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On the trail of Guy Fieri

  • Ben and Barb Stillwagon of Springfield Illinois entertain Guy Fieri at Johnny Garlics, Wednesday September 14, 2011 in Santa Rosa with albums they have kept after eating at establishments which have been featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, Fieri's show on the Food Network. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2011

There are travelers who feed a passion for retracing great steps by seeking out and beholding the places where Stonewall Jackson fought or Amelia Earhart landed or Lewis and Clark bivouacked.

Itinerant, retired Midwesterners Ben and Barb Stillwagon go where Guy Fieri ate.

In three years, the Stillwagons have dined at 249 of the mom-and-pop restaurants featured by Santa Rosa resident Fieri on his hugely popular Food Network TV show, "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives."

Guy Fieri And The Stillwagons

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On Wednesday, Ben and Barb, both former blue-collar workers who happened to be born within about a hour of each other in August of 1944, visited hallowed ground.

The longtime residents of Springfield, Ill, parked their Mercury outside the 250th stop on their down-home epicurean odyssey — the Johnny Garlic's in Santa Rosa, birthplace of the Fieri phenomenon.

They were greeted and fed, over-the-top generously, by Fieri, the Midas-touch superstar who was a flicker in the galaxy of Sonoma County restaurateurs until he followed a whim to enter the Next Food Network Star competition in 2005.

Dressed as usual in shorts with his sunglasses suspended above his eyes, Fieri recalled to his special guests that in fall of 1996 he and partner Steve Gruber played carpenter to remake the former Baggio Restaurant and Big John's Chicken into their first restaurant, Johnny Garlic's.

Pointing to the couple's right, he said, "I used to sleep in that booth right there."

The Stillwagons ate up their exclusive encounter with Fieri, reliving memories of the road and the plate as they showed him their five albums of memorabilia from "Triple-D," as fans refer to Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.

Here were Ben and Barb's mementoes from one of the couple's favorite spots, Darwell's Caf?in Long Beach, Miss. Fieri spotted them and jumped back, rubbing a forearm as he recalled how Darwell's became a free, disaster feeding station for neighbors ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.


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