Heading on a Southern road trip? Consider this your to-do list.
Recently, I spent two months wending my way through the American South: Savannah and Atlanta, Nashville and Knoxville, Raleigh and Durham, New Orleans and Charleston as well as smaller, equally charming towns such as Shelby, North Carolina and Madisonville, Tennessee. As I drove, I chomped on chopped pork laced with vinegar, fried bologna sandwiches, and barbecued brisket, sure, but also refined cuisine at farm-to-table restaurants that bowled me over. Here the top 10 things I ate and drank, from a honky-tonk bar in Nashville to a New Orleans Israeli restaurant.
Ensalada de Mariscos at Mateo Bar de Tapas in Durham, North Carolina
I wasn’t expecting landlocked Durham to have some of the best seafood I’ve ever tasted, but Durham’s Mateo, the first solo venture by chef Matthew Kelly, was a knockout. Everyone around you will be ordering foxy-looking patatas bravas—fried wedges of potatoes served with aioli—but you also want to order the seafood salad, a bowl brimming with chilled scallops, shrimp, octopus, clams, and calamari, all brightened by an eye-opening sherry vinaigrette.
Hush puppies and banana pudding at Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge in Shelby, North Carolina
Revamped diners, from Savannah’s gorgeous The Grey to Raleigh’s charming Poole’s Downtown Diner, are a thing these days, but thanks to a handy app from the Southern Foodways Alliance, I landed upon an original—the 1953-era Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge on Highway 74. Cornflower-blue banquettes, bold mid-century typography, and the sweetest service combined for one of the most memorable meals of my trip: hickory-smoked pulled pork, crisp hush puppies, and creamy banana pudding (which I ate in the car so I could exclaim over it privately), all for less than $10.
Gnocchi at FIG in Charleston
This South Carolinan city is renowned as a dining destination, and the gnocchi at FIG—silky, plush with ricotta, and bobbing in a bowl of savory lamb Bolognese—is no exception. (“They need to serve it with a cigarette, it’s so good,” remarked a friend and FIG superfan.) Even if you can’t get a table reservation, this gnocchi is worth savoring at the bar with a glass of wine.
Fried catfish and smoked greens at Arnold’s Country Kitchen in Nashville
Nashville friends piped up about Arnold’s before all others. The meat-and-three workhorse has been a Nashville establishment since the early ‘80s. Fill your cafeteria tray with crisp fried catfish or chicken (depending on the day), super-smoky collards, mac and cheese, roast beef, and pecan pie. And bank on a walk afterwards.
Lamb hummus at Shaya in New Orleans
Having already shouted out Shaya’s many memorable dishes, I have to include anything Alon Shaya cooks involving hummus or lamb. Although dishes change their stripes seasonally here, look for those two ingredients—and if the lamb with fried chickpeas on the silkiest hummus ever is on the menu, get it. You’ll see a plate on most tables around you.
Mezcal cocktail at Death & Taxes in Raleigh, North Carolina
Chef Ashley Christensen has transformed the dining scene in Raleigh with a full seven restaurants and cafes under her name, and while her food—perfectly seared octopus; vegetables done right; bone marrow the size of your arm—at Death & Taxes is excellent, so is the bar program here. I loved a tart-sweet mezcal-based drink with local prickly pear and a tart grapefruit shrub.
Stir-fried greens at Kimball House in Atlanta
This ATL hotspot is known for soaring ceilings and fabulous oysters, but we loved a secondary player on the pricey menu—a side of sautéed greens with plenty of garlic, ginger, collards, shiitakes, shallots, and an umami boom of fermented habanero butter.
BBQ brisket at Lewis BBQ in Charleston
Given that his resume includes a stint at Austin’s venerable Franklin Barbecue, I had high hopes for John Lewis’s brisket. What I didn’t anticipate is that—bite for buttery, marbled bite—it’s almost an exact match to Franklin’s, and thus, incredible. Having cooked for pop-ups and the Charleston food festival (where the line for his BBQ dwarfed all others), Lewis is finally—to the relief of locals—opening a brick-and-mortar this spring.
Wine service at Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tennessee
If you’re not a “wine person,” you don’t expect to get excited about a meal with wine pairings, but when you’re in one of the best places in the nation for such things—this rural luxury hotel and restaurant took home the James Beard Award for wine service in 2014—the combination of chef Cassidee Dabney’s exquisite food and sommelier Jason Drotar’s intuitive wine service shifted my perception. The pairing of the right Chablis with local trout was exceptional.
The “Recession Special” at Robert’s in Nashville
Maybe it was the Patsy Cline cover sung so beautifully in the background, but something about the $5 special at this honky-tonk bar—one can of PBR, one bag of chips, and a griddled fried bologna sandwich with mayo—just put the whole trip south over the top.