The southeast is no stranger to great food, but a longstanding history to go along with its cuisine makes this area unique from other parts of the country. Some of these restaurants are known for their quirky locations or distinct menus but many of them have also been nationally recognized for their food curations. Here’s a list of some of the best award-winning places to dine in the region:
• Before concepts such as farm-to-table became trendy, Birmingham was at the vanguard of culinary coolness. It began in the early 1980s with the opening of Highlands Bar and Grill. The words “bar and grill” were included in the name so residents would know the place was accessible. Proprietor Frank Stitt’s endeavors helped to spawn a culinary renaissance, not only in Birmingham, but across the South — the James Beard Award-winning chef and restaurateur is commonly referred to as “the dean of Southern Cuisine.”
• Also a James Beard Award winner, Chris Hastings opened the Hot and Hot Fish Club in Southside in 1995. The seafood-focused Hot and Hot is a revered fine dining spot in town with an ever-changing menu that follows the seasons.
• A mixed grill of art and cuisine plates up at Wynwood Kitchen & Bar. The menu’s roll call of small plates shines with Latino essence, encouraging guests to customize their own foodie patchwork meal.
• Mythos, located at Universal’s Islands of Adventure park, boasts a critically acclaimed rep and a strong cult following where theming and quality bites coexist. Inside an impressive faux mountain, visitors nosh within a striking grotto where an eclectic menu blends more laid-back fare (blackened fish tacos) with snazzier entrees (grilled swordfish).
• The building’s lemon-lime paint job should be the first giveaway. Yet nearly everything about the original location of Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe reminds you it’s always lime time. Known for creating one of the best pies on the island, they inject Key lime into everything from cookies to salsa.
• Step back into a past of lace curtains, ivory-tiled floors and ornately carved, original woodwork at the 1892 Windsor Hotel, where the register includes guests such as Charles Lindbergh and former President Jimmy Carter. Rosemary and Thyme, the second-floor dining room, serves a contemporary menu of creative dishes such as grilled romaine salad, pimento fritters and pork stuffed with cream cheese and cherries.
• The tradition of family-style meals at the Lodge on Little St. Simons Island is rooted in the property’s history, dating back to the 1920s, when the Berolzheimer family turned the wild area into their private getaway. Three times a day, a bell tolls to tell guests that it’s time to gather around two long tables in the rustic main lodge. Every Saturday afternoon, a traditional low country boil is served on the beach. Wine and beer are included, and special emphasis is put on Georgia products such as Terrapin and Sweetwater beers, Savannah bourbon and Plantation vodka.
• Chef Nina Compton opened Compère Lapin, bringing the bright flavors of the Caribbean to the trendy Warehouse Arts District on the outskirts of the French Quarter. The St. Lucia native was runner-up on Season 11 of “Top Chef.” The oyster roll, a sandwich filled with crunchy, deep-fried oysters, is Compton’s version of the famous New Orleans po’boy. Instead of the traditional spicy remoulade, the crusty bread is slathered with tangy pineapple tartar sauce and garnished with cilantro and onions.
• SoBou's menu isn’t typical bar fare meant to keep you from drinking on an empty stomach. No, these artfully presented small plates are innovative and satisfying. Take the sweet potato beignets, for example. Those sweet little doughnut-like confections are a New Orleans staple, but you won’t find this novel version anywhere but SoBou.
• The hot tamale is a Mississippi original, rarely seen beyond the state’s borders. At Doe’s Eat Place, tamales have been a menu staple, along with fat Porterhouse steaks, for most of the restaurant’s nearly 75-year history. Prominent politicians and journalists became acquainted with Doe’s and its famous tamales during the turbulent 1960s and ’70s civil rights movement.
• Naturally, seafood dishes of every ilk abound in Ocean Springs, but one of the most beloved local culinary traditions is the Tatonut Donut, a quirky little storefront famous for its ethereal doughnuts (made of potato flour) and gourmet espresso coffees, hot and iced. Lines out the door are ever sent, and they often sell out — sometimes by lunchtime.
• James Beard Award-winning chef Ashley Christensen of famed Poole’s Downtown Diner and several other downtown Raleigh restaurants continues to expand her presence with her newest concept, Death & Taxes, which opened in June focusing on wood-fired cooking techniques.
• Another James Beard Award winner, chef Andrea Reusing of Chapel Hill’s Lantern is known for her marriage of Asian flavors and North Carolina ingredients. Now Reusing has partnered with the developers of the Durham, a boutique hotel in Durham with a new rooftop bar serving food and drink in the evenings and a soon-to-open restaurant.
• In Buxton, Café Pamlico at the Inn on Pamlico Sound features a wide variety of local seafood and a breakfast menu recognized as “Best on the Outer Banks” by National Geographic Traveler.
• Fueled by the regional Lowcountry cuisine, heritage foodstuffs and celebrated chefs such as Sean Brock, Charleston’s growing restaurant scene continues to gain critical attention. Brock is the James Beard Award-winning executive chef of two groundbreaking restaurants at the heart of the excitement. It all started at McCrady’s, the former historic tavern, where Brock landed in 2006. The menu, which changes daily, features peak-season ingredients sourced from Lowcountry farmers, artisans and fishermen, and dishes such as snapper with summer cucumbers, kale and buttermilk.
• At Husk, Brock and chef de cuisine Travis Grimes, a Lowcountry native, continue to explore ingredient-driven cuisine with the likes of South Carolina shrimp and Choppee okra stew with Carolina Gold rice.
• Blackberry Farm’s highly touted foothill cuisine comes together thanks to a finely tuned collaboration of talent that includes executive chef Cassidee Dabney. The Barn restaurant claims bragging rights as a two-time James Beard Award winner. Dinners in the baronial Barn are a decidedly formal affair. You might dine on Cheshire pork loin served with farro and Carolina rice, or seared gulf snapper, smoked fingerling potatoes and fava beans.
• Flying Squirrel has received local and national accolades. First, it won the Tennessee Governor’s Environmental Stewardship Award for excellence. More recently, the restaurant’s stunning glass, cedar and steel design garnered the 2015 Restaurant Design Awards People’s Choice Award in the cafe/bar category. While the restaurant and bar with the quirky moniker is getting a lot of attention for its design, the food and drink are just as highly touted. expect some Southern staples served with a twist. Pimento cheese, for instance, comes with Benton’s bacon jam and toasted sourdough.
• Restaurant Iris is the place where chef Kelly English creates his version of French-Creole cuisine for an appreciative crowd. The menu changes often, taking advantage of seasonal ingredients; it’s in good hands with English, who was voted 2009 Food & Wine magazine’s best new chef. That same year, he was named a James Beard Award semifinalist for best chef while earning Memphis Restaurant Association’s restaurateur of the year. In 2014, the eatery was voted one of the Open Table Diners’ Choice most romantic restaurants in America.
For more recommendations about where to get the best barbecue in the southeast, check out our special "Fork in the Road" dining section at MyAJC.com.
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