Our Travel Editor's Most Stand-Out Meals for 2019
The dining room is lovely and luminous, but Henrietta Red’s marble bar can make a stool sitter out of the most table-driven diner—especially for the close access to bartenders that can spirit guide you through general manager-sommelier Allie Poindexter’s eclectic natural wine menu. On Chef Julia Sullivan’s seafood-dominant menu, I zeroed in on the red snapper crudo: a kaleidoscopic mix of radish rounds, microgreens, cara cara orange segments, crunchy quinoa, tarragon, and horseradish atop delicate ballet-slipper pink snapper slices shows the restrained, refreshing side of a city known for bold flavors.
Molly’s Rise and Shine
New Orleans, Louisiana
The year 2017 saw a glut of subway tiled, houseplant-adorned, kale caesar-and-short rib restaurants open up. Then Chef Mason Hereford skated in with his pseudo sandwich spot Turkey and the Wolf and upended just about every notion of what a locally loved yet critically acclaimed neighborhood joint could be. His follow-up project, the breakfast-centric Molly’s Rise and Shine, extends that narrative further while also serving as a loose laboratory for New Orleans’ burgeoning chefs. Order the Dan Stein Breakfast, a fire engine-red cafeteria tray featuring a bagel with spicy-briny caper-red pepper cream cheese and don’t sleep on the carrot marmalade-swirled yogurt and granola.
A conversation with a busser at Empire State South in Atlanta led me to this strip mall spot along Buford Highway’s sprawling smorgasbord of international restaurants. The sign was so faded that I almost missed it, but Lee’s is far from a hidden gem. In a city filled with Vietnamese restaurants, Atlanta residents all pledge a different banh mi and pho allegiance, but Lee’s evinces a rare consensus. Their BBQ pork banh mi, a combination of hoisin-stained pork slices with crunchy cucumber and carrot, cilantro, and mayo on house-baked bread still haunts me weekly around the lunch hour. I’ll admit, knowing Lee’s is only a couple hours drive from my house has been the catalyst to one or two impromptu road trips since my first encounter.
Most conversations about Memphis’ best barbecue focus on the city’s center spots like Payne’s, Cozy Corner, and Central BBQ (and rightly so), but on the periphery sits a suburban staple, Germantown Commissary. Once a country general store for 90 years, it became a barbecue restaurant (by accident) in the ’70s and locals have been squeezing into the tight configuration of gingham-covered tables since. Their deviled egg-dotted dry-rub rib plates offer a perfect model of the Memphis-style method.
MG Road Bar and Lounge
Asheville, North Carolina
Chef Merherwan Irani’s acclaimed Indian restaurant Chai Pani might seem where the action is, but there’s a whole other party downstairs at the cocktail lounge MG Road. Underneath a kaleidoscopic canopy of Christmas lights, feather boa-thick tencel, and disco balls, bartenders mix up drinks with Indian-inspired ingredients like the Jaipur Julep with tequila, ancho chile liqueur, and a toasted coriander-ginger syrup. There’s snacks and small plates too including the oft-ordered MG wings, crispy with a sweet heat from a mix of black peppercorns, chiles, and jaggery (a tangy powder made from concentrated palm sugar).
The dining room during lunch service at Johnny’s is already tight with a game of musical chairs between the line out the door and tables full of regulars. Then there comes Cullman, Alabama, farmer Dwight Hamm weaving his way through with an arm full of collard greens of boxes of hand-graded okra—living proof of chef-owner Tim Hontzas’ intense dedication to sourcing. The descendent of Greek restaurant-owning families in Mississippi and Alabama, Hontzas still serves their Southern-Mediterranean meat and three staples, but here the choices go far beyond the expected from chicken souvlaki with a tahini-butter, fried triggerfish with homemade comeback sauce, and cornmeal-fried baby Japanese eggplant.
Green Truck Pub
Off the tourist-friendly Historic District circuit, Green Truck Pub quickly become a locals haven after it opened in 2010. Early advocates of Lowcountry farmers and beef producers, owners Josh and Whitney Yates use burgers, sandwiches, and salads as vehicles for housemade everything, from Vidalia onion jam and pickles to ranch dressing and pimento cheese in ways that gloriously transcend the burger-and-beer joint genre while still keeping it casual.
Black Bear Bread Co.
Grayton Beach, Florida
Toasts and pour overs doesn’t scream beach eats, but Black Bear Bread Co.’s cottage cafe has resonated with the 30A community. Newly nominated James Beard Award semifinalist Deb Swenerton’s artisan loaves and pastries are the main fulcrum of the all-day menu where her sourdough is topped with tuna conserva and croissants with Benton’s bacon, egg, and cheese.
New Orleans, Louisiana
In a city famous for its French influence, there is nary a bistro serving worthy classics like steak frites, mussels, and the like. Then last year the Eliza Jane Hotel opened its on-property restaurant Couvant fittingly in the French Quarter. Its chef Brad McDonald hales from Yazoo City, Mississippi, but spent his culinary career in New York, Denmark, and London where he owned a Southern barbecue spot in SoHo. His renditions of steak tartare and salad lynose are truly traditional but their deft execution makes them exciting. Perch at the bar with absinthe frappes, local oysters, and a grand aioli for the perfect midday, pre-dinner meal that only seems calorically justified in New Orleans.
Owner Emily Blount is extending Saint Leo’s reach further down Oxford’s courthouse square with Saint Leo Lounge, a cocktail and snack space, but the original outpost still feels as fresh and buzzy as it did when it came on the small town’s scene two years ago. A precursor of the spicy-creamy white beans followed by the burrata and sopressata pizza along and a cobb salad packed with local produce here is the ideal pizza night.