It’s not news that New York City has become home to a sizable population of Southern restaurants. What’s remarkable is that even as New York’s appetite for Asian sandwiches, gourmet wieners, and lobster rolls has waned, the city’s fixation with Southern food has not only remained constant, it shows no signs of abating.
Sure, there were Southern restaurants in New York long before the recent boom. You could argue that the movement got its start in 1948, when the legendary Southern chef Edna Lewis helped open Café Nicholson on 58th Street. The Pink Tea Cup set up shop in Greenwich Village in 1954, and in 1962, Sylvia’s began serving ribs and rum cake in Harlem.
But it wasn’t until the early aughts that Southern food began to gain critical mass in New York. John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, traces its origins to 2002, when Danny Meyer and Kenny Callahan started serving pit barbecue at Blue Smoke. “That paved the way for what we see now because they focused on working-class food from the South and they put it on a pedestal and did it quite well,” Edge says. “They framed American regional food and said, ‘This is worthy of our restaurant group and your dollars.’”
Regional barbecue proved to be New York’s gateway drug to the South. Within the next few years, the city became home to places as varied as Daisy May’s, Hill Country, Fette Sau, Georgia’s Eastside BBQ, Mable’s Smokehouse, the Smoke Joint, and Fatty ’Cue, where Zak Pelaccio married slow-cooked meat to Asian flavors.
Observers have credited post-9/11 jitters and a desultory economic outlook with stoking the city’s appetite for Southern-style comfort foods (mac ‘n’ cheese, fried chicken, biscuits and gravy). But it’s no accident that New York’s embrace of Southern cuisine has dovetailed with the rise of the artisanal food movement, which has given regional American foods the kind of cachet once reserved for 40-year-old balsamic and Kobe beef.
Everyone, for example, seems to have a farm-to-table version of pimento cheese, whether presented on a cheeseburger, served with fried cheese curds or top-shelf whiskey, or smeared on house-made potato chips. Lowly crayfish trucks boast about sourcing from Louisiana and Alabama. Even lard suppliers get menu shout-outs.
And while Edge thinks some existing Southern restaurants are doing a pretty god job of opening New Yorkers’ minds to the world of Southern food beyond barbecue and butterfat, one place that’s doing an excellent job is The Dutch, the self-described “American joint” Andrew Carmellini opened earlier this year. Carmellini’s regional American menu, with its fried oyster sliders and pecan duck with organic dirty rice, represents a maturation of the city’s understanding of Southern food.
“There’s a focus on American regional food by really talented chefs in New York who, instead of opening some subregion-focused Italian restaurant, focus on American regional cooking,” Edge says. “I’m more interested in that than in overtly Southern restaurants that try so darn hard.”
Elizabeth Karmel, the North Carolina–bred executive chef at Hill Country and Hill Country Chicken, also wants to see the Southern palate get its due. “Southerners actually have a really sophisticated palate, even though Southern cuisine isn’t thought of as the most sophisticated,” she says. “You have to be sophisticated to eat and love bitter, and there’s nothing more bitter than collard greens.”
While Karmel is excited to see that the food she grew up with has become what she calls “a legitimate culinary style,” New York still has some work to do. Chefs might want to broaden northerners’ understanding of Southern food, but customers, Karmel feels, are ultimately “more interested in feeding their soul” than having an intellectual experience. “There’s an unbelievable amount of great food that we still don’t get to eat in restaurants,” she says.
But as Southern-themed establishments continue to proliferate (the past two months have witnessed the opening or announcement of no fewer than four, including one named after North Carolina’s state bird), Edge hopes they’ll move beyond what he calls the “let’s barbecue this and let’s deep-fry that” paradigm.
“That’s lazy man’s cooking and lazy man’s thinking,” Edge says. “If you want to tell the story of America, you tell the story of Southern dishes.”