The Barrel Room at the Ritz-Carlton Reynolds, Lake Oconee creates a Southern take on the Manhattan called the Atlantan, which features a dash of smoked pecan syrup. Contributed by The Ritz-Carlton Reynolds, Lake Oconee

Spring travel: Culinary delights

Where to graze on wood-fired pizzas, lobster corn dogs and maple-glazed donuts dusted with bacon powder

Dining out on local cuisine is one of the best parts of traveling to new locales. Lucky for us, the South is home to some of the best culinary delights the world has to offer, and they can be found anywhere from James Beard Award-winning fine-dining restaurants to off-the-radar seafood dives. Here are some suggestions for planning your gastronomic journey around the South this spring, plus a couple bonus recommendations for international travelers.

Chef Frank Stitt owns Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham, Ala. It was named the 2018 Outstanding Restaurant by the James Beard Awards. Contributed by Highlands Bar and Grill
Photo: For the AJC

Birmingham, Ala.

If you haven’t driven 2.5 hours west to Birmingham to eat at Highlands Bar and Grill (entrees $24 and up, 2011 11th Ave. S., 205-939-1400, highlandsbarandgrill.com), what are you waiting for? The James Beard Foundation bestowed its 2018 Outstanding Restaurant Award on the establishment that’s been around since 1982 and previously nominated in the same category nine times. Proprietor Frank Stitt has long been celebrated as one of the most influential chefs in the South. He was offering locally sourced, farm-to-table menus before those concepts became buzzwords in the industry, and he’s influenced a generation of younger chefs, many of whom have worked under him at the Southside restaurant. (Stitt also owns two other restaurants in the neighborhood: Chez Fon Fon, a bistro next door to Highlands, and Bottega, an Italian cafe a few blocks away.) But Stitt isn’t the only star at Highlands. Pastry chef Dolester Miles won the Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef last year, and a slice of her beloved sweet potato pie received a star turn on a recent cover of Garden & Gun magazine. While in town, don’t miss the Pizitz Food Hall (1821 2nd Ave. N., www.thepizitz.com/food-hall), a converted downtown department store now home to a dozen food stalls serving cuisine from around the globe. There’s a common dining area centered around a gigantic bar and two full-service restaurants.

Fernandina Beach, Fla.

Fernandina Beach stands out for its lowrise charm. This historic hamlet located at the north end of Amelia Island is a National Historic District, reminiscent of what all downtowns in Florida once looked like. It exudes Old Florida character and dishes out plenty of flavors. The don’t-miss restaurant in town is Joe’s 2nd Street Bistro (entrees $18 and up, 14 S. 2nd St., 904-321-2558, www.joesbistro.com). Tucked on a side street in a restored home, Joe’s is a fine-dining establishment with white tablecloths, but you can show up to dinner in shorts and a T-shirt and no one will bat an eye. The traditional American menu, regional specialties and craft cocktails are lovingly prepared by an attentive staff. Co-owner and executive chef Ricky Pigg is a native who studied the culinary arts and worked in kitchens around the country before returning home to helm Joe’s. Around the corner, The Patio Place (entrees $8.50 and up, 416 Ash St., 904-410-3717, patioplacebistro.com) offers something entirely different and will convince you that crepes aren’t just for dessert. The large, shady patio is an inviting spot to while away an afternoon or evening. Brunch is served on the weekends. 

Greensboro

Only 90 minutes from downtown Atlanta, the Ritz-Carlton Reynolds, Lake Oconee (rooms $299 and up, 1 Lake Oconee Trail, 706-467-0600, www.ritzcarlton.com/reynolds), is arguably Georgia’s most luxurious lakeside resort. As for food and drink, it’s a one-stop experience that includes a traditional American steakhouse (Linger Longer Steakhouse), a casual waterside hang (Gaby’s by the Lake) and an elegant Southern bistro (Georgia’s). A new addition is the Barrel Room. At first glance, it may seem like a typical Ritz-Carlton lobby bar, but upon closer inspection, it offers something extra special for enthusiasts of single barrel whiskeys: barrel batches you won’t find anywhere else. The project was done in collaboration with the master distillers of some of the world’s finest distilleries such as Knob Creek and Woodford Reserve, among others. Jason King, director of beverage programming and mixologist extraordinaire, has curated an impressive menu of specialty cocktails that includes the Atlantan, a Southern spin on the Manhattan sweetened with a bit of smoked pecan syrup. The resort also offers personalized dining experiences such as the private chiminea dining for two along the lakeshore, and the BBQ Bulter program in its lakeside cottages with a grillmaster cooking up the flavors of the South on your vacation porch.

(The other) Georgia

Situated at the crossroads of ancient cultures, the country of Georgia is the birthplace of wine, according to some experts, and it has become an international foodie destination of the moment. Travelers come for the artisan wine from old family vineyards, the exceptional cuisine of cheesy breads, grilled meats and salads, as well as the beautiful scenery of the Caucasus mountain region. To bone up for your culinary tour, check out the book “Tasting Georgia: A food and wine journey in the Caucasus” by Carla Capalbo, who won last year’s Food and Travel Award from the Guild of Food Writers. Wild Frontiers ($1,938 and up, including accommodations, meals and land transportation, 877-725-6674, www.wildfrontierstravel.com) specializes in small, food-centric tours of Georgia, some in partnership with Capalbo.

Montgomery, Ala.

One of the hottest new restaurants in Alabama is Central (entrees $28 and up, 129 Coosa St., 334-517-1155, www.central129coosa.com) in downtown Montgomery. Executive Chef Jason McGarry, a Brunswick native, prepares upscale New American and regional specialties served in the casual environment of a converted warehouse. Expect fresh Gulf seafood and locally sourced meats and produce, but keep in mind the menu changes with the seasons. Recent offerings have included pork belly glazed in sorghum, lobster corn dogs served with house relish, short rib with smoked gouda grits and maple-glazed doughnuts topped with roasted pecans, bourbon fudge sauce and bacon powder. A couple of blocks west is Common Bond (424 Bibb St., 334-676-2287, www.commonbondbrewers.com), Montgomery’s first full-scale production brewery. It opened last year and pours four flagship brews along with a rotating roster of specialty beers in its tap room. Meanwhile, night owls will want to head to the nearby Cloverdale neighborhood for drinks in Montgomery’s hippest bar, Leroy (2752 Boultier Ave., 334-356-7127, leroylounge.com). This retro, dimly-lit lounge has a well-curated beer list and crafty cocktails prepared by friendly bar staff for a diverse clientele. And hidden on the south bank of the Alabama River, Capitol Oyster Bar (entrees $9.95 and up, 617 Shady St., 334-239-8958, www.capitoloysterbar.com) is the quintessential off-the-beaten-path seafood joint serving platters of steamed and fried fare with waterside views unlike anywhere else in the city.

Diners line up for hot chicken at Pepperfire in East Nashville, Tenn. Contributed by Quinn Ballard
Photo: For the AJC

East Nashville, Tenn.

Nashville’s culinary neighborhood of the moment is East Nashville across the Cumberland River from downtown. Llovingly called “East Nasty” by some, the neighborhood has become a trendy, artsy enclave. Here you’ll find locals dining and shopping in an area that doesn’t have all the touristy trappings of downtown. Two of the most talked about new restaurants in Music City are Folk and Lyra. Folk (pizzas $16 and up, 823 Meridian St., 615-610-2595, www.goodasfolk.com) serves dinner only and takes the wood-fired pizza concept to the next level, as well as providing fresh takes on seafood, meat and vegetable dishes. Lyra (entrees $13 and up, 935 W. Eastland Ave., 615-928-8040, lyranashville.com), another dinner-only spot, serves top-level Middle Eastern cuisine and plenty of specialty cocktails in a comfy space where happy hour begins at 4 p.m. More established favorites in East Nashville are Butcher and Bee (plates $12 and up, 902 Main St., 615-226-3322, www.butcherandbee.com) serving a seasonal menu, and the fast-casual Pepperfire (entrees $8.99 and up, 1000 Gallatin Ave., 615-582-4824, www.pepperfirehotchicken.com) with its twist on the classic Nashville staple, hot chicken.

At James Beard Award-winning restaurant Shaya on Magazine Street in New Orleans, the pita bread is made fresh to order in a wood-fired oven.” Contributed by Blake Guthrie
Photo: For the AJC

New Orleans

If you’re heading to Jazz Fest this spring, or to NOLA anytime, there’s a new food hall in town at the Auction House Market (801 Magazine St., 504-372-4321, www.auctionhousemarket.com) in the Warehouse District. It features vendor stalls serving seafood and international cuisine from celebrated local chefs. Across town in Faubourg Marigny, St. Roch Market (2381 St. Claude Ave., 504-609-3813, www.neworleans.strochmarket.com) has been called by Travel + Leisure magazine “one of the world’s best food halls.” Shaya (plates $11 and up, 4213 Magazine St., 504-891-4213, www.shayarestaurant.com), located west of the Garden District, provides a modern take on Israeli cuisine and received the James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant in the U.S. in 2016. Paradigm Gardens (1131 S. Rampart St., 504-344-9474, paradigmgardensnola.com), located in the shadow of an expressway overpass on the fringe of the Central Business District (called the CBD by locals), is an urban farm and private event space, but it opens up to the public in spring and fall with special themed nights in conjunction with local restaurants that feature food grown in the garden, as well as live music. Watch the website for announcements of this spring’s special events.

Locals’ favorite the Oxford Canteen moved into a new space in a converted gas station last year, having outgrown its previous space in an alley downtown. Contributed by Visit Oxford
Photo: For the AJC

Oxford, Miss.

After operating as a literal hole-in-the-wall in the alley of the Lyric Theater, locals’ favorite Oxford Canteen ($10 and up, 766 N. Lamar Blvd., 662-638-3393, www.oxfordcanteen.com) moved into a stand-alone location in a converted gas station a few blocks north of Oxford Square last year. The casual breakfast, lunch and dinner spot features an innovative menu of soups, salads, sandwiches, breakfast tacos and tortas, and daily specials sourced from local farms. Chef/owner Corbin Evans makes some fine pimento cheese, too, should you see it on the daily specials board. Across the road are two other Oxford gems, Big Bad Breakfast and Snackbar, in an old shopping center. Both are owned by renowned local chef John Currence, the man behind one of the city’s most famed restaurants, City Grocery, on the square. Big Bad Breakfast is a classic, Southern-style breakfast spot while, next door, Snackbar (entrees $24 and up, 721 N. Lamar Blvd. 662-236-6363, citygroceryonline.com/snackbar) is like a bistro melded with a high-end oyster and cocktail bar, specializing in charcuterie. 

Vietnam

The late TV host, chef and author Anthony Bourdain called Vietnam one of his favorite places on earth. He shot a few episodes of his various TV shows there, the most famous being one in which he slurped noodles and drank beer with then-President Barrack Obama. For those who want to retrace his footsteps, there’s a tour company to help with that. Vietnam-based Exotic Voyages ($3,755 and up, including meals, accommodations and ground transportation. 888-497-0068, www.exoticvoyages.com/anthony-bourdain-taste-of-vietnam) has crafted a 14-day Tribute to Anthony Bourdain: Taste of Vietnam tour that makes stops at the same eateries and markets Bourdain visited and is led by Diep Nguyen, a Vietnamese native who worked with Bourdain on the 2016 “Parts Unknown” episode about North Vietnam.

Whiskey Fast Facts

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