12 top restaurateurs share great Southern bites and sites

Celebrated Southern chefs share their favorite spots to enjoy their cities’ food and culture
Clockwise from top: Matchstick Okra Fries, Sev Potato Dahi Puri, and Kale Pakoras from Chai Pani

Photo by Molly Milroy

Forget Yelp reviews, travel guides, or tracking down that random colleague’s Instagram post. We have your notes right here—on where to go and what to order when traveling—from some of the South’s most acclaimed chefs, unlocking the secrets of their hometowns.

Three-time bestselling cookbook author, Bon Appetit contributor, and 2009 James Beard Award winner John Currence has been feeding people at his Oxford restaurants since 1992.

Photo courtesy of City Grocery

Oxford, Mississippi
John CurrenceBig Bad Breakfast, Boure, City Grocery, Snackbar

What’s Oxford’s quintessential dish?
All sources point to Oxford being the genesis of chicken on a stick. About 35 years ago, Four Corners Chevron south of the square started skewering chicken, frying it, and serving it to college kids late at night. It’s well-seasoned, delicious, and a thing of legend now.

Which restaurants do you hit when you’re not in the kitchen?
I love Mama Jo’s, an old-school, Black-owned meat and three. They’re great at fried chicken and smothered pork chops, but you have to ask for the hot-water cornbread, a secret menu item. It’s absolutely spectacular.

Where do you take visitors?
The balcony at Bouré has one of the best sweeping views of Oxford. I like to take folks there to have a drink. When my literary friends come to town, we make the occasional jaunt out to Faulkner’s grave to have a drink of whiskey and pour a little on the ground. Alternatively, the quiet solitude of sitting on the balcony at Square Books with a cup of coffee is great.

Orlando Weekly calls Lordfer Lalicon “one of the city’s finest chefs,” thanks to his upscale Filipino fare.

Photo courtesy of Kaya

Orlando, Florida
Lordfer LaliconKaya 

Where do you enjoy eating?
I like Deli Desires, a Jewish sandwich shop. I get their “Big Mac”—corned beef, American cheese, lettuce, pickles, and special sauce on sesame bread. At King Cajun, a Vietnamese crawfish-boil restaurant, they have a flavor called SheBang [all of their boil flavors mixed]. I like it with snow crab and shrimp. For something more upscale, I would go to Kadence, run by my former business partners, Mark and Jen Berdin. It’s an omakase restaurant. Their seasonal sashimi plate and the tiramisu with matcha are terrific.

What’s special about Orlando’s food scene?
I think people are surprised at how good the food is if they know where to go. We have Vietnamese, Filipino, fine dining, great sandwich spots. . . . It’s not all Disney or family-friendly restaurants.

What else should visitors do?
Take the Winter Park Scenic Boat Tour, which departs just about every hour. That area has a lot of rich history, amazing homes, and beautiful lakes. There’s a good portion of Orlando that you wouldn’t otherwise see because the Chain of Lakes is kind of hidden.

IndyWeek calls Ricky Moore “the best chef in the Triangle.” He’s known for his use of traditional recipes and incorporation of North Carolina seafood.

Photo by Forrest Mason

Durham, North Carolina
Ricky Moore
Saltbox Seafood Joint

Which local restaurants do you recommend?
There are so many! ​​Guglhupf Bakery, Cafe & Biergarten, right by my restaurant, does great pastries and a solid brunch. I’m a closet Francophile, so I like Vin Rouge. It’s a homegrown, authentic version of a French bistro, with classic items and a killer wine list. KoKyu takes a thoughtful approach to an Asian sandwich shop with bold flavors and a funky environment with graffiti-esque art. I also love the Chicken Hut. It’s a soul food place that’s been around forever [since 1957], serving turkey wings and gravy, corn pudding, fried chicken, barbecue ribs, and red potato salad.

What else is worth checking out?
I love to take people downtown to the American Tobacco Campus, where there’s tons of shops, restaurants, and things to do. Also, Sarah P. Duke Gardens is a beautiful 55-acre botanical garden with an amphitheater on the Duke campus.

Born in Haiti, Belinda Baptiste was a 2023 semifinalist in the James Beard Awards’ Bakery division, despite being wholly self-taught.

Photo by Somi Benson-jaja

 Savannah, Georgia
Belinda BaptisteUnforgettable Bakery

What’s a quintessential Savannah dish?
Savannah does not have a signature dish per se, but we do love red rice or any dish that comes with it. Moon River Brewing Company is a popular choice for people to have Lowcountry rice.

Which local restaurants do you visit when you’re not in the kitchen?
Collins Quarter at Forsyth is great for brunch. They make several good dishes, such as crab cake benedict, chicken and waffles, shrimp and grits, and Black Forest French toast. They also have delicious coffee and tea. Fox & Fig Plant-Based Cafe is a great vegan spot, known for its barbecue jackfruit sandwich and chipotle mac ‘n’ cheese made with cashew cheese sauce. The chia porridge is delicious and beautifully presented. For sandwiches, go to Finches Sandwiches & Sundries—their menu changes daily.

Where do you take visitors to get a sense of Savannah’s beauty?
I love the Wormsloe State Historic Site. It’s simple yet enchanting. There is something very charming about it with the Spanish moss–draped trees and historical buildings around the trail. When you visit this hidden gem, it feels as though history is coming alive.

Eater Miami calls chef and restaurateur Michael Schwartz a “pioneer of the farm-to-table movement—well before it was a buzzword.”

Photo courtesy of Michael's Genuine Food & Drink

Miami, Florida
Michael SchwartzAmara at Paraiso, Harry’s Pizzeria, Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink

Named Bon Appetit’s 2023 Food City of the Year, Miami is having a major moment. It’s been a long time coming, according to chef and restaurateur Michael Schwartz. When he migrated south from Philadelphia more than 30 years ago, the city’s dining scene was “just starting to pop,” he says. “There was an opportunity to help legitimize the food scene, because it was very club- and trend-heavy.” The chef, who has a James Beard Award for Best Chef: South, gives back to the community he calls home through organizations such as Share Our Strength, Slow Food, and Wellness in the Schools.

What’s a dish that’s distinctly Miami?
Stone crabs at Joe’s Stone Crabs—it’s iconic. They go through literally tons of crab, so you know it’s fresh. Some of the old-school waiters have been there for 50 years. It’s a scene. You’ll see celebrities, politicians, and everything in between.

What’s an under-the-radar spot you love?
Doce Provisions in Little Havana, a little off the beaten path. It’s from a husband-and-wife team; she’s Cuban, he’s Floridian. It’s good, honest, hearty, and delicious food in a beautiful little garden. You’re sort of transported—you don’t really feel like you’re in Miami.

What’s unique about Miami’s food culture?
The words that come to mind are vibrant and exciting. The proximity to the Caribbean, Latin America, Haiti, and the influences of the people who have moved here from around the world have a huge impact on the dining scene. And the seafood—I can’t think of a place that has a better variety of fresh seafood. It all comes together in a big melting pot.

When you’re not eating or cooking, where do you like to take visitors?
I like to get out on the water in a boat or go to the beach. That may sound boring, but it’s my happy place. It’s nice to get outside and go to Matheson Hammock Park or Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden to walk around and see the native foliage.

In June, Vice President Kamala Harris invited chef Meherwan Irani to showcase his culinary skills at a State Department luncheon for a visiting Indian delegation.

Photo by Iain Bagwell

Asheville, North Carolina
Meherwan IraniChai Pani

Asheville is known for its concentration of craft breweries, scenic hikes, and vibrant art, but it’s also home to a dynamic culinary scene that deftly blends Southern and Appalachian flavors. In fact, this mountain burg topped Yelp’s reader survey for the best foodie city in the United States in both 2020 and 2022. One chef leading the charge is Meherwan Irani of creative Indian street-food eatery Chai Pani, which won the 2022 James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant.

What’s Asheville’s signature dish?
Honestly? The okra fries at Chai Pani are the dish that’s played a big part in putting Asheville on the map through innumerable profiles in the national press. I joke that Chai Pani has completely changed the tourist demographics of Asheville—so many Indians!

Which local restaurants do you like to support?
Cucina 24, Vivian, La Bodega, The Bull & Beggar—all are chef-driven gems with beautiful interpretations of their respective genres (Italian, French, Spanish, English) and impeccable service. At Cucina, I order whatever vegetables Brian Canipelli is roasting in his wood-fired oven; at Vivian, it’s the steak with the absolutely, ridiculously addictive demi-glace. At the Bull & Beggar, it’s anything with lamb, and at La Bodega, it’s their gleaming tins of [Spanish seafood] conservas.

What’s a lesser-known spot you’d like to give a shout-out to?
Mother is a tiny bakery in the River Arts District that deserves some big love and national attention for their amazing breads—the limited number of sandwiches they make daily are gone almost immediately after they open.

What’s singular about Asheville’s food culture?
In 2022, five of our eateries were nominated for the James Beard Foundation’s culinary awards and two came home with wins [Chai Pani and Cúrate]. No other city can come close in nominations per capita! It’s a testament to the creativity, brilliance, quality, and community of chefs and restaurateurs in this city.

What’s your go-to place to take visitors?
As cliché as it sounds, I love taking people to the Biltmore Estate. The house is amazing, but the real wonder is the grounds and gardens that were designed by Frederick Law Olmstead—of Central Park fame—and are simply stunning.

When Chef Nina Compton competed in Top Chef season 11, she fell in love with the host city of New Orleans. Now, she runs three of its most in-demand eateries.

Photo by Denny Culbert

New Orleans, Louisiana
Nina ComptonBywater American Bistro, Compère Lapin, Nina’s Creole Cottage

Widely recognized as one of the world’s top culinary cities, the Big Easy melds African, European, Caribbean, and Asian influences into a gastronomic scene richer than the darkest roux. In a city of star chefs, St. Lucia–born Nina Compton shines especially bright. She rose to fame as the 2014 Top Chef runner up and Food & Wine’s Best New Chef of 2016. Her restaurant, Compère Lapin, received critical acclaim as one of Eater National’s “Best Restaurants in America” and Food & Wine’s “Most Important Restaurants of the Past 40 Years.”

What do you consider a true New Orleans dish?
We really have quite a few, whether it’s jambalaya, beignets, or étouffée. But to me, New Orleans’s signature dish is a po’ boy, and not all are created equally. Parkway Bakery and Tavern is a great spot to get an amazing po’ boy. I love the roast beef, but sometimes I’ll mix it up and get catfish or oyster. Always ask for it dressed—that means lettuce, tomato, and mayo.

What’s your favorite place to take visitors?
I love taking friends to Dooky Chase. It’s a no-frills dining institution where the food is truly memorable. It’s been around since the 1940s. Their fried chicken is incredible, and I love the stuffed shrimp.

What’s another local restaurant you frequent?
Bacchanal is one of my regular spots when I’m not working. It’s like going to a friend’s backyard party. You pick all the cheeses you like, and they put it all together with you and help you pick wines to pair. There’s great live music; it’s a lovely way to spend an afternoon.

What’s singular about New Orleans’s food culture?
New Orleans is unlike anywhere else, and there are historical influences from all over the world. One thing remains constant though, and that is a unified community of restaurant and food professionals that is different from any other place I’ve cooked.

What’s an unsung spot you’d like to give props to?
Marjie’s Grill is nothing fancy, but it’s one of the best local spots. It’s very relaxed. The grilled shrimp, shishito peppers, and sticky riblets are some of my favorite things there.

Chef Ronald Hsu appeared on season five of The Final Table, paired with his former mentor, chef Shin Takagi of Japan.

Photo by Andrew Thomas Lee

Atlanta, Georgia
Ronald HsuHumble Pie, Lazy Betty

It’s impossible to put Atlanta’s dining scene in a box. Know where to look, and you’ll find top-notch soul food, steakhouses that stand tall against the nation’s best, creative cocktail bars drawing a cult following, and indie chefs pushing the envelope in the most delicious ways. One such visionary is Atlanta native Ronald Hsu, who fell in love with food at his family’s Chinese restaurant south of town and, after culinary school in Australia, spent nearly a decade at three-Michelin-star Le Bernardin with celebrity chef Eric Ripert. Now he—along with his business partner, chef Aaron Phillips—helms Lazy Betty, where elegant, unpretentious plates leverage French techniques, and Humble Pie, a destination for playful wood-fired pizzas. This year, the pair were James Beard Award semifinalists for Best Chef in the Southeast.

What’s a dish Atlanta does right?
Lemon-pepper wings. I wouldn’t say something like collard greens or chicken and waffles because they’re common around the South, but I think lemon-pepper wings are distinctly Atlanta. My brother Howard’s restaurant, Sweet Auburn Barbecue, does a version with lemon and Szechuan pepper that is very good.

What’s unique about Atlanta’s food culture?
People in Atlanta like good food and beautiful ambiance, but they really value a rapport with those who work in restaurants, whether it’s the chef or a server. It’s probably rooted in “Southern hospitality,” but that warm, inviting vibe with some friendly small talk thrown in fosters a sense of community.

Which local restaurants do you hit when you’re not working?
I love Gigi’s Italian Kitchen in Candler Park. They put their own spin on Italian food, and their tiramisu is killer. My wife and I love going to Kimball House in Decatur for a date night that feels like an experience with good cocktails and light bites. We like Delbar in Inman Park as well. We’ll share a hummus or a spread with fresh pita bread. We also like their rice—they have one with sour cherries and barberries—and seabass with saffron.

When you’re not cooking, what’s your favorite place to take visitors?
There are some great hiking spots not too far from Atlanta in North Georgia, such as Red Top Mountain State Park, where my family has been exploring. Even so, we’ll plan a nice picnic. It’s hard for me to do anything that’s completely detached from food.

Alabama-born chef Adam Evans has more than seafood in his repertoire: In May, he was a member of the Grand Champion–winning team at the Memphis World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest.

Photo by Caleb Chauncey

Birmingham, Alabama
Adam EvansAutomatic Seafood & Oysters

Food in Alabama conjures images of the state’s signature white barbecue sauce, tomato pie, and fried chicken, but there’s much more to Birmingham than those staples. In fact, in 2022 Fodors included it in their list of “10 unexpected U.S. cities with a surprisingly good food scene,” thanks to the buzzy cocktail bars and international flavors punctuating the landscape. Adam Evans of Automatic Seafood & Oysters, who won the 2022 James Beard Award for Best Chef: South, is one of the chefs making a mark. “I built my restaurant to showcase Gulf of Mexico seafood, beyond what most fish houses offer,” says Evans, who works with a spear fisherman for 85 percent of his seafood supply: It’s in the kitchen less than 24 hours after being caught.

Which local restaurants do you visit when you’re off work?
We love all of Frank [Stitt III’s] restaurants: Bottega, Bottega Cafe, and Chez Fonfon. They do an especially great job with hospitality and make everybody feel special. I love to sit at the bar and get a cheeseburger at Fonfon, and I think the coconut cake is one of the best I’ve ever had. We also love going to Pizza Grace—they were a James Beard semifinalist for best new restaurant. All of their pizzas are great, but I love the thick-cut pepperoni. I get the hot honey sauce with it and a farmers market salad. Chef Rob McDaniel opened Helen, with an open kitchen and woodfire grill inspired by his grandmother’s cooking. He does a great job with grilled meats, and he works with local farmers for some really tasty vegetable sides. I also love to pick up breakfast from the Continental Bakery—they make the best croissants in town.

What’s a low-key spot you love?
Johnny’s in Homewood is a Greek meat-and-three. It’s chef-driven, so you can get really nice cornmeal-fried shrimp. He puts an interesting Greek twist on everything. We love it.

Outside of great restaurants, where do you take visitors?
I like spending an afternoon or morning at Ruffner Mountain. There are great hiking trails and crazy-amazing views of the city.

Conde Nast Traveler calls Vern’s, helmed by chef Daniel “Dano” Heinze and his wife Bethany, “one of the hottest tables in Charleston.”

Photo by Andrew Cebulka

Charleston, South Carolina
Chef Daniel “Dano” HeinzeVern’s

You can’t list the South’s iconic food cities without including Charleston. Its Carolina Gold Coast location, with access to a bounty of fresh seafood and prime growing conditions, has seen a creative culinary scene rise and flourish. Once chef de cuisine of McCrady’s, Chef Daniel “Dano” Heinze opened his intimate, 50-seat neighborhood American bistro, Vern’s, in 2022. With a 2023 James Beard nomination, he’s already proving his staying power.

What do you consider Charleston’s signature menu item?
Shrimp and grits is definitely one of those dishes. It has a lot to do with the terroir of Charleston, because the shrimp is beautiful and corn grows really well. I can’t recommend just one place, but look for high-quality grits—such as Anson Mills or Marsh Hen Mill—and the freshest shrimp.

In your free time, which local restaurants do you frequent?
At Malagón, a Spanish tapas restaurant by Juan Cassalett, they do paprika-marinated lamb skewers that are addictive. That’s my favorite thing to eat in Charleston right now. Also, Chez Nous by Jill Mathias, where she does one of the hardest things in our industry: She changes the menu every single day, six days a week. The French European-style dishes are so delicious and simple.

What do you think is singular about Charleston’s food landscape?
The seafood is unbeatable. You can work with really great fishermen and shrimpers. Also, the farmers are incredible. There are farmers here in Charleston growing heirloom everything, every bit as well as what farmers do in California. It’s impressive.

What’s an unsung culinary spot you’d like to give a shout out to?
Kwei Fei in James Island is doing Sichuan food out of this really cool music venue called the Charleston Pour House. It’s delicious.

Aside from restaurants, where do you take visitors?
An evening stroll to the lighthouse on Folly Beach is one of our favorite things. There’s old driftwood trees everywhere, all kinds of cool wild plants, and people out having fun. It’s a great place to watch the sunset.

Bon Appetit called Kisser, which chefs Brian Lea and Leina Horii opened in East Nashville, “one of the 12 most anticipated restaurant openings of 2023.”

Photo by Camille Tambunting

Nashville, Tennessee
Leina Horii and Brian LeaKisser

Music City introduced the world to meat-and-three and hot chicken, but its food culture goes well beyond those Southern staples. Just as Nashville’s musical output is far from one-note, its culinary landscape thrives on diversity, from hole-in-the-wall dive bars serving surprisingly good food to polished restaurants helmed by celebrity chefs. It is this dynamic culture that inspired chefs Leina Horii and Brian Lea to move cross-country from Los Angeles seven years ago. After working at other top restaurants (including Catbird Seat and Bastion), the husband-and-wife team opened Kisser, a 40-seat Japanese café, in 2023 to rave reviews.

What’s Nashville’s signature dish?
Brian: The obvious answer is hot chicken. For me, Hattie B’s is one that never disappoints; it’s consistently great. I usually get the “hot,” which is their mid-range. But if I get a multi-piece order, I’ll get one of the “damn hot” because that extra level of spice is nice sometimes.

Any other restaurant recommendations?
Brian: Folk is easily our favorite. It’s consistently delicious. We always get a couple of pizzas, which are incredible.

Leina: They have a section of vegetable small plates that are always seasonal, done in interesting ways. We also love the Continental by Sean Brock. We like to sit at the bar and order a martini. All of the food is perfectly seasoned and well prepared.

What’s an undiscovered spot you’d like to highlight?
Leina: VN Pho & Deli is a mom-and-pop Vietnamese restaurant on the west side, and they have some of the best Vietnamese food we’ve ever had. Beyond the pho, there are other, more interesting noodle dishes you’re not going to find other places. They do day-of-the-week specials. The duck noodles are fantastic.

Brian: They also do excellent Vietnamese-style pastries.

Outside of food, where do you take visitors?
Leina: We’re really into nature, and for cycling, the Natchez Trace is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.

Brian: It’s definitely off the beaten path, but the Lane Motor Museum, with all these interesting, old esoteric cars, is a cool spot and a fun way to spend a couple hours.

Eastern Kentucky native Ouita Michel is a graduate of the James Beard Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change, a program that unites chefs around the goal of improving global food systems.

Photo courtesy of Ouita Michel

Lexington, Kentucky
Ouita MichelHolly Hill Inn, Honeywood, the Midwest Bakery, Smithtown Seafood, the Thirsty Fox, Wallace Station, Windy Corner, Zim’s Cafe

“The Thoroughbred City” is known for its horse breeding and bourbon, but its dynamic dining scene may be a close third. Much of the credit is due to homegrown chef and restaurateur Ouita Michel, who helms an eight-restaurant culinary empire. Beyond the throngs of restaurant regulars, she has the accolades to prove her mettle: She’s an eight-time James Beard Award nominee and serves as a guest judge on Top Chef.

What is Lexington’s main dish?
Brown beans and cornbread is quintessential, not just for Lexington but for eastern Kentucky. For years, you couldn’t really find it, so we put it on our casual restaurant menus. We’ve been driving a resurgence of that dish in the area, which makes me really happy. Another big Kentucky dish is burgoo, a stew usually made with rabbit, pork, beef, or chicken, all stitched together with peas, corn, and tomatoes. It’s seasonally available at the Keeneland race track at the spring and fall meets. They make an excellent rendition of it.

When you have some downtime, where do you eat?
Toyota Camrys are made in an adjacent town, and that triggered this huge sushi culture here. One of my favorites is Michikusa, a little Japanese cafe in a strip mall. I love the pressed mackerel. Chef Hiroshi Aoyagi cures it, presses it onto rice, and cuts it in a very specific way. I also love Arirang Korean BBQ. It’s a diner, and every table has a charcoal grill. It gets really lively, and the food’s fantastic.

What are a few under-the-radar spots you’d like to give a shout out to?
The independent restaurant scene in Lexington is really thriving. My friend Chris Cain is a local chef doing a ridiculously good food truck called Daughters’ Southern. Another truck called Little Fork, run by chef Nick Zaluski, has a nice setup outside Wise Bird Cider Co. Finally, there’s a cafe called the Sage Rabbit, run by veteran chef John Foster, who’s also an instructor at Sullivan University. He does beautiful work with pasta.

This article appears in the Fall 2023 issue of Southbound.