You could wander aimlessly around the South, known famously and hungrily for its uninhibited love of blissful food and intoxicating beverages. Me? I’ve discovered trails drawn specifically to target the best in any number of thematic food (and drink) groups to be the wiser, most efficient, and definitely tastiest way to go. From barbecue to oysters and wine to bourbon, here is a handful of my favorite routes through the self-indulgent landscape of southern dining and imbibing.
Note: Some of the information I gathered on sponsored press trips.
1. Monticello Wine Trail, Virginia
The chardonnay at Pollak Vineyards on my Monticello Wine Trail visit tasted of crème brulée and fig. Or was that the viognier? Our fourth Virginia Charlottesville-Piedmont region winery of the day, my notes were just a wee bit wine-sotted. The chardonnays and viogniers were starting to swim together.
After a total of six wineries in 2 days, we had learned three important lessons about Virginia wines: 1. They are NOT California wines and do not try to be; 2. the beauty of their setting is equally swoony; 3. the region’s gourmet inclination is deeply steeped in local heritage.
The story of Virginia’s food and wine obsession begins with Thomas Jefferson, and so there we started our foray into grapes and grub. Jefferson is credited with bringing grape rootstock and recipes from France to the U.S. at his mountaintop home of Monticello, which rightfully lends its name to this trail. With more than 30 wineries in the surrounding two-county area, Jefferson’s legacy of growing grapes and making wine survives, along with his delight for fine food still grown and served throughout the area.
First stop, Jefferson Vineyards, uncorked our lessons on Virginia wine. The drive around the region is enough to feed the soul with its mountain vistas, orderly vineyards, orchards, and horse and other farms. Highlights for us along the trail included award-winning Keswick Vineyards, musician Dave Matthews’ gorgeous Blenheim Vineyards, and massive Barboursville Vineyards, which was most memorable for its delightful Palladio Restaurant.
The Charlottesville area clearly benefits from Jefferson’s foodie legacy as much as his love for the grape. I would be remiss not to mention at least a couple of restaurants that wowed our palates. At Clifton Inn, a designated Relais & Chateaux, a small dining room tucked onto the back porch of a historic home also with Jefferson connections serves an ambitious menu of small plates.
In Charlottesville, at the University of Virginia — which, by the way, Jefferson launched — is home to Boar’s Head Inn. A centerpiece to the property, the Mill Room has been winning AAA awards for decades, specializing in such Virginia signatures as peanut soup and bread pudding.
2. Louisiana Oyster Trail
Boudin, crawfish, Cajun bayou cuisine, and even a new one that explores great gas station eats: Louisiana has no shortage of good food and trails that take you there. My new favorite, because it is tight and revolves around one of my all-time favorite kinds of seafood, the Louisiana Oyster Trail runs through Jefferson Parish, adjacent to the New Orleans area. So, it’s easily accessible and relatively compact — and definitely delicious.
The trail brochure currently lists 21 restaurants and oyster-related establishments that serve Louisiana-harvested oysters, but be aware that Hurricane Ida in August may have impacted the status of some of the restaurants, particularly in Lafitte and Grand Isle. Trail brochure aside, you can recognize an oyster-trail spot by the resin oyster shell outside, each artfully decorated to represent the character of the location. Take for instance the one at Gattuso’s Neighborhood Bar & Restaurant in the charming historic town of Gretna, where I relished oyster Rockefeller soup and firecracker oyster salad. Local artist Keith Eccles created a colorful collage on the half-shell that encapsulates the small town. My favorite stop on the trail also happens to reside in Gretna. Quirky Café 615, Home of Da Wabbit has a past of illicit gambling and a present of hearty home cooking. The town of Metairie boasts the greatest concentration — from Acme Oyster House to Vincent’s Italian Cuisine.
3. Kentucky Bourbon Trail
Kentucky is steeped in bourbon. Or is it the other way around? In any case, the two are inseparable. A profound part of Kentucky heritage that began with age-old family recipes and the state’s fertile soils and limestone-filtered water, bourbon is one of the state’s biggest draws. The inevitable Kentucky Bourbon Trail winds through 18 distilleries centered mostly in the Louisville-Lexington area. Several — Michter’s, Old Forester, and Angel’s Envy included — are within walking distance of each other in downtown Louisville.
The Kentucky Bourbon Trail Welcome Center resides outside of town at the Frazier Kentucky History Museum. Nearby Bardstown, however, is known as the Bourbon Capital of the U.S. and home to a whiskey museum.
A newer attraction, Bardstown Bourbon Company, could be considered the Disney of distilleries, with a gourmet restaurant and a full menu of bourbon experiences that bring bourbon lovers by the busloads. (A number of local tour companies take to the bourbon trail.) Our favorite was the smaller Bulleit Distillery in Shelbyville. The trail also maps a craft tour with nearly 20 small-batch distilleries.
Pro Tip: Especially on weekends and during summer and fall tourist seasons, make reservations online in advance to do tours, tastings, and other experiences. Or plan on stopping by to merely soak up the ambiance and buy a few bottles of some bourbons you may not be able to find elsewhere.
4. Cool Craft Beverage Trail, Deland, Florida
Deland, Florida, is something of a local secret, although it has been around since the 19th century. Back then it was known as Persimmon Hollow, tucked roughly halfway between Orlando and Daytona Beach. Local lore has it that natural springs fed wild crops of persimmon trees, which attracted deer and other wild animals to munch on their fruit. Sounds like a fairytale, right? The town’s name may have changed in modern times, but today’s DeLand holds all that magic and more — including a trailblazing craft beverage trail, the Cool Craft Beverage Trail, and an indie dining scene that keeps its reputation for juicy eats alive.
Along downtown’s Woodland Boulevard and surrounding streets, much of DeLand’s buildings date back to the 1920s, including those that today hold acclaimed restaurants and other stops along the trail.
Most notable among the latter, Persimmon Hollow Brewing Company was the region’s first craft brewery, opened in 2014 in a vintage garage setting with a pool table, dartboards, and a glassed-in working brewery. Sporting the motto “Drink sensibly, but get weird,” Persimmon Hollow exudes a quirky vibe in the midst of the town’s Artisan Alley district, which closes to vehicular traffic every Friday for a lively market scene.
A block away, Scottish-accented HyderHead microbrewery packs in the college students from the town’s prideful Stetson University, dating back to 1883. Close to HyderHead, Trilogy Coffee Roasting Co. and Beeatroot, with organic cold-pressed juices and smoothies, give you two more stops along the beverage trail.
Weekend evenings also attract metro types from nearby cities to drink and dine with the DeLand townsfolk. Clustered at the heart of downtown DeLand, you can find enough restaurants and craft beverage stops for a weekend’s worth of inspired food and drink hopping. Red-bricked Half Wall Craft Beer Bar fills pages of menus with its wide selection of casual eats and global beers, including a concentration of Florida brews. Its Florida Vacation beer flight is a good way to sample some locals.
Stop in at The Elusive Grape for a selection of 40 wines by the glass or Odd Elixir Meadworks. Yes, the latter crafts just what its name suggests — that fermented honey tipple of yore. Check out seasonal flavors ranging from St. Augustine’s datil peppers to rose-hibiscus.
5. SC Coastal BBQ Trail, South Carolina
No list of Southern food and bev traditions is complete without barbecue. And since South Carolina considers itself the birthplace of barbecue, it boasts not just one but three barbecue trails, based on geography and the signature style of sauce associated with it. Since I’m a fan of both South Carolina’s Atlantic Coast and its vinegar-and-pepper-based sauce, I’m taking you on the SC Coastal BBQ Trail. There’s also a Midlands (mustard-based sauce) and Mountains (sweet sauce) Trail.
With more than 70 houses of smoky, tender meat ranging from Hilton Head to Myrtle Beach, the spectrum of the coastal trail ranges from the refined hybrid restaurants of Charleston and touristy spots of Myrtle Beach to my favorites — the small-town, family-owned bastions of slow-cooked tradition. Get off the “eaten path” to find Summerville, known for its barbecue obsession, and places like Baker’s BBQ, home of its signature barbecue pie. Another SC favorite barbecue spot resides in my favorite South Carolina town of Beaufort. Q on the Bay serves it family-style, like barbecue ought to be served, and waterfront – a bonus!
And even in fancy-schmancy Charleston’s restaurant scene, you can find the real deal at Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ, despite (or perhaps because of) the namesake pitmaster’s James Beard connection. You also can’t go wrong with some of the local barbecue chains such as Swig & Swine, Sticky Fingers Ribhouse, and Dukes Bar-B-Q.
The South boasts more than just barbecue, as you will see here: