3 Southern Cities for Foodies

Memphis, Roanoke and Key West are 3 road trip-worthy destinations that pair good eats with plenty of fun activities.

by NEA Member Benefits


Charleston, Atlanta and New Orleans hold perennial spots as Southern cities for foodies. But there is more—much more—to dining in the South. It seems that every town, large or small, has a specialty as well as access to locally produced meats, vegetables and fruit. Meet three Southern cities that will tickle your taste buds while showing you a good time. For each restaurant we suggest, we notate if the menu is inexpensive ($), moderate ($$) or pricey ($$$).

Go beyond barbecue in Memphis, Tennessee

If you call Memphis the Barbecue Capital of the World, Birthplace of Rock and Roll and Home of the Blues, you’d be right on all three counts. But there’s more to sample in Memphis than barbecue. And wrapping a trip in the soulful, rocking sounds of music makes the Bluff City’s food scene even tastier.

Start in the heart of downtown with a plate of finger-licking ribs at Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous ($$). Then boogie on down Beale Street to the blues and rock and roll emanating from club after club. Plan your visit on a weekend during the growing season (April through November) to spend Saturday morning at the Memphis Farmers Market. The fresh produce, seafood from the Gulf of Mexico, organic meats and craft items are accompanied by live music. Grab breakfast from one of the food trucks and a hot cup of coffee, and you’re off to a delicious start. Later, head over to Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken ($) for a spicy fried chicken lunch.

Leaving downtown Memphis for Midtown doesn’t signal the end of this tasty trip. You’re just beginning. Take barbecue to a new level with a barbecue spaghetti lunch at the Bar-B-Q Shop ($ to $$) on Madison. The barbecue nachos at Central BBQ ($ to $$) on Central Avenue is another good choice.

And remember the prolific amount of locally grown produce and meats you saw at the farmers market? The chefs in Midtown and East Memphis are putting those products to delicious use. Karen Carrier cooks up a mean cocoa-ginger-spiced brisket at the Beauty Shop ($$$) in the Cooper Young district. And the team of Andrew Ticer and Michael Hudman combine pork and Italian dining into taste sensations that you’d never imagine at Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen ($$$) in East Memphis. Or walk across the street to the duo’s casual restaurant, Hog & Hominy ($$), for a Southern–Italian mashup menu. Yes, biscuit gnocchi is a thing.

Plan Your Trip: Memphis Travel | Tennessee Vacation

Driving Distances: 2 hours from Little Rock, Arkansas | 3.5 hours from Nashville, Tennessee | 4 hours from St. Louis, Missouri | 5.5 hours from Atlanta, Georgia

Where to Stay: The Peabody Memphis | Residence Inn | Red Roof Inn Memphis East | Sheraton Memphis Downtown

Dine like a local in Roanoke, Virginia

On a visit to Roanoke, take in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, railroad history and downtown cultural scene while eating where the locals do. Roanoke’s growing foodie reputation is no surprise to Roanokers who’ve spent their Saturdays shopping at the downtown farmers market, or end a late-night date with a cheesy Western and chili sandwich at the Texas Tavern ($).

Many locals start their day with flaky biscuits and Virginia ham at Roanoker Restaurant ($$). And, if you’re in the mood to splurge, you shouldn’t leave the city without sampling the peanut soup with spoon bread at the Regency Room ($$$) in Hotel Roanoke, an historic railroad hotel.

But there’s so much more. Over on Grandin Road, enjoy a farm-to-table dinner at Local Roots ($$$) before viewing a vintage film at the Grandin Theater. Or indulge your sweet tooth at Pop’s Ice Cream & Soda Bar ($), an old-time soda pop diner.

Closer to downtown WildFlour Restaurant & Bakery ($$) offers organic choices, but locals will tell you that it’s all about the bakery items. Later, walk or bike the Roanoke Valley Greenways to work off the calories before putting them on again with dinner at The River and Rail ($$ to $$$). Top off the evening at Center in the Square for a Roanoke Symphony performance.

Plan Your Trip: Visit Roanoke | Virginia Tourism

Driving Distances: 2 hours from Charlottesville, Virginia | 3.5 hours from Charlotte, North Carolina | 4 hours from Knoxville, Tennessee | 4.5 hours from Washington, D.C.

Where to Stay: Hotel Roanoke | Cambria Hotel & Suites | Hyatt Place

End every meal with pie in Key West, Florida

You might guess seafood or Cuban cuisine as a foodie’s reason to visit Key West. Wrong. Come for the Key lime pie. Of course dessert doesn’t count unless it follows a delicious meal, so by all means indulge in a tasty main course before dipping your fork into that tangy Key lime pie filling.

For breakfast in an outdoor setting flavored by a Caribbean vibe, start the morning at Blue Heaven ($$) on Thomas Street. Cats and roosters roam the courtyards of this National Historic Landmark, where Ernest Hemingway once refereed boxing matches. The lobster Benedict will satisfy your seafood craving. Evening meals are accompanied by live entertainment.

After a morning of walking Key West’s historic district, take a break by driving to Stock Island for an inexpensive lunch at Hog Fish Bar & Grill ($$). Watch local fisherman unload their catch as you bite into a Killer Hogfish Sandwich: hogfish smothered with Swiss cheese, onions and mushrooms and served on Cuban bread. Or stay in Key West to enjoy the best conch fritters in town at the Conch Shack ($). You are in the Conch Republic, after all.

Mallory Square is the place to be as the sun dips into the Atlantic Ocean. After the fiery show, walk over to El Meson de Pepe ($$) where Chef Pepe Diaz and his family have been serving up Cuban-conch cuisine for 30 years. Try the ropa vieja, “traditional Cuban shredded beef stewed with fresh tomatoes, green peppers, onions and red wine.” Would you rather have seafood? Head for Latitudes on Sunset Key ($$$) and be sure to order stone crabs, if they are in season, or the spectacular Key lime pie martini.

Plan Your Trip: Key West Chamber of Commerce | Visit Florida

Driving Distances: 4 hours from Miami, Florida | 6.5 hours from Orlando, Florida | 7 hours from Tampa, Florida

Where to Stay: Almond Tree Inn | The Gates Hotel | The Mermaid and the Alligator B&B

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