12 Facts To Know Before Eating At The Iron Skillet Restaurant

There is no better view into the heart and soul of America than an authentic truck stop diner. These establishments dot the nation's highways to serve truckers and travelers alike a hot meal, bottomless coffee refills, and a smile during solitary, cross-country drives. No matter the branding on the outside, two things are true about any great truck stop restaurant: Breakfast is served all day, and you shouldn't order spaghetti. These rules definitely apply within the faded walls and smudged windows of the Iron Skillet, a restaurant chain where friendly folks have been serving fresh food for almost 50 years.

So how do we know this low-key chain is a bonafide truck stop powerhouse? You don't need to go any further to identify The Iron Skillet's credentials than its internet presence, which is nothing more than outdated press releases and social media accounts run by boomers. The Iron Skillet is not looking to keep up with the times, just to keep a pot on.

It's a great sign that the food will be substantial and greasy, but it might leave you wondering what exactly is going on in there. Iron Skillets are crucial in keeping America's truckers happy, healthy, and on the road. Today, we'll find out what they're all about.

1. Each one is part of a larger organism

There are no standalone locations of the Iron Skillet. Instead, every restaurant in the chain is a sit-down establishment connected to a Petro truck stop. These restaurants are often the primary energy source of truck stop ecosystems. Travelers rely on the restaurant to recharge their devices and their bellies while getting out of the cab for a while. 

These travel centers are practically self-sustaining, with laundry centers, barbershops, arcades, gyms, and quick bites alongside restaurants. The key to these truck stops is their big rig parking. There are only 313,000 18-wheeler accessible parking spaces spread across the entire country, and an Iron Skillet is always close to one. Beyond parking, truckers consider human interaction and healthy food the two most important factors in selecting their stops.

Therefore, the Iron Skillet serves an essential purpose: A real sit-down experience with big rig parking accessible. A server at the restaurant chain might be the first person a trucker has spoken to face to face all day and they might be bringing tired drivers their first hot meal in 1,000 miles. 

2. Spaghetti and meatballs provides a day's worth of calories

The Iron Skillet takes refueling seriously, providing a breakfast, lunch, and dinner menu full of options that pack an entire's day worth of carbs onto one plate. One way to get the job done is the spaghetti and meatball entree. The spaghetti provides an extraordinary example of the Iron Skillet's ability to take you across the country with fewer trips to the drive-through, although you might budget additional bathroom breaks. The platter boasts 1720 calories, 63 grams of fat, 75 grams of protein, and 30 grams of sugar for that tomato-y sweetness.

After a piping hot homestyle dinner, it's hard to say no to dessert, but even just a singular chocolate cookie can send your meal over the edge. Adding on one 4.5 oz chocolate chunk cookie brings an additional 1260 calories, 76 grams of fat, and 93 grams of sugar to your meal. It adds up to a menu combo that packs almost 3,000 calories and more than 100 grams of sugar. It exceeds virtually every other FDA recommendation as well. 

Scared off from the spaghetti but still looking to carbo-load? The Chicken Parmesan skillet reduces your calorie count by 500 and halves your saturated fat intake, all while increasing your protein intake. It brings 100mg of extra cholesterol to the table, but It's an overall healthier choice. And maybe, just this once, skip the cookie.

3. Buffets are off the menu

The Iron Skillet used to be known for its portion sizes, providing the highways with an all-you-can-eat buffet option. According to a Reddit thread, truckers used to be able to fill their bellies on plates of bacon for less than $10.

It all fell apart after the Covid-19 pandemic dictated new operating procedures. Every Iron Skillet franchise remained open as an essential business, but that didn't mean it would be business as usual. The company pivoted towards a grab-and-go approach and filled out its menu items while shutting down the shared serving spoons.

As we return to life after the pandemic, restaurant regulars may be wishing and hoping for the return of the buffet, but it's not in the cards any time soon. Says Iron Skillet, "We do not have plans to bring back our buffets or soup and salad bars in their traditional format."

4. It's getting easier to go green

Truckers don't forgive, and they don't forget. Folks traveling for vacation may relish a delicious, greasy hamburger on the way, but professionals who spend their lives on the road rely on these chains to provide some real food.

Truckers are sometimes required to stay in one place for up to three days to catch up on rest. During that time, they don't have much choice in what to eat. The trucking community doesn't ask for much. The simple salad bar and freedom of choice provided by the Iron Skillet's full-service buffet was a good option for nutritious meals, but it hasn't been available for a couple of years.

In response to truckers' desires for healthy foods, the Iron Skillet chain teamed up with the Cleveland Clinic in 2022 to make getting a healthy meal on the road easier. Clinic-certified healthy dinners include blackened salmon or grilled chicken breast. Sometimes getting ahead of your health is as simple as substituting your sausage for turkey or opting for an egg-white-only omelet. 

5. It once was the king of the road

Iron Skillet's official Facebook page invites you to come in and "see why Iron Skillet is VOTED BEST year after year!" While we can't verify who exactly is doing the voting in that particular poll, the Iron Skillet has been recognized in the past by a few community surveys, most notably in The King of the Road competition.

The King of the Road is the brainchild of Atlas Van Lines, who ask their professional van drivers for feedback on surveys of wide-ranging topics that make up their trucker's day-to-day experience. The survey provides valuable insight into what truckers listen to, where they like to stop, and what they want to eat on the road.

The last iteration of the competition garnered 363 responders who drive both in the U.S. and Canada. Truckers have nominated the Petro Travel Centers and the Iron Skillet's home cooking for over a decade. No appearance was sweeter than in 2012 when the Iron Skillet Restaurant won the best restaurant award. While it hasn't quite reached the mountaintop again, the Skillet is no stranger to podium finishes. Drivers most recently awarded The Iron Skillet with a second-place finish in 2018's best restaurant category, barely losing out on the top spot to Texas Roadhouse.

6. The reign is over

Things haven't been the same since the buffet closed down, both for the Iron Skillet and the entire industry. Atlas Van Lines hasn't put out a King of the Road award since 2020. That year's competition saw a clear shift in driver interest toward healthy food options. As its own menu lost some of its health potential while drivers were increasingly searching for something green, Iron Skillet didn't even appear in the honorable mentions column. 

Trucker Path, an app that invites community input on weigh stations and GPS navigation along the road, conducts trucking polls. Users submit their favorite truck stops each year, and The Iron Skillet's parent truck stop, Petro, doesn't show up in the top five. 

There's a bit of a light showing at the end of the tunnel, as Iron Skillet's parent company TravelCenters of America was named the best gas station brand in the country by USA Today. However, TravelCenters of America was purchased by BP after that ranking was released, so the Skillet is under new ownership. Only time will tell if guests warm up to the limiting menu changes and start sitting down again.

7. Iron Skillet restaurants aren't as abundant as the used to be

2019 was the last great year for buffet restaurants and the open road. The year saw an all-time high of more than 3,343,445 active truck drivers, and tens of millions more Americans who hit the road and stopped for bottomless coffees along the way.

Iron Skillets were in the thick of things, but trouble was brewing: The chain's parent company, Travel America, had its eyes on other diners. The Iron Skillet's parent company didn't invest in expanding the reach of the Skillet's handle but announced ambitious plans to build 94 new IHOP restaurants in existing travel centers. This movement even included plans to convert several Iron Skillet locations into International Houses of Pancakes.

The pandemic delayed those plans, but it did nothing to help revitalize the Iron Skillet. The country came face-to-face with the importance of trucking, but census data recorded almost 1 million fewer truck drivers in 2021 compared to 2019, per Northeastern University. The Skillet has followed that downward trajectory. In May 2019, there were 63 active Iron Skillets. Four years later, that number dropped to 46. Amid grumblings from truckers over the revamped menu and a steady expansion of competing restaurants at Travel America Centers, some employees are starting to wonder if we're tip-toeing toward the end of the chain.

8. The menu is identical to Country Pride

Some American diners can feel eerily similar to others, but these two chains take things a step further. There are skillets full of bacon inside of both establishments, and that's not the only similarity — in fact the only thing that sets them apart is which banner they're under. Country Prides are located inside TravelCenters of America stations, while the Iron Skillets are in Petro locations.

This partnership is great news for serious fans of these two chains. While there are only 46 Iron Skillets in the country, there are 56 Country Pride locations, which more than doubles your chances of passing a Buffalo Ranch Jalapeño Burger on your next road trip.

Both restaurants focus on the major highways that crisscross the country, each with its preferred territories. It's a bit of a hodgepodge, but expect Iron Skillets to favor highways I-40 and I-20, whereas Country Prides sit near I-90 and I-70. If you look hard enough, you can find them almost anywhere.

9. There's no place like the Iron Skillet for the holidays

Whether your career demands you spend Christmas Day on the highway or life just throws you a curveball, The Iron Skillet has you covered. Millions of people wind up spending the holidays on the road. That doesn't mean you have to celebrate the holiday with soggy french fries or gas station hot dogs, unless we're talking Independence Day, of course. The only proper meal on the 4th is a Ballpark Frank from a roller grill. 

Nationwide, the entire Iron Skillet chain offers special all-you-can-eat menus loaded with vegetables, roasts, and desserts. It carries extra meaning nowadays, as these holiday meals serve as a throwback to the buffet. For 363 days of the year, the Skillet has shut down its all-you-can-eat policy, but it celebrates the holidays by throwing the rules out the window.

While the extravaganzas don't have as wide-ranging a selection as the buffets of yesteryear, Thanksgiving 2022 was an all-timer. Ham, turkey, green bean casserole, sweet potatoes, and all the fixings filled the plates of folks traveling during the holiday. Each meal even included a beverage and unlimited pumpkin pie.

10. Iron Skillet is not just a name

Steak and eggs hit differently when served up on a skillet. You might have to order off the menu now, but that does come with some perks. It helps with portion control, allows you to see the calorie count of your meal, and your food still comes served on a shiny silver pan. Don't worry — they've given the skillet plenty of time to cool off.

The Iron Skillet even put its own spin on the cast iron skillet to make its hefty entrees easier to manage. Most cast iron skillets come with two short handles or one long one, but that's not good enough at this restaurant. Some franchises pile their entrees on skillets with two long grips.  It's incredible the amount of chicken parm and spaghetti you can fit on a cast iron skillet, especially one with double the holding power.

Not every entree gets the skillet plating treatment. You'll still get chicken tender baskets, deserts, and sides served in more traditional dishes.

11. Think twice about ordering the long haul breakfast

The breakfast menu starts with a bang. Advertised as the chef's favorite, the Long Haul Breakfast is the very first thing listed on Iron Skillet's menu. At first glance, this delicious combo may seem like a great breakfast option, but it's not for the faint of heart. It's a smorgasbord of everything you could ask for out of an American diner breakfast, all on one plate: biscuits and gravy, pancakes, eggs, bacon/sausage, and hashbrowns to bring it together. But at what cost?

The menu promises the meal caps out at 1950 calories. However, deep diving into the nutrition fact sheet paints a different picture. Although this meal isn't specifically listed on the sheet, adding up the nutrition facts for its individual components suggest that it delivers 158% of the FDA's recommended daily allowance of calories, 232% of the day's fat intake, and 253% of your recommended sodium.

If you're not in it for the long haul, you can still have fun and save your digestive system with the traditional breakfast option, which is the same thing but requires a choice between a biscuit, pancakes, or toast.

12. The restaurant chain supports the troops

The least we can offer those who have served in the military is a hot meal. Iron Skillet does its part, honoring soldiers and first responders with discounts and special events.  

 Iron Skillet says thank you every day of the year, offering any firefighter, police officer, and military member who shows up in uniform a 25% discount. Things are ramped up further on Veterans Day, when both veterans and active duty soldiers eat for free at participating locations. Some locations even offer the same 100% discount on Independence Day.

Several franchises mark the occasion with a fallen soldier's table, a 2-top set for one diner who might not make it back. Fallen soldiers tables are full of rich imagery that honors the sacrifices of duty, like a white tablecloth to supposedly symbolize the pure intentions of the service members, a red rose to signify the blood that has been shed for freedom, and a lemon to commiserate the bitter fates met on the battlefield.