This list contains the top 16 iconic Southern restaurants to try before you die. Did your favorite make the list? The only inclusion criteria was that the restaurant had to open for at least the past 30 years and be located within the Southern United States….they don’t have to sell “Southern” food.
#1) Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, LA
Commander’s Palace in New Orleans has been a gourmet landmark since opening in 1880. Most recently executive chefs Paul Prudhomme, Emeril Lagasse, and now Troy McPhail continued the legendary run of perfection leaving the kitchen. Foie Gras, turtle soup, gumbo, pecan crusted gulf fish, and Grand Marnier lacquered quail make their rotations on the ever changing menu. What makes Commander’s Palace still relevant after 130+ years is their nonstop dedication to perfect execution.
#2) Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, NC
For over 30 years Crook’s Corner has been serving dishes such as soft shelled crab, oyster stew, green Tabasco chicken, and shrimp and grits. Some credit Crook’s Corner as being the original shrimp and grits due to it’s famous write up in the New York Times. Crook’s Corner seems to have taken an academic approach to Southern cooking and by doing so has become a great training ground for forming other great chefs including Chef John Currence of City Grocery in Oxford, MS and Chef Robert Stehling of Hominy Grill in Charleston, SC only to name a few.
#3) Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham, AL
The Highlands opened in 1982 has been one of the trailblazers in fine dinning Southern cuisine. They led the way in the farm to table movement currently popular all over the US. Chef Frank Stitt and his staff take great pride in sourcing only the finest ingredients and then highlighting them in beautiful and delicious presentations. Memories of your baked grits, rabbit terrine, grilled venison, and cauliflower soup will surely stay with you for a lifetime.
#4) Moonlite Bar-B-Q in Owensboro, KY
Full disclosure: My parents had their wedding reception at this BBQ mecca back in the 70s. So while I may have some sentimental attachment to this location my stomach is reaping the benefits. When you go to the Moonlite BBQ you have to have the buffet and be prepared to try things like mutton, burgoo, and sorghum in addition to your beef ribs and chopped pork and 20+ sides.
#5) Bill’s BBQ in Wilson, NC
Bill’s has been serving up delicious BBQ since 1963. They have their own farm were they keep about 500 hogs. Their buffet features a full pig. That’s right, pig pickin’ style. I haven’t seen or heard of that anywhere else. Fantastic.
#6) The Columbia in Tampa, FL
The Columbia in the Ybor district of Tampa has been open since 1905. They are Florida’s oldest restaurant. In 1935 they had the first air conditioned dining room in Tampa. Cuban and Spanish dishes like croquettas, paella, and churros cover the extensive menu. My tip is to order a cold drink like a mojito or sangria and take your time reading through the menu.
#7) Bessinger’s BBQ in Charleston, SC
Thomas Bessinger opened this location in Charleston in 1960. The Bessinger family has been instrumental in cultivating the mustard style BBQ sauce so popular in South Carolina. Also notable is the onion rings which are size of doughnuts. One ring of onion is battered in a doughy mix and deep fried so it is crispy on the outside and doughy on the side. You need to try them. Other great sides are the collards, fried okra, hash on rice and seasonal catfish stew. (Other BBQ family members own Melvin’s BBQ and Maurice’s BBQ in South Carolina…similar but different)
#8) Bern’s Steak House in Tampa, FL
Another Tampa tradition is Bern’s Steakhouse. Since 1953 this restaurant has slowly been growing. Don’t let the outside fool you inside is a culinary labyrinth. From the wine cellar with almost 500,000 bottles of wine, to the bar, to the kitchen tour, to the segregated dinning rooms, to the upstairs dessert room Bern’s is the like the Disney World of restaurants in Florida.
#9) Acme Oyster House in New Orleans, LA
For almost 80 years Acme Oyster House has been shucking oysters and sucking crawfish heads on Bourbon Street. The best seats in the house are right up front at the raw bar where you will be amazed and how many and how fast the guys can shuck a dozen oysters before your eyes. Come there on the weekend during football season and watch them multitask by watching and discussing the games with you while working nonstop. Grab a few beers and a couple orders of crawfish and just enjoy life in the Big Easy.
#10) Rendezvous BBQ in Memphis, TN
Charlie Vergos started Rendezvous BBQ in 1948. It is still in a basement on a side street in Memphis. Most of the wait staff has been there for 30-40 years and the work that goes into the ribs remains true to it’s origins. Slow cooked, charcoal-broiled, dry rubbed, pork ribs are the specialty. Also good is the brisket, lamb ribs and BBQ shrimp. The shrimp require a 24 hour notice and consists of a 5 lb portion.
#11) Loveless Cafe in Nashville, TN
The Loveless Cafe started back in 1951 when Lon and Annie Loveless began serving chicken and biscuits out of the front door of their home. Over the years that home has transformed into a full time restaurant that makes around 4,000 biscuits a day. The walls are covered with autographed pictures of the country music singers that enjoyed the Loveless and helped influence modern music and shape the American South. Come by for breakfast and keep your eyes pealed for today’s generation of singers still enjoying the country ham, eggs and red-eye gravy or the biscuit platter (1 BBQ, 1 steak, 1 country ham and 1 chicken).
#12) Poogan’s Porch in Charleston, SC
Poogan’s Porch opened in 1976 inside an old 1888 Victorian home in downtown Charleston. The restaurant is named after the owner’s family dog that served as the unofficial greeter. The menu has undergone several revamps over the years and the current chef is rolling out some delicious food. Pimento cheese fritters, crab cakes, fried green tomatoes and pan roasted ducks are all fantastic options.
#13) The Wilkes House in Savannah, GA
In 1943 Sema Wilkes took over this boarding house and the place has been a tradition ever since. Don’t expect a menu, your own plate of food, or a short wait. You will be greeted with a wait to be seated and a table full of food with you will share family style. The food is typically a few meats and several sides such as black-eyed peas, snap beans, rutabaga, red rice, candy yam etc. The wait is always worth it!
#14) The Varsity in Atlanta, GA
This may be the busiest hot dog and hamburger joint in the country. It has been open since 1928 and is located in the heart of downtown Atlanta. The Varsity currently has seating for 800 people and parking spots for 600 cars. The Varsity claims to sell 2 miles of hot dogs a day and 300 gallons of chili. They also sell more Coca-Cola than any other single location per year….which makes sense because Coca-Cola’s world headquarters is located only 1/2 a mile away. Get a paper hat and then learn the jargon. If you want a hot dog and onion rings to go ask for “A Walk A Dog and a Sideways”.
#15) The Dillard House in Dillard, GA
Coming up on 100 years at the current location the Dillard House has been host to Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Walt Disney Jimmy Carter and Arnold Palmer just to name a few. Your meal comes with a taste of everything you see on the board for the day and if that isn’t enough that will bring you some extras of your favorites. The picture above is what your table will look like each time you go there.
#16) McGuire’s Irish Pub in Pensacola, FL
McGuires menu features an 18 cent Senate Bean Soup all the way to a $100 burger (filet mignon, caviar, and Champagne). Angus never frozen hand cut steaks are the stars of the menu along with a nice chart of burgers, seafood, and various Irish fixin’s like shepherd’s pie. Play along in the fun while you are there. Kiss the moose, add your dollar to the ceiling, try a flight of their beer brewed on site and make sure to get you card declaring yourself an official Irishman before leaving.