A Walkable Feast
Progressive walking food tours have become a popular way to experience a city’s culinary scene and food culture for one set price.
Getting a real sense of a place often comes through the culinary experiences. If you are in a town for only a day or two, it’s hard to visit more than a couple of restaurants. Popular in Europe for many years, walking food tours are springing up throughout the South, allowing visitors to sample many foods and establishments in just a few hours.
Each restaurant on a tour serves a dish – usually a specialty – then the group walks to the next eatery. Just like a progressive dinner, tours usually start with appetizers in one place and finish with dessert about four or five restaurants later. There’s no need to worry about going hungry… the food is always plentiful and the portions are generous. After all, the chefs hope you’ll return for a full meal. An added bonus of these food tours: walking off all those calories!
“ROOTED IN COMFORT”
Walk Eat Nashville
The line of people waiting to get into Hattie B’s in Midtown Nashville was snaking down the city block by 10:30 a.m. Everyone was there for the famous Nashville Hot Chicken, but it was a tour group with Walk Eat Nashville that slid in through the side door, relatively unnoticed.
Tour owner Karen-Lee Ryan knows the tricks for seamlessly navigating the crowds at Nashville’s trendiest restaurants on her walking food tours. Hattie B’s and its next-door neighbor, Gigi’s Cupcakes, are usually on Ryan’s Midtown/Vanderbilt University area tours. Just like other similar food tours, though, restaurants can vary depending on a restaurant’s schedule.
“Nashville is a city about relationships, and I take advantage of that,” says Ryan, who founded the company in 2014. “Musicians like to be creative and collaborate and that’s what chefs want, too.”
In fact, Ryan says creativity, collaboration and comfort are core to her success. The food on the tours showcases dishes that are creative and chef-inspired, while the camaraderie Ryan and her guides have with the restaurants is genuine and respectful.
“And all our food is rooted in comfort,” she adds.
Indeed, a red velvet waffle at Tavern – also on Walk Eat Nashville’s Midtown tour – brought back childhood memories for participants who remembered the Southern classic red velvet cake – only this time with a new twist for brunch. Grown-up flavors included a “Music City Spritz” at the Mason Bar, recently voted as Nashville’s best restaurant bar.
The Elliston Place Soda Shop, listed in the book “1,000 Places to See Before You Die,” is a frequent stop of Ryan’s, just as it is for many of Nashville’s legendary stars. Singer Jimmy Buffett even wrote about the diner in his liner notes for his first three albums.
Elliston’s owner, Skip Bibb, bought the place five years ago and reminds people of its importance in Nashville’s history. “I have a sense of stewardship to the community to keep it open,” he says as his staff brings out the world-famous milkshakes for food tour participants.
History is an important part of any Walk Eat Nashville tour, according to Ryan. The shady campus of Vanderbilt University is considered an “urban oasis” as Ryan told a tour group on an unseasonably hot fall afternoon.
A former journalist, Ryan knows how to tell a story and make history come alive on her three-hour tours in between bites at some of Nashville’s most popular and often historic restaurants. Walk Eat Nashville tours are located in East Nashville (the first tour Ryan launched), the Midtown area, and downtown.
“All of the tours tend to sell out, so it’s hard to say which is the most popular,” she says.
“KEEP IT TASTY”
Tasty Tours of South Mississippi
Shortly after leaving military service, Wendy Fairley took a short vacation to Memphis with her sister, Jessica, and was trying to decide her next career move. Before her progressive walking tour of restaurants along Beale Street had ended, Fairley already knew what she wanted to do: return home and showcase the cuisine of the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
In 2016, Wendy and her sister started Tasty Tours of South Mississippi, focusing on restaurants in Ocean Springs and Gulfport. In addition to the ever-popular seafood tour in Ocean Springs, she also offers a “garden” tour for vegetarians. The Gulfport tours hit some of that city’s most historic downtown restaurants, featuring both meat and seafood.
Fairley’s bubbly personality fits her signature tag line, “Keep in tasty.” She greets her restaurant partners as enthusiastically as she does her tour customers. Restaurants vie for a spot on the Tasty Tours, so Fairley often has to rotate them in and out of the itinerary.
“I always ask a chef or someone from the restaurant to speak to the food tour groups,” she says. “I like for them to give an overview of how the dish is made.”
One of Ocean Springs most popular restaurants is Charred, where Chef Milton Joachin talks about Mississippi’s seafood industry while he serves fried oysters with house-made onion marmalade.
Down the street, the Tasty Tours groups often stop at Mosaic Tapas Restaurant, which survived Hurricane Katrina. Owner Arturo Zarajas rode out the devasting 2005 storm and lived at the restaurant until he could reopen it. Today, the award-winning restaurant offers a multitude of cuisines from Brazilian and Cuban to Greek and Mediterranean. Mosaic also offers the largest specialty drink collection on the Gulf Coast, and some tours will include one drink to sample.
After visiting Tato-Nut, home of the “real donut” using potato flour, and the French-inspired Mason du Lu, my Tasty Tour ended at the colorful French Kiss Bakery near the Walter Anderson Museum. Although I had eaten my way through Ocean Springs, I still enjoyed a strawberry Bavarian custard.
“FOLLOW THE GIANT WHISK”
Tastin’ ‘Round Town – Memphis
If you think Memphis is all about barbecue and nothing else, just ask Tastin’ ‘Round Town, a food tour company founded in 2010 by Carol and Lance Silkes. The iconic barbecue tours are usually the most popular, but other options – like the Spit Decision or the Downtown Memphis tours – give visitors another taste of chef-inspired dishes. You don’t have to sacrifice – you still taste barbecue but also get to sample other signature dishes, such as exquisite Tuscan Butter at Spindini and delicious desserts at Café Pontotoc.
“Our philosophy is to share the experience of Memphis through food,” says Carol Silkes, who is classically trained chef and a professor of food management at the University of Memphis.
She and her husband, Lance, adopted Memphis wholeheartedly after moving to the city for her position. Lance, who has a doctorate in optometry, flirted with the idea of opening a restaurant.
“We ate out a lot,” remembers Carol, “and we liked all the restaurants. We couldn’t find a niche we could fill. They were all local and we weren’t.”
The couple became judges for the Memphis in May barbecue competition and were constantly asked, ‘what is the best barbecue’. Their quest eventually led them to create Tastin’ ‘Round Town food tours.
“A food tour brings together chefs, restaurants, the community, local guides and visitors,” explains Carol. “It gives visitors and locals a shared experience.”
She says walking food tours have become increasingly popular because of Food Network and Instagram. “There are more pictures of our food tours and giant whisk on Instagram than ever.”
Tastin’ ‘Round Town is usually a walking tour – about 6,000 FitBit Steps for those keeping track – but the company also has a bus tour when covering larger areas. In addition to the public tours, Tastin’ ‘Round Town also builds customized tours.
The Silkes have inspired others around the country – like Wendy Fairley of Tasty Tours – to start their own food tour companies.
“Their stories are the reasons I still love doing this,” says Carol. “We made our dream their dream.”