The anticipation had been building for months when restaurateurs and friends Reginald “Reggie” Washington and Duane Nutter opened Southern National in Mobile. Owning their own restaurant had been a longtime dream for both men, and it only takes a few bites of their “globally inspired Southern food” to realize it was worth the wait.
Southern National is fine dining in Mobile’s lively arts district. The creative dishes there feature locally sourced ingredients like Gulf-fresh seafood, regional delicacies from around the Southeast and inspiration from myriad cultures. Consider Kentuckyaki Braised Short Ribs with Brussels sprout kimchi and miso butternut squash puree. They pour inventive craft cocktails and wines from around the world. And it’s worth a trip. No matter where you are right now.
This is not the first time they’ve done destination dining.
The two collaborated at One Flew South, an upscale restaurant in Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, where they made Concourse E its own destination. Fans of One Flew South scheduled layovers at the airport to eat there. Others routinely arrived extra early so they could visit the restaurant before jetting off.
“What I learned in Concourse E was America loves food,” Washington said. “The world loves food, and they will travel to get good food.”
They served more than 400 diners every day and did it well. One Flew South was a semifinalist in 2014 and 2015 for a James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Service. It was the first airport restaurant to be considered for a Beard Award.
Southern National opened in October in the historic Wilkins-Higgins Building on downtown Mobile’s Dauphin Street. There’s a view from the restaurant’s front porch of the 167-year-old Cathedral-Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. There’s seating for about 150 at small and family-style tables; on comfortable banquettes; and at the large, inviting zinc-topped bar. Custom light fixtures reflect exposed brick walls and lightly whitewashed Alabama pine boards arranged in eye-catching chevron patterns on the ceiling. Antique crystal punchbowls sparkle on a shelf. And there’s a covered outdoor space, surrounded by high, 120-year-old brick walls, that will accommodate some 70 guests, and remind diners of New Orleans or Charleston.
The main focus of the restaurant, however, is 6-foot-6-inch chef Nutter at his strategically placed plating station, which is part of the dining room and therefore an entertaining mix of form and function.
“When we first looked at designing the restaurant that way, we thought about chef’s personality, his cooking style and also the space,” Washington said. “If you notice, every new home now has an island with bar stools and that’s because people are eating together. They’re entertaining a lot. And we have so many of our guests here who feel like we have put our kitchen in the dining room. They come up to the table, they speak with chef and they ask, ‘What is that?’ They say, ‘I’d like to order that.’ We really get some great engagement with our guests that you just can’t get any other way.”
Nutter specializes in taking what’s familiar and then changing it up with some unfamiliar twists. The popular fried lobster tail is a good example of what Washington calls Nutter’s own “version of what feels like home.”
“Everybody’s got a good fried shrimp,” Nutter said. “So I said, ‘Why don’t I just flip the script with fried lobster tail for them because they can get fried shrimp anywhere.’ The Sea Island red peas are keeping it Southeast. I like to showcase this entire region to the world, to whoever is coming down here to eat.”
Another popular signature dish combines mussels with collard greens in a way that makes perfect, delicious sense. “It seemed like a no-brainer to me,” Nutter said. “Collard greens, mustard greens and turnip greens … come natural with their own potlikker. … Mussels make their own unique potlikker, too. I said, ‘This would be really good if I could get some of this mussel juice … mixed in with the collard greens.’ So that’s how it happened.”
Some dishes have their own stories.
Chicken on a stick, available at food trucks all over Mobile during Mardi Gras, is a favorite appetizer at Southern National, where they serve it with a Creole ranch sauce. Nutter didn’t realize Mobile’s chicken on a stick history at first. “I was kinda telling my story,” he said. “It’s really a shoutout to Southern Foodways Alliance and my first symposium. About 3 o’clock in the morning, I went to a Chevron gas station in Oxford, Mississippi, and there was this lady just cranking out these big ol’ chickens on sticks. And I remembered that. I said, ‘When I get my own place, I’ll pay homage to my SFA people and do chicken on a stick.’”
The men divide back-of-the-house and front-of-the-house duties at Southern National, with chef Nutter creating the innovative dishes and Washington using his hospitality and operational skills to make diners feel at home. “Reggie keeps me in line,” Nutter said, “and makes sure I don’t get too chefie.”
Washington’s family’s roots in Mobile go back some 90 years, so he knows this part of the state and all that it has to offer. “We’ve gone to a lot of local farms, including my family’s farm. We’ve gone to seafood production houses. I can give him the local information. Of course, he’s the mastermind behind our food, but we bounce things off of each other.”
Both, however, have spent plenty of time in various kitchens.
Nutter began his culinary career in 1994 studying under chef Daryl Evans at the Four Seasons Hotel in Atlanta. He went on to work at the Ritz Carlton in Palm Beach, Florida, and the Seelbach Hilton’s Oakroom in Louisville, Kentucky – one of only 48 AAA Five Diamond restaurants in the world. He was invited to compete on the Food Network’s “Iron Chef America,” he cooked at the James Beard House in New York and he was executive chef at One Flew South for nearly a decade.
Washington honed his hospitality skills at One Flew South as well as at Atlanta’s Marriott Marquis and the Hyatt Regency. He was executive chef to former Alabama Gov. Fob James and his family. And he combined his passion for Southern hospitality and cuisine at the Masters Tournament in Augusta, Georgia, where he worked as executive chef at Club Magnolia.
As chef-owners, Washington and Nutter pay attention to every detail. They enlisted the help of local wine collectors to build the restaurant’s menu. They curate their own playlists.
Nutter said music and food are “transcending things.” A smell or a taste will bring you back to something your grandmother cooked or something you experienced on a trip, he said, and music works the same way. “You hear a song and think, ‘Oh, I was at that club when Biggie did this, or when Janet Jackson did that.’ Music and food have that similarity. They dance together.”
Both Washington and Nutter credit family as their inspirations.
Washington grew up with generations of the men doing a lot of the cooking. They raised their own vegetables and killed their own pigs. The men barbecued, and the women made sides. Nutter was born in Louisiana and grew up in Seattle, Washington. He was raised by a single mother who worked as a hospice nurse and showed him “what she could do with $5 so we could eat all week.”
Traditions matter. Where food comes from matters. What these men do at Southern National often is as much about substance as sustenance.
“Most people see the popularity of Southern cooking now,” Washington said. “It’s peas, it’s greens and it’s pork chops. It’s great ingredients that have been done for years. And now it’s just more concentrated. Grown and served in a shorter period of time from earth to table.”
Nutter said, “You can go through a whole wave of what’s trending and not trending, or you can cook from the heart.”
His Springer Mountain Farms chicken-liver pâté, made with bourbon instead of the more classic wine and served with onion marmalade and truffle honey, might just sum that up. Some people see pâté, Nutter said, while someone else might see potted meat.
“Think about the equator belt,” Nutter said. “We grow a lot of the same things around the world, and you’ll find that different cultures are all cooking the same things. So it’s the same thing, different name. People realized, ‘This is what my grandma used to make.’ And we say, ‘Yes. We’re all one people. Just cooking the same stuff different ways.’”
360 Dauphin St.
Mobile, Alabama 36602
Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 4:30-10 p.m.
Cocktail hour: 4:30-5:30 p.m.
Dinner service: 5:30-10 p.m.