When we reflected on 2018 for this third installment of our annual Best We Ate series, we realized just how many delicious snacks, meals and desserts we savored this past year in our travels across the American South.
Sadly, several restaurants that served up some of our favorite eats the past couple years, including North Carolina’s Allen & Son BBQ in Chapel Hill and Causeway Cafe in Wilmington, closed in 2018. But in the food world the old saying about one door closing and another opening is always true, and we discovered some great new places to satisfy our appetites.
With a list like this one, there are always unfortunate omissions due to the sheer volume of restaurants diners like us visit in a year’s time. We don’t consider this an entirely comprehensive list. Just think of it as the places we were still raving about days, weeks and sometimes months later.
Best Meal: Carolina Cafe, Gaffney, S.C.
We love everything about it, and the line out the door says others do, too. From the warm and fresh yeast rolls and cold and fresh salads to the steaks and seafood plates and even the dessert specials, we get a great meal for a great price at Carolina Café every time we visit. It feels like a place where we’re celebrating something special with a meal, and for that reason it’s a place we like to go for special occasions. Read more about Carolina Cafe here.
Best New Burger: Grits & Groceries, Belton, S.C.
Grits & Groceries is every bit a contender for best meal, especially the restaurant’s Thursday night dinner. We love the tomato pie, the shrimp and grits, the banana pudding and the chocolate Coca-Cola pound cake. But the burger rises above it all. It’s a hearty sandwich of delicious beef on Texas Toast with a mighty schmear of pimento cheese and strips of bacon. See why it’s so memorable? Read more about Grits & Groceries here.
Best Sandwich: The Buffalo Bill at Olde Hickory Tap Room, Hickory, N.C.
It had been a while since we’d been to the Tap Room, and now we’re not quite sure why. Their “Buffalo Bill” chicken sandwich is perfectly sauced—a seasoned, crispy chicken with a perfect kick that doesn’t make you bawl—and a cup of creamy ranch for dipping or slathering or smothering. Your choice! The sandwich is everything we might love about a buffalo wing without the bones and with extra accessories—in the lettuce, tomato and mayo—that really make it shine.
Best Appetizer: Loaded Sidewinder Fries at Growler USA, Gastonia, N.C.
Take a crispy, twisty, beer-battered bevy of fried potatoes and top ‘em with peppered white cheddar cheese sauce, thick-cut bacon, fresh avocado and green onions. Serve it up alongside other tantalizing treats in part of a historic and beautifully restored former textile mill. Voila! (Regular sidewinder fries pictured behind a Growler burger) Read more about Growler USA here.
Best Sweet Treat: Sugar Shack Donuts, Richmond, Va.
Light but filling dough. An endless list of sweet and sensory-pleasing toppings. A small price. A separate coffee bar menu that allows you to settle one #FoodieScore choice at a time. Easy off-street parking. From our experience, you can’t really go wrong with anything you order at Sugar Shack Donuts. The only error you can make is passing them up when you’re in Richmond.
Best Breakfast/Brunch: Downtown Deli & Donuts, Spartanburg, S.C.
Atmosphere and Flavor…that’s how we’d describe DDD’s Saturday brunch. It bustles so much it can be a bit intimidating to understand at first, but once they seat you and give you a menu, you’re good to go. The Huevos Rancheros are a savory, spicy, cooling sensation for your tastebuds. The biscuits and gravy are a feast that might fill you for the rest of the day, or even the entire weekend. The bacon on the farmer’s plate was rave-worthy for one of our foodie family members. Many of the menu items come in a cast-iron skillet. You even get to choose your own mug from a collection and make your own coffee selections. All of that, and there’s plenty of free, on-street parking nearby. We can’t wait to go back.
Best Soul Food: Price’s Chicken Coop, Charlotte, N.C.
A box of crispy, seasoned, just-greasy-enough fried chicken, served with a few sides of course, is everything we could ask for of a Southern soul food icon like Price’s. Sometimes, it really is all about simplicity. Read more about Price’s Chicken Coop here.
Best New Mexican Food: Viva Tequis, Gastonia, N.C.
Choose your taco, burrito, torta or bowl, then fill it with a meat and all the flavors you love. This is simple Mexican food without the Americanized restaurant frills that feel far less authentic. Everything is fresh, made to order, from the corn tortillas to the guacamole. And we absolutely loved the delicious and unique fountain drinks, such as rice milk and hibiscus tea, that come with free dine-in refills.
Best Pizza: Pies and Pints Pizzeria, Fayetteville, W.Va.
One of our close foodie friends says it’s the best pizza she’s ever had in her life, and we can’t disagree. The dough is thick and hearty, and the toppings creative. Want black beans and salsa on your pizza? It’s on the menu. Sriracha, shrimp and pineapple? They’ve got that, too. Steak, onions and mushrooms? Yep. And those are just the specialties. P&P has all the traditional favorites, too. AND they have cold draft root beer, which we haven’t found anywhere else, as well as plenty of other, more adult beverage choices for those who are inclined. But don’t be fooled by the pints in the name. It’s also a great place for families, as we learned while visiting with a friend and her one-year-old!
Best Italian Food: The Open Kitchen, Charlotte, N.C.
It feels like you’re in the corner of a legendary place in a New York City borough when you’re there. Sinatra and Martin serenade you. Bowls of fresh, steaming hot spaghetti and plates of lasagna appear in front of you. And diners all around tell stories of how they’ve eaten the same meal here for decades or how their parents met in that same booth many years ago. It’s Italian food like you rarely find in the South. And it’s a place that’s also every bit one of the best meals we ate all year. Read more about The Open Kitchen, which has served up such dishes and experiences since 1952, here.
Best New Barbecue: Midway BBQ, Buffalo, S.C.
We can’t stop talking about the tender, smoky pulled pork. We can’t believe the place where Molly’s grandma, Rita Faye, bought the unique delicacy of barbecue hash many years ago still serves it today. We can’t stop drooling over the macaroni pie and the divine, sugary-topped sweet potato casserole. Our favorite foodie scores like Midway have Southern family roots. For all these reasons, we love this stop on the Carolinas barbecue trail. Read more about Midway BBQ here.
Best Seafood: Charleston Crab House, Charleston, S.C.
Several great restaurants we enjoyed from Maryland to the Georgia coast served us crab-stuffed cakes that are bursting with the righteous flavors of the sea. But none stood out more than those at this longtime South Carolina Lowcountry spot. Add in a dish of well-salted greens and another dish of grits so creamy they can barely keep the word grit in their description and you’ve got quite a special plate. There’s much to explore at the Crab House, and none of it resembles the greasy, fried fish camp food you might envision when you think Southern seafood. Here, it’s all fresh, and it’s always delicious!