters up and down the Turnpike.
But there’s a third convenience store, a sort of random-feeling one (it’s in the space that once upon a time was a Dick Clark-themed sit-down restaurant!), minimalist and slightly more upscale in its offerings, with blonde-wood shelves of dark-chocolate snacks merchandized alongside fake fruit. This store has — and I am not kidding — an old-timey candy store in the back, complete with wooden shelves and glass jars of penny-candy, many of which are inexplicably Tabasco-branded, and wooden barrels filled with packages of Big Fat Hissee Fit, a three-foot-long glucose monstrosity billed as the “world’s largest gummy snake.”
It is, in a word, flawless. The perfect place to pee, to stretch your legs, to eat a fried chicken leg with a side of bootleg topping-bar salad — to refuel not only your car, but your soul.
Helen Rosner is Eater’s editor-at-large. She was once, for several years, a resident of New Jersey.
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