The Absolute Best Fried Chicken You'll Find In The South

There is, quite possibly, no more beloved food in the American South than fried chicken. But such passion is a prime breeding ground for controversy and any list as to where to find the very best of this much-adored crispy bird is sure to ruffle a few feathers. One big problem with trying to assess the best fried chicken in the South is that once you get below the Mason-Dixon line, every region from the mountains of Appalachia to the Carolina coasts seems to make its chicken differently. 

Some places make it spicy, others marinate it in buttermilk, some brine it in pickle juice, while some don't brine it at all. Others insist on three-step dredging for breading, while still others use nothing but a light coating of flour. Every technique seems unique, but strangely, the results are often closer than they are different — perfectly crispy, tender, and crave-worthy chicken. And no matter where you go in the South, good fried chicken is surely just around the corner.

Prince's Hot Chicken - Nashville

Legend has it that James Thornton Prince was a notorious womanizer, something that kept him in trouble with his myriad girlfriends. One such dustup with a lady friend found her feeding him a revenge meal of fried chicken so spicy, she doubted he could eat it. But much to her dismay and Prince's inspiration, Nashville Hot Chicken was born.

Since Prince's BBQ Chicken Shack opened in 1945, Nashville Hot Chicken has become a national trend. But during segregation, the Black-owned chicken restaurant was so revered that they even kept a back door and secret dining room where white customers would sneak in for a bite of that heat-filled meat. Since then, Prince's Great-Niece Andre Prince Jeffries has taken the helm, renamed the restaurant Prince's Hot Chicken, rebuilt the restaurant after a fire in the '80s, and earned three James Beard Awards in the process. In a time when even KFC is serving Nashville Hot Chicken, there is no spice quite like the face-melting quality of the original.

Gus' Fried Chicken - Memphis

Every now and then a local phenomenon becomes a much bigger one. Bell bottoms started in the Navy before taking over the world, in the '90s flannel shirts slipped out of the Pacific Northwest on the licks of grunge guitarists and became teen's favorite outerwear, and even hip-hop made its way out of the Bronx and eventually into the Super Bowl. Memphis institution Gus' Famous Fried Chicken seems to have subtly found its way to underground domination, as well.

Founded just outside of Memphis in the 1950s and brought to national attention through GQ's list of best meals in the U.S. in 2001, even jazz singer Norah Jones has taken a stab at recreating the spicy crunch of Gus' chicken. The recipe is kept secret, but it's clearly a wet batter with a little simmer of spice — not nearly as hot as Nashville Hot chicken, but enough to get your sinuses clear. Now, with more than 34 locations around the country, you can try Gus' chicken just about anywhere, but it's never the same as the original locations in Memphis and Mason, Tennessee.

Buxton Chicken Palace - Asheville, North Carolina

James Beard-nominated chef Elliott Moss is most known for his whole hog BBQ, but among locals, his fried chicken is revered, and for good reason. His first job in high school was running a deep fryer at a local Chick-fil-A, and his fried chicken is like a gourmet version of the chain's bird. Pickle-brined and fried in hog fat, it is some of the most unctuous fried chicken you'll ever eat. Bon Appétit even named it the best fried chicken sandwich in the country.

His BBQ restaurant, Buxton Hall Barbecue, recently expanded to a satellite location revolving entirely around the beloved sandwich. Buxton Chicken Palace opened in the newly restored historic S&W Market — a stunning art deco building turned food hall. The simple menu serves their iconic chicken sandwich, chicken nuggets, a fried chicken salad sandwich, and waffle fries. We find this sandwich best consumed on a hot day when paired with one of their bourbon and Cheerwine slushies.

Mama Dip's Kitchen - Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Mildred "Mama Dip" Council claimed that she started her restaurant back in 1976 with just $64 — $40 for food and $24 to make change. She parlayed those earnings to keep coming back each day until her restaurant eventually grew into the nationally recognized institution of traditional Southern cooking that it is today. Having cooked in her father's restaurant since the age of 9 (via Southern Living), most of the dishes in Mama Dip's don't rely on recipes so much as the eyes, feel, and instinct of the cooks.

Though Mama Dip passed in 2018, the restaurant is still run by three different generations of her family and specializes in cast iron skillet fried chicken. Skillet chicken differs in that it isn't cooked in a deep fryer, meaning that a part of the chicken isn't always submerged, making it a little crispier and less greasy than most fried chicken.

Gizzards & Livers - Wilson, North Carolina

Never underestimate the quality of gas station chicken in the South. It isn't uncommon in the South for any random gas station to have a glass case with a bevy of delicious-looking fried chicken on a sheet pan beneath the warm glow of a heat lamp. And more often than not, if you are brave enough to ask for a taste of that chicken, you will find it to be of superior quality to the chain restaurants right up the road. Let's face it, the entrepreneur often takes much more pride in his work than a corporate underling, and nowhere is this more evident than in shops like Gizzards & Livers.

Specializing in frying the whole bird, diners may choose from the standard light or dark meat, or get a little more adventurous and grab a gingham paper boat full of its namesake — fried gizzards or livers. Despite the gas station locale, the chicken joint maintains a 4.7 rating on Google, making it a mainstay for locals.

Bertha's Kitchen - Charleston, South Carolina

Unless you get to the door a little before they open, be prepared to stand in a line down the block for this soul food classic. Founded in 1981, Bertha's has long been a Charleston institution in the African-American community with the sole intention of catering to the local neighborhood. A classic meat-and-three known for its insanely crispy, red and gold crusted chicken, but don't miss out on the lima beans (cooked with hunks of turkey neck and pork tails) or the Low Country classic purlo. A rice dish that sits somewhere between fried rice and a pilaf, purlo has deep roots in West African cooking and is something you'll only find in Gullah country.

Bertha's was recognized as an American Classic by the James Beard Foundation in 2017, just 10 years after the passing of the restaurant's matriarch and namesake, Albertha Grant. But don't let such fancy awards fool you into expecting some pretentious, gentrified, franchised hipster joint or white table-clothed dining room. Bertha's is as down-home and welcoming as it gets, with every meal being served in a carry-out box and the muffled sound of an old television in place of corporately curated playlists. Talk to anyone who was actually raised in Charleston, and they will speak of Bertha's with a great degree of reverence.

Crosby's Chicken - Bamberg, South Carolina

Somewhere between Columbia and Charleston, the town of Bamberg, South Carolina, might be a bit out of the way for just about anyone, but if you have ever needed a reason to get off the interstate to follow some back roads, then let this chicken be your side quest.

Just off of the main road that cuts through the middle of town, you'll find Crosby's Automotive garage and Crosby's Auto Sales. But sandwiched between those two shops is Crosby's Chicken, a down-home takeout shack where Blain Crosby, the former Mayor of Bamberg, slings his fantastic fried chicken. Succulently seasoned and incredibly crispy, it isn't gimmicky or chock-full of "secret ingredients," it's just perfectly cooked fried chicken. Crosby's primarily functions as a takeout joint, and while there is one picnic table in front of the Auto Sales shop, be prepared to sit in your car to eat should someone be negotiating the purchase of their new ride when you arrive.

Willie Mae's Scotch House - New Orleans

When Willie Mae's Scotch House opened in the 1950s it was simply a bar tucked between a family-owned salon and barbershops. But as Willie cooked food she learned to make from her grandmother for her family, customers and passersby would stop in to see if they could snag a plate. Eventually, her fried chicken earned a reputation of its own, and the barber and beauty shops were replaced by expanded dining rooms.

These days they don't even serve alcohol, just the foods that were passed down to Kerry Seaton Stewart, Willie Mae's granddaughter, who took over the kitchen. Named America's Best fried chicken by Travel Channel and the Food Network, as well as a James Beard American Classic award, it's quite a different style than most Southern fried chicken. After being tossed with dry spices, the chicken is doused in a wet batter and deep-fried. That wet batter gives the chicken a big, pillowy skin with an even bigger crunch.

O'Steen's Restaurant - St. Augustine, Florida

One ingredient crucial to understanding the food of St. Augustine is the Datil pepper. Long having grown along the coast of Florida, it was seriously incorporated into the cuisine back in 1768 by Minorcan indentured laborers in the British colony attempting to recreate comforting flavors from home. That peculiar pepper — similar in spice and shape to a habanero — has been in just about every dish at O'Steen's restaurant since it was opened in 1965, from the fry batter to the crabcakes, in the remoulade and even in their famous Minorcan Clam Chowder. To call O'Steen's an institution would be an understatement, with many of the staff having worked there for 40 years or more.

While O'Steen's is most celebrated for their fried shrimp, their fried chicken is some of the best in the South — and it's always on discount for "Fried Chicken Tuesdays."  And it's that special pepper that gives it such a great body and kick. Don't sleep on the fried gizzards and livers, if they are available, either. Despite never advertising, it is not unusual for there to be a one to three-hour wait for a table at this otherwise unassuming roadside fry house, but then again, as the sign on the wall says, "If you have a reservation, you're in the wrong place."

Brown's - Charlottesville, Virginia

It's hard to find a place with a perfect rating on Yelp, and nearly perfect ratings on Facebook, Google, and Trip Advisor. It's probably even harder to find another gas station restaurant with such glowing scores, but Brown's is just that special. Step inside the drab brick convenience store lined with the usual beer, jerky, and cigarettes, and as soon as that golden aroma hits you, you'll understand why.

Previously Stoney's Grocery, Mike Brown — who was already known among locals for his chicken shack just south of town — took over in 2011, bringing with him his famed fried poultry. Paper-thin skin with a crispy snap, and tender, moist meat, at $5.99 for a leg, thigh, two sides, and a roll, it's hard to pass up. Travelers would also be well advised to take advantage of the Brown's special when on the road: a free piece of chicken with a gas fillup.

Martin's Restaurant - Montgomery, Alabama

Martin's was opened by the namesake Alice Martin's sometime in the 1920s, serving traditional Southern food, but sold the restaurant to the Merritt family in the late 1930s. The Merritts decided to keep the name and the recipes. Maryanne Smith Merritt now runs the restaurant that has been in her family for over 80 years, and one thing that has kept the restaurant packed every year has been the fried chicken.

Unlike a lot of chicken joints that buy chicken pieces that have been broken down by the purveyor, Martin's buys whole chicken. This means that just about every part of the bird is used. You can actually ask for the "pully-bone" (yes, that's what they call it). Known more commonly as the "butcher's cut" or "wishbone," it's a particularly delicate and delicious cut of meat that is usually tossed by most commercial chicken producers, and that's something we don't think you can get anywhere else. But since there is just one per chicken, move quickly as they sell out fast!

Busy Bee Cafe - Atlanta

Since 1947 Busy Bee Cafe has been doling out some of the South's finest fried chicken to some of Atlanta's most distinguished guests and residents alike. The restaurant, long situated on Martin Luther King Dr. occasionally hosted Dr. MLK himself long before the road bore his name. Not to mention more recent visits from the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Outkast, and President Barack Obama. Senator Bernie Sanders and rapper Killer Mike also famously dined here together during Sanders' presidential bid in 2016, as well as Vice President Kamala Harris during the 2020 elections. They even garnered a James Beard award in 2022, being stamped as another American Classic.

Brined for 12 hours and hand-breaded with a blend of cake and all-purpose flour, Busy Bee's Chicken is then cooked in a pressure fryer, which helps keep the meat tender and juicy while the skin gets nice and crispy. And because of that pressure fryer, the skin is cooked evenly, so there are no overcooked wing tips or burnt ends. Stick with the classic meat-and-three sides, have your chicken served over rice, or have it nicely cushioned upon a fluffy waffle, but whatever you do, eat this chicken!

Bojangles - Various locations

One would be remiss to talk about Southern fried chicken without mentioning one of our favorite regional chains. This chicken and biscuits chain was founded in 1977 in Charlotte, North Carolina, which still serves as home to its headquarters.

While you can find this Southern staple as far north as Pennsylvania and Illinois, the rest of the 14 states to host Bojangles are in the South. Known primarily for its chicken biscuits, Bojangles' slightly spicy Cajun seasoned chicken has been a hit with fans for decades. The chain didn't even serve a mild option until 1986. The company prides itself on still making their food from scratch, with a 12-hour marinating time and eight-step hand-breading process on-site, they even have a dedicated baker at each location that makes fresh biscuits every 20 minutes. It's as close as you can get to home cooking at a drive-through window.