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Good Eats at a Southern Table

Groups looking for new ways to encounter Southern food and spirits have a wide menu of choices at their disposal. Here are a handful of great restaurants, tours and other new concepts in the Southern states that present the area’s cuisine in creative ways.

Restaurant Iris

Memphis, Tennessee

Kelly English is a James Beard Award semifinalist for Best Chef who has brought French-Creole cooking methods from his native Louisiana north to midtown Memphis. He operates the charming Restaurant Iris, located in what used to be a private residence. English has accumulated a bevy of awards and praise for himself and his restaurant. It’s been voted “Best Fine Dining” and “Best Date” restaurant in readers’ polls, among many other accolades.

“We do things all the time for groups,” said English, whose restaurant has four midsized dining rooms for its guests. “We personalize menus just for them and put a note addressed specifically to that group in their seating area of the restaurant for all of them to read. We cook meals for groups that we have never served before and have never served since. We can do anything they want to see.”

English said that another cool thing about Iris is how the staff painstakingly searches for and prepares the best local ingredients.

The executive chef-owner comes out and talks to every group that visits his dining establishment. “Our staff is great and has been working together for years,” said English. “You get some of what I think is the best service anywhere. It may not be the most polished service, and we don’t want it to be. We want it to be personal, comfortable and fun. There’s no dress code either.”

Second Line, located right next door to Restaurant Iris, is another English creation. He describes it as an everyday, casual eatery that mirrors what you’d find in New Orleans.

“Po’boys served with the right bread and the proper dressings,” he said. “Not anything too fancy. Pretty much the kind of restaurant I grew up going to.”

New Riff Distillery

Newport, Kentucky

Any visit to a Kentucky bourbon distillery provides insight into the masterful production of the popular amber-colored spirit and likely a taste of it at the end of the tour. But one distillery in Newport, Kentucky, directly across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, provides a culinary treat influenced by bourbon. New Riff Distillery is one of the stops on the Kentucky Craft Bourbon Trail.

“Our Chef’s Table cooking classes feature a demonstration kitchen at the distillery where we not only conduct in-house classes but invite local chefs to give guests a taste of their restaurants and cuisines,” said Amy Tobin, director of New Riff Distillery’s event center.

Is bourbon really blended into foods?

“Certainly. Because we’re a distillery, most chefs use a little bourbon,” she said. “We recently had a class called What to Take to the Church Picnic. It included bourbon-influenced Southern foods like fried chicken and grits.”

The cooking classes draw a cross section of interested visitors. “Food aficionados come, and people who love to cook or just eat,” said Tobin. “We bring in the top chef talent in our city to do the cooking. Chef Todd Kelly, who is with Orchids, a AAA Five Diamond restaurant and the only one in the region, came here.”

Up to 50 people are seated in the classroom-kitchen and watch every detail of the food preparation, with television monitors showing the action from above. They’re served drinks and the food as it is being prepared and talked about.

New Riff Distillery sees many motorcoach groups that enjoy a private tour and then dine on a meal provided by a local caterer. Groups are always welcome to use the distillery’s event center for their meals or other activities.

Savoring the Square

Dahlonega, Georgia

A walking tour dedicated to good eating is bound to be popular with tourists. The small town of Dahlonega, in northeast Georgia near the Chattahoochee National Forest, offers a glimpse of the region’s food and culture at fine
restaurants and casual tasting rooms around Dahlonega Square.

“We have 67 shops and galleries in our downtown area. There’s a community theater, seasonal festivals, museums. We have a lot when it comes to history,” said Cherie Bates, group sales coordinator at the Dahlonega-Lumpkin County Chamber and Visitors Bureau.

“The Savoring the Square tour isn’t a long walk — a half mile or less — and lasts about three hours,” said Bates. “Walkers pop into local shops and restaurants.”

Restaurants will offer a quick taste of menu items. One restaurant serves a Gooey Burger, which has macaroni and cheese, known to some as a “Southern vegetable.” Other restaurant stops may feature a special salad, seafood, a Cajun delicacy or homemade chocolate treats.

Bates said the restaurant staffs may chat about the histories of their buildings and how their restaurants got started. Perhaps the owner will come out and address the group. Some buildings, like the old jail, are alleged to be haunted, and ghost information is shared.

Public tours take place Friday through Sunday, but groups that make advance arrangements can tailor tours to their time schedules, interests and needs.

Many may not know that Dahlonega was the site of the first significant gold rush in the United States in 1828. Dahlonega is also home to the University of North Georgia. Dahlonega boasts a half-dozen wineries, which represent a growing trend in the area.