The 5 best old-school steakhouses in the South
Check out these classics while you can
There is nothing specifically Southern about steakhouses. In fact, I'm not sure I’d trust a fancy chophouse where they stuck dilly beans in my martini or gave me a biscuit to sop up beef drippings.
In some ways, though, that’s what makes them so special to the communities in which they’re located: Nobody compares a steakhouse’s escargot to the ones that Grandma used to make. Perhaps particularly in the South, steakhouses are synonymous with a big night out and a respite from routine, which is the essence of what restaurants have to offer.
For close to a century, steakhouses across the South have been a seedbed for favorite dining memories. That’s why I last year started casually collecting steakhouse visits as I traveled. I got into the habit of asking people I met whether they knew of any old-school steakhouses, with extra points for musty half-circle booths and jacketed servers.
Alarmingly, many of the restaurants mentioned had recently succumbed to changing tastes and rising beef prices. Dale’s in Florence, Alabama was five years gone.
Last November, as part of my steakhouse survey and on the hesitant recommendation of a one-time resident of Tidewater Virginia, I paid a visit to The Black Angus Restaurant.
One of the reasons my informant was so cautious was the steakhouse literally wasn’t the special occasion destination she remembered. The restaurant I went to was the third iteration of the Black Angus, first opened in Norfolk by Christy Hariton and Chris Patsalides in 1960.
Six years later, Hariton and Patsalides—who came up with the idea to greet every customer with a platter of liver pate, sprats, marinated asparagus tips and feta cheese—built a bigger Black Angus in Virginia Beach. While the 400-seat dining room was built precisely to their specifications, down to the bubbling fountains and dimmable lights, The Black Angus in 1986 relocated to yet another Virginia Beach address.
That’s where I ate, despite a bevy of one-star Yelp reviews written with the flat tone of disbelief that survivors use when describing how they endured a freak avalanche.
To put it gently, I wasn’t gifted a sprats platter when I arrived. After being led into a dreary, drop-ceilinged dining room which looked eerily like the sort of functional space that would prompt a visitor to consider another residential facility for her parents, a server delivered the bad news: No rolls. Bread products were on back order.
Thinking I might instead start with a drink, I asked to see the wine list. Although my server didn’t have one handy, she suggested a strawberry Moscato.
You get the picture. The whole experience was tremendously depressing, and my mood didn’t improve any when I realized this was bound to be the fate of more iconic steakhouses if people continue to take the genre for granted. I probably could have used a tall glass of alcoholic fruit juice.
One month after my Black Angus ordeal, the restaurant announced it was shutting down.
Current owner Chris Savvides told The Virginian-Pilot that the pandemic “got to a point where it was just too much,” adding that he had to get a second job to offset the restaurant’s revenue losses. He wants to bring back the restaurant and its mothballed mascot, a three-foot-tall plastic bull that rides atop a rotating steak case. But he hasn’t found a new venue yet.
Fortunately, there are still several storied steakhouses across the region where diners can engage in the grown-up play that strong drinks and marbled beef inspire. They’re not all bastions of elegance, but they all offer the kind of timeless escape from everyday life that can’t be boxed up in a takeout container.
Here, just in time to make Valentine’s plans--assuming vaccinations and boosters--a few of my favorites:
(By the way, if you think Raleigh’s Angus Barn belongs on this list, I’m not going to fight you. The story was getting long, and I had to make a North Carolina cut. Apologies to the excellent upstairs bar.)
Old Hickory Steakhouse, Columbus, Mississippi
Located on Highway 45, a little closer to town than the roadhouse where Jerry Lee Lewis reportedly used to play when he wasn’t recording, Old Hickory Steakhouse is a squat, wooden-planked building furnished with bare, mismatched tables and red vinyl-backed chairs. Unless you count faded prints of Andrew Jackson as a frill, Old Hickory doesn’t have any.
People come here for the exceptionally good steak, often early and sometimes alone.
“What did you have?” a server on my last visit asked a heavyset man in a blue Carhartt shirt who was seated just beyond the boundaries of her section.
“Strip,” he said.
“Did you ever have the filet?”
Personally, I like the ribeye, but regardless of which cut you order, the price includes a slice of Texas toast, a salad, and a baked potato. (Shredded cheese costs extra.) There’s no charge for a frosted mug with your canned beer.
Old Hickory’s legendary charcoal grill—the source of every order, since there’s nothing but steak on the menu—spills smoke onto cars parked in front of the building and provides the restaurant’s soundtrack: Even at three rooms’ remove, you can hear it sizzle.
Since 2002, the steaks were cooked by Bobby Bowen, who once bragged that he could cook 40 steaks simultaneously to requested temperature. But Bowen, 54, died of cancer on Jan. 12: Old Hickory has not yet announced who will succeed him as grill master.
Old Hickory Steakhouse, 1301 Hwy 45 North, Columbus, MS. (662)328-9793. No website. Open 4 p.m.-9 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday.
The Beefmastor Inn, Wilson, North Carolina
Readers who followed my train trip across the South may recall that the Wilson station sits on the line connecting Savannah, Georgia to New York City, which has only stoked my fantasy of one day convening a big birthday party at The Beefmastor Inn, easily the most idiosyncratic steakhouse on this list.
Because everything about the restaurant is features reporter catnip, The Beefmastor Inn has been written up countless times, including by journalists determined to drain every drop of color out of the characters who congregate in its parking lot. Since I was last there on a cold and cloudy day, I don’t have stories of asphalt DJs and cocktail jugs to share.
But I can tell you that The Beefmastor Inn is worth visiting whatever the weather.
The 10-table restaurant, housed in a boxy building that you could mistake for a dentist’s office, starts taking customers’ names at 4:30 p.m. But smart patrons get there sooner to set up their tailgate tents. The party atmosphere is so bewitching that everyone seems to know someone who declined to be seated when an employee yelled for his or her group to come inside and eat.
Don’t do that. The Beefmastor Inn doesn’t have a menu because it serves only ribeye, which first arrives raw so you can approve where it’s cut. It returns to the table bearing Charlie Brown-shirt pattern grill marks and escorting a baked potato. Customers are also invited to assemble salads from a Lazy Susan stocked with marinated mushrooms, pickles, and beets.
Considering that most of them have been tailgating for several hours, the steak itself probably doesn’t have to be very good. Turns out it’s a tender triumph of black pepper and smoke.
The Beefmastor Inn, 2656 US Hwy 301 South, Wilson, NC. (252)237-7343. facebook.com/beefmastor. Open 4:30 p.m.-10 p.m., Monday-Saturday; 4:30 p.m.-9 p.m., Sunday.
Bones, Atlanta, Georgia
Speaking of birthdays, once I was seated in the downstairs dining room at Bones, Atlanta’s signature chophouse, our server asked if I might like to start with a birthday toast. Then a pat of butter accompanying the bread was presented on a plate festooned with shiny birthday confetti.
Granted, I had secretly thought of the meal as a birthday celebration, since my birthday fell on the following weekend. But neither my husband nor I had said anything about it. Which leaves two equally plausible possibilities: Either birthday dinners are so common at Bones that servers have better-than-even odds of getting it right when they reach for confetti, or servers there can read guests’ minds.
I’m inclined to side with the latter, since the fluidity of service at Bones is at least 40 percent of what makes the Buckhead restaurant such a treasure. Also on that pie chart: beautiful martinis, dimly lit alcoves and bright white tablecloths, very cold shrimp cocktail and a vigorous bone-in ribeye framed by a sensational crust.
Still, what I like best about Bones is it feels like Atlanta.
Toward the end of our meal, a woman at a nearby table waved us over for drinks: She was with her daughter, a first-year medical student, and thought it might be nicer if the four of us filled out one table.
It’s relevant that the woman was Black. I am not. And as someone who eats all over the South, I am acutely aware of how few dining rooms are racially mixed. While I certainly don’t mean to suggest that that serious problem can be solved with a wedge salad, it’s heartening to see what can happen when a restaurant attends to its city for decades.
Bones, 3130 Piedmont Road NE, Atlanta, GA. (404)237-2663. bonesrestaurant.com. Open 5:30 p.m.-9 p.m. daily.
Charlie’s Steak House, New Orleans, Louisiana
Tucked away on an Uptown side street, Charlie’s Steak House is an exemplar of the neighborhood steak house, meaning service is brusque and the TV is always on. When I ate there last summer, it was tuned to a repeat broadcast of New Orleans’ Zaila Avant-garde’s win at the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which seemed to suit the regulars just fine.
Charlie’s is both the oldest and newest restaurant on this list. It first opened in 1932, endearing itself to locals with butter-sputtering steaks served on silver metal plates. But the restaurant showed no signs of reopening after Hurricane Katrina until former bartender Matthew Dwyer offered to buy it: He ran Charlie’s from 2008 until his sudden death in 2020.
Later that year, a group of partners, including chefs Aaron Burgau and Neil McClure, took over the institution. Their version of Charlie’s opened at its longstanding address in January 2021, looking much as it always did.
The new ownership team hasn’t tried to conceal its involvement with Charlie’s: The steakhouse’s pedigree is spelled out on its website. But a diner would be hard pressed to guess there had been some kind of cheffy intervention, unless they were alert to the seductive funk in the blue cheese dressing, the vivid green hue of the creamed spinach and the graceful crispiness of the fries (Really, you’re supposed to get the onion rings.)
Charlie’s Steak House, 4510 Dryades Street, New Orleans, LA. (504)895-9323. charliessteakhousenola.com. 5 p.m.-8:30 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday.
Beef ‘N Bottle, Charlotte, North Carolina
Don’t tell the other restaurants on this list, but if I had to keep just one of them to serve as my go-to steakhouse forever, it might well be Beef ‘N Bottle.
According to the building’s neon sign, Beef ‘N Bottle has been “Famous for steaks since 1958.” (Leave it to a restaurant which evokes Rat Pack rhythms to open in a year that makes the slogan sound snappy.) That’s mostly true, but it had a different name and address prior to 1978, when owner George Fine moved his steakhouse into the former Speedy’s Suburban Tavern.
By that date, the archetypes of American steakhouse culture were well established, so Beef ‘N Bottle at first reads like an imitation of itself, with heavy leatherbound menus on the tables and Bobby Darin pictures on the wall. It doesn’t take long to realize, though, that Beef ‘N Bottle is the real deal—even if you arrived too late to order a coveted slice of prime rib.
Dinner at Beef ‘N Bottle begins with iceberg lettuce and a selection of accoutrements, such as radishes and green peppers. “You go ahead and start building and I’ll be right back,” my server prompted me.
And so, you sip your Manhattan and arrange your salad, likely the last dish that will reach your booth without first being generously buttered. The baked potato is presented with half a stick, and there’s likely twice that amount swirled atop the tender strip steak, adorned with a fat onion ring.
It’s too much.
It’s exactly right.
Beef ‘N Bottle, 4538 South Blvd., Charlotte, NC. (704)523-9977. beefandbottle.net. 5 p.m.-10 p.m., Monday-Thursday; 5 p.m.-10:30 p.m., Friday; 4 p.m.-10:30 p.m., Saturday; 4 p.m.-9 p.m., Sunday.