If there’s one beloved aspect of Southern culture that rises above the rest, it’s the food. Ranging from traditional meat-and-three dishes like fried chicken, macaroni ‘n’ cheese and collard greens to the West African influence in Lowcountry cuisine to the elevated interpretations found in fine dining establishments, the culinary prowess runs deep in every corner of the region.
Whether you travel to cosmopolitan cities or small towns, a roster of James Beard-awarded chefs and good, down-home cooks can be found showing off their cooking chops at some of the country’s best restaurants.
This summer, hit the road for a memorable meal, be it a casual dinner or an indulgent, fine dining experience at these destination restaurants across the Southeast.
Chef & the Farmer
Diners may recognize Chef & the Farmer from the lauded PBS series “A Chef’s Life,” a 30-minute cooking show documenting chef Vivian Howard’s life and career in a small town in the rural South. Howard and her partner Ben Knight worked in top-tier kitchens in New York before returning to Howard’s roots in eastern North Carolina. In 2006, the duo debuted Chef & the Farmer in Kinston, a town of 20,000 on the coastal plain, 90 miles north Wilmington. While helping revive the sleepy town’s economy, the pair has garnered a Peabody Award for Excellence in Broadcasting, two daytime Emmys and several James Beard awards. Howard’s menu gleans inspiration from the region’s culinary traditions while sourcing 70% of its ingredients from producers within 60 miles. This hyper-local approach is the heart and soul of the eatery, where Howard whips up comforting dishes like guinea hen confit, smoked fish croquettes, fried collards and bourbon-braised pork shoulder lasagna. (Chef & the Farmer, $15-$48 entrees. 20 W. Gordon St., Kinston, North Carolina. 252-208-2433, www.vivianhoward.com/chef-the-farmer)
Tea-brined pheasant, pistachio-crusted lamb and bread pudding made with waffles and peaches are among the sweet and savory creations that pepper the tasting menu at this upscale spot hugging the Chattahoochee River in Uptown Columbus. Chef Jamie Keating and his wife Melissa steer this fine dining establishment where the décor –– marked by plush banquettes and ethereal, pastel paintings by local artist Teil Duncan –– is as sophisticated as the food. For the ultimate gastronomic experience, book the Chef’s Table, an eight-course dinner for eight served in the kitchen where Keating explains the ingredients and inspiration behind each dish. Epic accommodates all eaters, including vegans, vegetarians, gluten-free and diners with allergies and other dietary restrictions. (Epic, $45-$70 tasting menu; $150 per person Chef’s Table. 1201 Front Ave., Suite E, Columbus. 706-507-9909, epiccuisine.com)
Elegance meets the Old South at this classic, special occasion restaurant located in The Charleston Place, a luxury hotel in the historic district of Charleston, South Carolina. Veteran Chef Michelle Weaver’s contemporary Southern cuisine shines alongside impeccable service, for which Charleston Grill has been rewarded with several high-profile designations such as the AAA Four-Diamond and Forbes Four-Star. Specialties include Colorado lamb chops, melt-in-your-mouth ribeye steak and seasonal seafood, such as sturgeon, scallops, snapper and succulent crab cakes. An award-winning wine list recognized by Wine Spectator, nightly live jazz and a romantic vibe make Charleston Grill one of the most highly lauded dining venues in the Southeast. (Charleston Grill, $32-$60 entrees. 224 King St., Charleston, South Carolina. 843-577-4522, www.charlestonplace.com/#food-beverage)
Located in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, four miles across the bay from Biloxi, this unpretentious Gulf Coast restaurant’s cuisine is an unexpected departure from the usual southern fare. Ocean Springs native and owner-chef Alex Perry and his Japanese wife Kumi Omori marry their backgrounds to create south Asian dishes using locally sourced produce and sustainable seafood plucked from local waters. Vestige’s market-driven tasting menu is based on what’s in season and available. Sample dishes include whipped cheddar cheese with peach and black sesame conserves, and Gulf red snapper with preserved gooseberries, wild onions, nasturtiums and oroshi pepper. A James Beard semifinalist in 2019 and 2022, Perry has been instrumental in helping shape, if not redefine, the gastronomy of Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. (Vestige, $88 tasting menu. 715 Washington Ave., Ocean Springs, Mississippi. 228-818-9699, www.vestigerestaurant.com)
Rolf and Daughters
Belgian-raised chef-owner Philip Krajeck’s rigatoni and heritage pork ragu with tomato and SarVecchio Parmigiano-Reggiano may be the best noodles with meat sauce one will ever eat. The handmade pasta at Rolf and Daughters in Nashville is the draw, but everything –– from the house-baked bread to the pastured chicken –– is excellent. Natural wines and pithy-named artisanal cocktails such as None of Your Business (rye, amaro, amaretto, lemon, cinnamon) pair well with the chef’s shareable plates. The atmosphere is casual: Bar seating and communal tables run down the center of the restaurant, and private tables hug the perimeter. Thanks to a friendly and knowledgeable staff, the service rivals more formal restaurants. It’s no surprise that this eatery landed third place on Bon Appetit’s 2013 Best New Restaurant in America list. (Rolf and Daughters, $23-$50 entrees. 700 Taylor St., Nashville. 615-866-9897, www.rolfanddaughters.com)
Ranked as one of Esquire’s best new restaurants in America in 2021, Helen in Birmingham, Alabama, is an ode to chef Rob McDaniel’s grandmother and the smoky hot coals she cooked over. This is the place to unleash your inner carnivore while dining on a juicy 22-ounce, 45-day, dry-aged Kansas City Strip, an 18-ounce prime bone-in ribeye or a lamb T-bone. But there are plenty of options for vegetarians and a special dish for vegans, too. Be sure to save room for the braised button mushrooms, celery and blue cheese slaw, and fluffy warm angel biscuits with whipped cane syrup. Set in a two-story, shotgun-style house in downtown Birmingham, the inviting interior is distinguished with artwork by local artisans that contributes to a rustic yet chic dining room and bar. (Helen, $20-$100 entrees. 2013 2nd Ave. N., Birmingham, Alabama. 205-438-7000, www.helenbham.com)
Blue Dot Barbecue
While you won’t find any white tablecloths at this cash-only hole in the wall in Pensacola, Florida, you will potentially discover one of the best burgers in the state, if not the country. Helmed by J. Byron Long for nearly 40 years, Blue Dot has been a Pensacola landmark since 1946, churning out sloppy barbecue-sauced burgers sans cheese or fries. It is all about the greasy beef patties, most often enjoyed alongside a bag of potato chips and a soda. The kitchen also serves ribs, but only on the second and fourth Saturday of the month. The limited menu, no-frills décor and counter seating don’t deter the crowds. It’s not uncommon for folks to queue around the block before Blue Dot opens and for the joint to sell out of its famed, drippy burgers ahead of closing time. (Blue Dot Barbecue, $5.58-$26.88. 310 N. DeVilliers St., Pensacola. 850-432-0644, www.restaurantwebexpert.com/BlueDotBarbecue)