On March 1, Southern cuisine comes to Boston's South End — courtesy of Southern Proper, a celebrated local chef's return to his culinary roots. Though it inhabits the ground floor of the Girard, a new luxury apartment building, there's a down-home feel to this delightful newcomer, where the rustic-refined spins on comfort eats, clever cocktails and laid-back vibe come together to create some genuine-feeling Southern hospitality. Here's what to know before you mosey on over.
There's a real Southern boy in the kitchen
Chef-owner Jason Cheek is already a familiar face to Boston foodies, largely thanks to his work in the kitchens of Toro, Coppa and Little Donkey, the trio of Hub restaurants from James Beard Award–winning duo Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette. But now that he's out on his own, Cheek is unearthing riches from his childhood in the South. He grew up in North Carolina, and spent his early years hunting with his father and picking dinner from the fields of his grandparents' farm. Cheek says he saw a void to fill for "inspired, chef-driven" Southern cooking in Boston, so he's culled ideas from the traditions of Lowcountry cuisine, in particular, to raise the bar. "I'm taking the technique I've learned over the years and applying it to the food I grew up with," he says.
It's the prettiest tobacco barn you ever did see
Cheek comes from a line of tobacco farmers, so he worked with the South End's RODE Architects (the same team behind restaurants like La Brasa, SRV and Coppersmith) to create an interior that looks "like a tobacco farm decorated by my grandmother," he says. His grandmother must have great taste. The room, which features an open kitchen, is swathed in reclaimed light pine wood, filled with Cheek's personally curated tchotchkes, and contains lots of character-filled touches — like a bar-front wrapped in tin from an antique movie theater. Besides the vaulted ceiling, there are lots of large windows letting in plenty of sunlight for a bright, airy atmosphere.
There are plenty of familiar favorites
He may be taking a more chef-driven approach, but Cheek isn't skimping on Southern comfort fare. See the pimento mac 'n' cheese, based on a family recipe he'd eat after church Sundays while growing up in North Carolina. He uses pimento (mixed in) and Pave du Nord (on top) cheeses, plus rigate pasta shells to hold more sauce in each bite. "It’s a wet mac 'n' cheese, with a light finish — not a crust — on top," Cheek says. "This yields savory, salty and sour flavors."
The spot is smart about sourcing
Yes, Cheek brings up some Southern staples — like Anson Mills heirloom grains from North Carolina and Duke's Mayo, a beloved Dixieland brand that was invented at a South Carolina sandwich shop. But he's mostly focused on getting his seasonal ingredients locally, including pork from PT Farm in New Hampshire and chickens from Misty Knoll Farm in Vermont. After all, when it comes to the finest fried chicken, "It all starts with the quality of the bird," he says. Here, Cheek brines it in Lipton's tea for added flavor, and serves it styled classic or hot, in two, four or eight pieces.
Yes, there's some barbecue. No, it's not a barbecue joint
Cheek says that once he started telling folks about his plans for a Southern place, he frequently ran into the same misunderstanding: "They kept asking me when my barbecue joint was going to open." Sigh. "Barbecue is a style of cuisine that's often used, and there's a tremendous amount of heritage to it — but you can't associate Southern food with just barbecue." That said, this is a guy who remembers growing up and eating whole hogs cooked over coals. So you will find a "smoked" section on the menu, which includes a smoked pork shoulder, cured for 24 hours and cooked low and slow with the bone in. Guests can order a half pound or full pound, served with slaw, pickles and sauce. "Eastern-style barbecue means using the whole hog, more primal cuts," Cheek says. "At Southern Proper, we break down the whole pigs as they come in, which means that the selections on the menu can change often based on what’s available."
There are some nutty drinks on tap
At the bar, overseen by beverage director Katie Gilroy, expect to find local beers on draft alongside a few special appearances from Southern craft suds. And as cocktails go, you'll find classics like mint juleps alongside some much more inventive ideas — like the Pinochle, a house draft cocktail of rye whiskey washed with peanuts and mixed with cola. "As a kid, I always used to wonder why my grandmother's Coke tasted different," he chuckles.
The details: Southern Proper is open Tuesday through Saturday from 5–11 PM. Lunch and Sunday brunch will launch in the spring.