100 Best Restaurants in the South
Southern Living Deputy Editor—and intrepid restaurant scout—Jennifer V. Cole hit the road to determine the top 100 places to eat in the South now. The list highlights Jennifer's favorite restaurants for 2014, both new and old, in her most frequented towns. This list is always evolving, so follow @jennifervcole on Twitter for her latest stops.
The South is filled with fantastic restaurants. From fine dining to barbecue joints, Delta tamales to soul food, Southern food is some of the most amazing in the country. Southern restaurants bring the best fresh, down home, local cuisine to diners across the South. The best Southern restaurants know that good food and great people make a fantastic meal. Here are our best Southern restaurants 2014. From Acre in Auburn, Alabama, to Woodbury Kitchen in Baltimore, Maryland, the editors of Southern Living bring you the (almost) A-to-Z of the best southern restaurants—plus a few hot numbers as well. The food is anything but ordinary at The Ordinary in Charleston, South Carolina, and you will feel like you are in charge at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans. Take a table at any of these—they are some of the best Southern restaurants you will find.
The 404 Kitchen, Nashville, TN
What to Order: The Crudo
Chef Matt Bolus calls his brand of cooking fresh and uncomplicated, but there’s some cloaked modesty there. Everything about this industrial-chic 40-seater blends functionality, novelty, and a little “I’m with the band, but I’m not the rock star” attitude. In the Crudo, simple slices of cobia are dotted with pickled strawberries, pea tendrils, and Marcona almonds. For his Tomato Galette, Matt envelops lemony ricotta in a toasted cornmeal crust, and piles on heirloom tomatoes—a twist on tomato pie without any pretension. Much like Nashville these days, it’s all familiar—but new.
404 12th Avenue South; the404nashville.com/kitchenRead more about The 404 Kitchen
610 Magnolia, Louisville, KY
What To Order: Florida White Shrimp and Duck Meatball Pho.
Chef Edward Lee’s flagship restaurant is Louisville’s most sought-after reservation in town. And each plate showcases his ability to combine bold personality (something he’s developed a deserved reputation for) and the best of the seasons with a global perspective on Southern traditions. Go for this twist on traditional pho, with butter-and-fish-sauce poached shrimp and spiced duck meatballs bobbing in a rich broth of chicken, duck, and beef bones scented with burnt ginger, toasted coriander, cloves, and star anise. Sriracha gelee takes the place of the noodles. And it all mingles with fresh Thai basil, cilantro puree, and chili oil.
610 West Magnolia Avenue; 610magnolia.com
Acre, Auburn, AL
What To Order: Acre Shrimp & Grits.
The menu at this gem of a find on The Plains changes almost daily, producing an ever-revolving roster of highlights from chef David Bancroft. This past summer, the Cast Iron Hereford Ribeye for Two was a stunner, with pecan-smoked crackling butter, sweet creamed corn, and fried okra. One near-constant dish is the shrimp and grits, which features sweet shrimp with deep fried Gouda grits, arugula, pickled red onion, and lemon butter.
210 East Glenn Avenue; acreauburn.com
Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen, Memphis, TN
What to Order: No Menu Monday. On the last Monday of every month, Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman go totally off script and create a multi-course $45 prix fixe menu. The theme changes each time, from a porcine ode to an all-vegetable rundown. No Menu also means diners aren’t told what they are eating when dishes arrive at the table, making each course a food lover’s guessing game: is that rhubarb in the ketchup? Black pepper and honey in the gelato? At the end, handwritten menus are passed out to decode the experience.
712 West Brookhaven Circle; andrewmichaelitaliankitchen.com
Bacchanalia, Atlanta, GA
What To Order: The five-course Prix Fixe menu ($85).
After more than 20 years in business, chef Anne Quatranno’s flagship restaurant still sets the bar for hospitality. The five-course tasting menu gracefully highlights the flavors of the South through dishes such as North Georgia rainbow trout, with fennel from Anne’s own farm, brown butter, and almonds, or beautiful white shrimp from the Georgia coast with pork belly, romesco, and basil. I’m always smitten with the cheese course, with its selection of Southern standouts, such as Many Fold Farm “Brebis” and Sequatchie Cove “Dancing Fern.”
1198 Howell Mill Road, NW; starprovisions.com/bacchanalia
The Barn at Blackberry Farm, Walland, TN
What to Order: Rainbow Trout with Buttermilk Consommé and Watercress
1471 West Millers Cove Road; blackberryfarm.com
Cakes & Ale, Decatur, GA
What to Order: Lamb Saddle. Chef Billy Allin, who really shines through his inventive work with produce and great meats, isn’t afraid to play around with flavors. The Middle Eastern-inspired saddle of lamb (big enough for two), served with cracked wheat, cucumber, and minted yogurt, manages to portray a global perspective without sacrificing his Southern sensibility.
155 Sycamore Street; cakesandalerestaurant.com
Capitol Grille, Nashville, TN
What To Order: Anything from Double H Farms.
A few years back, chef Tyler Brown put his money where his mouth is and, well, bought the farm. A 245-acre farm in Dickson County, Tennessee, approximately 30 minutes west of downtown Nashville. Okay, technically, he didn’t. The money men behind The Hermitage Hotel did. But Tyler wears his farmer hat about as often as he wears his chef whites. As a result, the menu is stacked with the fruits of his (and his team’s) labor, including roasted and pickled beets, burgers of Double H Farms beef, and succotash.
231 Sixth Avenue North; capitolgrillenashville.com
Casa Rubia at Trinity Groves, Dallas, TX
What To Order: Boquerones, a simple preparation of anchovies, pipérade, quail egg, and olive oil. Or try the Setas, an elegant display of maitake mushrooms with smoked pear butter, a farm egg, Manchego, and fresh herbs.
3011 Gulden Lane; casarubiadallas.com
Catbird Seat Restaurant Nashville Tennessee
What To Order: 7-to-11-Course Tasting Menu.
This is dinner theater, plain and simple. In an austerely white dining space, chef Trevor Moran delivers immaculate courses to diners at a U-shaped counter surrounding the open kitchen. With only 32 positions, the Catbird Seat is a hard table to snag. (New spots open each day for reservations 30 days out.) But for modernist cooking with real personality, there’s nothing like it.
1711 Division Street, thecatbirdseatrestaurant.com
CBD Provisions, Dallas, TX
What To Order: Berkshire Pig Head Carnitas.
At this meat-centric, Texas-style brasserie, you can’t go wrong with the roasted pig head. It arrives at the table—snout, ears, and all—crisp and fatty atop a wooden plank. For anyone who loves a proper pig pickin’, this is your tableside porcine dream. Wrap the rich and smoky meat in fresh tortillas, pile on crunchy bits of skin, and top with radishes and roasted tomatillo salsa. Plan to come with friends—this dish is meant to be shared.
1530 Main Street; cbdprovisions.com
Chef & The Farmer, Kinston, NC
What To Order: Tomato Pie.
Chef Vivian Howard, perhaps best known for her PBS show A Chef’s Life, treats Southern staples with reverence, curiosity, and finesse. Her tomato pie, a vision of seasonal greatness, comes with charred vegetables, sweet corn, and a basil vinaigrette. Her fried collards are genius in their simplicity: flash fried and sprinkled with sea salt. You get the essence of collard in a single wispy bite.
120 West Gordon Street; chefandthefarmer.com
Chez Fonfon, Birmingham, AL
What To Order: Steak Frites or Trout Amandine.
Chef Frank Stitt’s French bistro, with a boules court out back, ranks as my favorite hometown drop-in spot. I like to grab a seat at the bar, order the steak frites (a fork-tender study in perfection) or the trout amandine in brown butter (crisp and tangy, bistro fare at its best), get a carafe of wine, and catch up on my own thoughts (and my Instagram feed). If I’m really indulging, I add in a slice of the 7-layer coconut cake, encased in fresh coconut shavings and dressed with crème anglaise.
2007 11th Avenue South; fonfonbham.com
Chez Nous, Charleston, SC
What To Order: Whatever is on the Menu du Jour.
This hideaway of a restaurant, tucked in a quiet residential strip downtown, offers two appetizer, entrée, and dessert options each day. When I was there, the tidy radish salad, crisp and peppery, gave way to rosy wild salmon atop a satiny pool of melted leeks, and finished with classic profiterols. As I sat downstairs in the compact restored house, glass of rosé in hand, with light streaming through the open windows, I might as well have been in a bistro in the south of France.
6 Payne Court; facebook.com/cheznouscharleston
Cinco Y Diez, Athens, GA
What To Order: Grilled Chesapeake Oysters with mezcal lime butter, and the Red Chile Pozole.
Influences from France to western Africa have long informed how Southerners eat. Today, it’s Vietnam and Latin America that are most shaping the modern South. At Cinco y Diez, chef/owner Hugh Acheson, an outspoken proponent of the all-inclusive table, highlights the vibrant Latin traditions through a soft-focus Southern lens. And executive chef Whitney Otawka transforms the Southern pantry into a fiery amalgamation of cross-cultural flavors. Oysters from Chesapeake waters sizzle with tangy mezcal lime butter. In the pozole, chunks of silken pork bathe in a red chile broth with Anson Mills hominy, escarole, and fresh radish slices.1653 South Lumpkin Street; cincoydiezathens.com Read more about Cinco Y Diez
City House, Nashville, TN
What to Order: Belly Ham Pizza. Tandy Wilson gets a lot of credit for giving Nashville its current reputation as a food town. His inventive antipasti (bresaola with blueberries and pecorino; scrapple with pepper sauce), fresh pastas, and brilliant cocktail list (e.g., the Junior, a mix of moonshine, créme de violette, and Dr. Enuf soda) puts a progressive twist on Tennessee staples. The Belly Ham pizza, a simple showcase of house-cured ham with mozzarella, Grana Padano, oregano, and chile flakes, blows my mind every time.
1222 Fourth Avenue North; cityhousenashville.com
Cochon, New Orleans, LA
What to Order: Fried Livers with Pepper Jelly and Toast. Donald Link and Stephen Stryjewski, revered as Louisiana’s pork kings, buy whole hogs and make use of every part they can. They’ve built a cult following around hogshead cheese, cracklins, trotters, fried pigs' ears, and every type of sausage possible. And I love it all. But I swoon for the fried livers. Sometimes chicken, sometimes rabbit, the rich and nutty nuggets come perched on toast, swathed in pepper jelly, and finished with shaved onion, fresh parsley, and mint.
930 Tchoupitoulas Street; cochonrestaurant.com
Comfort, Richmond, VA
What To Order: Cheerwine Vinegar Pie with Corn Cob Jelly Cream.
At a place called Comfort, you expect a certain type of food: Pork chops, veggie plates, fried green tomatoes. And the restaurant does all of those exceptionally well. But it’s the Cheerwine twist on vinegar pie, a traditional Appalachian dessert, that still has me hollering. Add in a dollop of corn cob jelly cream and a two-fingered pour of George T. Stagg whiskey—it’s the best way to end a night in Virginia.
200 West Broad Street; comfortrva.com
Commander’s Palace, New Orleans, LA
What To Order: Oyster & Absinthe “Dome.”
Tory McPhail, 2013 winner of the James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef: South, doesn’t shy away from tradition. But he has decidedly put his own mark on the menu of this NOLA institution. For example, try the bourbon-braised fig-and-foie gras beignets with a chicory coffee mist. The rich Oyster & Absinthe “Dome,” a medley of Gulf bivalves poached with bacon, artichokes, tarragon, absinthe, and cream under a pastry shell, masterfully combines the Crescent City tradition of fresh seafood and the town’s delicious cocktail history.
1403 Washington Avenue; commanderspalace.com
Coquette, New Orleans, LA
What to Order: Speckled Trout.
Michael Stoltzfus’s menu changes regularly, including the $23 prix fixe lunch (possibly the best deal in town). But on one visit, I fell hard for the speckled trout served with burst cherry tomatoes, perfectly cooked pattypan squash, and a fluttering of Brussels sprouts leaves, finished with delicate satsuma butter.
2800 Magazine Street; coquettenola.com
Crook’s Corner, Chapel Hill, NC
610 West Franklin Street.; crookscorner.com
Note: Get the recipe for Crook's Corners phenomenal Shrimp and Grits.
Cúrate, Asheville, NC
What To Order: Pulpo a la Gallega.
At Katie Button’s Spanish tapas-style restaurant, this Galician-style octopus, cut in medallions that are tender as a butterbean, arrives warm with sea salt, olive oil, Spanish paprika, and a puree of Yukon Gold potatoes.
11 Biltmore Avenue; curatetapasbar.com
Cypress, Charleston, SC
What To Order: Artisan Meat board.
Craig Deihl is hands down the best in the South—possibly the country—at curing meats. If you don’t eat another thing at Cypress, stop by to stuff your gullet with salumi and charcuterie: rosy Crespone salami with pockets of silken fat, mortadella studded with peppercorns and pistachios, marbled bresaola, Ossabaw hog lardo, fennel-flecked spreadable salami, spicy ’nduja, and on and on. Splurge for the Motherboard ($42), which gets you a little sample of most everything Craig has in stock. It’s worth it, even if you develop a case of the meat sweats. Trust me.
167 East Bay Street; magnolias-blossom-cypress.com
Delta Bistro, Greenwood, MS
What to Order: Fried Green Tomato Plate. Taylor Bowen Ricketts certainly doesn’t bow to cliché, but her rendition of this Southern classic, served with comeback sauce (a tangy Mississippi staple akin to rémoulade), reminds you why folks across the nation rightfully associate fried green tomatoes with the South.
117 Main Street; deltabistro.com
Domenica, New Orleans, LA
What To Order: Roasted Cauliflower.
Alon Shaya, one of the Crescent City’s golden boys, produces some serious pies at Domenica, from a classic Margherita to the Roasted Carrot pizza, with goat cheese, red onion, Brussels sprouts, beets, and hazelnuts. But it’s the surprisingly decadent whole roasted cauliflower with whipped goat cheese and sea salt that’s garnered something of a cult following among food lovers in New Orleans and beyond.
123 Baronne Street; domenicarestaurant.com
Edmund’s Oast, Charleston, SC
What To Order: Carolina Gold Rice Heritage Chicken Porridge.
I like to think of Edmund’s Oast as a stylish gastropub with righteous charcuterie. But that almost undersells it. The craft beer program is unparalleled in South Carolina, with some 40-odd beers on tap, including a handful made in-house, and over 30 bottled options. The cocktail program is relentlessly ambitious. And dishes like the buttermilk fried wings, the pickled shrimp on rye bread, and the roasted-and-smoked chicken with cornbread pudding demonstrate the kitchen’s finesse with classic grub. But it’s the outliers—creamy spiced turnip custard, lemony chicken porridge with poached shrimp, braised lamb meatballs with apricots—that make me want to return.
1081 Morrison Drive; edmundsoast.com
El Barrio Restaurante Y Bar, Birmingham, AL
What to Order: Grilled Chorizo Meatloaf. Under the guidance of Brian Somershield, a Frank Stitt acolyte, this kitchen turns out thoughtful interpretations of modern Mexican fare, such as the grilled meatloaf, made with a robust chorizo, served atop Cotija cheese-mashed potatoes, and crowned with ranchero, a piquant tomato-based sauce spiced with chiles.
2211 Second Avenue North; elbarriobirmingham.com
Empire State South, Atlanta, GA
What To Order: Fried Chicken Po-Boy with hot sauce and pimiento cheese. Or the Grassroots Chicken with hoe cakes, spaghetti squash, okra, and sorghum.
999 Peachtree Street NE., Suite 140; empirestatesouth.com
Fearing’s Restaurant, Dallas, TX
What To Order: Dean’s Tortilla Soup and Dr. Pepper Braised Short Ribs.
2121 McKinney Avenue; fearingsrestaurant.com
The Fearrington House Restaurant, Pittsboro, NC
What To Order: The three- ($95) or four-course ($105) tasting menu.
At this rural North Carolina inn, reminiscent of a French or English farmhouse, the menu echoes the pastoral sophistication of the overall estate. For example, a tomato salad might come adorned with lemon pickled watermelon and a parsley financier. Chicken and sweet corn ravioli mingles with chanterelles, cucumbers, and fresh lima beans. It’s a winning example of farmhouse chic.
240 Market Street; fearrington.com
F.I.G., Charleston, SC
What To Order: Ricotta Gnocchi & Sea Island Grass-Fed Beef Bolognese.
Jason Stanhope has taken the kitchen reins from Mike Lata, a Charleston culinary icon and James Beard Award winner—and he’s doing him proud. F.I.G., a spot known for food cooked with technical precision and fueled by excellent ingredients served at their peak, remains a must-visit in Charleston. Often, when I’m in town, I’ll pop into the bar area for a nightcap of the ricotta gnocchi—affectionately referred to as pillows of love—even if I’ve already eaten dinner elsewhere. It’s that good.
232 Meeting Street; eatatfig.com
Fiola Mare, Washington, D.C.
What To Order: Frutti di Mare platter or Tempura Fried Soft-Shell Crab with basil pesto, blood orange, and trout roe.
3100 K Street NW.; fiolamaredc.com
Fisher’s Upstairs, Orange Beach, AL
What To Order: Oysters Earle.
Even with a bounty of seafood around, it’s often hard to find a great meal at the beach that’s not fried. Fisher’s Upstairs has changed all that in Orange Beach, Alabama. Start any meal with the Oysters Earle, a beautiful platter of oysters from nearby Bon Secour that have been roasted and topped with leek garlic butter.
Orange Beach Marina, 27075 Marina Road; fishersobm.com
Five & Ten, Athens, GA
What To Order: Boiled Peanut Hummus to start, followed by Lowcountry Frogmore Stew, a beautiful preparation of the coastal classic with shrimp, potatoes, corn, andouille sausage, and tomato broth, served with grilled bread.
1073 South Milledge Avenue; fiveandten.com
The French Press, Lafayette, LA
What To Order: Sweet Baby Breesus.
Justin Girouard has become the de facto face of modern food in Cajun country. With this dish—named with a nod to Saints QB Drew Brees—a buttermilk biscuit slider with bacon, fried boudin balls, and Steen’s cane syrup from Abbeville, Justin delivers food with a real sense of place.
214 East Vermilion Street; thefrenchpresslafayette.com
Gautreau's Restaurant New Orleans Louisiana
What To Order: Crispy Sweetbreads with Crawfish Tails served with brabant potatoes, braised greens, and spicy beurre blanc.
1728 Soniat Street; gautreausrestaurant.com
The General Muir, Atlanta, GA
What To Order: Pastrami Sandwich.
Emory Point, 1540 Avenue Place, Suite B-230; thegeneralmuir.com
Gunshow, Atlanta, GA
What To Order: Whatever looks best.
With Kevin Gillespie’s dim sum approach to dining, dishes are paraded by your table and described in detail. Acquiesce and dive in, or send it on its way. The menu’s theme changes weekly, guaranteeing you’ll never have the same meal there twice.
924 Garrett Street; gunshowatl.com
Heritage, Richmond VA
What To Order: House-made Charcuterie, and the Bourbon Barrel Smoked Pork Belly with kimchi, bok choy, carrots, peanuts, and ginger.
1627 West Main Street; heritagerva.com
Highlands Bar and Grill, Birmingham, AL
What to Order: Stone-Ground Baked Grits with country ham, mushrooms, fresh thyme, and Parmesan
2011 11th Avenue South; highlandsbarandgrill.com
The Hive, Bentonville, AR
What To Order: Arkansas Trail Mix.
Chef Matthew McClure is a champ in the kitchen. And you’ll often hear about his finesse with the Southern larder: grilled quail with roasted peaches and buckwheat, Gulf shrimp with green tomato chowchow and pole beans. But I’m a little obsessed with the Arkansas Trail Mix, his take on a bar snack, which combines spiced-and-fried black-eyed peas, candied pecans, candied black walnuts, toasted soybeans, and cheese straws.
200 NE. A Street; thehivebentonville.com
Hog & Hominy, Memphis, TN
What To Order: Red Eye Pizza.
Simple yet decadent, this pizza arrives piled with chunks of pork belly around a soft-cooked egg on sugo (a tomato-pork sauce) and Taleggio cheese with fragrant celery leaves scattered like confetti. But you really can’t go wrong with any of the menu: wood-fired pizzas, drippingly messy neckbone gravy poutine (fries studded with cheese curd), and earthy cauliflower roasted with brown butter. Even a simple romaine salad feels like an indulgence with its rich pecorino vinaigrette and generous scattering of fried chicken skins instead of croutons. At this unlikely East Memphis spot—all airy and modern, like Ikea with country-boy swagger—Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman demonstrate their low-key prowess of merging classic technique and pitch-perfect ingredients. They continually prove that a glorious meal has nothing to do with a tufted dining room and a hefty tab.
707 West Brookhaven Circle; hogandhominy.com
Hominy Grill, Charleston, SC
What To Order: Shrimp & Grits.
207 Rutledge Avenue; hominygrill.com
Hot and Hot Fish Club, Birmingham, AL
What to Order: Hot and Hot Tomato Salad. This namesake salad, a wobbly tower of fresh heirloom tomatoes, bacon, and fried okra pods atop a pile of field peas, epitomizes Chris Hastings' efforts to showcase Alabama’s bounty: grown, caught, or foraged.
2180 11th Court South; hotandhotfishclub.com
Husk, Charleston, SC, and Nashville, TN
What To Order: Fried Chicken Skins with hot sauce, honey, and Espelette; The Husk Burger, quite possibly the finest example of a hamburger in the South; and a side of skillet cornbread with Allan Benton’s bacon. Oh, and the veggie plate. And the fried chicken if they’ve got it on special. Honestly, this is the perfect opportunity to #ordereverything.
76 Queen Street, Charleston; huskrestaurant.com
37 Rutledge Street, Nashville; husknashville.com
Jaleo, Washington, D.C.
What to Order: Pan De Recapte Con Anchoa, traditional Catalan toasted bread with peppers, tomatoes, and salt-cured Spanish anchovies
480 Seventh Street Northwest; jaleo.com
Kimball House, Decatur, GA
What To Order: Oysters and absinthe-based cocktails.
I’ve yet to see another spot in the South with such a thoughtful—and joyful—oyster program. The menu lists, give or take, 22 oyster varieties, most sourced from small family farms and flown in daily, with the kinds of tasting notes more frequently reserved for wine lists. The Chelsea Gems from Eld Inlet, Washington, are likened to “anise and buttered truffle”; the Northern Cross from Fisherman’s Island, Virginia, “salted parsnip and green onion.” And local bar hero Miles Macquarrie wields his magic wand with drinks like the Afternoon Delight, a heady yet refreshing mix of absinthe, lime, pineapple, tarragon, and bubbles.
303 East Howard Avenue; kimball-house.comRead more about Kimball House
Knife & Fork, Spruce Pine, NC
What To Order: Turnips with Kettle Corn and Gjetost, a rich, caramelized cheese.
Chef Nathan Allen brings the flavors of North Carolina to the table in smart, inventive ways at this casual Appalachian eatery. Find things like local rabbit, trout belly with radishes and wood sorrel, and sumac roasted cauliflower.
61 Locust Street; knifeandforknc.com
Komi, Washington, D.C.
What to Order: Multi-course Tasting Menu ($135). Lest you think fine dining is dead (there’s no denying that casual restaurants have experienced a major resurgence), just pay a visit to Komi, an homage to modern Greek fare. With its bare tables and youthful staff, it might not appear like the white-tableclothed temples of yore. But pay attention and you’ll see that the service is exquisite (the staff moves with graceful ease without acting overly familiar), the wine list is full of interesting bottles (and the young sommelier can speak to the qualities of all of them), and the food arrives with orchestrated precision. And each bite (after beautiful bite) tastes like your new favorite dish. That is, until the next dish arrives.
1509 17th Street Northwest; komirestaurant.com
Lantern, Chapel Hill, NC
423 West Franklin Street; lanternrestaurant.com
La Petite Grocery, New Orleans, LA
Little Serow, Washington, D.C.
What to Order: $45 Prix Fixe Menu. Johnny Monis’ jewel box of a restaurant delivers fiery Thai flavors that tend to just get hotter with each of the seven courses. They don’t take reservations, so get there early (by 5 p.m.) and expect to wait in line—it can stretch down the block.
1511 17th Street Northwest; littleserow.com
Lockeland Table, Nashville, TN
What to Order: Sapelo Island Clams Casino Pizza
1520 Woodland Street; lockelandtable.com
The Macintosh, Charleston, SC
What to Order: Bone Marrow Bread Pudding
479B King Street; themacintoshcharleston.com
Mateo Tapas, Durham, NC
What to Order: Huevo Diablo. At this Spanish-inspired cantina, in the heart of downtown Durham’s revival, Matt Kelly masterfully blends the flavors of the South and Spain. His Huevo Diablo (deviled egg) arrives neatly halved, wrapped in chorizo, and piled high with a satiny egg filling, the seeming culinary offspring of a demure Southern mama and a swarthy Spanish father. But don’t stop there. Put simply, Matt’s food is mind-blowingly good. Bowls of Manila clams and boiled peanuts surrender to a sherry-laced, garlicky broth. Meaty pork ribs, lacquered in Espellette pepper jelly, seem just the thing you’d eat at a barbecue joint in Basque Country. Luckily, his tapas-style menu encourages sharing.
109 West Chapel Hill Street; mateotapas.com
McCrady’s, Charleston, SC
What To Order: The four-course Prix Fixe menu ($65).
Chef Sean Brock has made a name for himself for his thoughtful, inventive, do-it-right-or-don’t-do-it-at-all attitude and his commitment to the heritage of the Southern pantry. At McCrady’s, his fine-dining flagship, that ethos comes through in every beautiful—but never precious—bite. From the beef tartare with puffed beef tendon to the Berkshire pork decorated with corn, cherries, and chanterelles to the frozen grits parfait, eating at McCrady’s is like getting a glimpse behind the curtain at the genius who’s pulling the levers of contemporary Southern food.
2 Unity Alley; mccradysrestaurant.com
Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink, Miami, FL
What to Order: Crispy Sweet and Spicy Pork Belly. Chef Michael Schwartz is a Miami revolutionary. And the food at his flagship restaurant, opened in 2007, is so memorable I have inflicted serious travel hurdles on myself simply to eat there. No joke. I have regularly planned Miami layovers just long enough to grab a quick bite (yes, that means an unnecessary trip through MIA security). Once, en route from Key West to Naples, I drove 40 minutes out of my way at 10 p.m., in a blustering thunderstorm, to catch the kitchen before it closed. And that pork belly is a dish I catch myself going back to over and over again. Beautifully glazed, topped with kimchi, crushed peanuts, and fresh pea shoots, it perfectly balances sweet and savory, crispy and unctuous, fresh and fermented.
130 Northeast 40th Street; michaelsgenuine.com
MilkWood, Louisville, KY
316 West Main Street; actorstheatre.org/milkwood
Miller Union, Atlanta, GA
999 Brady Avenue; millerunion.com
The Obstinate Daughter, Sullivan’s Island, SC
What To Order: Favas and Peas or Mepkin Abbey Mushrooms
Though the wood-fired pizzas and pastas conjure Italy, Jacques Larson relies mightily on the flavors of the Lowcountry. Under the Plates section, Jacques’ command of flavor as sense of place shines. Oyster mushrooms from the nearby Mepkin Abbey join earthy kale and a runny Sea Island egg under shards of Parmesan. Favas and peas sit atop ricotta made with milk from John’s Island, accented with sea salt from nearby Bulls Bay.
2063 Middle Street; theobstinatedaughter.comRead more about The Obstinate Daughter
Odd Duck, Austin, TX
What To Order: Carrots Roasted in Hay with goat feta and pistachio crumb.
1201 South Lamar Boulevard; oddduckaustin.com
Ollie Irene, Mountain Brook, AL
What To Order: Cornmeal-dusted catfish, sautéed with corn, Cajun ham, lemon butter, and scallions.
2713 Culver Road, ollieirene.com
One Flew South, Atlanta, GA
What To Order: Pulled Duck Sandwich.
One Flew South is a unicorn among restaurants: It makes me want to spend more time in the Atlanta airport. Whenever I have a layover, I make a beeline to Concourse E, snag a seat at the bar, and order the Pulled Duck Sandwich. Within the layers of duck confit, fig-and-peanut relish, scallions, and slaw, the fat and spice dance with a medley of textures. It’s the perfect sandwich. And it’s in an airport. Pair it with a Pretty Brown Eyes cocktail (Eagle Rare bourbon, benedictine, lemon, and a Malbec float) or whatever bartender Tiffanie Barriere is pouring.
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Concourse E; oneflewsouthatl.com
The Optimist, Atlanta, GA
What To Order: Shell on Georgia Shrimp a la Plancha, with arbol chile butter, lime, and “sopping” toast.
At The Optimist, it’s a fish lover’s smorgasbord, and chef Adam Evans works magic with seafood, routinely turning out one exquisite, finger-licking dish after another.
914 Howell Mill Road; theoptimistrestaurant.com
The Ordinary, Charleston, SC
What to Order: Oyster Sliders. At chef Mike Lata’s high temple of Neptune’s bounty, these sliders are the perfect spicy-sweet, crispy, tender combo: fried oysters are tucked inside Hawaiian rolls, topped with cabbage, pickled carrots, homemade Sriracha hot sauce, cilantro, and jalapenos.
544 King Street; eattheordinary.com
Oxheart, Houston, TX
What to Order: Tasting Menu. Justin Yu’s Houston hot spot is a champion of casual dining. Guests retrieve their own silverware and cooks double as waitstaff. But his tasting menus inspire. He has elicited tears of rapture with his deceptively simple beet salad, dressed with lemon blossom vinegar, quinoa, and almonds.
1302 Nance Street; oxhearthouston.com
Pêche Seafood Grill, New Orleans, LA
What To Order: Whole Grilled Fish.
The latest project from the team behind Cochon and Herbsaint (Donald Link, Stephen Stryjewski, and Ryan Prewitt), this open-fire emporium in the New Orleans Warehouse District was inspired by a trip to Uruguay, where every restaurant, farmhouse, and even rest stop seems to have a wood-burning parrilla.
800 Magazine Street; pecherestaurant.com
Peter Chang China Café, Glen Allen, VA
What To Order: Scallion Bubble Pancake and Szechuan Dan Dan Noodle.
11424 West Broad Street; peterchangrva.com
Pinewood Social, Nashville, TN
What To Order: Fried Broccoli, and Hot Sweetbreads.
When Pinewood Social opened in 2013, it quickly became Nashville’s de facto clubhouse. The coffee shop/craft cocktail bar/restaurant/vintage-style bowling alley/karaoke lounge offers a stylish spot to post up all day long (7 a.m. to 1 a.m.). Chef Josh Habiger, formerly of The Catbird Seat, delivers a decidedly Nashville take on comfort food, with dishes like fried nuggets of tender sweetbreads served Hot Chicken-style. Or bites of broccoli, fried without any breading and sprinkled with lemon zest and sea salt. No matter the time of day, there’s a cocktail for the occasion. The Easy Like Sunday Morning, a coffee cortado with Fernet Branca and demerara sugar, might be the best eye opener around.
33 Peabody Street; pinewoodsocial.com
Poole’s Diner, Raleigh, NC
What To Order: Chilled Poached Shrimp with Smoked Tomato.
Two years ago at the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) annual symposium, Ashley Christensen cooked the ballsiest meal ever: an all-vegetable lunch at a barbecue-themed weekend. It was so good that when she emerged from the kitchen she received a standing ovation, and I saw grown men silently weep. This Poole’s dish channels a highlight of that meal (smoked tomato pie with corn cream). Ashley tosses chilled poached shrimp with rich tomatoes that have been smoked over embers, then crowns it all with—the best part—whipped cream made from sweet corn. That whipped corn cream is the stuff of dreams. At SFA I professed my love immediately, and my tablemate, ESPN writer Wright Thompson, offered to perform on-the-fly nuptials.
426 South McDowell Street; ac-restaurants.com/pooles
Proof on Main, Louisville, KY
What to Order: Broadbent Country Ham Falafel.
702 West Main Street; proofonmain.com
Provisions, Houston, TX
807 Taft Street; passandprovisions.com
Qui, Austin, TX
What To Order: Tasting Menu ($65) or Vegetable Tasting Menu ($55).
Chef Paul Qui, of Top Chef fame and the man behind Austin’s food truck darling, East Side King, has taken his inventive à la carte menu and replaced it with a seven-course prix fixe offering. No more picking and choosing between the Ode to Michel Bras (a showcase of vegetables from area farmers) and the Squash & Corn (summer squash with corn miso butter and uni bottarga) or the dry-aged beef tongue and the Flintstones-size côte du bœuf. Expect equally exciting adventures in dining. But this time around, just sit back and enjoy the ride.
1600 East Sixth Street; quiaustin.com