Is there a thing in the world more comforting than soul food? It's not one of those cuisines that have a hundred or so dishes that chefs need to choose from. It simply consists of a handful of specialties that have been perfected over time. These nine tasty soul food spots have it down to a T.
What is soul food? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, it is “the type of food traditionally eaten by African-Americans in the southern U.S.” The term was popularized by Alex Haley and Malcom X, and it attempted to move a number of well-loved dishes away from this notion of “slave food” to instead highlight ideas of commensality, family, and black culture that the eating of these foods engendered. This was especially true after the so-called Great Migrations of 1910 to 1930 and 1941 to 1970, when African-Americans who moved north and west craved foods that reminded them of the Southern homes they left behind.
To describe soul food as “made with love” is hokey and simplistic — it glosses over the skill it takes to get that perfect brine on a fried chicken, the tenderness of ham hocks, and the complex bitterness of collard greens. That being said, there is an unmistakable family-owned aura to most soul food restaurants, and the food is prepared with care and respect for tradition.
We pulled from our lists of the 101 Best Casual Restaurants and 75 Best Fried Chicken Spots, and did more research on African-American-owned places serving authentic fare, to gather a handful of establishments that really know how to serve delicious soul food.
Make sure to stop by some of these spots on your great American road trip.
Additional reporting by Dan Myers
Amy Ruth’s, New York City
A Harlem institution, Amy Ruth’s is famous for their chicken and waffles, but the other items on their menu — named after African-American celebrities, like DJ Afrika Bambaataa (fried whiting) and actress Gabrielle Union (fried or smothered pork chops) — also please. It is especially busy after church on Sundays, but that’s the best time to go, as the place bustles with women in beautiful hats and a general convivial air that complements this soul food very well.
Busy Bee Cafe, Atlanta
An Atlanta landmark, the Busy Bee Cafe has been serving traditional soul food to hungry locals since it opened in 1947. The cozy restaurant features a long lunch counter and a handful of tables, and the food is homestyle, delicious, and inexpensive. You’d be hard-pressed to find better fried or smothered chicken, pork chops, fried fish, smoked ham hocks, oxtails, slow-smoked ribs, or baked macaroni and cheese anywhere else in town, and the desserts, including scratch-made cakes and Georgia peach and blackberry cobblers, are the stuff of legend.