The meal options at most gas stations consist of a case of eternally-rotating hot dogs, plastic containers of days-old egg-salad sandwiches, and microwave burritos. But drivers who pull into the Hot Spot parking lot in Franklin, North Carolina, will find a delightfully different menu—one that’s four pages long and filled with everything from pork osso buco to baked salmon with mango crème fraîche.
Caffè REL doesn’t look like much from the outside: It shares a small, gray building with a neighboring convenience store just past the pumps. But one step inside reveals a charming bistro with art on the walls, jazz emanating from its speakers, and waiters scurrying across the floor in white dress shirts and black pants.
The cafè’s French-influenced menu is the work of chef and owner Richard E. Long (the REL of Caffè REL), a classically trained chef who honed his craft under the tutelage of European mentors. Long sees his gas-station bistro as a way to make fine cuisine accessible to all Americans. At Caffè REL, you can enjoy a glass of wine and sausage-stuffed squid while wearing flip-flops and a tank top. There’s no pretense. As the sign outside declares, “It’s about the food.”
The menu includes everything from sandwiches to pasta to seafood. But the standouts are dishes that blend Long’s European training with local Southern specialties, such as blue crab bisque and crawfish tails sauteed in butter and garlic, with a touch of lobster fumé, crème, and cognac.