You can tell a lot about a neighborhood by its newer restaurants. When a Seaport tower goes up, its first floor gets some national chain outlet that’s soullessly indistinguishable from hundreds of convention-center-adjacent restaurants in Houston or Phoenix. By contrast, new South End buildings tend to be anchored by locally owned spots like Bar Mezzana and Area Four. Add newcomer Southern Proper to this list, in which chef/owner Jason Cheek (ex-Little Donkey, Coppa) showcases his native North Carolina’s low country cuisine with fried chicken, barbecue, hushpuppies, grits and collards.
For starters, there’s plenty of good drinking food to accompany a well-stocked full bar, including oversized, irresistible salt-and-vinegar pork rinds ($6) dusted with chili-cheese powder; creamy deviled eggs ($5) sprinkled with paprika and vinegar powder; and Silver Queen hushpuppies ($9), a steaming, crunchy rendition of the Southern corn fritter with hot-honey drizzled butter. Think of chicken wings or spareribs as you eat delectably fatty, crispy pig tails ($11) topped with a creamy pineapple-peanut dressing; it makes the notion of chewing around lots of little bones less ooky.
A slow smoker fueled with pecan wood produces some terrific barbecue, like housemade sausages ($9 each), including pretty mild hot link and a garlicky chicken sausage with some vegetal crunch. Smoked barbecue chicken ($16, half; $28, whole) is similarly juicy with its Worcestershire-darkened skin and vivid chow-chow (a sweet/sour cabbage relish). But the category’s barn-burner is pulled pork ($14, half-pound; $26, pound): coarsely chopped, moist, with a delicate acid and chili-heat balance. It’s really remarkable, and the version to beat in town. All BBQ comes with terrific house bread-and-butter pickles, pickled red onions, a nicely savory slaw and two peppy finishing sauces.
Vegetable plates are big enough to share, such as sweet potato/zucchini hoe cakes ($12) with chopped almonds and a big pour of cane syrup—a tall stack of thick, savory pancakes with a disappointingly dry, crumbly texture. They’re a flop next to an iron skillet of charred okra ($15) and smoked cauliflower that’s punched up with chow-chow and chili, in which uniform blackening gives the okra great flavor and firm texture, minimizing the goo that often repels Yankee diners—call it okra for okra haters.
Any would-be proud Southern kitchen has to show deep-fryer chops, and Southern Proper does not falter, producing spectacular fried chicken ($19, 4 pieces; $34, 8 pieces) with a medium-thick, crisp batter and mild or hot seasoning, the latter fierce but not face-melting. (You’ve hit an elusive target when your chicken breast is still moist.) Catfish and chips ($21) offers another able, thick-battered fry job of a big fillet, served with quality fried potatoes (like big steak fries), tartar sauce and lemons. Housemade hot sauces (red chili, green chili, pepper-seed vinegar and pineapple/habanero) add acid and heat to milder dishes. We took the staff tip to sprinkle the green one on catfish and it was spot-on.
Sides ($7 each) are crucial Southern signifiers, too, and Cheek’s are uniformly fine: a pair of yeasty, Parker-House-like dinner rolls; excellently flaky, airy buttermilk biscuits; a thick-and-rich mac ’n’ cheese; excellent, not-overdone collard greens; and grits and butter in which real fresh-corn flavor actually comes through. Still, $7 a whack can push a dinner tab from “Damn, such a value” to “Oh, right: This is still the South End.”
Desserts include respectable ice cream ($7) served in an oversized cone or between biscuit halves and more on-point pies ($7, plus $2 for whipped cream or $3 for ice cream) with sweet little beauties like strawberry-rhubarb, chocolate and pecan. The bar adds another winning beverage program to the neighborhood, starting with a versatile beer list of nine drafts ($5-$9) and 10 packaged options ($8-$11). Macro lagers for pouring on top of ’cue and fried chicken? Check. Geeky sours and goses? Check, check. Cloudy, tart ciders? Yep. Pitchers? They do pitchers?! Yes, three of ’em ($16-$24). The solid list of wines by-the-glass includes a dozen choices ($10-$15) plus one on tap ($12). Specialty cocktails ($13) include a seasonal Collins (made with rainbow chard-infused gin on one visit) also available by the pitcher ($48). All one has to do to triangulate the witty, of-the-moment drinks sensibility here is to try something like the Unfun ($13) of applejack, rye, yellow Chartreuse and berry shrub.
The front-of-house staff is full of polished young pros that appear to be having a great time slinging this familiar, comforting menu. The room is pretty fresh-looking, too, cladding the now-familiar ground-floor new-construction aesthetic (soaring ceiling and windows, exposed rafters and ductwork) with the raw-plank bones of a tobacco-drying barn, then adding homey grandma’s parlor bric-a-brac and dozens of quaint lamps. This place should be punishingly loud, but despite a peppy soundtrack ranging from Ray Charles to Gang of Four, noise levels stay comfortably conversational. Credit Cheek and his talented crew for holding the indie line against the ongoing mallification of Boston’s restaurant scene. Southern Proper’s idiom is hardly local, and while its prices don’t exactly qualify it as a humble chicken shack, the food largely justifies them. As important, it has the vibe and the crowd of a real neighborhood joint, and these days, Boston simply cannot get enough of those. ◆
Catfish and chips
Grits and butter
Chocolate pie with whipped cream
Southern Proper, 600 Harrison Ave., Boston (857-233-2421) southernproperboston.com; Liquor: Full; Hours: Tue.-Thu., 5-11 pm; Fri.-Sat., 5 pm-midnight; Sat.-Sun. brunch, 11 am-3 pm; Parking: Metered street spaces, nearby private lot; Reservations: Yes