Want Food, Will Travel: 8 Southern plates worth the drive—or flight

Some dishes are passable; others are praiseworthy. But these eight should send you packing your bags.

Would you jet to Miami for a Cuban hamburger? Take a trip to Savannah for foie gras and grits? How about head to Asheville for a whole-hog pulled-pork plate? Some dishes are so remarkable, they’re worth traveling that extra mile—or even hundreds of miles. To create this list of crave-worthy plates, we polled more than a dozen Southern food experts (and one well-traveled Yankee), then took to the road on a pilgrimage to the region’s culinary capitals in search of dishes we’d happily plan a vacation around. Forget traveling light. We prefer traveling full.

Meat and three from Arnold’s

Photograph courtesy of Arnold's Country Kitchen

Meat and three
Arnold’s Country Kitchen

Opened by Jack and Rose Arnold in 1982, this cafeteria-style, weekdays-only lunch spot in a bright-red cinderblock building is hallowed ground for lovers of classic country cooking. Locals know which days to go for fried chicken and battered grouper (Mondays and Tuesdays, respectively); travelers may plan ahead by checking out the online menu. Turnip greens, mac and cheese, pinto beans, fried apples, candied yams, boiled cabbage, stewed okra, fried green tomatoes: How in the world can you pick just three sides? Chris Chamberlain, food and drink writer for Nashville Scene, is a devotee of the “absolutely exemplary” fried chicken. As for sides, he’s big on the turnips and likes to layer the creamed corn over the green beans, as suggested to him by Jack and Rose’s son, Kahlil, who now runs Arnold’s. Erin Byers Murray, editor-at-large for Nashville Lifestyles and author of Grits: A Cultural & Culinary Journey Through the South, raves about the roast beef. “It’s sliced super thin and piled onto the plate in a tangle of juicy slivers,” she says. “I’m not sure what goes into their seasoning, but it’s damn near addictive.” In 2009, the mom-and-pop was named an America’s Classic by the James Beard Foundation. No wonder country-music industry types, construction workers, and politicos all congregate here.

Where to Stay
404 Hotel | Sleek, sexy, and super private, this hotel has exactly four rooms and zero registration counters (check-in takes place via room code). Enjoy posh amenities (Sferra linens, Malin + Goetz toiletries, Turkish towels and robes) and, at the hotel’s 404 Kitchen, one of the smartest and largest whiskey collections in the state.

One More Bite
Hot chicken at Prince’s |
Though it has many imitators, Prince’s lays claim to the original mouth-torching Nashville bird. Try the hot or “XHot” breast-wing quarter and a cooling side of potato salad or coleslaw. Anything hotter, have the fire department on speed dial.

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Natchez Trace Parkway | The famed 444-mile trail begins in Nashville, near the Loveless Cafe. Grab a biscuit and a bike, available at Trace Bikes, and ride to your heart’s content.

Another Meat-and-Three to Try
Veggie plate at Bully’s Restaurant, Jackson | At this beloved soul-food cafe run by Tyrone Bully and his family since 1982, skip the meat and build a plate of four incredible sides. This restaurant, another James Beard Foundation American Classic, cooks three different kinds of Southern greens every day. Don’t miss the collards or the mac and cheese, and save room for blackberry cobbler. 601-362-0484

Gulf fish amandine from Brennan’s

Photograph courtesy of Brennan's

Gulf fish amandine

When the freshly refurbished French Quarter grande dame flung open its doors four years ago, its updated amandine was an instant hit. Forget the old-school pan-fried fish saturated in brown butter and strewn with grocery store–quality sliced almonds—that was the preferred dish of pearl-clutching grands-mères of yesteryear. In this opulent dining room of tufted green leather, shiny pink upholstery, and flaming bananas Foster, Brennan’s new amandine exudes modern flair. A stellar slab of Gulf fish (depending on availability, it might be pompano, sheepshead, redfish, or speckled trout) lies in a foamy bath of rich cream, with a cassoulet of blanched haricots verts, tender Kennebec potatoes, and Marcona almonds on the side. If the fish is the diva, the sauce is the choir: a haunting amalgamation of cream and brown butter, with hints of preserved and fresh lemon and a touch of thyme. No wonder longtime New Orleans restaurant critic Brett Anderson and Los Angeles Times restaurant critic Bill Addison have singled out the amandine as an essential Big Easy plate. In a city awash with fabulous destination restaurants, Brennan’s remains an unsinkable showboat.   

Where to Stay
International House | With its wrought-iron chandeliers, stunning contemporary art, and terrific cocktail bar, this boutique hotel is a delight. It’s only two blocks from the raucous French Quarter, but so quiet you might never know.

One More Bite
Goat curry at Compere Lapin | Chef Nina Compton (who was named the South’s best chef in 2017 by the James Beard Foundation) pays tribute to her Caribbean roots at this Warehouse District stunner. Try the goat curry with sweet potato gnocchi, paired with jerk butternut squash. When celebrity chef and double James Beard winner Alon Shaya is not at his Magazine Street restaurant, Saba, you might spot him here.

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The Warehouse District | Explore this snappy neighborhood on foot or via the Blue Bikes share program. It’s home to small galleries (Arthur Roger, Jonathan Ferrara), big museums (The Ogden, The National World War II Museum), and some of the city’s most dependable restaurants (Peche, Herbsaint, Meril).

Another Seafood Dish to Try
Fried shrimp at Doc’s Seafood, Orange Beach, Alabama | You might roll your eyes when you see the braggadocious sign in front of this seafood shack: “Best Fried Shrimp in the Entire Civilized World.” All cynicism will vanish when you dig into a pile of impossibly fresh, delicately breaded shrimp. The local crustaceans might be petite, but they are big in sweet-briny flavor. The plate comes with hush puppies and a baked potato or fries.

Cuban hamburger from El Mago de las Fritas

Photograph by Libby Vision

Cuban hamburger
El Mago de las Fritas

Imagine a hamburger patty seasoned like chorizo and fried on a grill, topped with crispy potato wisps, a runny egg, and a slice of American cheese. Now picture this caliente mess on a soft white Cuban bun. This, my friends, is a frita, also known as a Cuban hamburger. And according to Carlos Frias, the Miami Herald’s food and dining editor, the best frita in Little Havana is that of septuagenarian Ortelio Cardenas. A magician of the griddle, Cardenas fries his own papitas all day long—no canned potato sticks here! But he’s no food snob: He has the audacity to slap a slice of processed cheese on the time-honored classic. “It’s not traditional, but it gives it its own creamy addition,” Frias says, adding that the burger tastes best when dressed with a squirt of ketchup and a splash of Crystal hot sauce. Book a plane, drive nine or ten hours, whatever it takes to get to this no-frills hole-in-the wall on Calle Ocho. As Frias once wrote in the Herald: “A beer and a frita go a long way toward finding enlightenment.”

Where to Stay
The Vagabond Hotel Miami
| From the outside, this revamped 1950s property looks like the set of a Rat Pack flick, while the interior seems ready-made for the Jetsons. Think cocktails and dance parties by the pool and quirky Space Age decor in the rooms.

One More Bite
Pho hai san at Phuc Yea | Like Miami itself, this Viet-Cajun noodle soup is hot, spicy, and splashy. Florida shrimp, crawfish tails, andouille sausage, and Vietnamese sausage (cha lua) are plunged into a broth of pineapple, tamarind, and crab and topped with herbs and bean sprouts. Add shots of hoisin and sriracha and slurp away. You’ll instantly know why chef Cesar Zapata and his partner, Ani Meinhold, have cooked up one of the steamiest joints on Biscayne Boulevard.

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Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden | Spend a few hours roaming this lush destination south of town. With a focus on tropical plants, the garden is home to the world’s largest collection of living palms and cycads.

Another Burger to Try
Royale with cheese at Poole’s Diner, Raleigh
| To prepare her show-stopping open-face burger, chef Ashley Christensen takes ten ounces of chuck muscle crusted in Tellicherry pepper, sears it in duck fat, places it on a slice of buttery toasted brioche, and tops it with “cheese plate–worthy cheese.” Diners are encouraged to poke a hole in the giant burger, pour in the beef-shallot jus that arrives in a tiny pitcher, and eat it with a spork.

Foie gras and grits from The Grey

Photograph by Chia Chong

Foie gras and grits
The Grey

In 2014, Mashama Bailey left New York’s celebrated Prune and moved to Savannah, the city where she attended grammar school. She has since made the area’s local food and history a springboard for fearless experimentation with recipes old and new. This dish, which you’ll sup in the art deco splendor of Savannah’s once-segregated Greyhound bus terminal, transforms a staple of Southern country cooking into a bowl of pure luxury. It begins with bright-yellow Geechee Boy Mill grits from nearby Edisto Island, then takes a decidedly uptown turn with the addition of a glistening hunk of seared foie gras and a generous ladling of elegant duck broth, red wine, and shallot reduction. Bailey adds a vivid and intriguing drizzle of fruit mostarda that changes with the seasons (watermelon and peach in the summer, muscadine and apple in the fall). As soon as the dish hit her menu in 2016, it caused a stir, eventually earning a cameo on a segment of Netflix’s Chef’s Table. Now that Bailey has taken home the 2019 James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast, this plate of sophisticated comfort is legend.

Where to Stay
Alida | Alida Harper Fowlkes was a twentieth-century entrepreneur who worked tirelessly to preserve Savannah’s architecture. Her namesake hotel in the up-and-coming Riverfront neighborhood seeks to mimic her forward-thinking, locally minded spirit with industrial-cool decor and Savannah-made items throughout the property.

One More Bite
Fish tacos in a banana leaf at the Wyld Dock Bar
| Perched in the marshes just outside town, this bustling seafood shack with plentiful outdoor seating is an ideal place to anchor for an afternoon. Make your own tacos from fish steamed in a banana leaf, spicy tomato jam, and basil-dill chimichurri. (The catch is so fresh, you might see a chef cleaning it when you arrive.)

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Genteel & Bard Ghost Encounter | Scare those calories away with a chilling tour led by husband-and-wife team T.C. and Brenna Michaels. Wander historic graveyards, explore haunted hotels, and pause in forgotten alleyways to hear Savannah’s ghost stories.

Another Grits Dish to Try
Barbecue shrimp and grits at Hog & Hominy, Memphis | Your eyes might roll back in your head when you try this Lowcountry standard with a Memphis kick. Gulf shrimp are doused with a brawny barbecue sauce and served atop luscious Geechee Boy Mill grits. It’s a multi-layered joy ride of contrasting textures: firm shrimp, creamy grits, and crunchy bacon, all topped with zingy scallions.

Whole-hog pulled-pork plate from Buxton Hall

Photograph by Andrew Thomas Lee

Whole-hog pulled-pork plate
Buxton Hall

When you fork into Buxton Hall’s peppery, vinegar-dressed pork, you are tasting the product of a chef’s lifelong fascination with smoke and char. Elliott Moss, the pitmaster at this industrial-cool restaurant, learned the art of whole-hog barbecue as a child growing up in Florence, South Carolina. His father and grandfather, both welders, built their own pig cookers and spent long days smoking meat in the style of their Eastern North Carolina neighbors. Any regional barbecue biases you bring to the table will fall away with a single bite of Moss’s slow-smoked heavenly hog. He massages his fresh-off-the-fire pulled pork with leftover pig fat and a sauce of vinegar, red and black pepper, and lemon juice—kind of like he’s tossing a salad. The plate comes with a seven-ounce pile of pork, bread-and-butter pickles, hush puppies, and two sides. Go with the green beans (cooked under the hog to catch the juices) and the chicken bog, a South Carolina rice pilaf made with rich stock and kielbasa sausage from the same farmer that supplies Buxton its pigs. A slice of pastry chef Ashley Capps’s sinful banana-pudding pie should just about finish you off.

Where to Stay
Windsor Boutique Hotel
| Since you’re here for the food, consider staying at this centrally located property. Its luxury suites will put you close to the city’s best restaurants and the South Slope Brewing District (home of Green Man, Twin Leaf, and eight other distilleries).

One More Bite
Tapas assortment at Cúrate | James Beard nominee Katie Button and her Spanish husband, Félix Meana, want you to eat tapas like you’re in the mother country. Build your own spread from Button’s simple, rustic menu. Options include Galician-style octopus with Yukon-gold puree, fish and clams in salsa verde, and grilled Iberico pork with herbs. Caroline Campion, a former Saveur editor and cookbook author who lives in New Jersey, admits that when she traveled to Asheville and ate at Cúrate, she devoured said pork with her fingers “like a cave woman.”

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Joyryder | Sign up for a rhythm-based cycling class at this spin studio in historic Biltmore Village, next to the storied estate. While you pedal, you’ll get an upper-body workout with small weights.

Another Barbecue Dish to Try
Pork sandwich at Helen’s Bar-B-Q, Brownsville, Tennessee | In the male-dominated world of Southern barbecue, Helen Turner is a bona fide treasure. Her generous pork sandwich is constructed with tender and crispy bits of chopped smoked shoulder and juiced up with creamy coleslaw and sweet-tangy barbecue sauce. It’s a heavenly mess waiting to happen. 731-779-3255

Filet mignon from Bones

Photograph courtesy of Bones

Filet mignon

In the rush to recognize food that opens culinary frontiers, we often ignore the classics. Every detail of Bones—the clubby atmosphere, the choreography of servers in crisp tan jackets, the icy martinis poured tableside—reminds you that it is an institution. Ask your waiter how long he’s worked for Bones, and there’s a good chance he will tell you upwards of thirty years (the restaurant opened in 1979). Ask him the best steak in the house, and he’ll likely suggest the twenty-ounce dry-aged bone-in ribeye, for flavor, or a filet mignon, for tenderness. (At $46, the eight-ounce filet is easier on the wallet than the $60 ribeye.) A perfect meal at Bones starts with fat sweet-onion rings, which arrive with a bottle of house steak sauce for dipping. Next comes the filet, served in a buttery puddle of jus, with a properly seared crust and hot-pink interior. And of course, the requisite sides: spears of grilled asparagus and a sea salt–encrusted baked potato the size of a small casserole, bubbling over with melting cheddar and sour cream, scattered with cubes of smoky bacon and scallions. You have permission to skip dessert. Barely breathing, waddle past the celebrity caricatures, through the elegant double front doors, to the valet stand with its canine mascot. Stuffed as you’ll be, it’s not too early to begin plotting your next trip to Bones.

Where to Stay
Hotel Clermont
| Newly restored, this boutique property is quirky and comfortable, with (bonus!) a seriously good French restaurant, Tiny Lou’s, downstairs. Ideally situated for a day of exploring, the hotel is close to attractions like the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park, the Carter Center, and Ponce City and Krog Street markets. Added perk: Guests are greeted with a gratis cold PBR upon check-in, a tribute to the can-crushing dexterity of the notorious exotic dancer Blondie, who works the legendary lounge downstairs.

One More Bite
Oysters and cocktails at Kimball House | The bar program at this train depot-turned-restaurant is a two-time James Beard finalist. Thanks to partner and oyster steward Bryan Rackley, the accompanying bivalves are also celebrated. Order a platter of Murder Points from Alabama, paired with the restaurant’s namesake cocktail: a gin-based quencher with French vermouth, Cocchi Americano, and orange bitters. There’s no happier happy hour.

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The BeltLine’s Westside Trail | Explore this three-mile trail, where you’ll find the so-called Malt Disney of Atlanta—a handful of breweries, distilleries, and pubs, including Monday Night Brewing Garage, Wild Heaven, and ASW Distillery. Not as populated as the BeltLine’s eastern stretch, it’s still a bit of a secret—but won’t be for long.

Another Steak to Try
Porterhouse at Doe’s Eat Place, Greenville, Mississippi | Get yourself a platter-sized hunk of beef with hand-cut fries and the restaurant’s famous olive oil, garlic, and lemon tossed salad. “It’s worth gassing up the Pacer for,” says Southern Foodways Alliance Director John T. Edge. Served in a puddle of pan juices, the porterhouse is a charry beast of a steak. Wrestle one down, and you’ll see why the James Beard Foundation declared this quirky Delta joint an American Classic.

Lowcountry hash browns from Marina Variety Store

Photograph by Mac Kilduff

Lowcountry hash browns
Marina Variety Store

Sidling up to the bar of this local gathering spot on a Sunday morning, a woman orders a Bloody Mary. “Keep the tab open,” she calls to the bartender. “My husband is parking the boat.” Whether arriving by land or by sea, you can’t help but be charmed by this out-of-the-way, 1960s-era diner by the Ashley River, with watercolor-worthy views of the tip of the historic peninsula. Breakfast here could mean fried flounder with eggs, crab Benedict, or shrimp and grits. It could even mean a plate of alligator ’n’ grits. But Charleston Post & Courier dining critic Hanna Raskin says forget the grits altogether—go for the spuds. A pile of shredded and griddled potatoes with crispy bits is decked out with sauteed peppers and onions, tender shrimp, eggs your way, plus hollandaise. “Hash browns aren’t necessarily the breakfast starch associated with a region reared on eggs-and-rice in the morning, but Marina Variety Store puts a Lowcountry stamp on the dish by blitzing it with tender shrimp,” she says. “Although—or perhaps because—tourists never seem to find their way to Marina, it’s beloved by locals.”

Where to Stay
The Dewberry | A drab federal building from the sixties has been transformed into a modern downtown hotel with a destination spa, noteworthy restaurant (Henrietta’s), and the Living Room—a cocktail lounge that was a 2018 James Beard semifinalist.

One More Bite
Holy Diver Pizza at the Obstinate Daughter | Hop on a blue leather barstool in this stylish restaurant above a Sullivan’s Island gelateria, and let James Beard semifinalist Jacques Larson wow you with his Lowcountry-Italian fare. The Holy Diver pie is a knockout: spicy tomato sauce, Clammer Dave’s cultured clams from Caper’s Island, chorizo, roasted fennel, and aromatic basil and parsley. It’s almost worth a swim across Charleston Harbor.

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Sullivan’s Island
| While you’re on Sullivan’s Island, save time for a beachside stroll, taking in gorgeous homes on one side and crashing surf on the other. Prefer to work up more of a sweat? Biking and running are nice options, too; bicycle rentals are available at Carolina Bike & Beach’s Isle of Palms location.

Another Breakfast to Try
Duck-confit biscuit at Kenny’s Southside Sandwiches, Chattanooga | Georgia-born chef Kenny Burnap merges his Southern roots with his fine-dining background (he cut his culinary teeth at Chattanooga’s high-end St. John’s) to create this totally original breakfast sammie: rich, unctuous duck confit stacked on a biscuit and topped with house-made strawberry jam.

Coconut cake from Highlands Bar & Grill

Photograph by Iain Bagwell

Coconut cake
Highlands Bar & Grill

Dolester Miles grew up in Bessemer, Alabama, making Southern layer cakes with her mother and aunt using only a hand mixer. In 1982, she began her career working with Birmingham wünderchef Frank Stitt, helping him open his elegant Parisian-style restaurant, Highlands Bar & Grill. Today, Miles is one of America’s best bakers: In 2018, she won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef. Her famous coconut cake is actually a descendant of her mother’s German chocolate cake, minus the chocolate. For the two-layer showstopper (also available at Bottega and Chez Fonfon, both owned by Stitt), she sprinkles finely chopped pecans and everything coconut she can find into the batter—coconut extract, coconut milk, cream of coconut. She spreads a swath of cooked coconut and condensed-milk frosting between the layers, covering it all with whipped-cream icing and a heavy dusting of toasted coconut flakes. Plated with rich crème anglaise, the dessert is absolutely worth building a vacation around, especially when paired with a glass of Plantation Original Dark rum from Trinidad and Tobago. Bonus: You can bring home a whole “souvenir” cake for $83.

Where to Stay
Elyton Hotel | This ornate hotel has preserved many of its original 1909 touches, such as marble stairs, a brass letter box, and the architects’ bas-relief visages on the uppermost corners of the terracotta exterior. Rooms are bright and modern, and the rooftop bar is not to be missed.

One More Bite
Special Dog at Gus’s downtown | During the seventies, you could spot a Greek-owned hot dog stand on nearly every corner of downtown Birmingham. Today, Gus’s is the only one that remains, and its Special Dog might be the reason why. Loaded with mustard, onions, sauerkraut, ground beef, and the proprietary sweet-tangy tomato-based “Birmingham sauce,” it’s the best $2.50 lunch in town.

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Sloss Furnaces
| Spend a few hours roaming what was once the world’s largest manufacturer of pig iron, now a National Historic Landmark with a thirty-two-acre park. This warren of buildings features an eye-popping Industrial Revolution–era assemblage of pipes and stoves, with a free museum and metalworking workshops.

Another Dessert to Try
Persimmon pudding at Crook’s Corner, Chapel Hill | A holdover from the days of Crook’s Corner’s late, great founding chef, Bill Neal, this autumnal pudding is fragrant with spice. Its center is fluffy like soufflé, while its edges are buttery, crispy, and brown. This heritage dessert, made with locally foraged fruit and served warm with a cooling mountain of whipped cream, is the genuine article—more than worth a trip to this thirty-seven-year-old Southern icon.

This article appears in the Fall/Winter 2019 issue of Southbound.