Road-tripping Across the American South, One Restaurant at a Time
Over the last several years, no other American region has quite captivated culinary obsessives like the South. Charleston chef Sean Brock has skyrocketed to global fame with his explorations of Lowcountry cooking and heirloom ingredients, while cities like Atlanta and Nashville now brim with kitchen talent.
Related: America’s Best Road Trips
The interconnectedness of these southern cities also makes the region an ideal pathway for a food-centric road trip—spend no more than five or six hours in the car at a time and arrive in a new city with knockout fried chicken, gulf seafood, barbecue, and more. Follow this path through seven states and 10 cities to eat your way through the South:
Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Each point of North Carolina’s Research Triangle is a worthy spot for dining thanks to the area’s glut of acclaimed chefs. Leading the way is James Beard Award-winning chef Andrea Reusing of Lantern in Chapel Hill (open for dinner Monday through Saturday), a restaurant whose dishes offer “a marriage of Asian flavors and North Carolina ingredients,” such as tea-smoked duck and pork-and-chive dumplings.
Meanwhile, in Raleigh, about 30 miles away, Reusing’s former acolyte Ashley Christensen—a James Beard Award winner herself—dominates the dining scene with a small constellation of restaurants, a bar, and a coffee shop. Her flagship, Poole’s Diner (open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday), offers a constantly changing menu of American comfort food, while her more casual Beasley’s Chicken + Honey (open daily for lunch and dinner) specializes in fried chicken and other southern staples. Finally, Durham is a great stop on your way out of town for coffee and a pie from Scratch Bakery (open for breakfast and lunch Tuesday through Sunday).
Charleston, South Carolina
Travel time: 4.5 hours
Charleston is one of America’s top-rated dining cities—and for good reason. Pull in for lunch and head straight to Hominy Grill (open all day Monday through Saturday and for brunch on Sunday), where chef Robert Stehling has been serving traditional Lowcountry cooking for nearly two decades. Meals start with boiled peanuts and continue with options such as shrimp and grits and the restaurant’s famous “Big Nasty” sandwich of fried chicken, cheddar, and sausage gravy on a biscuit.
Move on to dinner at either one of international superstar chef Sean Brock’s many restaurants—such as the upscale McCrady’s (open daily for dinner) or the wildly popular Husk (pictured; open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday and for brunch on Sunday)—or grab a seat at the bar at Charleston stalwart Cypress (open daily for dinner), which is a sure bet for charcuterie, crisp wasabi tuna, and a three-story wine wall. Before heading back out on the highway, make a stop for lunch at trendy newcomer Leon’s Oyster Shop (open daily for lunch and dinner) for oysters, fried chicken, or an absolutely killer fish sandwich.
Travel time: 5 hours
Arrive in Atlanta just in time for dinner at Holeman & Finch (open for dinner Monday through Saturday and for lunch on Sunday) for a drink, charcuterie, or offal such as fried honeycomb tripe or veal brains from legendary chef Linton Hopkins. Equally legendary is the restaurant’s double-patty burger, which comes with cheese, onions, pickles, and fries. For breakfast or lunch the next day, head to the General Muir (open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner on weekdays; brunch and dinner on weekends) near the Emory campus for delicatessen staples such as a bagel with a schmear and lox, pastrami, latkes, and more.
Then start off dinner at chef Steven Satterfield’s Miller Union (open for lunch Tuesday-Saturday; dinner Monday through Saturday) with a runny farm egg baked in celery cream before moving onto entrées like lemon ravioli, snapper, or braised rabbit. Then either rise early the next morning for coffee and pastries from Cakes & Ale (lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday; breakfast at the café, open Tuesday through Sunday), or extend your stay for a lunch of quiche, an apple and cheddar sandwich, and maybe a glass of wine.
Travel time: 2.5 hours
Barbecue is pretty much a requirement of any southern road trip, so make a stop at Saw’s BBQ (open lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday) upon arrival in Birmingham. Pulled pork comes on a sandwich, a platter, or stuffed into a baked potato slathered with barbecue sauce. The tiny restaurant also offers a northern Alabama specialty: smoked chicken with a white, mayonnaise-based barbecue sauce. For dinner, find out why Frank Stitt’s cooking continues to draw diners from across America after more than 30 years at Highlands Bar and Grill (open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday). The “French-inspired Southern” menu draws on ingredients like guinea hen from Stitt’s favorite breeder or greens that come from his own garden.
Travel time: 5.5 hours
Make sure to arrive in New Orleans in time for lunch because Cochon Butcher (lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday; lunch Sunday) is so insanely good that people stand in line out the door even hours after the height of lunch rush. Pick up some charcuterie and sausage, or try the muffaletta, pastrami, and other sandwiches made with the butcher shop’s own meats. Then make the day a Donald Link doubleheader with dinner at Cochon Butcher’s seafood-focused sister restaurant, Peche (lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday), last year’s James Beard Award winner for best new restaurant and best chef in the South, Ryan Prewitt. Split a bunch of appetizers, small plates, and entrées like oysters, grilled lamb skewers, or a whole grilled fish.
Then take a walk to the edge of the French Quarter for tiki cocktails from the obsessive Jeff “Beachbum” Berry at Latitude 29. End your time in New Orleans with brunch at one of the city’s classic breakfast-and-lunch spots, such as Brennan’s (open daily for breakfast, lunch, dinner; check website for hours from January 1 to March 31). The nearly 70-year-old Creole restaurant reopened to high praise last year and serves dishes like crispy veal cheek grillades over cheddar grits with a runny egg, turtle soup, and a Cajun Bloody Mary.
Travel time: 5.5 hours
Mississippi makes up much of the road between New Orleans and Nashville, the next destination. Fortunately, Oxford is a perfect place for a pit-stop meal. James Beard Award through winning chef John Currence has blanketed the city with strong restaurant options, such as his flagship, City Grocery (open for lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday; brunch on Sunday). A classic dish here is the shrimp and grits, while servers also extol the Scotch eggs at brunch.
Travel time: 4 hours
If you didn’t make it to one of Sean Brock’s restaurants in Charleston, make a point to hit up Husk Nashville in the Music City (lunch and dinner daily). The menu here is a bit different from its Charleston counterpart and offers several insta-classics such as Brock’s secret, spicy fried chicken recipe, deviled ham deviled eggs, and Husk’s nationally beloved cheeseburger. Nashville is also home to two very important culinary concepts: hot chicken and meat-and-three. Brace yourself for the heat on the fried chicken over at Hattie B’s (open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday; lunch on Sunday), or get in line early for lunch at Arnold’s Country Kitchen (open for lunch on weekdays) for your choice of traditional southern meats and sides such as roast beef, country-fried steak, mac and cheese, black-eyed peas, fried green tomatoes, and desserts like bread pudding.
Celebrate the end of your time in Nashville with dinner at Pinewood Social (open daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner), from the restaurateurs behind the upscale Catbird Seat, which offers bowling, karaoke, a pool, and bocce in addition to its menu of fried catfish, pot roast, and stellar cocktails.
Travel time: 4.5 hours
Travel back through North Carolina on your way north and make sure to stop for lunch at Curate in Asheville (open for lunch and dinner Tuesday-Sunday). This tapas bar is run by Katie Button, whose time working at Spain’s famous El Bulli restaurant was immortalized in the book The Sorcerer’s Apprentices and whom Food & Wine named to its 2015 class of best new chefs. The expansive menu offers a number of tapas classics such as jamón, tortilla española, and patatas bravas as well as lamb skewers and a tender octopus dish seasoned with sea salt, olive oil, and paprika.