In these parts you’ll hear it said that Thomasville was “as far as the train went.” That means that in the 1800’s the train tracks ended here, and farmers from all around had to bring their goods to market at Thomasville, where they would be sold and shipped out by rail. From those early days till now, the dairy farms, beef cattle, hogs, honey, pecans, poultry, and other food production have formed a large part of the local economy, just as quail hunting has long been a favored pastime and is a very lucrative business for the region, bringing in wealthy visitors as well as new residents from as far away as Chicago. From the start Thomasville has been a small city with big goals and the sophistication to make those goals a reality.
Today the tradition of Southern hospitality and of a lifestyle a bit more lavish than that of its surrounding region continues in Thomasville, and nowhere is it more evident than in the food culture of the city—which is only appropriate considering the agricultural output of Thomas County and the extended region. The city now has some of the best restaurants in Georgia, several among the best purveyors of various food traditions of the South as well as of diverse agricultural products native to the region.
For example, Liam’s of Thomasville—a family-owned restaurant, lounge, and cheesemonger—has made headlines for both its dedication to fine cuisine and its reliance on fresh, often-local produce. The whole farm-to-table movement now integral to fine dining was essential to Liam’s founding ethos long before it became a trend elsewhere.
Likewise, the Sweet and Savory Sisters, or SASS, has taken Thomasville’s old railroad depot—the same place southbound trains would make their last call back in the day—and has turned it into a welcoming restaurant filled with both history and great Southern cooking. Influenced by New Orleans’ Creole and Cajun foodways but also by local traditions, SASS provides all you’d expect in Southern food: gracious hospitality, robust sauces, and ever-so-sweet desserts.
And while many would expect a good restaurant to offer a bar or at least beer and wine, alcohol-free Jonah’s Fish and Grits draws in lines of customers waiting their turns to come inside to have some of the famed shrimp and grits, Granny Smith pork-chops, or deep-fried catfish. Chophouse on the Bricks, on the other hand, deals in the type of fine steakhouse experience you’d expect in any Southern city that takes its food seriously.
You can’t have farm-to-table dining or even fresh food without the farms. While some restaurants, including Jonah’s, offer seafood from far-flung regions out of necessity (you don’t find many salmon in the waters of the Ochlockonee River, after all), the connection between local agriculture and Thomasville’s restaurants is strong.
Sweet Grass Dairy is a perfect example. The dairy is committed to making fine, hand-crafted cheese from milk produced from cows on their farm. A successful business making and selling cheese both on the Internet as well as to restaurants, Sweet Grass also has a charming cheese shop, café, and bar in town now as well. Their hard work and honest efforts have produced exceptional cheeses, but perhaps even more crucially, they’ve brought about a true appreciation for cheese in Thomasville so that now many restaurants here are seeing cheese as integral to their menus and not merely secondary. The cheeseboards at the Sweet Grass cheese shop are an excellent introduction not only to their cheeses but to the general bounty of the region. For example, they offer on their cheeseboards preserves from Thomasville’s Blackberry Patch—a producer of syrups and jams—and meats from Atlanta’s Spotted Trotter Charcuterie. These are like-minded, small agricultural enterprises demonstrative of what Georgia’s contemporary farms can and do offer.
Liam’s Restaurant has become one of the most discussed and most innovative restaurants in the South and with good reason: they have concentrated on exceptional recipes, quality ingredients, and are creative without deviating too far from tradition. This approach coupled with the robust knowledge they’ve amassed about cheeses (and thus their ability to source outstanding cheeses from far and wide and offer perfectly paired cheese plates) has resulted in an experience exemplary of what New Southern and farm-to-table cuisine can and should become. When you look at something as seemingly simple yet complex in flavor as Liam’s pork cavatelli or how they match a single cheese with its ideal accompaniments, you’re seeing as refined a culinary experience as you could hope for anywhere in the world, yet with rustic origins and a welcomed lack of pretense.
SASS as an experience can best be summed up by its desserts. They are mostly New-Orleans-influenced with the traits of that cuisine’s devotion to sweets clearly evident. I had the bread pudding there and found it enhanced by a caramel sauce, and while such a sauce is not uncommon to presentation of bread pudding in the South, this version did it perfectly: the flavors of sauce and pudding alike came through strongly, but more importantly, sweetly. O’Neil’s Country Buffet and Fallin’s BBQ also are focused on down-home country cooking and are well-regarded locally.
Thomasville is not limited, though, to Southern favorites or high cuisine. Moonspin serves as good a pizza as you’re apt to find anywhere, while Q Café is a favorite for breakfast—don’t miss their sheet biscuits. Meanwhile, local winemakers Farmer’s Daughter Vineyards has a tasting room right downtown, borrowing a theme from Sweet Grass perhaps in bringing a consummate agrarian production into the city for townsfolk and visitors alike to enjoy, and it’s been a total hit thus far.
What unifies all these restaurants is their commitment to quality, an emphasis on fresh ingredients, and paying attention both to tradition and the levels of innovation their clientele desires. This is a customer base that is well-traveled, whether quail hunters in from Charlotte or local residents who often spend weekends in Atlanta or Charleston. They know good food, but they also know they don’t have to wander very far to find it.
SEE MORE THOMASVILLE’S RESTAURANT AND FOOD SCENE PHOTOS HERE: