Justine Smith and her husband, Dayton
Credit: Courtesy of Janet Stuart Smith

One of the most memorable meals of my childhood happened at a restaurant called Justine's in Memphis. It was my grandparents' anniversary, a big one, and I had to wear a blue blazer and a tie, an outfit usually reserved for church, weddings, and Christmas Eve dinner. My idea of a great restaurant was Pancho's, a Mexican place known for its cheese dip. This place was fancy, and it was made clear to me that I was lucky (at age 10) to be invited.

The restaurant was housed in an 1830s pink Italianate mansion, and you entered through a marble foyer with a large brass chandelier, bouquets of roses from the garden, and antique French furniture. It sounds stuffy now, but it was the hottest ticket in town, and it made you feel special just being there. Justine Smith, the proprietor, was famous for her hospitality, charming guests every night as she floated from table to table in a long cocktail dress. The menu was even more exotic, with New Orleans-inspired dishes like Crabmeat Justine (big chunks of crab in hollandaise sauce), Vichyssoise, and Pompano en Papillote. The pièce de résistance was Cerises Jubilées (cherries jubilee), which arrived at the table in a blanket of flames.

Despite what I thought was good behavior, I never made it back to Justine's, but that night left an impression on me. Here was a woman who was determined to run a restaurant that was truly special, and she drew rave reviews for almost 50 years—Justine's closed in 1996. New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne (who was originally from Mississippi) called it "conceivably the best restaurant in the South."

I was thinking about that as we put together this year's South's Best awards, a collection of the greatest restaurants, cities, small towns, hotels, beaches, and other places—voted on by you. These are spots that stand out—in many cases with a mix of creativity, hard work, and good old Southern hospitality.

WATCH: The South's Best Restaurant — L'Opossum

I recently had dinner at Richmond, Virginia's L'Opossum, which we're recognizing as the South's Best Restaurant. An intimate neighborhood bistro with a wild side, it couldn't be more different from Justine's, but its ambitions are very much the same. Chef and proprietor David Shannon opened it in 2014 with the goal of making the decor as fun and inspiring as the food. Based on my incredible meal there, and the fact that he was a 2016 James Beard Award semifinalist, he succeeded. If you go, order the flaming dessert La Petite Mort au Chocolat en Flambé. I promise you won't forget it.