Fried chicken just might be the world's most versatile food. It makes just as much sense at the dinner table or in your car or at breakfast with waffles, as it does at 3am out of the fridge or during the seventh-inning stretch of an intramural, co-ed softball game. Though there are many styles, we opted to stick to Southern fried chicken because it's the truest, oldest, American-est form. Our research took us from famed chicken shacks in Nashville to an 1800s log cabin in Kansas City and down to Miami. Yes, even Miami. Disagreements? Omissions? Compliments for our impeccable taste? Leave 'em in the comments. But for now, tuck your napkin into your shirt, break out the biscuits and sweet tea, and savor our picks for the best fried chicken across the US of A.

The Barbecue Inn
Courtesy of The Barbecue Inn

Barbecue Inn

Since 1946, the place that sounds like my favorite fever dream hotel ever has been serving up outstanding barbecue and fried foods to the citizens of Houston. My Mom claims that -- when I was born -- they used to drive 45 minutes from our house over on Westleigh just to get the Chicken Fried Steak and that incredible, crispy Southern Fried Chicken, while I sat there sleeping and NOT EVEN ENJOYING THE INCREDIBLE FOODS PRESENTED TO ME. The best move is to order the alarmingly juicy All Dark. You’ve got to wait a half hour to get it, but when you do (alongside a stuffed baked potato with chopped beef) you’ll understand why I’m still mad at my Mom for refusing to give me some.

Brenda's Meat and 3
Courtesy of Brenda's Meat & Three

Brenda's Meat and Three

For years, Brenda’s French Soul Food had people standing in line for brunch way before it was trendy. And now that she’s opened a more casual diner on Divis, people are going to have to get used to standing in line for dinner. Though you have no choice but to get Brenda’s Fried Chicken -- just a little spicy and peppery and crispy, and it's perfect with the collards and that cauliflower gratin -- we’re also pretty damn partial to the spicy chicken sandwich, which utilizes that same secret recipe crispy chicken, but throws in enough heat to balance against the coolness coming from the mayo, pickles, and lettuce.

Busy Bee Cafe
Courtesy of Marcus Ryan

Busy Bee Cafe

Don’t let the cute name fool you: this isn’t a ladies-who-lunch spot, unless those ladies like grease spots on their cardigans. Busy Bee has been the best fried chicken spot in Atlanta since it opened in 1947, and, in a city that boasts soul food spots like lesser cities boast McDonald’s, that means a lot. The chicken brines for 12-hours before it’s tossed in lightly seasoned flour and plunged into a hot peanut oil bath. The only thing better than the chicken is the chicken smothered in pan gravy with two sides: get collards and broccoli and cheese casserole.

chicken shack evanston
Mike Gebert/Thrillist

The Chicken Shack

Just North of the Chicago city limits, this chicken shack (they are aptly named!) has been winning Chicagoland over for a quarter-century with its juicy bird thoroughly covered in a batter that achieves just the right levels of crispness and seasoning. While it doesn't need any help, dipping it in some of their delightfully spiced BBQ isn't a half-bad move. Foregoing the biscuits, however, is an extremely bad move.

gus's fried chicken
Flickr/Evan Blaser

If I’d written this a week ago, I could have told you that Gus’s chicken is famous enough to have 10 locations, 5 in its Tennessee home state and a few more dotted through the South. But I’m writing this RIGHT NOW, two days after the Memphis-based restaurant announced its paprika and cayenne-spiked fried chicken will be arriving in spots as far as Los Angeles and Chicago this year. So, Midwest & West Coast friends, do yourself a favor and get yourself to one of these gingham-draped tables, ease yourself into deep South flavor with fried pickles spears, order a beer, and get to know Gus’s spicy chicken.

hollyhock hill
Courtesy of Hollyhock Hill

Hollyhock Hill

Do you know what a hollyhock is? I didn’t. It’s a tall Eurasian plant of the mallow family and has “large showy flowers.” Well, apparently they grow in Indiana in the place where V.D. Vincent and his wife started serving special dinners at their cottage. It's only had two other owners since that time, run now by the Snyders, who’ve been a part of the restaurant for over fifty years. But enough history, let’s get to the good stuff. The fried chicken is the first thing you’ll see on those menus, as they’ve already figured out the appetizers, salad, and side dishes for you. They call it “famous, Hoosier, pan-fried chicken.” You’ll just call it “that thing I need to eat at least fifty more times in my life.”

honey's kettle culver city
Courtesy of Bob Hodson Photography

Honey's Kettle

Vincent Williams, the master chef at Honey’s Kettle, has “over 40 years of fried chicken cooking experience.” He is purported to have fried “millions of pieces of chicken every year.” And according to Malcolm Gladwell theories, that puts him so far over the 10,000 hour mark, he likely has no choice but to be the best fried chicken chef in the damn world. And judging by his chicken, that theory might hold up. All of it is hand-dipped in a special batter that is impervious to high temperatures and cooked up in peanut oil. Do yourself a favor and get the three-piece with a wing, leg, and thigh in the mix, plus those buttermilk biscuits. Then dip everything in honey and figure out what you should dedicate 10,000 hours to. It might just be eating this chicken.

Federal Donuts and Fried Chicken
Courtesy of Michael Persico

Federal Donuts

Though the hype surrounding Federal Doughnuts can -- at times -- reach some sort of a deafening fever pitch, what with the lines and the handing out of cards entitling you to fried chicken, chef Michael Solomonov’s bastion of fried birds and dough continues to be worth temporarily losing your hearing over. Though the chili-garlic glaze is delicious, you’re going to want to get the buttermilk ranch or za’atar dry rub on a half order (the “naked” version is very good, but the spices move it into Nic Cage 'High Praise' territory. Oh, AND: it comes with Japanese cucumber pickles and a honey donut, because that’s really the only thing that can show waffles what’s up.

mama dip's chapel hill
Flickr/jennifer yin

Mama Dip's

The first time I went to Chapel Hill, it was for a wedding. But REALLY, it was to backseat-drive a carful of my extended family to Mama Dip’s, tucked off the college town’s main drag, for a two-hour lunch. Mildred Council, aka Mama Dip, so nicknamed because her “long arms allowed her to ‘dip’” to the bottom of the rain barrel as a kid, started serving her lightly peppered shortening-fried chicken back in 1976. The move is half a fried chicken with greens (it changes daily, but you can trust it all, collards, turnips, or mustards), and black eyed peas -- both are cooked with pork, of course. And your next move is to avoid falling asleep in the wood paneled restaurant with its Grandma-approved patterned curtains and front porch. It may look like a living room, but, just because you ate half a bird, you can’t sleep there.

Motor City Soul Food
Megan Frye/Thrillist

Detroit takes its soul very, very seriously, whether it’s coming from the voices of MoTown legends or the kitchens of its restaurants. Motor City Soul Food is basically Detroit on a plate, a pile of perfectly cooked soul favorites served up by hard-working folks who take immense pride in their work, even if they’re forced to do that work from behind bulletproof glass. The chicken itself is a thing of such simple, crispy perfection that more than warrants the line that frequently wraps out the door. The sides do it equal justice, but don’t fill up too much on candied yams and okra, or you’ll miss out on one of the best damned banana puddings in the world.

Old Country Store lorman
Flickr/Karen Green

The Old Country Store is operated by Arthur Davis, but you can call him Mr. D. And Mr. D's going to greet you with a song when you walk in his Lorman, MS restaurant: “Grandmama… oh Grandmama was a cornbread cookin’ queen,” which is, obviously, going to make you wish you knew Grandmama. The excellent news is that royalty is a family thing, and Mr. D. is the fried chicken king -- he used Grandmama’s recipe to earn that title. So get in line for the buffet and load up a plate because, as Mr. D. also sings, “two piece chicken and a biscuit… get it while it’s hot.” And you should always obey the king, especially when he's a singing baritone chef in rural Mississippi. 

People's Pig
Andy Kryza/Thrillist

The People's Pig

People’s Pig answers a question few have asked, yet probably should: what would bacon taste like if bacon was made from fried chicken? The answer is the Smoked Fried Chicken at this food cart turned brick-and-mortar, which gives the boneless bird a light wood-based sauna session before it’s dunked in batter and fried. Not bad for a place that made its name with porchetta and BBQ. There’s a lot of great fried chicken in Stumptown (big love to Dub’s and Reel M Inn), but the People’s Pig gets mad love for taking something as beloved as fried chicken and transforming it into something utterly different and magnificent.

Prince's Hot Chicken
Flickr/Alaina Brown

Yes, we know it’s technically hot chicken. But that hot chicken is fried, right? And Prince’s, on the North side of Nashville, just happens to be the best damn spicy fried chicken in America. If you can spare a couple of hours to deal with the line, hit up Andre Prince’s ode to the spicy side of the bird and get a whole chicken, some extra pickles, and bread. We like it “hot,” which is just enough to make us sweat, but not enough that it feels like you’re being punished for eating. And don’t worry about finishing the whole bird. We just wanted to leave you enough to take some home with you.

root & bone
Courtesy of Lauren J. Kaplan

Root & Bone

Exceptional Southern fare in the heart of Manhattan’s Alphabet City isn’t exactly ordinary. But neither are the unexpected kitchen duo of a Florida-born, Alabama-raised farm boy and an Australian-bred blonde with a stint in Miami’s Yardbird. Their turn on the entire menu -- from deviled eggs to cheese grits -- is delicious. But their chicken… well, their fried chicken is sweet tea-brined for 24-hours with garlic and onions and probably Southern sun, and then it’s dredged in flour and deep fried and “lemon dusted,” and it shows up at your table in a white, wire basket, like the perfect welcome-to-the-neighborhood, citrusy, salty, juicy gift of Southern hospitality that you have always wanted. And, once you’ve also tasted their dense, square biscuits whose layers were made to soak up the honey au jus and take a dusting of sea salt and benne seeds, you’re going to want to be welcomed to this neighborhood over and over again.

louisville fried chicken
Josh Johnson/Thrillist

Shirley Mae's Cafe

For 26 years now, Shirley Mae Beard has kept the rich history of the building that used to house the famous watering hole J&H Food Bar alive with her home cooking cafe. Before you do anything else, get some of that famous hot water cornbread to hold you down while you watch her cook-to-order your Southern Fried Jumbo Chicken Wings. For $9 at lunch, you get four perfect wings, cornbread, and two sides (make sure one is real mashed potato salad). The pan fried wings have just enough seasoning and stay crispy and moist, even as you’re asking for a couple more pieces of cornbread and a sweet tea to help wash it all down.

Stroud's Oak Ridge Manor
Courtesy of Stroud's

If, like us, you’ve always wanted to eat your fried chicken in an 1829 log cabin and farmhouse, Oak Ridge Manor is the place to do it. Since 1933, the good people of North Kansas City have hit this place for their pan fried chicken. Get the regular dinner, and when you bite into that crunchy, salty, juicy, peppery chicken mess, and grease runs all down your face and YOU JUST DON’T CARE BECAUSE IT’S THAT GOOD, maybe pause for a second and appreciate your surroundings. Or, if you need more famous people to tell you how good it is, they’ve got great quotations lauding their chicken along the bottom of their website. So if you’re wondering if seven-time-World-Series-winning “professional baseball star” Hank Bauer called it “The best darn chicken I ever ate,” worry no more. He might just be right.

Lacey Muszynski/Thrillist

You don't make it in the food game in Milwaukee without knowing your way around a fryer, and you don't three-peat as the Milwaukee Wing Fest champ without some serious poultry prowess. This "Friendly Fried Chicken Joint" embodies all the welcoming lack of pretension you find at your typical Wisconsin tavern, with the one critical difference being the exceptional fried chicken. The well-balanced batter's not layered on quite as thick as what you might find at more Southernly joints, yielding an end result that isn't too heavy (by fried chicken standards). Get a four-piece hobo chicken dinner with fries, slaw, and Italian bread and go to town. Or if you want some of those aforementioned wings, they'll do them with or without the batter depending on preference. Keep an eye out for rotating special sauces like the Nutty Rooster, a combo of Sriracha and peanut butter.

top notch austin
Flickr/Jodi Bart

Top Notch

Sure, you can’t start any conversation about Top Notch without mentioning its iconic placement in Dazed & Confused, but there’s a damn good reason the old-school drive-up joint’s in the movie to begin with. Since 1971, it’s made Austin’s finest fried bird. And as the city’s food scene has evolved into more haute takes on comfort classics, Top Notch still does what it’s always done: it makes a perfectly crisp, salty, old-school chunk of chicken that’s golden fried and bursting with juice. That’s the good thing about Top Notch. You keep getting older, but that chicken stays the same. 

Willie Mae's Scotch House
Flickr/T.Tseng (edited)

New Orleanians are wont to throw around words like “legendary” and “institution” and “classic” when it comes to their restaurants that can lay any kind of claim to those adjectives. But, well, Willie Mae’s fried chicken deserves it. That crispy, spicy chicken was enough to drive crowds of volunteers to tend to the nearly half-a-century old restaurant after Katrina flooded through, and its melt-in-your-mouth skin and juicy meat are enough to beckon even the most tourist-averse locals to wait in the lunch line on a weekday for a plate, plus a side of salty, smoky red beans and rice. So, yes, Willie Mae’s Scotch House is a legendary, classic institution -- not just of NOLA, but of the South.

Photo by 50Eggs Inc.

“Fried chicken? In Miami?!?! Obviously these writers have never actually had good fried chicken.” That’s my imitation of an inevitable comment coming for our inclusion of a South Florida joint on this list. But guess what, friends? We have eaten good fried chicken (possibly even at 20 other places on this list), and this Miami joint deserves inclusion too. You can go one of two ways: either with Llewellyn’s Fine Fried Chicken itself with some spicy Tabasco honey, or -- our move -- the Chicken N’ Watermelon N’ Waffles, which features hot sauce honey, chilled spice watermelon, a cheddar cheese chow chow waffle, and bourbon maple syrup. Just typing those words make me want to re-live it.

Courtesy of Zehnder's of Frankenmuth

Yes, Frankenmuth is a tourist trap, what with its all-year Christmas store and cheesy Bavarian theme that at least one commenter below has bemoaned by now. But one of the main draws for the city is its salt-forward, German-style fried chicken, which is served in endless portions by traditionally dressed servers in a gigantic banquet hall apparently attempting to break the record for cramming the most overfed Midwesterners into one place. That so many folks are willing to endure the place’s crowds and tourist-trapping amenities (it’s also a hotel with water slides!) goes to show that good fried chicken is an attraction all its own.

Kevin Alexander is Thrillist's Food/Drink executive editor and thinks every food should be fried and served with hot honey. Follow his amateur biscuit sketches @KAlexander03.

Liz Childers is Thrillist's Food/Drink associate editor and once put hot honey on hot honey. Follow her dramatic live tweets re: pimento season @lizchilders1.

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1. Barbecue Inn 116 W Crosstimbers Rd, Houston, TX 77018

Barbecue Inn's menu has been mastered for over nearly 70 years, by tweaking and perfecting their family recipes. Their fried chicken is out of this world, and it’s not even the best thing on the menu! People drive in from all over just to enjoy their fried shrimp! With either pick, you are going to enjoy a homemade batter so crispy and tasty that it will be hard to go home and tell granny that hers still the best.

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2. Brenda's Meat & Three 919 Divisadero St, San Francisco, CA 94115 (Western Addition)

This Western Addition diner is Brenda Buenviaje's follow-up to her Tenderloin gem, Brenda's French Soul Food. The spot is more casual and more Southern than the original, but equally crowded for weekend brunch and dinner. The hallmark of the menu is the namesake meat & three, where you choose one meat (fried chicken, meatloaf, BBQ beef brisket, to name a few) and three down-home sides (potato bacon hash, collard greens, glazed yams). The spicy, peppery, and crispy fried chicken is near addictive, as is the veggie po' boy.

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3. Busy Bee Cafe 810 Martin Luther King Jr Dr SW, Atlanta, GA 30314 (West End)

Busy Bee Cafe serves traditional Southern eats. Their specialty is a 12 ­hour ­marinated masterpiece that draws fans from Macon to Marietta, and the only way to eat it is “smothered” in pan gravy. In the past year, Bernie Sanders and Killer Mike broke bread and fried chicken bones in political fellowship. Some would say BBC is “hot” again, but it’s had hot sauce ready for hungry guests and neighbors since icons of the Civil Rights Movement dined there for strategy sessions.

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4. Evanston Chicken Shack 1925 Ridge Ave, Evanston, IL 60201 (Evanston)

Not to be confused with the popular Chicago mini-chain Harold's Chicken Shack, Evanston Chicken Shack's fried chicken stacks up to the best of the Windy City from its post on the north side. The bare-bones hole-in-the-wall is cash only, but you won't need much: For under $10, you can get two to four pieces of fried chicken (depending on your part preference), with fries and bread, or an entire eight-piece mixed bucket for under $15. There are other options on offer, like fried catfish nuggets and hot links, but you are, without question, here for the fried chicken.

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5. Federal Donuts 1219 S 2nd St, Philadelphia, PA 19147 (South Philadelphia)

With several locations around the city, Federal Donuts has grown into a sugar-coated Philly favorite. FD's secret weapon is a "Donut Robot," a mechanical monster-mastermind that handles all the dough dispensing, frying, and flipping. The deep-fried dough rings are sweet, sinful, and eminently scarf-able -- coming in flavors like maple-bacon, lemon bar, spicy PB&J, Turkish mocha and, of course, classic glazed. Because specializing in just one caloric indulgence doesn't cut it, this spot slings famous fried chicken in a changing lineup of rubs and sauces (coconut curry, anyone?).

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6. Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken 310 S Front St, Memphis, TN 38103 (Downtown)

Gus's has spent the past 60 years spreading the gospel of fried chicken across the land, transitioning from its original location to the outskirts of Memphis to the city proper, and ultimately to other TN cities, as well as Arkansas and Texas. Regardless of the location, no two trips to Gus's will taste the same, thanks to an ever-changing recipe that kicks its fresh bird with a spicy secret breading.

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7. Hollyhock Hill Restaurant 8110 N College Ave, Indianapolis, IN 46240

This quaint restaurant, open since 1928, serves “famous, Hoosier, pan-fried chicken.”

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8. Honey's Kettle Fried Chicken 9537 Culver Blvd, Culver City, CA 90232 (Culver City)

Honey's Kettle cooks up delicious golden-brown farm fresh fried chicken with the perfect crunch and juiciness. Choose a number of sides to complement your heavily battered fried chicken, such as buttermilk biscuits and honey from a spout. It's no surprise that Honey's Kettle was named Best Fried Chicken in LA by Los Angeles Magazine.

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9. Mama Dip's 408 W Rosemary St, Chapel Hill, NC 27516

Mildred Council, aka Mama Dip, so nicknamed because her “long arms allowed her to ‘dip’” to the bottom of the rain barrel as a kid, started serving her lightly peppered shortening-fried chicken back in 1976.

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10. Motor City Soul Food 12700 W 7 Mile Rd, Detroit, MI 48235

Sure, the building housing Motor City Soul Food may not be the prettiest thing in Detroit, but let's face it, you aren't either. Put your hypothetical differences aside and venture inside -- because once you do, you'll realize you've been missing out on some beautifully delicious comfort food, like flavorful fried chicken, mac 'n cheese, pork chops, and more varieties of cheesecake than you ever thought you needed.

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11. Old Country Store Restaurant & Museum 18801 Highway 61, Lorman, MS 39096

Arthur David -- Mr. D. -- greets customers at his rural Mississippi shop with a song and some of the best fried chicken anywhere.

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12. The People's Pig 3217 N. Williams Ave, Portland, OR 97227 (N Portland)

Housed inside a weathered shack in Eliot, The People's Pig serves near-sinful barbecue, including a next-level smoked fried chicken sandwich that requires you wear anything but white. The crispy-skinned chicken thighs are smoked to perfection and coated in a house-made jalapeño jelly that you'll want to lick every last dollop of and jar for yourself. While this hefty creation is the star (did we mention it's served on charred sourdough?), there are plenty of pig-centric options too, like baby back ribs and pork shoulder. Meat isn't everything here though, considering the cast-iron cornbread trickled with honey will visit your dreams for nights to come.

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13. Prince's Hot Chicken Shack 123 Ewing Dr, #3, Nashville, TN 37207 (East Nashville)

Although you might have to wait awhile to get into this Dickerson Pike spot, it's totally worth it to try their succulent cooked-to-order chicken that comes in varying degrees of hotness, from "hot" to "medium" to "extra hot", the last of which will probably leave you crying. It's known as the first hot chicken spot in the city, around since the 1930s and remaining mostly unchanged in the time since. Be prepared for a wait that could last hours, and don't be caught at the register without cash. All things considered, a visit to Prince's is a process for a reason...a very delicious reason.

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14. Root & Bone 200 E 3rd St, New York, NY 10009 (Alphabet City)

Top Chef veterans Jeff McInnis and Janine Booth dominate Alphabet City's fried chicken scene with Root & Bone. It's a Southern kitchen doing takeout-able, down-home (yet sneakily refined) eats, in a spot that could easily be the ground floor of some country B&B somewhere. Irresistible offerings include gooey corn spoonbread, BBQ brisket biscuits, and, of course, fried chicken.

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15. Shirley Mae’s Café 802 S Clay St, Louisville, KY 40203

Located in Smoketown, Shirley Mae's is down home cooking at its finest. Everything is made by hand daily and if you want some of the best fried chicken in town, you gotta order it here.

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16. Stroud's Restaurant & Bar 5410 NE Oak Ridge Rd, Kansas City, MO 64119

Housed in an 1800s log cabin, Stroud's Oak Ridge Manor has been serving salty, crunchy, crispy fried chicken to North Kansas City since 1933.

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17. Tomken's Bar & Grill 8001 W Greenfield Ave, Milwaukee, WI 53214 (West Allis)

Sitting across from the State Fairgrounds in West Allis, Tomken's is an unpretentious neighborhood tavern that regulars (who all know each other's names) defend as Milwaukee's top wing joint. From Buffalo Bleu to Honey BBQ to Jerk-rubbed, the wings -- served grilled or fried -- are reliably moist and meaty no matter the sauce, and will barely make a dent in your wallet. For another good deal, order the fried chicken dinner, which offers four crispy, golden-brown pieces just like grandma used to make, plus crinkle-cut fries, cole slaw, and Italian bread. And what are wings without beers? There are plenty of American brews on tap to pair with your basket.

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18. Top Notch 7525 Burnet Rd, Austin, TX 78757 (Allandale)

Home to a classic Dazed and Confused scene, Top Notch delivers in real life as well. Whether you're in it for burgers or fried chicken, you can pull on up outside, roll down the window, and relax while you wait for your order to arrive. The old-school drive-in is known for its distinctly smoky burgers, achieved via charcoal broiling.

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19. Willie Mae's Scotch House 2401 Saint Ann St, New Orleans, LA 70119 (Mid City)

The fried chicken at Willie Mae’s Scotch House is the best in the United States. No joke: it was dubbed such by the Travel Channel and Food Network, and also won the James Beard Award for “America’s Classic Restaurant for the Southern Region.” Tucked away the Treme neighborhood, the cozy spot features all the accoutrements of a beloved local haunt -- memorabilia mounted throughout, news clippings chronicling the success of the family-owned business (which has been open since 1957), homey environs -- and it’s worth noting that there’s always a line out the door, regardless of weather. It’s a walk-ins only spot, so be prepared to wait -- but the soul food here is so satisfying, and it’s entirely worth it.

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20. Yardbird Southern Table & Bar 1600 Lenox Ave, Miami Beach, FL 33139 (Miami Beach)

Before Yardbird opened in 2011, Miami wasn't known for its Southern comfort cuisine, which somehow seemed odd for a city that's geographically part of the American south. All that changed when Top Chef finalist Jeff McInnis, along with restaurant vets Chris Romero and John Kunkel, opened Yardbird in Miami Beach and instantly made a name with their fried chicken, buttermilk biscuits, and watermelon salad. The menu is chock full of quintessential down-home foods, and the well-stocked bar doles out house cocktails like blackberry bourbon lemonade and Bloody Marys with bacon-infused bourbon.

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21. Zehnder's of Frankenmuth 730 S Main St, Frankenmuth, MI 48734

One of the main draws for the Bavarian-themed city is its salt-forward, German-style fried chicken, which is served in endless portions by traditionally dressed servers in a gigantic banquet hall apparently attempting to break the record for cramming the most overfed Midwesterners into one place.


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