The southern United States has always had something of a reputation when it comes to food.
A region long synonymous with such comfort food as pan-fried chicken, black-eyed peas and collard greens, as well as hushpuppies and beignets, its hard to talk (or even think for that matter) about the states south of the Mason-Dixon line without considering their vast contribution to gastronomy.
And never has that been more true than in 2017. While big cities such as Atlanta and New Orleans have long commanded the attention when it comes to restaurant and food happenings, the culinary offerings in places such as Nashville, Richmond, and Louisville, have been evolving as well, with exciting new restaurants and foodie neighborhoods regularly emerging.
These traditionally less hyped destinations have grown to be darlings of the national press in their own right and their local chefs can often be seen competing on national television shows such as the Food Network’s Chopped (and walking away with top awards.)
All of which makes it a fascinating time to schedule a food focused getaway. With that in mind, here’s a mini-guide to some of the latest culinary offerings in Richmond, Nashville and Louisville.
Richmond has attracted the attention of some of the nation’s, if not the world’s, leading travel publications. National Geographic described the city as a place to visit for food and Conde Nast Traveler called it a “Southern food destination you need to know about.”
It’s hard to beat recommendations from such heavy hitters.
But for more insight about why the city has become such a hotspot, we tapped Erin Bagnell of the Richmond Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, who begins by pointing out that Richmond’s offerings can’t be pigeonholed. The city is about far more than merely serving up southern with a twist.
Rather, it’s a place where visitors will find everything from farm-to-table, to Asian fusion, to rave-worthy German food. Yes, German food.
Which brings Bagnell to one of her first recommendations.
Chef Brittany Anderson has been drawing crowds at her Richmond restaurant Metzger Bar & Butchery, renowned for its German fare. But now Anderson is about to launch a new restaurant called Brenner Pass. The new 4,000 square foot space in the Scott’s Addition neighborhood of Richmond will allow Anderson to spread her wings.
“Brenner Pass is much bigger than Metzger,” explains Bagnell. “Brittany is looking to expand and offer more comprehensive European fair in the new place.”
The Brenner Pass menu will include Italian and French entrées, as well as desserts, bar bites and small plates. The emphasis will be on classic and hearty food made with fresh ingredients. Anderson has described the forthcoming offerings in press reports as classic French and Italian food with modern sensibilities.
Another not to miss stop on Bagnell’s list is L’Oppossum. Open Table ranks the restaurant as one of the 100 best in America and Southern Living described it as one of the south’s best restaurants.
So what’s all the fuss about?
“It’s all very cheeky,” says Bagnell. “The menu items are described in a somewhat naughty fashion, there’s really interesting décor, and the food is just outstanding.”
Open Table describes L’Oppossum’s menu as eccentric. Conde Nast, which also gives it rave reviews, suggests the restaurant is something akin to Liberace, Andy Warhol and Nick Cave all collaborating on a college-town tavern. If you’re still a little hazy on what sort of food is served at L’Oppossum, think such things as curried butternut bisque, escargot, and lump crab cakes, among many other tasty items.
Restaurants like L’Oppossum and Brenner Pass are just two examples of what Richmond’s current restaurant scene has to offer. Bagnell says the city can hold its own with any of the top culinary destinations, but does so in a way that is uniquely Virginia.
“Richmond has that southern, small town charm, but with big city amenities and that applies to our food scene,” says Bagnell. “Reservations aren’t difficult to get, but the food is high quality.”
Sure, Nashville is the country music capital, but there’s more to this city than music. Nashville’s restaurant community is nearly as active as the city’s music community.
Since the start of 2017, more than 20 restaurants have opened and about another 90 are slated to come online by the end of this year, says Allison Duke, the associate director of public relations for Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp.
“Nashville itself has been growing over last five years, so there’s more people to feed and more visitors coming here,” begins Duke.
For those who make it to Nashville, there’s a few local specialty food items that should be on every visitor’s must-try list. The first is hot chicken. For the uninitiated, that’s fried chicken, with a lot of cayenne pepper.
“It originated at Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack and over the last five to seven years it has expanded to several places,” says Duke. “It’s traditionally served as a piece of fried chicken on top of white bread with pickles on top. But these days a lot of our restaurants do some kind of variation on it. They might do a hot chicken salad, which is a green salad with hot chicken on it. A lot of restaurants now do some kind of twist or take on it.”
Yet another longtime, local food tradition is known as a “meat and three.” As the name indicates, these restaurants specialize in offering a meat of the day and three side dishes. “They might have ham or roast beef and fried chicken, and then you can choose from fried okra baked beans, or other sides,” explains Duke, adding that Arnold’s Country Kitchen is one of Nashville’s most legendary meat and three establishments, a local landmark that has been in business for more than 30 years, and should be on any respectable foodie tour.
Arnold’s has been recognized by such publications as Maxim, Southern Living, SAVEUR and Bon Apetit. And in 2009 it was awarded a prestigious James Beard American Classics Award.
If you find yourself in East Nashville, don’t miss Chef Margot McCormack’s Margot Café & Bar, a creative, contemporary restaurant. The menu, focused on locally sourced and seasonal products, changes daily. The food is French and Italian, and is served in a space that dates back to the 1930s and was once a service station.
That you would find a restaurant serving fine Italian and French cuisine, in a transformed service station, in a city that is as southern as they come, is probably one of the best examples of just how inventive and dynamic Nashville’s culinary scene has become.
“Nashville is a very creative city,” says Duke. “Obviously it’s the home of country music, but people are very supportive of the creative culture in general here – whether it’s music, a visual designer, fashion designer, or a chef. It’s one of those rare cities that’s very supportive and collaborative in the creative realm and chefs are definitely a part of that.”
One last stop on this mini-culinary tour, Louisville is yet another southern city that’s been earning its fair share of food praise.
The city has been named one of the “Best Foodie Getaways around the World,” by Zagat, one of the top ten “Tastiest Towns” by Southern Living and one of seven up-and-coming food cities in the U.S., also by Zagat. Louisville is also home to numerous James Beard nominated chefs and restaurants and Food & Wine Magazine calls Louisville’s East Market Street “One of the 10 Best Foodie Streets in America.”
It’s a dizzying list of recognition indeed.
Louisville is particularly well-known for boundary pushing twists on southern cuisine (even going so far as to add Korean, Vietnamese, French and Italian influences to local offerings.)
But it’s bourbon that may have helped the city’s restaurant scene garner national attention. The region is after all, responsible for producing more than 95 percent of the country’s bourbon.
“Louisville has been getting a lot of attention because bourbon is so hot right now,” says Susan Dallas, senior marketing communications manager at the Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau. “There’s a lot of the bourbon related things you can do here and since more people are coming to the city, when they’re here, they’re finding this is a great place to eat.”
The Urban Bourbon Trail capitalizes on the popularity of the whiskey. The trail takes visitors through primarily downtown Louisville bars and restaurants that serve bourbon drinks and innovative bourbon-infused dishes from mint julep pancakes to bourbon barrel smoked salmon or a bourbon ball milkshake. All of the stops on the tour offer bourbon flights and have at least 50 different bourbon labels on the bar.
Bourbon touring aside, one of the city’s most notable restaurants of the moment is Butchertown Grocery, says Dallas.
The restaurant is located in a simple, 19th-century brick building that was once home to a family-owned grocery store. Inside this simple façade is a sleek restaurant famous for its honest, simple food – items such as kale and beet salads, and gnocchi with mushrooms.
“Butchertown Grocery is very hot right now,” says Dallas. “It’s been open for a little over a year and offers a great take on southern food.”
And one last food tip for the Louisville bound – don’t miss miss trying a Hot Brown. The decidedly unglamorous, but legendary, local favorite involves smothering an open-faced sandwich of thick sliced turkey, with cheesy Mornay sauce, as well as bacon and tomatoes.
Created in the early 1900s at The Brown Hotel, the sandwich continues to be served there today, as well as in many other restaurants around the city.
Let the eating begin!