Nashville hot chicken, gumbo, pralines and beyond: The South is known for its cuisine.
One of the best aspects of any visit to Southern states is treating travelers’ taste buds to some of the region’s tasty treasures. These days, Southern innovators are embracing new ideas and trends to offer authentic, one-of-a-kind ways to not just taste food but also experience it. From food halls to Airstream trailers, gas stations to Conestoga wagons, groups can get to know the real deal by exploring local food.
With traditional restaurants continuing to struggle with staffing and sometimes unable to accommodate tour groups, travel planners are looking for creative meal options now more than ever. These six destinations’ distinctive culinary experiences showcase the many flavors of the Southeast.
Yacht Club on College
The Yacht Club was named for a group of Airstream trailers that gathered off College Avenue in central Fayetteville, Arkansas, that over the past decade have evolved into a hub of food trucks. Under new ownership since 2017, the lot space now focuses on food trucks, community events and sustainability initiatives.
“I look for quality stuff and trucks that are different, being unique to the area, and that do good food,” said Russell Ingram, owner of Dot’s Nashville Hot Chicken and the Yacht Club lot. “We have a nice open-air space with picnic tables for people to come and sit; people come and hang out for either lunch or dinner service.”
With anchor trucks Dot’s and Chao’s Asian Cuisine, the rotating lineup includes trucks like Fannie Mae’s Kitchen, which offers soul food, and Bartleby’s Seitan Stand, which sells vegan Southern, as well as others that come from elsewhere, like a pop-up from Seattle that serves traditional ramen bowls.
The Yacht Club is about more than just delicious eats, though. One of Ingram’s passions is sustainability, so everything on the Dot’s truck, from utensils to containers, is compostable. The Yacht Club is the first private business to be a community food waste drop-off site. Locals can deposit their compostable scraps, and the city of Fayetteville collects it to make compost that is then made available to residents.
The Yacht Club is designing a permanent structure that will be one of the greenest in the state; its gardens, watered with collected rainwater, will provide produce for the food trucks. Groups can stop for lunch or dinner while enjoying Fayetteville’s nearby attractions, among them the historic Downtown Square and Gardens, Wilson Park and the University of Arkansas.
Seoul of the South
Though New York or L.A. may come to mind when considering the best restaurants for international cuisine, travelers may be surprised to learn that Gwinnett County, Georgia, has some of the best Korean food in the country. Visitors can have an authentic Korean dining experience with Explore Gwinnett’s Seoul of the South Tour.
“We have about 150,000 Korean Americans living in Georgia, and a third of those are in Gwinnett County,” said Sarah Park, international marketing coordinator at Explore Gwinnett who is originally from Korea and leads the Seoul of the South tours. “We wanted to let our community know about the Korean shops, markets, spas, karaoke and, of course, restaurants that are right here.”
The tour uses an old-fashioned trolley, nicknamed the Seoul Train, to visit four area Korean restaurants for traditional meals, not just samples, so that guests can return and have the same experience on another visit.
“A traditional Korean meal is family style, and you get to try about nine different items at each stop,” said Park. “When people go back after the tour, they know what to order, what to do, how to eat it and how to enjoy it.”
Park customizes her tours to the audience; so if a group has an interest in history, music, culture or politics, she’ll incorporate those things into the experience. The educational and flavorful tours last about four hours and include a swag bag with items such as chopsticks from local Korean retailers.
“I use the tours to embrace the things I was raised with,” said Park. “My intention is to give people an authentic dive into Korean culture — that’s really dear to my heart.”
Tours are scheduled only a few times per year and frequently sell out as soon as tickets become available. Groups should contact Explore Gwinnett to inquire about private tours.
Independence and Kansas City, Missouri
Ralph Goldsmith’s obsession with local history spurred him to quit his day job, get some mules and build a fleet of covered wagons to share his knowledge with visitors to Independence, Missouri. Groups can join Pioneer Trails for a carriage tour through history, visiting local attractions like the National Frontier Trails Museum, the Truman Home and the Log 1821 Courthouse before stopping for a chuck wagon meal.
“We actually take you along the Oregon Trail through the wagon swales where over 400,000 people crossed the nation in a wagon train,” said Goldsmith. “We explain all about the history — the seven-year war called the Kansas-Missouri Border War, Frank and Jesse James, and we go to a large open area in front of the trails, and we have a campfire and a meal.”
Groups can enjoy pulled pork, brisket, baked beans, salad, sides and dessert surrounded by the legends of the past. These are the same streets frequented by Wild Bill Hickok, Civil War generals, pioneer settlers and hometown hero Harry Truman. Goldsmith hosts everyone from leagues of schoolchildren to family reunions on a ride through the bygone days of what was once the Western frontier.
“I have a favorite Truman quote that says, ‘There’s nothing new in this world except for the history you don’t know,’” said Goldsmith. “Independence has a lot to offer. The Trails Museum houses the largest archive of actual pioneer diaries anywhere in the nation. I’ve been studying this for more than 20 years, and it all goes into the tours.”
Gas Station Eats Trail
No Man’s Land, Louisiana
In the 1800s, No Man’s Land was Louisiana’s Wild West. The seven parishes along the western border of the state remain fairly rural, but luckily, the Gas Station Eats Food Trail offers delicious stops where visitors can fill both bellies and gas tanks.
“It sounds crazy, but the best food is down at the gas station,” said Kelli West, marketing and communications director at the Natchitoches Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “One thing every parish has in common is gas stations with these great places to stop and try food, and so we developed it into a food trail.”
The No Man’s Land Gas Station Eats Food Trail includes 21 stops throughout the seven parishes of the region — Allen, Beauregard, Calcasieu/Cameron, Desoto, Natchitoches, Sabine and Vernon — each visit a unique place where the owner makes something delicious to try.
“It’s anything from meat pies to tamales, or homemade cookies and pies to boudin and cracklins, or barbecue plate specials,” said West. “Also, it’s nice to meet the locals, because that’s who you’re going to find at the gas station — people who stop in every day for lunch.”
Anacoco Mercantile is known for its plate lunches and hand-dipped ice cream. French Market Express features meat pies, yam pies and baked goods. Grab N Geaux offers barbecue and smoked meats.
Groups can download the brochure that maps the various destinations and coordinate them with stops at other landmarks, like the Creole Nature Trail near Lake Charles and Natchitoches’ charming historic district.
Durham, North Carolina
Made entirely of shipping containers, Boxyard RTP is a 15,000-square-foot hub of retail shops and restaurants in Durham, North Carolina, conceived as a way for talented startups to blossom. Though the vendors are all indoors, the space boasts a large indoor-outdoor gathering space, a dog park and a performance stage that hosts everything from music to fitness classes. The original Boxyard is located in Tulsa, Oklahoma; its second iteration is the only one of its kind on the East Coast.
“We have all local vendors and local food products, either their first venture or maybe they’re trying something new or expanding their concept,” said director of programs Amanda Ronan. “We opened in mid-November 2021 and are excited to offer the area a cool place to come and hang out, and [we are] building out our programming calendar and ramping up events.”
Among the offerings are Lawrence Barbecue, whose sticky ribs, brisket, pulled pork and oysters have earned it a nod from Southern Living; Buzzy Bakes, which traded a vintage camper-turned-bakeshop for a permanent space at Boxyard, serving up homemade cupcakes and locally churned ice cream; Bulkogi, where a pastor-turned-chef offers Korean barbecue and fusion dishes; and Carrburritos, a Cal-Mex joint that serves ultrafresh tacos, tostadas, quesadillas and burritos.
Groups won’t be thirsty either: Boxyard is home to the tiki-themed Lagoon Bar; RTP Uncorked, which serves wine by the glass and on tap; and Fullsteam RTP, a brewery that sources ingredients locally.
Snowshoe, West Virginia
Three hours from the nearest city, Snowshoe Mountain resort is a hidden gem in the West Virginia mountains. The largest East Coast ski resort outside of New England, Snowshoe is a four-season destination that offers winter activities such as skiing, snowmobiling and tubing, as well as summer activities such as hiking, biking, off-roading, golf and horseback riding. Nearby Cass Railway is a popular destination and attracts leaf-peepers in the fall. At the heart of it all is the Corduroy Inn, whose restaurant, Appalachia Kitchen, sources its ingredients from regional farms and showcases traditional area dishes.
“One of the things we take the most pride in is where our ingredients come from, and they’re all from the Appalachian region: North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and so on,” said owner David Billings. “We do our best to really have the best products you can put on the table.”
At Appalachia Kitchen — and its more casual sister restaurant, Tuque’s — popular plates include venison meatloaf — the bestseller has been on the menu since they opened in 2017 — and Parmesan-encrusted trout. The chef’s board features a selection of regional artisan cheeses and locally produced charcuterie. The shrimp and grits features heirloom grits from Wade’s Mill, the oldest continuously operating mill in the Shenandoah Valley, and the bison used in the bison sloppy Joe is sourced from Riffle Farms, just down the road from the hotel.
Groups may relish the endless attractions the resort offers, but they will especially enjoy getting an authentic taste of Appalachia.