Fried chicken and syrup-soaked waffles are the crux of eatery Sweet Chick in Brooklyn. Diners begin meals at Comstock Saloon in San Francisco with red pepper jelly-dressed chicken liver. At West Hollywood’s The Hart And The Hunter, you can order cheese grits and cornbread-fried catfish for brunch.
Clearly, the South’s gastronomic influence extends far beyond the Mason-Dixon line.
Macaroni and cheese dot menus of fine-dining temples and take-out shacks alike, and BBQ joints are opening faster than you can say “ham hock.”
Metro capitals like Atlanta have long been epicenters for this gourmet comfort food, but now it’s the second cities of the South—Greenville, South Carolina; Birmingham, Alabama; Richmond, Virginia; and Asheville, North Carolina—where chefs are taking this now ubiquitous, wholly American southern cuisine to new heights.
At Richmond’s Rappahannock, executive chef Dylan Fultineer, a vet of Santa Monica’s Hungry Cat and Chicago’s Blackbird, bakes Chesapeake Bay oysters Southern-style with bacon, leeks, sunchokes and toasted breadcrumbs.
It’s a similar story in Greenville, often overlooked for nearby culinary powerhouse, Charleston. Thanks to ventures like the Neue Southern Food Truck, which boasts pork meatballs bobbing in Vietnamese rice bowls.
Further south, in Birmingham, Johnny’s has an elevated spin on the Southern “meat-and-three” with mouthwatering chipotle BBQ meatloaf and purple hull peas.
“A lot of Southern cities are blowing up with great eating scenes.” says Fultineer. “There is camaraderie between chefs and restaurants, with everyone shooting for the common goal of raising the bar.”
These restaurants still have to pay rent and make money, but it’s this exchange of ideas, along with a supportive local community—and the general quality of life—that allows chefs to be creative.
The biggest pressure down here is one-upping your last culinary triumph. That’s a far different reality than in profit-driven Atlanta or New York.
That’s why chef Katie Buttons, a protégé of José Andrés and Jean-Georges, moved froim NYC to Asheville, opening her first restaurant, Cúrate in 2011. At her forthcoming gastro pub, Nightbell, she’ll whip up a stuffed-pastry grilled cheese with sherry-herb-truffle fondue, and a root-beer float with vanilla and Bourbon mousse.
“People here are passionate about what they do,” says Buttons. “These are cities that people move to—to create the life they want to live.”