The thrill here is not just that Southern cuisine has finally come to the South End, but that the food is so outstanding. Chef and owner Jason Cheek, nostalgic for his North Carolina upbringing, has concocted a tranquilizing menu of decadent shared table eats. The crunchy, juicy fried chicken is a no-brainer -- when you walk in, it seems every table already has a plate of it -- as are the baby back ribs, best accompanied by the extra-rich mac & cheese.
You can tell a lot about a neighborhood by its newer restaurants. When a Seaport tower goes up, its first floor gets some national chain outlet that’s soullessly indistinguishable from hundreds of convention-center-adjacent restaurants in Houston or Phoenix. By contrast, new South End buildings tend to be anchored by locally owned spots like Bar Mezzana and Area Four. Add newcomer Southern Proper to this list, in which chef/owner Jason Cheek (ex-Little Donkey, Coppa) showcases his native North Carolina’s low country cuisine with fried chicken, barbecue, hushpuppies, grits and collards.
Brunch officially begins this Sunday at chef Jason Cheek’s new Southern Proper. Find regular menu favorites, like shrimp and grits, pimento cheese and popovers, and chicken and waffles on weekend mornings, plus new dishes including egg plates with pimento hollandaise, house ham, and an English muffin; and a waffle-wich with bacon, eggs, cheese, and avocado sauce.
After working under Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette for many years, chef Jason Cheek struck out on his own last month by opening this South End restaurant inspired by his North Carolina roots. You’ll find lots of smoked meats and traditional sides on the menu, but Cheek’s meticulously prepared fried chicken (1)—brined in Lipton tea, pressure-cooked, and garnished with lemon and thyme—has instantly become his signature dish. “It’s something I have a pretty deep passion for,” he says.
Full and noisy, but not unpleasantly so, on a chilly Saturday in February. A yellow rooster sign welcomes guests as they enter what looks like a high-beamed farmhouse — and so does a blast of music. If you’re a classic rock fan, you have found Valhalla: munch hushpuppies and tear apart fried chicken to the tunes of Steely Dan and Bachman-Turner Overdrive. Antique lamps and plants dangle from the ceiling, and ornate dishes are mounted on the pine walls. While this approach could call to mind grandma’s attic in a more claustrophobic setting, the space is big enough that it’s just an eccentric design quirk, stuff to stare at while waiting for rye. A healthy cross-section of the South End is here: young dudes on a date, a happy toddler on someone’s lap munching a biscuit, a swarm of ex-pat thirty-somethings in from the suburbs, marveling over their ace parking space.
Similarly stylish, albeit with a very different vibe, is nearby Southern Proper, opening its doors tomorrow on the ground floor of the Girard, a South End luxury apartment building. Chef-owner Jason Cheek, who grew up in North Carolina and comes from a long line of tobacco farmers, says he based his restaurant’s look on a “tobacco barn my grandmother would have decorated.” Light pinewood stretches up to vaulted ceilings, and the airy space — illuminated by big walls filled with windows — is adorned with antiques, such as tin reclaimed from an old movie theater that is used to wrap the bar front.
Get hungry for fried chicken: Southern Proper debuts tonight in the South End (600 Harrison Ave., Boston). “It’ll be heavily oriented toward chicken and beer,” chef-owner Jason Cheek (Toro, KO Prime) previously told Eater, and the space looks like “a tobacco barn [his] grandmother invaded.” To start, Southern Proper is open from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, but stay tuned for lunch service and Sunday brunch, which are slated to begin in the spring.