On my Drive South, I ate and drank my way down I-65 and back up I-55. I had excellent meals throughout my trip — something you expect in New Orleans, but might find a bit more surprising in Louisville or Nashville if you haven’t been paying attention. Every city I visited had neighborhoods with restaurants serving local artisan food and local craft beers. (Here’s a Flickr photo set of some of my better pictures).
The chefs, bartenders, and owners with whom I talked were all on top of the latest food trends in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and London. Indeed, many had worked in the top restaurants in those cities for 5-10 years and were bringing those experiences and ways of thinking about food back home with them. But rather than just recreating Chicago dishes, they’re twisting them to fit their new homes — replacing prosciutto with country ham, topping a bit crispy chicken skin with dots of Wonder Bread purée, and aging sour brown ales in bourbon casks. If you’re heading south, here are the places I recommend you search out:
- Catbird Seat – In most restaurants, the chef’s table is a 6-top in the corner of the kitchen were the diners watch their food being prepared and, if they’re lucky, get to exchange a couple of words with the chef. At Catbird Seat, the entire restaurant is a chef’s table — a bar that wraps around the cooking stations. There are no waiters — the food is served and explained by the chefs. And, as should be expected from chefs who worked at places like Alinea and French Laundry, an explanation from the chef of all the flavors on the plate helps your appreciation of what’s been set before you. At $100 for 9 courses and $40 for the (recommended) wine pairing, it’s not a cheap meal, but it’s every bit on par with the best restaurants in New York (here’s a recent NY Times write-up), Chicago, and San Francisco. If you like imaginative fine cuisine, don’t miss it. Show up early enough to have a cocktail in Patterson House, the speakeasy looking bar that’s in the same building.
- Yazoo Brewing Company – Tucked away at the edge of the Gulch neighborhood, Yazoo Brewing has a good-sized taproom serving a nice variety of craft beers. I can be a bit of a hop-head, so I like their Hop Project, but their Dos Perros surprised me as did the Rye Saison they were serving in the taproom.
- Garage Bar – The people and tables spill out of this re-purposed gas station into the unfortunately named NuLu neighborhood in a way that pulls you off the sidewalk into the melee. The night I was there, a band was playing under what used to be the gas pump awning while on the other side of the patio, a bunch of people jumped out of seats to take their picture with the neighborhood tortoise that was (slowly) moving through. The ham bar offered a selection of country ham from Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee (a good-sized portion for $5), good craft beer and, because you’re in Kentucky, craft bourbons.
- Against The Grain – It’s a brewpub attached to Louisville’s minor league baseball park on the Ohio River, about a 10 minute walk from the NuLu area. They have a great beer selection, but when they described the sour brown ale, I was sold. My time in Belgium has given me a soft spot for sour beers. The bartender couldn’t understand my excitement. “That’s the only beer we make that I have to spit out”.
- Holy Grale– Housed in a former Unitarian Church in the Highlands’ neighborhood, Holy Grale is a cozy (tight?) gastropub with a great selection of local and Belgian beers and the right kind of bar food (brats, pork belly, poutine) to soak it up.
- Avondale Brewing Company – Finding this place took me off the beaten path to Birmingham’s Avondale neighborhood. The neighborhood looks like it’s trying to gentrify with a few hip storefronts, but Avondale Brewing seems to attract most of the crowds. The taproom was full early Saturday afternoon, but the beer was worth waiting my turn — another sour brown ale…
- Maurepas Foods – I didn’t plan on visiting New Orleans. I’d intended to stay on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, but as they still try to rebuild after Katrina’s direct hit, there isn’t much other than the casinos in Biloxi. Remembering a conversation two nights prior with the guy sitting next to me at Holy Grale in Louisville, I skipped my usual haunts in the Arts/Warehouse District and headed over to the Bywater neighborhood. I parked near Maurepas Foods, looked at the menu, and walked in. It’s a neighborhood place, but not a dive. The bartender offered me the Sunday night tasting menu complete with paired cocktails, but I wasn’t that hungry. I had a sausage and squid sandwich — sounds awful but tasted great. They have a good cocktail and craft beer selection that matches up well with their menu. It’s a nice break from the usual French Quarter drill.
- Beauty Shop – In an old beauty shop in the midtown Cooper Young neighborhood, Beauty Shop is run by a Memphis art student who went to New York, learned to cook, and then brought her training home. Has a hip vibe and menu.
- South of Beale – A good downtown gastropub in the South Main district — walking distance from Beale Street but a nice place to get away from the noise and crowds. A duck patty melt and rabbit sausage sandwich are on the menu that’s a step up from typical pub grub, and there’s a good selection of Southern craft beers and whiskey.
- Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken – Not every meal on my trip was at posh hipster places. Gus’s is about as unhip as you can get, but they’ve perfected fried chicken. Crispy (but not overly) outside, moist inside — if it’s not “world famous”, it deserves to be. The sides are serviceable, but no one cares because it’s all about the chicken. Gus’s is a small place on a marginal block, so pick your time — don’t go during lunch rush, but don’t wait until the sun goes down. But do go…