By Syjil Ashraf via TheDailyMeal.com
These renowned spots are keeping an American culinary tradition alive
While all soul food can be considered Southern, not all Southern food can be considered soul. Soul food tends to utilize leftover cuts of meat such as chicken neck bones, wings and oxtails as well as offal. Spices are used liberally, vegetables are often cooked in meat broths or fat to add flavor and there's just something about that gooey macaroni and cheese that's different from the typical kind you'd find somewhere else.
Influenced by the foodways of the Americas, West Africa and Western Europe, other commonly seen soul food dishes include biscuits and gravy, fried chicken, fried catfish, collard greens, ribs, butter beans and so many more mouth watering dishes. Here are the restaurants in America that do it the best.
In order to determine the top soul food restaurants in America, we started by combing through our own previous coverage of famous spots for soul food favorites such as fried chicken or chicken and waffles, as well as the overall best places to eat across the country. We then took a deep dive into existing rankings and review sites to get an idea of which spots have gained the most renown and admiration from locals as well as food-focused tourists. We also looked for noted restaurants that have racked up awards and accolades (like James Beard’s America’s Classics Awards). Above all, we looked for restaurants that embody the history and culture of soul food — even if they also stand out for putting their own twists on the classics.
Willie Mae’s Scotch House (New Orleans)
Home to the best fried chicken in the country, Willie Mae’s Scotch House is a James Beard Award-winning restaurant located in New Orleans’ 6th Ward neighborhood. Along with its signature wet-battered fried chicken (the absolute best thing you can eat in the state), visitors will find baked chicken, grilled or fried chicken tenders, veal, New Orleans-style kidney beans and lima beans, fried okra and candied yams on the menu.
A Harlem institution since 1962, Sylvia’s is owned and operated by the family of Sylvia Woods, a woman born and raised in South Carolina before moving to New York City, where she established herself as the “Queen of Soul Food.” Having included the likes of the Reverend Al Sharpton, Gayle King, Nelson Mandela, Aretha Franklin and President Barack Obama, guests at Sylvia’s enjoy classic soul food such as fried or smothered chicken, sautéed chicken livers, cornmeal-dusted tilapia, the restaurant’s famous peach cobbler and barbecue ribs.
Croaker’s Spot (Richmond, Virginia)
With secondary locations in nearby Petersburg and Norfolk, Croaker’s Spot claims to be the “Soul of Seafood.” The menu backs up the boast, featuring foods for every seafood lover such as fried oysters, spiced shrimp and steamed mussels as well as non-seafood soul selections such as the “Hot Buttered Soul Wedges” (sweet cornbread covered in a signature buttery sauce) and fried chicken.
Bully’s Restaurant (Jackson, Mississippi)
Bestowed the “America’s Classic” award by the James Beard Foundation, Bully’s first started out in 1982 as a snack shop and the restaurant itself was literally built by the owner and his father. In addition to the cold cuts that first drew customers, the spot serves oxtail, mac and cheese, neckbones, sweet potatoes and three different types of greens (usually collards, mustards and turnips) cooked in a pork broth. The ribs served here are dry-rubbed and marinated for three days before being hickory- and cherry-smoked and covered in Bully’s own barbecue sauce.
Benne on Eagle (Asheville, North Carolina)
Benne on Eagle is just one of many reasons Asheville is one of the best foodie towns in America. Owned by renowned chef John Fleer, Benne is located on The Block, a historic predominantly black neighborhood. With a focus on seasonal and local ingredients, the menu at Benne on Eagle has come to be known as “Appalachian soul food,” with dishes such as liver and pickles (fried chicken livers, rabbit scrapple, salmon gravlax, pickles and hibiscus mustard), fried catfish and waffles (with kitchen pepper honey and hot slaw), and onion-braised rabbit (with torpedo onions, melted fennel and apple fritter).
Esther’s Cajun Cafe and Soul Food (Houston)
Established in 2008, the family-owned Esther’s Cajun Café has gained quite a bit of success thanks to its authentic cuisine and homey atmosphere. The classically Cajun and soul menu includes garlic-roasted baked chicken, oxtails and smothered pork chops or peppered steak, as well as cajun fettuccine pasta, crawfish and shrimp etouffee, and Cajun chitterlings.
Pearl’s Place (Chicago)
Bronzeville is a historically Black neighborhood of Chicago that’s been home to the likes of Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole and Ida B. Wells — as well as Pearl’s Place. Widely considered the spot in Chicago for soul food, Pearl’s Place offers a buffet for breakfast, lunch and dinner with a commitment to only serve fresh vegetables and high-quality meat and fish. On the menu, guests will find foods like jerk chicken, shrimp and cheesy grits, shrimp po’boys, country fried steak, smothered short ribs, red beans and yams.
Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room (Savannah, Georgia)
Located in the charming Historic District of Savannah, Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room is Closed in January and open only Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. the rest of the year, so hungry patrons need to make sure to be on time in order to enjoy the lauded menu. Lunch options are simple, including fried chicken, meatloaf, beef stew and sausage along with sides such as butter beans, snap peas, candied yams, pickled beets and macaroni and cheese.
Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles (multiple locations in California)
Founded in Hollywood by a Harlem native in 1975, Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles has grown into a chain spanning the Los Angeles area, and its famed chicken and waffles is now considered to be one of America’s most iconic restaurant dishes. Roscoe’s does have other items on the menu, however, such as chicken livers, giblets, fluffy biscuits, omelets, chicken burgers and classic soul food sides.
Florida Avenue Grill (Washington, DC)
Claiming to be the oldest soul food restaurant in the world, Florida Avenue Grill first opened in 1944 and is one of many historic attractions in Washington, D.C. Throughout the years, celebrities and political figures such as Lena Horne, Vice President Joe Biden and Martin Luther King, Jr. have stopped by at the restaurant, which is largely popular for its Southern breakfast. Among Florida Avenue Grill’s best menu options are the hotcakes, fried chicken, collard greens, peach cobbler and sweet potato pie, according to the current owner, who bought the place from the family that founded it and has been committed to keeping all the same items with some additions.
Sweetie Pie’s Upper Crust (St. Louis)
The subject of its own reality TV show (which aired from 2011 to 2018), Sweetie Pie’s soul food has roots in soul music, having been established by a former backup singer for Ike & Tina Turner in the 1960s. Customers can order baked or fried chicken, homestyle meatloaf, fried pork chops, Jack salmon, roasted duck and short ribs among many other soul food classics.
Dine to the tunes of live jazz and R&B music on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays at Delta’s, a central Jersey spot known for its traditional and creative Southern cuisine as well as its cocktails. The menu features dishes such as gumbo, Cajun calamari, fried alligator, peach barbecue ribs, Philly cheesesteak egg rolls, fried whiting over jambalaya grits, Southern poutine, pecan- and cornbread-crusted salmon and a collard green dip. The cocktails at Delta’s get pretty creative; try the Ciroc Peach Bellini (Ciroc peach vodka, peach schnapps, peach nectar and house Champagne) or the Tea Ceremony (Hennessy black, simple syrup, fresh squeezed lemon, and home-brewed sweet tea with mint). It’s also home to the best brunch deal in the state.
Hoover’s Cooking (Austin, Texas)
Hoover Alexander grew up eating local farm ingredients and farm-raised meats, and those same fresh, local ingredients can be found on the menu at his Austin restaurant, Hoover’s Cooking, which has been open for more than 20 years. On the menu: both fried and charbroiled catfish, chicken fried steak, ham steak with jezebel sauce (a Southern sauce made with apple jelly, pineapple, horseradish and mustard), housemade hot sausage, catfish and Cajun ham po’boys, buttered carrots, fried okra and potato salad.
Hands down one of the best restaurants in America, the award-winning JuneBaby is dedicated to celebrating the African roots of Southern cuisine. Chef Edouardo Jordan’s menu includes buttermilk biscuits, Nashville hot chicken gizzards or livers, smothered pork neck bones, fried pig ears, charred okra, smoked turkey, Southern rice and braised candied yams, all prepared at such a high level that in 2018 Jordan was awarded not one, but two James Beard Awards.
Casey’s Buffet (Wilmington, North Carolina)
Casey’s Buffet has the best all-you-can-eat-deal in the state, with homestyle meats, breads and vegetables, as well as a full dessert bar. Daily offerings include fried and baked chicken, chitlings, sweet potato souffle, barbecue pork, catfish, pan-fried okra, hush puppies, pig feet, bread pudding and apple, blueberry and peach cobbler.
Kuzzo’s Chicken & Waffles (Detroit)
True to its name, Kuzzo’s Chicken & Waffles has all kinds of chicken and waffles combinations, as well as Southern classics such as shrimp and grits, fried catfish, cornbread, buttermilk biscuits and peach cobbler.
Mikki’s Soul Food & Catering (Houston)
Another family-run restaurant, Mikki’s Soul Food is one of the most renowned spots for soul food in Houston. While the renowned fried catfish is only served on Fridays and Sundays, the daily menu includes turkey wings, smothered pork chops, baked tilapia, roasted chicken, oxtails, turkey necks, meatloaf, gumbo, Cajun corn, collard greens and other classics.
Charles’ Country Pan Fried Chicken (New York City)
Known for pan-frying instead of deep-frying its chicken, Charles’ Country Pan Fried Chicken is a small spot in Harlem with a big name. In an interview with The New Yorker, owner and chef Charles Gabriel, a native of Raleigh, North Carolina, said he sells approximately 500 pieces of chicken every weekday and 1,500 on weekends. Whoopi Goldberg, Wesley Snipes and Danny Glover are reportedly regulars at this classic Harlem spot which has a menu that also includes baked, barbecue and smothered chicken, as well as turkey wings, BBQ pork ribs, oxtails, pig feet, smothered pork chops, mac and cheese, yams, okra and black-eyed peas.
Five Sisters Blues Café (Pensacola, Florida)
Located in a historic neighborhood known for its blues music history called “The Blocks,” Five Sisters Blues Café is named in honor of that history as well as the chef and owner Cecil Johnson’s mother and her four sisters, whose original recipes are featured on the menu. That menu includes gumbo du jour, andouille-crusted shrimp, hickory-smoked pulled pork, mac and cheese, country green beans, pineapple coleslaw, Southern fried chicken, and sugar and spice baked yams, as well as fruit cobbler and blueberry bread pudding. Come on a Sunday to enjoy brunch with a live jazz band and dishes like crab cake eggs Benedict, the New Orleans Napoleon (puff pastry layered with andouille sausage, scrambled eggs and green onions covered in hollandaise sauce) and bananas Foster french toast.
Kountry Kitchen Soul Food Place (Indianapolis)
Since 1988, the family-owned and operated Kountry Kitchen Soul Food Place has provided Indianapolis residents and visitors with fantastic down-home Southern cooking in the form of fried chicken and pork chops, among other savory dishes. Also on the menu are hickory-smoked bacon, fried whiting fillets, salmon patties, fried duck wings, smothered cube steaks, roast beef, barbecue tips and neck bones.
Sweet Soulfood (New Orleans)
Louisiana’s best vegan-friendly restaurant is a popular place for vegans to enjoy some soul food. Sweet Soulfood’s ever-changing menu, which is also organic and soy-free, promises customers a vegan meal that still has all that soul flavor with dishes like okra gumbo, mushroom steak and gravy, barbecue cauliflower and vegan-friendly macaroni and cheese, as well as coconut-based vegan ice cream.
Big Mike’s Soul Food (Myrtle Beach, South Carolina)
Michael Chestnut, also known as Big Mike, is a classically trained chef who serves his guests meals like the ones his mother used to make. A family-run operation, Big Mike’s is dedicated to giving customers “good food at a fair price,” such as baskets of fried oysters, shrimp, fish or chicken fingers served with hushpuppies, coleslaw and fries.
Sweet Georgia Brown (Dallas)
Presentation isn’t a huge priority at Sweet Georgia Brown — meals are served in styrofoam containers — but it doesn’t need to be when everything coming out of the kitchen is this delicious. The menu features sliced and chopped beef, hot links and Polish sausages, all of which can also be eaten in a sandwich. Also served are turkey wings and all sorts of side dishes such as cabbage, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, fried okra and sweet potatoes. For dessert, Sweet Georgia Brown serves a variety of puddings, ice creams and cobblers.
Amy Ruth’s (New York City)
Named for the grandmother with whom he spent summers learning how to cook authentic soul food in Alabama, Carl S. Redding’s Harlem restaurant Amy Ruth’s opened in 1999 and has remained a Harlem favorite ever since. The restaurant honors famous black athletes, musicians, dancers, politicians and activists with its colorful murals as well as menu items named after black celebrities including Al Sharpton (fried or smothered chicken with waffles), Gabrielle Union (fried or smothered pork chops), Ludacris (fried jumbo chicken wings), Al Roker (boneless beef short ribs), Michelle Obama (fried whiting), Barack Obama (fried, smothered, baked or barbecue chicken) and, of course, Carl S. Redding (a signature-recipe waffle).
Ella Em’s Soul Food (North Las Vegas, Nevada)
By using the recipes of Mississippi native Ella Rea Gray, the owners of Ella Em’s Soul Food (her grandson and granddaughter-in-law) have made the restaurant a very popular stop with the Sunday church crowd. “Granny’s Special Seasoning” spices up many items on the menu, such as the fried or grilled catfish fillets, chitterlings, fried shrimp, fried or grilled red snapper fillet and baked or fried chicken.
Oohh’s & Aahh’s (Washington, DC)
Big names have dined at Oohh’s & Aahh's, including Jay-Z, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Angie Stone and French Montana. Award-winning chef and Washington, D.C. native Oji Abbott has established a well-known stop among food lovers in the city, with a menu featuring chicken wings, fried and grilled shrimp, crab cakes, fried whiting, beef and turkey meatloaves, turkey wings, turkey chops, lobster and teriyaki salmon.
Busy Bee Cafe (Atlanta, Georgia)
Going strong since 1947, Busy Bee Cafe takes pride in making everything from scratch, using fresh ingredients obtained from local purveyors. The restaurant also requires its cooks to go through at least three years of training to learn the ins and outs of the recipes and ingredient selection. Chicken is brined for 12 hours before being breaded and fried or cooked in gravy, while neck bones are slow-cooked and the pan-fried cube steak is simmered in an onion gravy. Tender oxtails and ham hocks also grace the menu, as do Southern-style veggies, fried seafood, banana pudding and peach and blackberry cobbler.
Niecie’s Restaurant (Kansas City, Missouri)
Denise Ward opened Niecie’s Restaurant in 1985 in order to share the recipes she learned from her mother. The homemade dishes noted on the menu as Niecie’s specialties include the beef stew, chili, spaghetti, meatloaf, peach cobbler and dressing that is served alongside the baked chicken. Guests can also order Niecie’s freshly made lemonade and brewed iced tea.
Sweet Potatoes (Winston-Salem, North Carolina)
Sweet Potatoes’ website states that “friends have been made and relationships forged over a basket of fried green tomatoes and okra,” which is served with sweet potato aïoli. Customers can also order a basket of fried pork rinds, fried chicken with sweet potato waffle fries drizzled in hot honey, and a three-cheese macaroni and country ham soufflé. Other intriguing selections include sweet potato cornbread served with a cold glass of buttermilk, mini Southern-style sweet potato biscuits with molasses, a fried bologna and pimento cheese sandwich on Texas toast and a spicy Cajun-style turkey burger served on a sweet potato bun.
Dooky Chase’s (New Orleans)
Emily and Dooky Chase, Sr. first opened Dooky Chase’s as a barroom and sandwich shop in 1941 before Dooky Chase, Jr. and his wife Leah (later to be known as “the Queen of Creole Cuisine”) turned the place into a sitdown restaurant in 1946. Dooky Chase’s soon became a New Orleans institution, supporting activism and the arts; Martin Luther King, Jr. met with local leaders here to discuss civil rights strategies, and the city’s first art gallery for black artists was housed here when Leah Chase began showcasing black artwork. Closed on Mondays, Dooky Chase’s only serves dinner on Fridays, with a lunch buffet from Tuesday through Friday offering fried chicken, shrimp Clemenceau, stuffed shrimp, gumbo, chicken Creole and hot sausage. If there isn’t enough time for a stop at Dooky Chase’s while in New Orleans, you can grab a bite at the small outpost at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, which is one of the best airport restaurants in America.
Beans & Cornbread (Southfield, Michigan)
First opening its doors in 1997, Beans & Cornbread was recently named one of America’s “new classic” restaurants by GQ. The menu here includes Louisiana-style gumbo, country seasoned pork chops, fresh salmon croquettes, fried catfish fingers, sweet potato muffins, Southern fried chicken wings served in a “commemorative shoebox” and a Harlem Burrito, in which a flour tortilla is filled with rice, black-eyed peas, collard greens and diced tomatoes and served with salsa.
This Is It (Houston)
Yet another family business, This Is It opened in 1959 in Houston’s predominantly black Fourth Ward neighborhood and saw a couple moves before settling in its current location in the Third Ward in 2010. All the soul food classics can be found here: ham hocks, smothered chicken, fried chicken, barbecue ribs, fried catfish, chitterlings, oxtail, baked macaroni and cheese, candied yams and peach cobbler.
Mrs. White’s Golden Rule Cafe (Phoenix)
Mrs. White has been running her popular soul food spot since the early 1960s, known for its fried chicken and pork chops. Having learned to cook from her mother, Elizabeth White takes pride in her home-cooked meals which have drawn the likes of Aretha Franklin and the Phoenix Suns. Also on the menu is chicken fried steak, pond-raised catfish, oxtails, green beans with potatoes, macaroni and cheese, potato salad and more.
Martha Lou’s Kitchen (Charleston, South Carolina)
Martha Lou’s Kitchen is located in a small pink building, serving what’s referred to as “roll-your-eyes-it’s-so-good” soul food such as fried chicken, turkey wings, pork chops, chitterlings, bread pudding, okra soup, cornbread and some great sweet tea to boot. It may not be fancy, but this Charleston institution is one of the best hole-in-the-wall spots in America.
Originally Published: https://www.thedailymeal.com/eat/best-soul-food-restaurants-america