The South's Best City on the Rise 2022: Greenville, South Carolina
As someone who has lived in Atlanta on and off since 1978, I'm still amazed at the gems that abound in every nook of the Southeast. There's great delight in discovering a new (to me) treasure like the concentration of Korean restaurants near the automotive manufacturers in Alabama or the abundance of incredible immigrant-led restaurants in Clarkston, Georgia.
I've often traveled through Greenville on the drive from Atlanta to Asheville to visit my parents. I can't count the number of times that I've purchased superior South Carolina peaches from the roadside stand next to the Spinx gas station in nearby Travelers Rest because I was wondering what to eat but drawing a blank. I won't have that problem after this eating expedition, because I have found that Greenville's culinary offerings make it a place worth savoring.
As a restaurant critic and a mom, I have two essential criteria for a Southern road trip: There must be good dining options and lots of activities. Greenville has both, including plenty of museums with exciting exhibits and established restaurants in every category, whether it's Bucky's Bar-B-Q or fresh regional cuisine at Soby's. There are imports from other Southern cities and towns, including the Mast General Store (with barrels of candy) and Halls Chophouse out of Charleston, but Greenville has a distinct personality all its own.
In recent years, the city's food scene has expanded its borders, both geographically and culturally. There's everything from Aryana Afghan Cuisine to tacos at Califas, a strip mall spot that started in 2020 as a pop-up serving trendy birria (a slow-cooked meat filling). Califas' owner, Erika Dila, hails from Culver City, California, hence menu items with names like Sunset Boulevard and Palm Springs. The classic Heavenly Delicious Birria Taco is a perfect benchmark for how this dish should taste, and the crispy tortilla shell and gooey strings of melted white cheese make it way too fun to eat. Dip it into the accompanying consommé (cooking liquid) for a saucy treat.
Neighborhood favorite The Anchorage was a James Beard Award semifinalist in 2018. Chefs Gregory McPhee (who was on the opening team at Husk in Charleston) and Alex Morgan make this a can't-miss spot. Enter through Taxi House Wines, which sells a fun assortment of the bottles served at this bi-level eatery. Although the cocktails with whimsical names like Kermit the Fizz are delightful, wines match the incredible menu best. Delicious options might include a handcrafted cheese plate with silky smooth bourbon-liver mousse or a thick slab of North Carolina swordfish with fresh greens and fried garlic.
The Cook's Station presents a hyper-Southern array of products showcased next to top-of-the-line BlueStar ovens for those who have food and cooking on the brain. Its newest location on Buncombe Street in downtown Greenville opened during the pandemic and sells gadgets and goodies that you never even knew you needed. Want to shop for a while? Grab a glass of Champagne from the wine bar or a sandwich at the cafe.
In the West End of downtown, close to Fluor Field and the new South Carolina Children's Theatre, you'll find Gather GVL, an outdoor food court of multicolored shipping containers. It's home to 13 businesses serving everything from giant artisan doughnuts at HenDough to Maine-style lobster rolls at The Lob Father. As you walk down Augusta Street, you'll see cute boutiques selling brands like Vince, Longchamp, and Alice + Olivia plus locally made jewelry. After a day of shopping, lunch at Jianna is a wonderful way to recharge. Fresh pasta is the first thing you notice as you climb the pastel green stairs to the Italian eatery, which looks out onto Falls Park on the Reedy. If the weather permits, take a seat on the patio. Order the tender and light chicken piccata or any of the homemade pasta dishes. Each is sauced with a deft hand and is even better complemented by wine—you are on vacation, after all.
Sourcing food locally is significant, so many establishments have plots of land where they grow fresh produce for their kitchens. Oak Hill Café and Farm uses permaculture growing techniques at their little roadside farm and restaurant. There's an on-site lab where executive chef David Porras and partner Lori Nelsen (a former laboratory manager in the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department at Furman University) meld cooking with science. Given the beautiful presentations (like the warm corn masa empanadas served over stones in a white bowl decorated with fronds of greenery), it's no wonder Oak Hill was a James Beard Award semifinalist for Best New Restaurant in 2020. Next time I return, it'll be for dinner to try the chicken blanquette served with Carolina Gold rice, parsnips, mushrooms, turnips, and pearl onions in a rich cream sauce. While you can eat outdoors, it's chicer inside, so treat yourself.
It would be hard to discuss the culinary scene in Greenville without mentioning the town of Travelers Rest, which is about 9 miles away and growing into a powerhouse with strong ties to the land. There you'll find Topsoil Restaurant. As soon as you see the door handles, which are cast from metal to look like curled carrots (with tops intact), you'll know this is a place that takes the earth seriously. Committed to farm-to-table cuisine, chef Adam Cooke was a James Beard Award semifinalist for Best Chef Southeast in 2020.
Baguettes are for sale near the hosting stand, but save yourself for the jaw-dropping ways this kitchen spins ingredients, such as a plate of za'atar-roasted carrots and beets served with chard hummus and cilantro pesto. If you're lucky, you might catch the homemade raspberry doughnuts; they're slightly sweet, a little tart, and pure love in each warm bite.
Wondering where to stay? The Westin is a stalwart on Main Street, but if you like something more contemporary, the AC Hotel Greenville feels brand-new and has a rooftop area ideal for special events. During my stay, the license plates in and out of the valet hailed from as far away as New York.
Given the abundance of tourists visiting Southern towns, it seems like the rest of the nation is finally waking up to find that our culinary industry has something to say—and we don't whisper. After seeing other cities get their due, it's great fun to watch the accolades for the Greenville area roll in and to see its tide rise.