Pining for the Peach State: Georgia’s Most Iconic Foods

Taste your way through the Empire State of the South with Georgia’s quintessential dishes — and the top places to sample them. 

 

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Georgia on Our Mind

When the 13th colony was founded in 1732, it was prized for its agricultural and geographic diversity, from Savannah’s waterfront to the North Georgia mountains and everything in between. Out of that bounty has grown a rich and varied culinary tradition, so whether you’re craving classic comfort food — fried chicken, pimento cheese, barbecue — or something a little more out-of-the-box, the perfect culinary match awaits in the Peach State.

Illustration by Hello Neighbor Designs

Peaches

Georgia is affectionately known as The Peach State, and chefs around the state use the juicy stone fruits in pie, jam, salads, salsas and pretty much any other dish they can dream up. At Inman Park’s Queen of Cream, Chef Cora Cotrim is known for her rich, seasonal, ever-changing ice cream flavors. To make her popular peach cobbler ice cream, she starts with fresh Elberta peaches from Pearson Farm in Fort Valley (which happens to the be county seat of Peach County, near Macon), letting them soak overnight with a tiny bit of sugar. Next, she uses the peaches to create a jam, letting the resulting syrup flavor the ice cream, and stirring in cobbler pieces made with local buttermilk. If a single bite could represent a whole state, this might just be it.

Pimento Cheese

Pimento cheese is practically mandatory as party food in Georgia, and most every family has a cherished recipe. Athens’ home.made is known for creative takes on Southern staples using farm-fresh ingredients, and its pimento cheese is no exception. “I grew up in New Orleans and didn't try pimento cheese until I moved to Georgia for college,” says Chef Mimi Maumus. “There are some terrible versions of pimento cheese but if you focus on good ingredients, it is a very beautiful thing and deserves the praise that it receives.” For her version, she uses grated Cabot Extra Sharp White Cheddar before adding her signature mix of pimento peppers, spices and mayonnaise. When you visit, look for Maumus’ Swanee Bites: cheese straw sandwiches, stuffed with pimento cheese and rolled in toasted, chopped pecans.

Boiled Peanuts

Ground nut, goober, pindar nut or peanut. Call them what you like, Georgia’s official state crop is a worldwide favorite. After all, where would the PB&J be without the all-important “P”? Particularly in peanut country, though, boiled peanuts (pronounced “boll-ed peanuts” in a Southern drawl) are a crowd pleaser. The uninitiated might liken their tender texture to edamame; since they’re cooked with salt and spices, they don’t need any additional seasoning. At Augusta’s Finch & Fifth, boiled peanuts are a year-round favorite way to start the meal. The kitchen sources about 50 pounds of peanuts each month from a nearby farm and boils them in Pabst Blue Ribbon beer with their own secret spice blend.

Vidalia Onions

Born out of a planting mistake in Vidalia, Georgia, during the Great Depression, the Vidalia onion has become the standard-bearer for sweet onions (according to the Vidalia Onion Committee, they represent 62 percent of sweet onion sales during their spring-to-summer season). Northeast of their namesake town, The Hil at Serenbe's Chef Hilary White offers Caramelized Vidalia Onion Dip, served with house-made potato chips. The onion's sweetness complements creamy sour cream and mayonnaise, with brandy, garlic and celery salt adding a seductive depth of flavor.

Barbecue

Visit any Southern state and you’re likely to get an earful about the virtues of that state’s unique brand of barbecue. At Atlanta’s DAS BBQ, pitmaster Stephen Franklin is hoping to help define Georgia’s style. “Georgia is all about pulled pork and pork ribs, in particular, pulled pork sandwiches and whole hogs. I think Georgia owns smoked pork, hands down,” he says, citing several Georgia-based champions, including Chef Myron Mixon. The counter-service restaurant in Atlanta’s Westside neighborhood has two massive smokers, from which they produce mouth-watering pulled pork, ribs and pork sausage, best served with their mustard-based peach barbecue sauce. If you order his highly recommended beef brisket instead, pair it with the restaurant’s house-made red sauce, a sweet-tangy tomato-based sauce, infused with Octane Coffee espresso. Save room for a side of tangy collard greens, macaroni and cheese, and white chocolate banana pudding for dessert.

Meat & Three

Georgians love their meat-and-three restaurants, since they put the choice in the patron’s hands. Guests choose one protein and three Southern side dishes. Macon’s H & H Restaurant has been serving their friendly brand of Southern fare since 1959 (including, famously, to the Allman Brothers band before they were well-known). On any given day, you’ll find meatloaf, fried catfish, country fried steak and smoked turkey on offer, though the fried chicken, made from a time-honored recipe, is by far the most popular meat. Pair it with your choice of sides including macaroni and cheese, fried okra, collard greens, squash casserole, green beans and more, and you’ll have a stick-to-your-ribs meal.

Chicken & Dumplings

Few things south of the Mason-Dixon are as comforting as chicken and dumplings, with their luxurious broth, tender chicken meat, hearty vegetables and toothsome dumplings (some swear by dropped and boiled, while others favor rolled, noodle-like dough). At Atlanta’s Watershed, Zeb Stevenson uses a time-honored recipe, keeping it simple with a mix of breast and thigh meat and airy white flour buttermilk dumplings suspended in rich, thick chicken broth, scented with fresh herbs and local vegetables. Served piping hot, it’s a year-round favorite.

Pecan Pie

Pecan trees grow in abundance in Georgia and as a result, almost everyone’s mama has a “signature” pecan pie recipe in their arsenal. At Thomasville’s Chop House on the Bricks, the iconic dessert gets the white-tablecloth treatment, with local KBH Farms’ pecans, scratch-made pie dough and “Blackberry Patch” cane syrup. Sliced into generous portions and topped with creamy cinnamon ice cream, the decadent dessert has become one of the restaurant’s staples.

Fried Chicken

Just about everyone can agree that the perfect piece of fried chicken should be golden and crunchy on the outside, tender and juicy on the inside. Universal agreeability may stop there, as strong feelings exist on everything from seasoning, frying fat and starch for breading. At Food 101 in Sandy Springs, fried chicken has been a perennial menu favorite since the 1999 opening. The restaurant sources its chickens from family-owned Springer Mountain Farms (in Georgia's Blue Ridge Mountains) before dredging the breasts in the chef's own secret flour-and-seasoning recipe and deep frying them to golden perfection. The signature entree is served over whipped potatoes, with green beans, chicken gravy and coleslaw.

Fried Green Tomatoes

Juliette, a quaint town in middle Georgia, has become synonymous with fried green tomatoes, since the 1991 movie of the same name was filmed here. Fans who loved watching Mary-Louise Parker, Mary Stuart Masterson, Kathy Bates and Jessica Tandy on the big screen can follow in their footsteps at The Whistle Stop Cafe. The pale green tomatoes are sliced, lightly battered and fried to a crisp golden brown. They’re available as an appetizer and atop a salad, but they can be tasted to their best advantage on a rye sandwich with bacon, mayonnaise, lettuce, onion and Swiss cheese.

Georgia Wild Shrimp

The South is famous for shrimp, with plump, sweet shellfish found in the waters off the coast from North Carolina down to Florida. The Farmer & The Larder’s chef, Matthew Raiford, believes that hyper-local is best, and he’s in luck. His restaurant in historic downtown Brunswick, in the heart of Georgia’s Golden Isles, is just two blocks from the water. He showcases pristine Georgia wild shrimp, which he sources from local fishermen, in Curry Shrimp with Carolina Gold rice and coconut milk-poached vegetables. “I love our Georgia wild-caught shrimp; not only because they are sustainably fished, but also because they have a hint of sweetness that goes so well with curry and other spicy spices,” he says.

Fried Apple Pies

North Georgia's mountains are peppered with pick-your-own apple farms. One of the region’s most-popular is Mercier Orchards in Blue Ridge, which sits on 300 lush acres. The farm grows nearly 50 types of apples, including Crimson Crisp, Empire, Ginger Gold, Cameo, Yate and Gold Rush. At the country store, the fried apple pies are a perennial favorite. The kitchen rolls the scratch-made crust, fills it with sugared apples, then fries it to a crisp before dipping each in a sweet glaze. The result is a sweet-tart treat that’s equally delicious hot or cold. Those who can’t make a trip down South can still partake: Mercier ships freshly fried pies anywhere in the country.

Fried Okra

Okra is a classic Southern staple, adding texture to gumbo and showing up fried in a cornmeal coating on pretty much every table during peak summer season. So many Southerners wouldn’t associated fried okra with Indian food, but Chai Pani in Decatur deliciously puts a spin on the Southern classic with their matchstick okra fries. “Okra is affordable and ubiquitous in Maharashtra, the state [in India] where I grew up. I hated it as a kid until one day my mom, desperate to get me and my brother to actually eat the stuff, came up with the idea of julienning them thin, frying them crispy and tossing with salt and lime juice,” says James Beard-nominated chef Meherwan Irani. “They were insanely good.” Now, he delights his guests with his version of his mother’s julienned “okra fries.”

Blueberries

Georgia may be known for its peaches, but it’s also one of the top three blueberry-producing states in the nation. It should come as no surprise, then, that enterprising farmers and restaurateurs capitalize on the tasty crop. In South Georgia’s Tifton, Mi-Lady Bakery serves their fan-favorite Blazing Blueberry Breakfast Sandwich. The kitchen layers applewood-smoked bacon, a sausage patty and pepper jack cheese between freshly baked grilled sourdough bread or toast (the bakery has been delighting customers with its fresh-baked bread, pastries and breakfast since the 1960s). The pièce de résistance is a generous slather of Wisham Jellies’ Blazing Blueberry Jelly, a combination of locally grown sweet blueberries and hot peppers. The sweet heat is almost sure to kick anyone’s morning into high gear.

Fried Chicken Biscuit

Georgians love their fried chicken, and even first thing in the morning isn’t too early to enjoy it. At Chef Hugh Acheson’s Empire State South in Atlanta, the kitchen turns out a fried chicken biscuit of legendary proportions. Fluffy biscuits hold a juicy batter-fried breast (sourced from Grateful Pastures in nearby Mansfield) and a scrambled egg. For a sweet and savory flavor punch, he adds house-made bacon marmalade and pimento cheese. It’s the kind of breakfast that lets you know you’re in the South and can keep you energized for whatever the day brings.

Pralines

Georgia is the top pecan-producing state in the nation, and it just so happens that pecan pralines are what helped put River Street Sweets in Savannah on the map. Established in 1973, it’s the city’s oldest candy store. The toothsome sweets are made with just four simple ingredients: Georgia pecans, sugar, cream and butter. Don’t let the scant ingredient list fool you: The candymakers at River Street are artists, making melt-in-your-mouth sweets that even nut-haters will love.

Coca-Cola

The world’s most popular soda was invented right in downtown Atlanta. For a boozy twist on the classic, the Super Coke cocktail at AMER Atlanta combines the city’s signature soda with clarified lime juice and the restaurant’s complex, proprietary AMER Amaro blend, with 10 different Amari included. The punchy, bold cocktail is garnished with an orange and a cherry, for a drink that’s as stylish as it is delicious.

Deviled Eggs

Sidle up to the table at just about any Southern restaurant worth its salt and you’ll find deviled eggs on the menu. However, Craft & Vine in Augusta has turned their edition, crafted from hyper-local brown farm eggs (often from the restaurant’s own Frog Hollow Farms), into an artform. Rather than serve one standard version, Chef Sean Wight features a weekly incarnation to delight first timers and regulars alike. Recent fan favorites include an Oyster Rockefeller Deviled Egg with a Parmesan-crusted fried oyster, spinach, shallots and Pernod; Crisp Chicken Skin Deviled Egg, which tops a classic egg with clothbound cheddar cheese and house-made hot sauce; and Green Eggs & Ham Deviled Egg, with watercress, black pepper and a dehydrated Surryano ham crisp.

Trout

Downtown Blue Ridge is a destination for recreational and competitive fly fishermen, so it’s fitting that area restaurants offers some quality local trout. Chester Brunnemeyer’s in capitalizes on the mountain city’s reputation as Georgia’s trout capital with a standout version of smoked trout dip. It starts with hardwood-smoked local trout, which is flaked and folded into a deliciously creamy mixture of sour cream, cream cheese, lemon juice and zest, fresh dill and Dijon mustard. The appetizer is served cold alongside celery, carrots, flatbread and garlic Mediterranean crackers.

Sweet Tea

In Georgia, if you order iced tea, be ready for a follow-up question: “Sweet or unsweet?” For non-Southerners, the idea of cold black tea laced with sugar may be unfamiliar, but it’s almost criminal to come to Georgia without at least trying the iconic sip. When passing through middle Georgia, stop in any one of the 11 Nu-Way Weiners locations for their strong and sweet version, served over their signature flaky ice. The charming vintage eateries have been dishing up all-American diner favorites to the Macon, Perry and Warner Robbins areas since 1916.