The South’s Best Restaurants in Every State 2019
For many Southerners, restaurants act as their town hall and the chefs behind them their unofficial mayors. They are the places locals take out-of-towners to give them a sense of their city; they are the institutes preserving local cultures. The restaurants that appeared on this year’s South’s Best survey show that whether you live in a global tourist destination like Charleston, South Carolina, or a tiny Appalachian town like Kinston, North Carolina, the restaurants that become emblematic of state pride don’t fit one set of criteria. They’re just as unique as the states that they call home and the people who frequent them. From chef Mashama Bailey’s reexamination of the foodways that created Lowcountry cuisine at The Grey in Savannah, Georgia, to the elegant-casual duality of dockside treasure Fisher’s in Orange Beach, Alabama, the ways these restaurants speak to their communities make them winners for our readers.
These Are the South's Best Restaurants
Alabama: Fisher’s at Orange Beach Marina
Orange Beach, Alabama
While there is a time and place for a beachside basket full of fried shrimp and overdressed coleslaw, the treasures of the Gulf find a home benefitting their glory at Fisher’s. The upstairs-downstairs setup here might imply pomp above and party below, but executive chef Bill Briand lends complexity to the casual dockside dishes downstairs and expert simplicity to the specialties served in the dining room upstairs (like hyper-local Bon Secour oysters that sail over garlic-leek butter). Either floor makes for a dreamy cocktail-sipping perch, where you can gaze out on the secluded but bustling Orange Beach Marina.
Arkansas: South on Main
Little Rock, Arkansas
Doubling as a venue space for acclaimed Southern literary magazine, Oxford American, South on Main serves Hoppin’ John veggie burgers and trout with Arkansas-sourced rice while the stories from the magazine come to life on stage from poetry and book readings to intimate singer-songwriter performances.
Florida: Bern’s Steak House
Renown for their wine collection, Bern’s boasts over half a million bottles and 6,800 selections. Big numbers abound further through the restaurant especially in the second floor Henry Waugh Dessert Room, which features 48 enclosed booths constructed from red wine holding tanks and 50 desserts on the menu.
Georgia: The Grey
In what was once an abandoned Greyhound bus station where restrooms were segregated, The Grey has quickly become one of the South’s, and the entire country’s, most culturally import contemporary restaurants. Inside the Art Deco jewel of Savannah’s historic district, James Beard Award-nominated executive chef Mashama Bailey infuses her menu with historical significance, like her “pantry, water, dirt, and pasture” taxonomy. It’s an homage to the Southern culinary icon Edna Lewis, who organized her cookbook In Pursuit of Flavorin a similar way. Despite her respect for the South’s culinary history, Bailey still manages to keep a playful approachability (like the dropper bottles full of mignonette served with the local oysters).
Kentucky: Dudley’s on Short
Lexington lays low, but locals know this small Kentucky city has a culinary scene on the rise. Cocktail lounge Ona and Ouita Michel’s latest outposts Zim’s Cafe and Honeywood have received recent national attention, but Dudley’s is recognized as one of the restaurants that paved the way when owner Debbie Long started it in 1981.
Louisiana: Commander’s Palace
New Orleans, Louisiana
Commander’s Palace is a neighborhood restaurant in the way that New Orleans is an American city. Although true, there is nowhere else like either. A massive mansion adjacent to an ancient cemetery and traditional double-gallery-style houses, its misfit look has been called “Victorian Cuckoo.” Its big, boisterous exterior, painted unapologetically bright aqua, alludes to what’s inside.
Maryland: Duck Duck Goose
Chef Ashish Alfred’s French bistro Duck Duck Goose continues to win over Baltimore with perfectly executed classics from beef tartare to ratatouille, with a few of his own dishes mixed in, like a date puree-topped cauliflower steak.
Mississippi: City Grocery
A forebearer in the South’s restaurant renaissance, City Grocery also acts as a nexus for the South’s literary, culinary, and creative communities. From acclaimed authors and poets to fashion designers, chefs, and artists—many an icon has passed through its doors. And they likely made their way upstairs to the legendary lookout balcony over Oxford’s courthouse square for sipping and storytelling.
St. Louis, Missouri
St. Louis chef Kevin Willman’s menu is inspired equally by his childhood on his family’s farmland, where he harvested vegetables and made put-ups with his grandmother, and his time spent working on charter fishing boats and cooking at restaurants along the Florida panhandle.
North Carolina: Chef & the Farmer
Kinston, North Carolina
Despite its remote location in Kinston, North Carolina, hundreds of thousands felt like they had visited Chef & The Farmer through owner Vivian Howard’s award-winning PBS show A Chef’s Life, where viewers saw the highs and lows of restaurant-ownership and Howard’s mission to sustain Appalachian agriculture.
Oklahoma: The Tavern
From a cognac cream and stilton-topped burger to housemade Berkshire pork sausage, Executive Chef Audrey Long’s comforting pub-inspired food finds an equally cozy home in the intimately lit, library-like dining room in what used to be a former historic hotel.
South Carolina: Husk
Charleston, South Carolina
Husk quickly became one of the foundational restaurants that introduced Charleston, Southern cooking, and Low Country traditions to both a national and global audience. Now under the direction of Executive Chef Travis Grimes, continues the commitment to the area’s farmers and producers, and in turn, creating dishes that tell their stories.
Tennessee: The Barn at Blackberry Farm
While the ingredients are terrestrially familiar, the forms they take in the dishes at The Barn at Blackberry Farm makes you feel like you are inhabiting a separate world. In it, chef Casidee Dabney creates everything from sweet tea gastrique to fennel pollen-dusted grits and imbues spaghetti squash with the same power as a protein by roasting it in a hearth and pairing it with caramelized cauliflower, pickled raisins, chili oil, and marcona almonds.
Texas: Ninfa’s on Navigation
If fajitas took a DNA test, the results would trace back to this Houston favorite. Founded by “Mama” Ninfa Laurenzo in 1973, the neighborhood spot is known as the home of tacos al carbon, created when Laurenzo first served sliced chargrilled steak on corn tortillas. But Ninfa’s is even more of a monument to a persistent woman. Widowed at 44, Laurenzo took over the family’s tortilla-and-pizza dough factory. To help bolster profits, she started a 10-table restaurant in front-with pots and pans from her own kitchen. Today chef Alex Padilla (whose mother worked for Laurenzo) keeps the fajita flame alive but adds his own memorable mark.
Virginia: The Shack
In the middle of the Shenandoah Valley in a tiny 26-seat restaurant, chef Ian Boden serves food inspired by his wife’s grandmother, who welded Appalachian and Eastern European Jewish food traditions together: schmaltz-glazed rolls, rice, fried cabbage with country ham, and butternut squash pierogies, complete with an onion sauce, chili, and pecans.
West Virginia: Prime 44 West
White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia
Housed inside the historic resort The Greenbrier, Prime 44 combines the ambiance of a 1950s steakhouse with a miniature hall of fame dedicated to West Virginian Jerry West, who is also honored on the menu by way of a 44-ounce Porterhouse.
Washington, D.C.: Old Ebbitt Grill
Famous for having hosted many a presidential customer in its original location (from Andrew Johnson to Ulysses S. Grant), The Old Ebbitt Grill continues its political presence in its current location too; it's where D.C. insiders drink and dine under patriotic paintings.