Food & Drink

Meet the South’s 2023 James Beard Award–Winning Restaurants and Chefs

D.C., San Juan, and Oklahoma City had particularly momentous nights, though Atlanta and Houston also brought home hardware

photo: Jeff Schear/Getty Images

Among the Southern winners from left: Natalia Vallejo, Rob Rubba, and Benchawan Jabthong Painter.

On Monday in Chicago, the James Beard Foundation held its annual Restaurant and Chef Awards, often likened to the Oscars of the food world. And just like the Oscars, the night held some controversy, surprises (like New York City being snubbed in the national categories for the first time ever), and big winners. A look at the Southern field of victors: 

Outstanding Chef

Rob Rubba, Oyster Oyster, Washington, D.C.

The night’s highest honor went to a D.C. chef with a serious sustainability streak. Located in the district’s Shaw neighborhood, Rubba’s vegetarian-plus-oysters tasting room takes its name from native and wild ingredients (like oyster mushrooms) and the bivalves that shore up coastal ecosystems. Critics have hailed his creative preparations—“Who knew that turnip juice makes for good bread or that oysters can turn into a creamy and yet entirely creamless sauce?” wrote the Michelin Guide, which starred the restaurant—and passionate environmentalism. Rubba has eliminated single-use plastics, transformed leftover ingredients into cocktails, and even printed menus on plantable recycled paper laced with flower seeds.

Best Chef: South

Natalia Vallejo, Cocina al Fondo, San Juan, Puerto Rico

After two prior nominations, Vallejo became the first Puerto Rican chef to take home a James Beard Award with yesterday’s win. Located in a renovated house in the city’s Santurce neighborhood, her restaurant is known for internationally inspired takes on local cuisine and a commitment to the small-scale growers working to make the island more self-sufficient.

Best Chef: Southeast

Terry Koval, The Deer and the Dove, Decatur, Georgia

Koval’s corner restaurant in the Decatur enclave of Atlanta is the kind of place where you can order a vibrant vegetable plate or an elevated game dish or both, all carefully sourced from local purveyors. A longtime champion of slow food and low-waste kitchens, he extends those philosophies to his adjoining, line-out-the-door bagel shop.

Best Chef: Southwest

Andrew Black, Grey Sweater, Oklahoma City

In a state that brought home its first Beard honor just last year, Oklahoma City scored a coup by claiming two of the year’s five finalists in this category. Ultimately Black bested fellow OKC-er Jeff Chanchaleune for his work at Grey Sweater, a tasting room that espouses no allegiance to a particular cuisine, instead devising menus based on the Indo-Jamaican chef’s wide-ranging background and a phone consultation with everyone who makes a reservation. 

Best Chef: Texas

Benchawan Jabthong Painter, Street to Kitchen, Houston

Back in 2020, the same year the Beard Foundation unveiled a new category devoted to Texas only to have the pandemic shutter the awards, Painter opened Street to Kitchen in Houston’s East End. Like many of her peers, she hung on by pivoting to takeout, but now she’s packing patrons into a tiny, lively eatery that serves the “unapologetically Thai” fare she grew up cooking with her grandmother in Bangkok.

America’s Classics

Joe’s Bakery & Coffee Shop (Austin) and La Casita Blanca (San Juan)

Each year the foundation bestows this honor on a handful of restaurants that, in their words, “have timeless appeal and are beloved regionally for quality food that reflects the character of its community.” Among this year’s six recipients were Joe’s Bakery in Austin, where “Tex-Mex family recipes draw large crowds hungry for migas, home-style pork carne guisada, and myriad breakfast tacos on homemade flour tortillas,” the Foundation wrote in a press release, and San Juan’s La Casita Blanca, which they likened to “stepping into your tía’s or abuela’s house with vintage furniture and colorful tablecloths, evoking feelings of nostalgia and fond memories of family gatherings.”