Are you headed to Starkville for the University of Arkansas’ Nov. 20 game against Mississippi State now that it looms large on the schedule?
I have a suggestion: Take U.S. Highway 82 across the Mississippi Delta and stay in Greenwood on Friday night before the game and Saturday night after the game.
For those traveling from Central Arkansas, the “southern route” is much more relaxing than fighting the big-truck traffic on Interstate 40 along with the traffic in Memphis.
The route many Arkansans take is Interstate 40 east to Memphis, Interstate 55 south to Winona and U.S. Highway 82 east to Starkville.
Here’s the “southern route”: U.S. Highway 65 south to Lake Village and then U.S. Highway 82 east all the way to Starkville. U.S. 82 will take you through Greenville, Indianola, Greenwood and Winona on your way to Starkvegas.
From Greenville to just east of Greenwood, you’ll be in the Mississippi Delta. The rest of the trip is across gently rolling hills. U.S. 82 is a four-lane road all the way across Mississippi. The only thing that really slows you down are the many stoplights at Greenville.
It’s just 53 miles from Greenville to Greenwood.
Greenwood to Starkville is only another 86 miles.
Greenwood has become one of my favorite towns in the South.
A 2004 New York Times story by Taylor Holliday described it this way: “Highway 61 has long beckoned lovers of the blues, who head south out of Memphis into the Mississippi Delta to the towns and plantations where blues was born and the juke joints where it lives. Only recently, however, has a new breed of traveler turned off onto Highway 82 and driven past billowy cotton fields and glistening catfish ponds to the small town of Greenwood. These visitors are on a Delta pilgrimage of another kind — to the home of the Viking range.
“Once known as the cotton capital of the world, Greenwood, a town of 18,000 people, is now becoming a cooking capital with worldly aspirations, boasting not only some legendary Southern restaurants, but the factories where Viking products are made, the kitchens where they are demonstrated, a first-rate cooking school and a Viking-owned luxury boutique hotel called the Alluvian. … Not that old times have been forgotten. Strolling around downtown Greenwood is like walking into one of those 1970s William Eggleston photographs that invoke a faded version of the 1940s Delta.
“Not a building has been built or torn down, it seems, since Greenwood’s last heyday, the post-World War II years when cotton was still king. Not far from the grand Leflore County Courthouse, several blocks of sturdy early-20th-century red-brick commercial buildings, from modest to modestly magnificent, sit in various states of use. Some are boarded up, and many are just hanging in there — weathered, dusty thrift stores sell women’s white dress gloves and vintage T-shirts while 1970s-style storefronts house throwbacks like the Super Soul Shop, which sells church suits for men and boys. But other buildings are newly refurbished, several of them now housing various parts of the Viking empire.”
Things have only gotten better in the years since that article was published.
If you can still get a room at the Alluvian (www.thealluvian.com), by all means do so. The hotel — which will remind you of Little Rock’s Capital Hotel — boasts 45 rooms and five suites. Its walls are filled with an art collection featuring Mississippi’s finest artists. It also allowed one of the Delta’s most famous restaurants, Giardina’s, to be reborn. The restaurant features steaks, seafood and Italian cuisine.
If you can’t find a room at the Alluvian, there are plenty of nice motels out on U.S. 82. There’s a Best Western, a Comfort Suites, a Hampton Inn and a Holiday Inn Express.
You can then drive downtown to have Friday dinner at Lusco’s, Giardina’s, the Delta Bistro, the Crystal Grill, Webster’s or Yianni’s. Let’s take them one at a time:
1. Lusco’s — This is, quite simply, one of my favorite restaurants in the world. Here’s how Michael Stern tells its history at www.roadfood.com: “Cotton planters around Greenwood came to know Charles ‘Papa’ Lusco in the 1920s when he drove a horse-drawn grocery wagon to their plantations, bringing supplies from the market he and Marie ‘Mama’ Lusco ran. Mama sold plates of her spaghetti at the store, and Papa built secret dining rooms in back where customers could enjoy his homemade wine with their meals. The clandestine cubicles remained, giving Lusco’s a seductively covert character that Karen Pinkston, a third-generation Lusco, and her husband Andy don’t ever want to change.
“Mama and Papa were Italian by way of Louisiana, so the flavors of the kitchen they established are as much Creole as they are Southern or Italian. Gumbo, crab and shrimp are always on the menu, and oysters are a specialty in season — on the half shell or baked with bacon. Because so many regular customers are big spenders from well-to-do cotton families, the menu is best known among them for its high-end items. Lusco’s T-bone steaks are some of the finest anywhere: sumptuous cuts that are brought raw to the table for your approval, then broiled to pillowy succulence. Pompano has for many years been a house trademark (when available, usually the spring), broiled and served whole, bathed in a magical sauce made of butter, lemon and secret spices.”
Give me the pompano whenever it’s available and pull the curtain on my private booth.
2. Giardina’s: ”Giardina’s, in fact, has humble roots,” Stern writes. “It opened in 1936 as a fish market. Gradually it became popular among cotton growers, known for those private booths where bootleg booze could be drunk in secrecy. As King Cotton lost its economic hegemony late in the 20th century, Giardina’s fortunes waned along with those of Greenwood, the South’s cotton capital, and eventually it closed its doors. But then Viking came to town in 1989 and the presence of the stove maker turned everything around. The Mississippi Heritage Trust awards Viking has won for rehabilitation of local properties include the transformation of the historic Irving Hotel from a ratty embarrassment to a stylish boutique called the Alluvian. For us, the Alluvian’s greatest attraction, beyond its feather beds and 300-thread-count sheets, is the fact that is the new home of Giardina’s, a Mississippi Delta legend.”
Give me tamales here as an appetizer. Again, I’ll go pompano for the entree — same as Lusco’s. And, again, pull the curtains on my booth.
3. Delta Bistro — Chef Taylor Bowen Ricketts is a Mississippian who was born in Oxford and raised in Jackson. She stayed in Oxford after graduation from Ole Miss to help friends open several restaurants. Those included Proud Larry’s, Yocana River Inn and Jubilee. This place doesn’t have the history of Lusco’s, but the food is as good as almost anything you will find in Memphis or Little Rock.
4. Crystal Grill — If you go to dinner on Friday night at Lusco’s, Giardina’s or Delta Bistro, make sure and have lunch Saturday at the Crystal Grill before heading over to Starkville for the 6 p.m. kickoff. Here’s how the Southern Foodways Alliance describes the place at www.southernfoodways.com: “Food has been served on this corner of Carrolton Avenue and Lamar Street for almost a century. The place began as a little diner called the Elite Cafe and evolved into the Crystal Grill under the ownership of Jim Liollio. His brother-in-law, Mike Ballas, who was raised in Greece and came to Mississippi in the 1940s, soon became a partner and eventually took over and shaped the Crystal Grill into what it is today: a 200-seat restaurant with the biggest menu around. … Some of the waitresses have been there for 40 years, and locals have brought their children and their children’s children through the same front doors for Sunday dinner for decades. Sunday dinner is an experience in itself and a great way to get some local color.”
Whatever you order, make sure to save room for a slice of chocolate or coconut pie.
5. Webster’s — Viking employees Matt Gnemi and Robert McBryde bought this restaurant, which has been around since 1975, in 2005. It was orignally known as Ricky’s Bar and later as Jubilee’s. It has been Webster’s since 1979. The new owners filled the inside with Delta photographs and refinished the hardwood floors. There’s often live music here.
6. Yianni’s — It will be about 11 p.m. before you get back to Greenwood from Starkville on Saturday night, so you might save Yianni’s for Sunday brunch. A reviewer at www.tripadvisor.com wrote back in June: “The Sunday brunch at Yianni’s from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. is the best brunch buffet ever created in the South. This is not your chain restaurant brunch. This is a Southern remedy fantastic food treat for all generations — home cooked, excellent variety of egg casserole, grits casserole, fried chicken, Cajun shrimp and an amazing bread pudding. I brought my family there, and we loved it. I recently went to New Orleans to a big brunch place, and the brunch at Yianni’s was far superior in quality and Southern fare.”
We’ll see you in Greenwood.