The South's Best Classic Restaurants 2020
At its core, Southern food is rooted in tradition. Whether it's a well-loved recipe passed down through generations or that trusty jar of Duke's Mayo you can always count on finding in our (and our Grandmas') refrigerators, Southerners are undoubtedly drawn to the classics. But what makes a Southern restaurant classic? Is it longevity? Prestige? A cult-like following of repeat visitors? As it turns out, all of the above. Classic Southern restaurants come in all flavors, from the special occasion spots dishing out nationally lauded shrimp and grits to the order-at-the-counter joints famous for their finger-lickin' hot chicken. While diverse in cuisine and ambiance, what ties them all together is their ability to leave an indelible impression on the palates of Southerners, one that keeps calling them back for more. This year, we asked readers to vote on the ultimate classics in Southern dining. Here are the 10 that came out on top.
10. Poole's Diner (Raleigh, North Carolina)
At first glance, this historic eatery and one-time pie shop has all the makings of a classic Southern diner: There's ample counter seating atop red-leather barstools and chalkboard menus listing greasy spoon staples, from BLTs to mac and cheese. But Poole's isn't your ordinary diner. Helmed by chef Ashley Christensen, the reincarnated version of the original Poole's (founded in 1945) features contemporary takes on comfort food, with seasonal, locally sourced ingredients driving the menu on an ever-changing (often daily) basis.
ac-restaurants.com, 919-832-4477, 426 South McDowell Street, Raleigh, NC 27601
9. The Original Ninfa's on Navigation (Houston, Texas)
When you live in the Lone Star State, the kind of classic Southern fare you grow up with is bound to include some taste bud-tempting Tex Mex. And the Original Ninfa's in uptown Houston, which offers a diverse menu of south-of-the-border-inspired comfort food (tamales and guac) coupled with elevated platters starring fresh Texas seafood, certainly brings the heat. First timers will want to try Mama Ninfa's Original Tacos al Carbon, the dish that first introduced sizzling fajitas to the U.S. when the restaurant opened in 1973.
ninfas.com, 713-228-1175, 2704 Navigation Boulevard, Houston, TX 77003
8. Miller Union (Atlanta, Georgia)
Ever since Steven Satterfield broke onto the Atlanta food scene, he has been a culinary trailblazer, instrumental in putting sophisticated Southern food on the worldwide map while shining a light on the quality and diversity of homegrown ingredients. Since opening in 2009, his restaurant, Miller Union, has become a highly acclaimed classic–but don't expect to order the same old faves each time you visit. The menu is a constantly evolving showcase of Satterfield's creative chops, featuring seasonal, farm-fresh bounty from veggies to pasture-raised chicken.
millerunion.com, 678-733-8550, 999 Brady Avenue NW, Atlanta, GA 30318
7. Bertha's Kitchen (Charleston, South Carolina)
When it comes to grub, no list of Southern classics would be complete without a hearty ode to Soul food. (Much of Southern food is rooted in Soul, after all.) This modest cafeteria-style outpost on the outskirts of Charleston is one of the most beloved Soul food mainstays, dishing up some of the most well-loved recipes, from pork 'n' beans to okra soup. Founded in 1981 by Albertha Grant, the kitchen is now run by her daughters.
berthaskitchen.food93.com, 843-554-6519, 2332 Meeting Street Road, Charleston, SC 29405
6. City Grocery (Oxford, Mississippi)
While it might pale in a size comparison to other heavy-hitting Southern food cities, Oxford has made quite a name for itself on the culinary front—and City Grocery is a major part of that. Housed in an old livery stable, the industrial, brick-walled restaurant has the kind of cozy-cool vibe that offers the perfect refuge after a long day (or week) of work. And the menu, masterfully concepted using Mississippi-grown ingredients by chef John Currence—is equally enticing.
citygroceryonline.com, 662-232-8080, 152 Courthouse Square, Oxford, MS 38655
Check Out The South's Best Classic Restaurants
5. Chef & The Farmer (Kinston, North Carolina)
Last year, when we asked readers which all-star chef deserves the title South's Best, it was the owner of a farm-to-table outpost in a little-known rural Southern town that took home top honors. But we weren't surprised. Vivian Howard, a native of Deep Run, North Carolina, has earned notoriety as a chef, cookbook author, and PBS personality thanks to her deeply personal portrayal of what it's like to farm and cook from the Southern landscape. Her first restaurant, Chef & The Farmer, is an ode to her fresh, local, and seasonally driven cooking style, with a roster of shared plates inviting diners to indulge in the ultimate Southern sampler.
vivianhoward.com/chef-the-farmer, 252-208-2433, 120 West Gordon Street, Kinston, NC 28501
4. Prince's Hot Chicken (Nashville, Tennessee)
When it comes to food, perfection doesn't always come with panache. Take Prince's Hot Chicken, for example, a no-frills Nashville eatery where the main event—deep-fried and heavily sauced chicken—comes delightfully served alongside creamy slaw and crinkle-cut fries. Founded in the 1940s by Thornton Prince, who's credited with bringing national attention to Southern-style "hot chicken," the family-run restaurant is now helmed by Prince's great niece.
princeshotchicken.com, 615-810-9388, 5814 Nolensville Pike, Nashville, TN 37211
3. Highlands Bar & Grill (Birmingham, Alabama)
Fresh off a 2018 victory as the James Beard Foundation's Most Outstanding Restaurant in the nation, this classic white-linen tablecloth restaurant has been attracting Alabama foodies (including Southern Living editors) since 1982. The brainchild of executive chef Frank Stitt, who honed his cooking skills in San Francisco and France before returning to the South, the menu features a rotating showcase of Southern-style staples elevated with a hint of French flair.
highlandsbarandgrill.com, 205-939-1400, 2011 Eleventh Avenue South, Birmingham, AL 35205
2. FIG (Charleston, South Carolina)
Any Southern foodie worth her salt has likely heard of celebrated Charleston chef Mike Lata. And one could say it all started with FIG. Opened in 2003, Lata's first outpost in the Holy City is one that has earned him critical acclaim as well as a reputation for dishing out fresh, seasonal, and creative cuisine starring the Lowcountry's finest bounty. An ever-changing menu anchored by a few beloved, cult-followed staples (hello, ricotta gnocchi) makes FIG one of the hottest seats in an already sizzling food city, so be sure to make a reservation well in advance.
eatatfig.com, 843-804-5900, 232 Meeting Street, Charleston, SC 29401
1. Commander's Palace (New Orleans, Louisiana)
As bold as the restaurant's electric teal-blue awning is, Commander's Palace is a NOLA mainstay that needs no introduction. Founded more than a century ago in the tree-lined Garden District, the restaurant—famous for its Haute Creole cuisine and star-studded kitchen (once helmed by a 23-year-old Emeril Lagasse)—is the winner of seven James Beard Awards. Couple its world-renowned cred with a long-standing tradition of 25-cent martini lunches, and it's no wonder Commander's Palace has earned a spot in our top 10 restaurants four years in a row.
commanderspalace.com, 504-899-8221, 1403 Washington Avenue, New Orleans, LA 70130