As I pulled up a barstool at Peacock’s Bar & Grill in Natchez, Mississippi and ordered a martini, Sharon, the spitfire bartender, asked me what kind of gin I wanted—not, I noted appreciatively, whether I wanted vodka or gin. I sat back to bask in the moment, and in the wonderfully retro vibe of the bar, tucked inside the Eola Hotel, Art Deco sumptuousness from 1927 and, as it happens, one of the younger buildings in Natchez, the oldest European settlement on the Mississippi River, founded in 1716.
“I once heard Natchez was called ‘the city too beautiful to burn,’” I said to Sharon. “Nope,” she replied. “That was Port Gibson, up the river.” Natchez owes its life to “Southern hospitality,” she explained. When Union troops rolled in to the Confederate town, the locals knew that food and drink was their best hope for survival. Natchez was saved, and it continues to seduce with sweet tea and fried fish to this day, a living museum of antebellum splendor intermingled with modern dining destinations.
You may not expect to be able to reach the Deep South on a single tank of gas, but I completed the 314-mile trip with enough gas left over to putter around for three days—though the town’s so small, you can easily walk most places. This is especially true if you stay downtown at the Eola, the tallest building in Natchez, located only a short walk from a scenic bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. There, the Magnolia Grill offers fried green tomatoes topped with crawfish tails and an unparalleled view of the river at sunset. Its blend of Southern and Creole influences—Louisiana is just across that river—isn’t unusual. In fact, it’s the defining feature of Natchez cuisine.
Elsewhere, 19th-century mansions of cotton barons have been turned into bed and breakfasts or museums, many with restaurants tucked into converted carriage houses. At the aptly named Carriage House on the grounds of Stanton Hall—a historic manor offering daily tours of its perfectly preserved interiors—chef Bingo Starr hand-delivers plates of fried cheese grits, spring rolls stuffed with smoked pork and field peas, and fried-oyster salads with tomato aspic. The eatery also makes a mean mint julep, though I washed down my lunch with a beer from the Tin Roof Brewing Company in nearby Baton Rouge.
I ate an equally divine meal at another carriage house: The Castle, behind an even larger plantation home at the Dunleith Historic Inn—winner of Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence for 12 straight years. The building dates to the 1790s, but the menu showcases chef Brad Seyfarth’s 21st-century flair for dishes like Maple Leaf Farms duck breast with peach bourbon gastrique and more fried green tomatoes—served here with crab and a blood orange beurre blanc.
But eating well in Natchez isn’t only a thing for elaborate dining rooms; Fat Mama’s Tamales offers po-boys on a picturesque patio, topped with spicy-sweet “fire and ice pickles” you’ll want to lug home by the jar. Slick Rick’s Café sells homemade spice blends, a pork-topped Miami Burger, and its infamous triple-decker “Quasimoto burger.” And don’t miss the Donut Shop, a roadside stand outside downtown. The donuts may have been called some of the best in America by none other than the Food Network’s Alton Brown, but George Scott and Mary Tyson’s tamales are equally popular. Incidentally, Natchez lies along the so-called Delta Tamale Trail, where you’ll find some of the best tamales in America—though not like you’d get in Texas. They’re one more delicious surprise waiting for you across the Mississippi.
For any serious seafood fan, making a pilgrimage to Rockport, a short trip down the coast, is essential. There, chef Karey Johnson (who cooked at the James Beard House in 2012) showcases the freshest Gulf ingredients every night on an innovative dinner menu at her restaurant, Glow, tucked into a converted, shabby-chic boathouse near the water.… Two and a half hours east of Dallas at the Greer Farm, a working farm and ranch in Daingerfield, you can rent a charming cabin for the weekend. Chef Eva Greer serves dinner every night and teaches cooking classes by day using ingredients from the farm itself. You can also pick fruit to take home or learn about the sustainable agriculture methods used in raising Greer’s Maine-Anjou cattle.… Kiepersol Estates in Tyler offers tours of its working vineyard every Saturday, and smart travelers know to stay put afterward and dine in style at the attached restaurant, which offers a wine cellar as impressive as its classic New American food, before spending the night in one of the adjacent bed-and-breakfast’s five luxurious rooms.… A revitalized downtown Bryan buzzes at night, as crowds pack restaurants such as the Downtown Uncorked Winebar and Madden’s Casual Gourmet, where chef Peter Madden showcases locally sourced ingredients. At swanky Vintage House at the nearby Messina Hof Winery & Resort, dishes are paired with house-made wines. Grab a nightcap at the Deco-era LaSalle Hotel Bar and stay at one of the 86-year-old hotel’s beautifully remodeled rooms.