4 Southern Cities for Foodies

Memphis, Roanoke, Key West and Greenville are 4 road trip-worthy destinations that pair good eats with plenty of fun activities.

by NEA Member Benefits

Oct 15, 2021

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Editor’s Note: NEA Member Benefits understands how much you love to travel and how much you’ve missed it. As states begin to relax their regulations with regard to COVID-19 and more Americans become vaccinated, travel is opening up more and more. Before planning a trip, read the health and safety protocols and requirements for visitors to any destination, as well as those of airlines, car rentals and hotels before booking and again before traveling.

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. Go on a culinary tour of four fun Southern cities that will tickle your taste buds. 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 ’n’ roll emanating from club after club. Plan your visit on a weekend during the growing season (April through October) 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 pork chop with grilled peaches, blueberry balsamic vinaigrette and creamed corn 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 head to newcomer Magnolia & May ($$$), which opened during the pandemic, offering Southern-infused dishes with a French twist.

And for a truly global immersion, head over to Global Café ($$), a new international food hall at Crosstown Concourse that hosts immigrants and refugees serving the food of their native lands, which right now translates into tasty fare from Venezuela, Sudan and Mexico. 

NEA member travel benefits: Great deals on flights to Memphis International Airport (MEM) can be yours at NEA’s Travel Portal, where there’s also discounted car rental prices. The hotels page has deals like an average of $110 per night at Hyatt Place Memphis/Germantown or $126 per night to be right downtown at Comfort Inn Memphis Downtown. For a boutique upgrade for just a little bit more money ($138 per night), the new Hu. Hotel near Beale Street offers stylish rooms and bathrooms with rainfall showerheads, plus a cute café offering breakfast and lunch and a rooftop lounge with great city views.

Plan your itinerary: Memphis Travel | Tennessee Vacation | Rendezvous | Memphis Farmers MarketGus’s World Famous Fried ChickenBar-B-Q Shop | Central BBQ | Beauty Shop | Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen | Magnolia & May | Global Café

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 sandwich at the Texas Tavern ($).

Many locals start their day with flaky biscuits and Virginia ham at Roanoker Restaurant ($$). And, if you’re in the mood to splurge, you shouldn’t leave the city without sampling the famous peanut soup with spoon bread at the Regency Room ($$$) in the 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 film at the Grandin Theatre. Or indulge your sweet tooth at Pop’s Ice Cream & Soda Bar ($), an old-time soda fountain.

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

NEA member travel benefits: Book a flight on NEA’s Travel Portal to Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport (ROA) or for more flight options, to Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU), which is almost 3 hours away. The hotels page has great prices on places like Ramada by Wyndham Roanoke, which averages $48 per night, Best Western Plus Inn at Valley View, which averages $81 per night, and Tru by Hilton Roanoke Hollins, which averages $91 per night.

Plan your itinerary: Visit Roanoke | Virginia Tourism | Texas Tavern | Roanoker Restaurant | Regency Room | Local Roots | Pop’s Ice Cream & Soda Bar | Evie’s Bistro & Bakery | The River and Rail | Grandin Theatre | Roanoke Valley Greenways | Roanoke Symphony

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. A stop at Kermit’s Key West Lime Shop should satisfy any cravings, but most restaurants have it among their dessert offerings. 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 fishermen 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 ($$) where Chef Pepe Diaz and his family have been serving up Cuban-conch cuisine for more than 30 years. Try the ropa vieja, “traditional Cuban shredded beef stewed with fresh tomatoes, green peppers, onions and red wine.” And, El Meson happens to have one of the best Key lime pies; here it’s called torta de limon. Would you rather have seafood? Head for Latitudes on Sunset Key ($$$) and be sure to order stone crabs if they are in season and the spectacular Key lime martini.

NEA member travel benefits: Check NEA’s Travel Portal for the best prices on airfare to Key West International Airport (EYW). To book your hotel, head over to the hotels page and catch deals like the four-star Havana Cabana at Key West (average of $139/night), which has a pool and fitness center, and the intimate Palms Hotel (average of $157/night), which is centrally located. To be closer to the beach, book the stylish DoubleTree Resort by Hilton Grand Key - Key West, which also has a pool area with cabanas and loungers.

Move Over Charleston: Greenville, South Carolina, Is the State’s Next Great Food Town

Charleston gets all of South Carolina’s food love—and much of the South’s, to be honest. But cozy Greenville on the Western side of the state is giving it a run for its money. The last decade has been kind to Greenville’s culinary scene. The city has attracted big-name chefs alongside its local stalwarts, becoming a hub for farm-to-table fare, with several restaurants having their own farms and gardens.

Breakfast is big here, as is Southern tradition, with biscuits taking centerstage at places like Biscuit Head ($$), which has no less than seven gravies on offer, including venison sausage gravy and fried chicken gravy. Or, if chicken and waffles is your Southern breakfast of choice, you’ll satisfy your craving at Golden Brown & Delicious, known as GB&D ($$).

After you’ve had your fill, head over to Falls Park on the Reedy River, the stunning city park with crashing waterfalls right in the middle of downtown.

For lunch, you can stay nearby and enjoy the river views at the Lazy Goat, part of the local restaurant group Table 301 that helped get Greenville on foodies’ radars when it opened Soby’s back in 1997. The Lazy Goat ($$) serves Mediterranean-influenced cuisine like mezze platters, pizzas and paella. For some farm-to-table goodness, make a reservation at Oak Hill Café ($$ for breakfast and lunch and $$$ for dinner), which is just north of downtown but is set on a 2.4-acre farm—and was a James Beard Award semifinalist in 2020. 

The Anchorage ($$$) in West Greenville is another excellent option that shows off the city’s farm-fresh ingredients, with dishes like Heirloom Tomato & Sourdough Panzanella with grilled melon, tomato broth, basil, goat cheese and shallots, and Semolina Gnocchi with milk-braised stone fruit, lamb and pork sugo and fresh tomato puree.

Walk or bike off some of your calories on the Swamp Rabbit Trail so you’re ready to chow down at dinner again. If you have a hankering for some barbecue, find a table at Smoky Dreams Barbecue ($) where brisket, pork, chicken and more are all smoked to perfection. Or, check out Husk BBQ ($$) the sister restaurant of Charleston’s famed Husk. For something more upscale, try Urban Wren ($$$), which started as a wine bar and now has a full-fledged restaurant with plates like wagyu flank steak and aji amarillo duck.

NEA member travel benefits: To get to Greenville, you can fly into Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport (GSC) or Asheville Regional Airport (AVL), which is just over the state line at about an hour away. Visit NEA’s Travel Portal for discounts and deals on flights. On the hotels page, you can see prices like $73 per night for the Quality Inn & Suites right near Falls Park and $74 a night at the Sleep Inn at Greenville Convention Center. Or upgrade to the Hyatt Place Greenville/Downtown for $158 a night and get spacious rooms with sofa beds and refrigerators, plus free breakfast.

Plan your itinerary: Yeah, That Greenville | Discover South Carolina | Biscuit Head | GB&D | The Lazy Goat | Oak Hill Cafe | The Anchorage | Smoky Dreams Barbecue | Husk BBQ | Urban Wren | Falls Park | Swamp Rabbit Trail

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