Q: So I have a friend that wants to take me to a restaurant in another city nearby that he claims is a "true taste of the South, the most bona fide version you'll get." My dilemma is that when you look at the menu online it's pretty American continental, not a whole lot of dishes screaming "Southern." So it's got me thinking: if you're looking for a restaurant that will give you a true real Southern experience, can it still be authentic to the area even if doesn't have things like shrimp-and-grits and okra soup on the menu? Which raises a bigger question I've always wanted to ask you but never been inspired to before now: How do you define a true bona fide Southern experience?
I guess what I'm really getting to is this: could you give me your Hanna Raskin's Top Five Signs That A Restaurant Is The Real Deal Bono Fide Authentic Ultimate Southern Dining Experience? And the signs you name don't necessarily have to be all menu-related: Basically, I'm asking for your tip-offs that the restaurant is actually a genuinely authentic, as opposed to faux or manufactured, taste of the South?
A: As someone who grew up in Michigan, I’m wary of declaring what is and isn’t Southern. And even if I had the go-ahead from folks born and bred here to start sorting restaurants that way, it’s important to keep in mind that the definition of Southern is constantly evolving: For instance, I recently swung by Golden Sun, a Filipino food truck parked on the outskirts of Beaufort. Its menu includes lumpia and chicken adobo, rather than okra soup and shrimp-and-grits, but its popularity clearly reflects the area’s strong and longstanding affiliation with the military. In other words, Golden Sun’s pancit is part of the Southern story, too.
Still, I agree there’s a discernible difference between restaurants that are legitimately of this region, and those trying to make a quick buck off the popularity of pimento cheese. That cynical approach isn’t entirely new: In 1987, John Egerton – the first and foremost chronicler of Southern food – tried to suss out exactly what makes a restaurant Southern. He collected suggestions from friends, who warned that a Southern restaurant should avoid advertising, "hillbilly decor" and accepting credit cards.
To add a few more generalizations to the list, I’d caution against restaurants where the ham is sweet and the cornbread’s savory, instead of the other way around, and places featuring totemic items that wouldn’t traditionally come near the supper table. When boiled peanuts are listed as a side dish, I get suspicious.
But you’re looking for dos, not don’ts. So, as requested, here are my Top Five Signs That ... well, you know the rest. I stuck with content-neutral criteria, because I believe these standards can be applied to restaurants at any price point, serving almost any kind of food.
In fact, lest these tip-offs seem too ubiquitous – I can imagine someone mounting the argument that his or her favorite Maine diner satisfies on all scores – let me add that a restaurant shouldn’t even qualify for consideration unless there are peppers and/or vinegar on the premises, and white sugar on hand for your tea.
1. The bread is homemade
This doesn’t necessarily mean biscuits hot from the oven: A pan of Jiffy mix cornbread or freshly made tortillas count. But there needs to be real thought put into the meal’s supporting starch, since the notion of breaking bread together isn’t merely metaphorical in the South.
2. Vegetables outnumber meats
Even though meat-and-threes are scarce today, the ratio still holds in a region just a generation removed from an agricultural economy. Also, you can tell a monied restaurateur is faking Southern pride when the menu jokes about mac-and-cheese being a vegetable. Mac-and-cheese is an estimable side dish, but true Southern restaurants serve an array of unsexy vegetables that never seem to show up in Northern restaurants purporting to pay homage to the South. Think cabbage, rutabagas, turnips and mustard greens.
3. There’s a bulletin board by the front door
Obviously, upscale restaurants aren’t furnished with fliers advertising lawn care services and bus trips to the nearest casino. But if a restaurant is Southern to its bones, someone there ought to be able to connect you with a guy who has a riding mower. An emphasis on the surrounding community and its members is a hallmark of public dining in the South. Or, to put it another way: It’s rare to leave a Southern restaurant without a bit of gossip.
4. The sweet tea is served in Styrofoam cups
Again, this isn’t literally true in the finest places. But most Southern restaurants won’t let guests leave without a little lagniappe toward the end of the meal, such as a dainty petit four. The idea here is that hospitality extends beyond the time allotted to be at table: Southern restaurants are sensitive to customers wanting to continue to enjoy their cold drinks even if – or perhaps because – they have to get back to work.
5. Recipes are pedigreed
Not every dish in a Southern restaurant has to be attributed to momma. But an awareness of generations past is a Southern preoccupation, even beyond the culinary sphere. And again, this condition doesn’t disqualify the region’s many new Southerners: It’s as common for a taqueria owner as a pitmaster to credit a great-uncle with creating a signature sauce. In short, look for a family photo.
Hope that helps! And let me know if your friend’s restaurant fits the bill.