Southern Sampler: Classic Cities to Visit

Here are some tasty tips for enjoying the culinary delicacies that Charleston, Asheville, Nashville and New Orleans are known for.

Early Girl Eatery in Asheville

Photo: Exploreasheville.com

It’s not just New Orleans that’s known for delectable food. Several other oh-so-Southern cities are also known for culinary excellence, which can be enjoyed at restaurants and markets, on food-focused tours and at food-and beverage-oriented festivals. Here are some ideas for tasty visits to Charleston, Asheville, Nashville and New Orleans.

Shrimp and grits in Charleston

Photo: iStock

Charleston

Whether it’s serving shrimp and grits or fresh oysters, Charleston is truly at the forefront of the South’s culinary renaissance. Slightly North of Broad is the perfect place to start, where emeritus chef Frank Lee’s shrimp and grits has been on the menu for decades—and with good reason. Just down the street is McCrady’s Tavern, where superstar chef Sean Brock took Charleston’s restaurant scene to new heights. (His locally focused Husk is just a hop down Queen Street.)

Oysters in Charleston

Photo: iStock

One of the top Southern cities to visit, Charleston has other can’t-miss options filled with Southern soul in Charleston. Try the following: Mike Lata’s FIG (that’s short for “Food Is Good”); four local-fave Hospitality Management Group offerings (Cypress, Magnolias, Blossom and Artisan Meat Share); Circa 1886, which serves elevated seasonal and local Lowcountry cuisine; Southern barbecue at the three Fiery Ron’s Home Team BBQ locations, Lewis Barbecue or and just-opened Rodney Scott’s BBQ, the famed Hemingway, South Carolina, whole-hog pitmaster’s first Charleston restaurant; and fresh oysters and more at The Ordinary, The Darling Oyster Bar, Leon’s Oyster Shop or the new Rappahannock Oyster Bar, opening late winter 2017 in the historic Cigar Factory on the north end of East Bay Street.

Food-focused tours of Charleston are also a great way to go; Charleston Culinary Tours, Charleston Food Tours and Chow Down Charleston offer lots of options for varied tastes and time constraints. Come March, the Charleston Wine + Food Festival makes the city the culinary capital of the South, if not the world, for one long and tasty weekend.

Wicked Weed Brewing in Asheville

Photo: Exploreasheville.com

Asheville

The city rightfully claiming its foodtopia and brewtopia statuses—as well as the recent addition of beetopia, thanks to the thriving bee and honey scene—it’s easy to eat and drink well in Asheville.

Chef Katie Button brought Asheville national attention as one of the hot Southern cities to visit, with her restaurants Cúrate (creative tapas with a Southern twist) and her more easily booked Nightbell (locally driven small plates and craft cocktails). Today, chefs such as John Fleer (the farm-to-table Rhubarb and, more recently, The Rhu), Elliott Moss (barbecue and much more at Buxton Hall Barbecue), John Stehling (made-from-scratch Southern staples at Early Girl Eatery and chicken and waffles at King Daddy’s Chicken & Wagffles), Justin Burdett (Southern fare at Local Provisions) and many others continue to carry the torch.

French Broad Chocolate Lounge in Asheville

Photo: Exploreasheville.com

A taste of the thriving honey scene is easy to enjoy at Tupelo Honey Café; the Asheville Bee Charmer shop, which stocks anything and everything bees and honey; the French Broad Chocolate Lounge, the delectable candies of which are made with local wildflower honey; or at any one of dozens of tailgate markets held in and around Asheville.

Asheville’s beer scene is equally diverse. Old favorites like the Highland Brewing Company and the Green Man Brewery share tap space with relative newcomers like Wicked Weed Brewing and Burial Beer Co. A great way to sample several breweries and beers is through one of the Asheville Brews Cruise’s several offerings. Those who want to take a bigger bite out of Asheville will want to take a tour with Asheville Food Tours or Eating Asheville, or head there in August for the growing Asheville Wine & Food Festival.

Hot chicken at Hattie B’s in Nashville

Photo: Joseph Woodley

Nashville

Known as Noshville to foodies thanks its the hotter-than-a-cast-iron-skillet dining scene, Music City chefs have lots of country-cookin’ soul. Sean Brock chose Nashville for the second location of his Charleston fine-dining landmark Husk. (Greenville, South Carolina, and Savannah are up next.) More recently, star chef and Chopped judge Maneet Chauhan selected Nashville for her first restaurant, Chauhan Ale & Masala House, which serves up a unique, Indian-style take on the classic Southern meat-and-three.

City House chef Tandy Wilson

Photo: Andrea Behrends

Other hot items include the famous hot chicken at Prince’s, Hattie B’s and elsewhere (ask a million locals, and you’ll get a million opinions on which is best); the creative biscuits and more at Biscuit Love; pizzas, pastas and homemade sausages featuring Southern ingredients at City House; a modern take on classic European cuisine served in a chic shipping container in the über-cool Gulch neighborhood at The 404 Kitchen; and, of course, the classic meat-and-three at Arnold’s Country Kitchen.

Walk Eat Nashville or Local Tastes of Nashville’s menu of diverse neighborhood food tours are another great way to take a bite out of Noshville. The relatively new and already nationally recognized Music City Food + Wine Festival, in September, is another great way to enjoy Nashville’s food, drink and music scenes.

Beignets in New Orleans

Photo: iStock

New Orleans

Experiencing the culinary delicacies found in New Orleans often starts with beignets and café au lait at the always-busy Café du Monde—and that’s just the appetizer. Favorite standbys include fresh oysters and more at the Acme Oyster House, Felix’s or Casamento’s; thick stuffed muffuletta sandwiches at Central Grocery; turtle soup at Commander’s Palace; gumbo at Dooky Chase’s; barbecue shrimp at Pascal’s Manale; spicy boiled crawfish at Frankie & Johnny’s; and, for dessert, classics like bananas Foster at Brennan’s or baked Alaska at Antoine’s.

Crawfish in New Orleans

Photo: iStock

Those in search of more contemporary cuisine can’t go wrong with the fresh seafood at Pêche Seafood Grill, Cochon or Toups’ Meatery (and the new Toups South at the hunger-inducing Southern Food & Beverage Museum), or any of the restaurants from star chefs Susan Spicer or John Besh.

Like the other hip Southern cities to visit, New Orleans features a number of varied culinary tours, including New Orleans Culinary History Tours, Tastebud Tours, Taste of New Orleans Food Tours, and Gray Line, billed as New Orleans’ original walking cocktail tour. The Big Easy also has several annual food and beverage festivals, like Hogs for the Cause (in late March or early April), the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience (Memorial Day weekend) and Tales of the Cocktail (in July).

Plan your trip with the travel experts at AAA. Call 877-396-7159 or contact a AAA Travel Counselor.

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Heidi Kazemi, AAA Travel Counselor, Roseville, Calif.

Customization is always my top priority when planning a client's vacation. I ask about their family and where they've been before. Their preferences guide our planning so the vacation is perfectly tailored for them.

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