The South's Best Food Cities 2020
The South may be known for its fall-off-the-bone barbecue and crisp, golden-fried chicken, but anyone who has visited a Southern city knows that Southern food is so much more than that. These 10 spectacular food cities consistently prove that the South’s culinary scene is vibrant, diverse, and—most importantly—unpretentiously delicious. From New Orleans to Asheville, these food destinations span regions and states; but while all of the places on this list are in the South, we’d put them up against any celebrated culinary city in America. Each of the South’s best food cities, as voted on by our readers, has its own particular character: In Austin, you’ll find taco shacks around every street corner; in Charleston, seafood is king. But no matter where you are—whether it’s a white-tablecloth, crystal-chandelier restaurant or a backyard barbecue pit with red-checkered picnic tables—there’s one common denominator in all good Southern food: It’s relentlessly welcoming.
10. Birmingham, Alabama
Birmingham’s greatest culinary asset may be that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Of course, the city’s a destination for barbecue, but it has so much more to offer than pulled pork and fried chicken (although both are executed masterfully at Saw’s BBQ, which has various outposts throughout the city). Frank and Pardis Stitt’s widely revered restaurants—Highlands Bar and Grill, Bottega, and Chez Fon Fon—are undoubtedly Birmingham’s crown jewels, but the Magic City’s culinary scene is quickly expanding, with hot spots like Automatic Fish and Oyster and The Essential leading the pack.
Pictured: The Essential in Birmingham, Alabama.
9. Austin, Texas
When you visit Texas, you eat tacos or barbecue for every meal. It’s just what you do. Breakfast tacos are staples in any Austin local’s diet, and the hip, eclectic city is peppered with countless taco stands that groove along under the radar. Two icons of Texas collide at Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ, where barbecue meets tacos; Franklin Barbecue and la Barbecue both make our list of the South’s best barbecue joints.
Pictured: Valentina's Tex Mex BBQ in Austin, Texas.
8. Memphis, Tennessee
When you’re in Memphis, you’re practically obligated to fill up on the city’s signature barbecue. And there’s so much of it that we feel the need for a disclaimer: We KNOW we aren’t mentioning all of the biggies. That said, don’t miss the pork shoulder at Central BBQ or the succulent Cornish game hen at Cozy Corner (this BBQ joint may have a substantial line, but it’s certainly worth the wait). Barbecue meets Memphis blues at the Blues City Café, where you can get steak, shrimp, tamales, catfish, burgers, and, of course, beer. You’ll find the city’s best burger at Huey’s, and finish it all off with a slice of the famous Slap Yo Mama Chocolate Pie at The Pie Folks.
Pictured: Central BBQ in Memphis, Tennessee.
7. Richmond, Virginia
Richmond bustles with creativity—it’s the home of our best new restaurant, Alewife, along with many other terrific spots. Here, you’ll find fine dining, but it’s done playfully and with satirical self-awareness: L’Opossum’s menu features dishes like “Grilled Caesar with All of the Usual Suspects” and “A Brisk Fall Cookout in the Boneyard.” In Richmond, there’s a wellspring of generosity; Mama J’s serves home-cooking with plenty of soul.
Pictured: Alewife in Richmond, Virginia.
6. Asheville, North Carolina
A mountain town with a free, uninhibited spirit, Asheville has blossomed into a true food destination. Ashleigh Shanti pins Appalachian Soul food on the map at Benne on Eagle, a restaurant committed to honoring the legacy of the thriving African American community once centered around The Block, where the restaurant is now situated. Chef Meherwan Irani’s dreams of one day opening a restaurant is manifested in Chai Pani, which has become a nationally renowned destination for Indian street food. Locals gather at Cúrate, Katie Button’s beloved Spanish tapas bar, and Buxton Hall Barbecue receives much attention for—of all things—its pies.
Pictured: Cúrate in Asheville, North Carolina.
5. Atlanta, Georgia
Atlanta is the Deep South’s hub city, and its culinary scene reflects that. Sitting right on the BeltLine, Ladybird feels straight out of a Wes Anderson film, complete with a vintage camper and a menu of trail snacks. South City Kitchen serves up Southern classics in a new, innovative fashion; chef Anne Quatrano’s Bacchanalia continues to raise the bar; The Garden Room utterly transports you to a lush, botanical paradise. James Beard Award winner chef Stephen Satterfield offers his take on Southern cooking at Miller Union. With paneled mirrored walls and a bakery case stocked with a luxe assortment of cakes, Café Intermezzo channels the slow, lingering atmosphere of a French bistro in the heart of Midtown.
Pictured: Miller Union in Atlanta, Georgia.
4. Nashville, Tennessee
In a city known for honky-tonking, you’ll discover a food scene that soars far above anything you might expect. Like its music, Nashville’s culinary culture claims its fair share of celebrity, but even those destinations— Hattie B’s (famed for its hot chicken) and Biscuit Love (which draws lines down the block for breakfast)—remain at the top of their game. In the less-explored East Nashville, you’ll find plenty of gems, from Butcher & Bee, a Middle Eastern restaurant serving an assortment of seasonally inspired mezze, to The Pharmacy, a picnic-style burger house and beer garden.
Pictured: Biscuit Love in Nashville, Tennessee.
3. Savannah, Georgia
Much like the town itself, Savannah’s dining scene is laid back. The Grey is undoubtedly the city’s prized gem, where executive chef Mashama Bailey cooks down-to-earth Southern food in a former Greyhound bus station. Australian food gets a Southern twist at The Collins Quarter, a café and bar in downtown Savannah; here, you can have your grits shashouka-style and top any salad with a fillet of Australian sea bass. For stunning water views and fresh seafood, The Wyld is your dockside destination. After dinner, head to Leopold’s Ice Cream, where adults and kids alike can enjoy a classic scoop of butter pecan.
Pictured: The Grey in Savannah, Georgia.
2. Charleston, South Carolina
Charleston’s crowning spot on the Southern food map is indisputable. The city’s culinary scene continues to command national attention, far outperforming other cities of its size. Many Charleston restaurants emphasize the local—Husk and The Grocery both champion Southern farmers and fresh, seasonal ingredients. Charleston’s seaside location makes it a prime destination for seafood, which is often served in breezy, elegant cafés like The Darling Oyster Bar or The Ordinary. Zero George’s hyper-creative tasting menu is unparalleled. And Peninsula Grill’s Ultimate Coconut Cake is the stuff of legend.
Pictured: The Grocery in Charleston, South Carolina.
1. New Orleans, Louisiana
No place has as much soul as this storied city, and there is no wrong way to turn when dining in New Orleans. Café du Monde’s beignets, piled with a snowy mountain of powdered sugar, require no introduction. Cajun food reigns supreme at Cochon, and an ever-changing menu makes Coquette a local favorite. Hospitality remains at the core of century-old institutions like Commander’s Palace and Upperline, which exude personality and finesse. Upperline would not be Upperline without New Orleans’ most beloved hostess, JoAnn Clevenger; the late Miss Ella is just as legendary as Commander’s Palace itself. From fine dining to notable dives—Port of Call fields endless crowds for its famous burger—New Orleans has it all.
Pictured: Upperline in New Orleans, Louisiana.