Mississippi’s foodie gem Oxford lures hungry visitors
A town of 10 square miles, Oxford, Miss., is home to the state’s flagship university, an old-fashioned courthouse square and the former residence of William Faulkner. But this place is no time capsule: Oxford’s food scene is wowing today’s critics. Saint Leo, an Italian restaurant on the square, was a 2017 James Beard Award semifinalist for the nation’s Best New Restaurant, and John Currence, chef/owner at nearby City Grocery, is a six-time James Beard Award nominee and one-time winner. Saint Leo and City Grocery are joined by a growing number of Oxford restaurants offering unexpected twists on Southern fare, plus a local butcher shop grinding beef for what Thrillist calls the “Best Burger in America.”
“In Oxford, we surprise people with all we have going on in our food scene,” says John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, headquartered in Oxford. “Now is a very exciting time.”
So drop your preconceptions about small-town dining and bring your appetite (plus any Ole Miss gear you can find). It’s time to take a delicious trip through this northern Mississippi town.
When Currence opened City Grocery on the town square 25 years ago, the food scene was, in his words, “non-existent.” He didn’t try to lure diners with cute culinary tricks; instead, he set out to make locally inspired food that tasted exceptionally good.
His plan worked. The shrimp-and-grits entrée he featured on the menu in 1992 is still one of his most popular dishes, prepared with coarsely ground Original Grit Girl cheese grits and Gulf shrimp. Mississippian Morgan Freeman is a regular at the white-tablecloth restaurant, as well as its upstairs lounge, Grocery Bar.
Capitalizing on City Grocery’s success, Currence opened three other Oxford restaurants: Bouré, Big Bad Breakfast and Snackbar. Bouré serves casual Creole cuisine in the bones of an old drugstore, while Big Bad Breakfast not only offers a large menu of day-starters but a killer lunch selection as well. (Edge recommends the Coca-Cola–brined fried chicken.) Next door to Big Bad Breakfast, Snackbar is a cozy French brasserie known for its Alabama-plucked Murder Point oysters and top-shelf whiskeys. Snackbar chef and James Beard nominee Vishwesh Bhatt showcases his Indian heritage in fusion dishes like okra chaat, made with fried okra and chaat masala.
Currence says he’s not only proud of his own restaurants’ success; he’s thrilled with the state of Oxford’s dining scene. “I have prayed every day for the last 25 years for cool places with engaged and ambitious owners to open here,” Currence says. “And we’re seeing that.”
The new class
Following in Currence’s footsteps, an emerging generation of restaurateurs is expanding Oxford’s food scene — and earning national acclaim. At Saint Leo, owner Emily Blount developed the restaurant’s menu with James Beard–nominated chef Dan Latham, a well-known Oxford restaurateur. Together, they devised dishes that incorporate regionally sourced ingredients, such as pizza bianca baked with brie from Sweetgrass Dairy in Thomasville, Ga. Drawing inspiration from Blount’s New York background (she was an off-Broadway actress), the restaurant has a lively, big-city feel. The hottest seats in the house are the ones at the bar, where Joe Stinchcomb expertly creates drinks like the Starting Pistol, made with bourbon, fresh grapefruit juice, lemon, honey syrup and egg whites. “Joe is the next big talent to emerge from Oxford,” Edge says.
Although Saint Leo has been packed since it opened, Blount says she was totally unprepared for the restaurant’s James Beard nomination earlier this year. A friend texted her when the news broke, and Blount thought it was a joke. “I had no idea they knew who we were!” she says. Not long after, Bon Appétit named the restaurant one of the top 50 in America, and Blount is still catching her breath. “It’s been a wild ride,” she says.
Fifteen minutes south of Oxford in Taylor, two City Grocery veterans are blazing new trails at Grit. The name is a bit of a word play: Owners Nick Reppond and Angie Sicurezza offer excellent grit corn cakes on their contemporary Southern menu, but they also needed a different kind of grit to set out on their own in 2016. “They are part of a new generation taking flight,” Edge says.
Locals flock to Grit for its buttermilk fried chicken with salsa verde, charred squash and fried onions, all served in a rustic dining room with brick walls and rough-hewn wood beams. The cozy bar has 10 signature cocktails for $10 each, including the Oxford American, made with Four Roses bourbon, kola nut syrup and Coca-Cola ice cubes.
The rule breakers
A stone’s throw from Snackbar’s refined brasserie, there’s a hipster spot that can’t decide whether it’s a butcher shop, a gourmet grocery store or a cafe. And really, does it matter? The line for a grilled smash burger at Neon Pig often extends into the parking lot; everyone, it seems, wants to try one of the best burgers in America. Made with aged filet, sirloin, New York strip and ribeye with Benton’s bacon, it’s served with cheddar cheese and pickled onions, plus an extra sprinkle of bacon bits.
Besides burgers, you’ll find vegetables from Native Son Farm in Tupelo, Miss., cheeses from Sequatchie Cove Creamery in Sequatchie, Tenn., and chicken from Zion Farms in Pontotoc, Miss. Crack open a locally brewed Yalobusha farmhouse ale and have fun browsing the aisles.
Like Neon Pig, Oxford Canteen defies easy description. It began as a Southern food truck (without wheels) in an alleyway off the square, then morphed into Canoodle, beloved for its Asian-influenced noodles and street food. This fall, it moves into a rehabbed gas station and will serve classics from both eras, such as beef-brisket grilled cheese with Sriracha mayo and cheesy chicken ramen topped with a fried egg.
“In Southern towns like Oxford, you’re starting to see progressive, forward-thinking food that reflects new immigrants and loses nothing in the process,” Edge says. “In fact, it gains a lot.”
Of course, there are still plenty of Oxford institutions serving straightforward Southern fare. On the square, Ajax Diner has been cooking up chicken and dumplings since 1997, luring huge crowds and a nod from hometown hero Eli Manning, who calls it one of his favorite restaurants. Low-key and kitschy, the restaurant’s Big Easy Sandwich (made with country-fried steak, mashed potatoes, gravy and butter beans) was just named one of Sports Illustrated’s Best College Town Meals.
At Taylor Grocery just outside Oxford, they don’t take reservations and they don’t serve alcohol (it’s a BYOB joint). What they do — and do well — is fry up some seriously tender catfish and serve it whole or filleted. Other house specialties include fried okra and the restaurant’s famous chocolate cobbler, a rich creation that’s a meal in itself. (It was recently featured on Food Network’s Super Southern Eats.)
After eating your way through Oxford, your waistband may be tighter, but your mind may have expanded just a bit. Yes, the tiny town is a home for Southern staples, but it’s also an incubator for genre-defying restaurants and cuisines. Oxford may look like a postcard from yesteryear, but it’s marching boldly into the future.