Do-nuts, donuts, or doughnuts. Spell them how you want; it’s hard not to love these warm, familiar, and delicious confections.
They’re often the staple of the office meeting, sometimes the main reason people show up. Yeasty dough? Fried? Add sugar, and then a little more sugar, and then top that with some icing and maybe some sprinkles? Can you seriously say no?
And they’re cheap—so cheap, in fact, that they were an important treat during the Great Depression. Deemed poor people’s food, it took Clark Gable’s doughnut etiquette lesson to Claudette Colbert in Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night to make them popular with all social classes. Even today, the soft, glaze-encrusted morsels of steamy perfection are a bargain.
For many Southerners, our first taste of doughnut bliss came from a box with a familiar red and green logo: Krispy Kreme has been a fixture in the South since they first started selling doughnuts through, literally, a hole in the wall of their bakery to passersby in 1937. There’s a reason why they’re still around and a growing chain across the nation. They make a mean glazed doughnut when you can get it fresh from the oven.
John T. Edge, writer, educator, and director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi, wrote a book on doughnuts, aptly titled Donuts: An American Passion, that explores America’s fascination with fried dough. He spent time researching them across the country and came to the conclusion that, “Yeast or cake structure, rice or wheat flour, Italian or Dutch origin, it mattered not a whit. I sought donuts that told me a story of America. And the tales surfaced quickly, came easily.”
Here are some of the best places in the South that tell that story and speak to us in sugar-sweet tones of all that is good and comforting.
The Donut Shoppe
Muscle Shoals, Alabama
Since 1980, The Donut Shoppe has been serving up all the standards made fresh every morning in their little restaurant in Muscle Shoals. The apple fritters and red velvet cake doughnuts may catch your eye in the bakery case, but if you look closely, you’ll notice the tubs of fillings—white “wimpy” cream, Bavarian cream, strawberry, and lemon—off to the side. The filled doughnuts in the bakery case, well, aren’t. They’re just blanks that are sitting there waiting for you. The folks at The Donut Shoppe don’t fill them until you order them, so they never get soggy, and they end up being a treat you’ll be willing to drive back for over and over again.
When you start thinking about doughnuts in Louisiana, you have a hard decision to make. Are beignets doughnuts? They are fried dough, after all. We’ve decided that beignets, while a cousin, are not a true doughnut. Harlow’s Bakery has been serving doughnuts in Pineville since 1972. While there are plenty of flavors to choose from, the stars here are simple, lightly glazed doughnuts made from scratch every morning. Pair them with savory kolaches and rich coffee, and you’ll have the local breakfast of choice. And breakfast is always a great opportunity for conversation. Strike one up about beignets and doughnuts. The folks there are sure to have an opinion.
The Donut Hole Cafe and Bakery
Destin is often associated with spring break and summer tourists, but there’s a lot more to it than that. For proof, just take a look at The Donut Hole. Sure, vacationers find it, but it’s a locals kind of place—and they’re the ones who keep it busy year-round. If you decide to sit down for breakfast or lunch, you might have to wait in line, but you won’t regret it when you get to sample Florida seafood and produce added to omelets, pancakes, and more. But the doughnuts are what we’re talking about, and you can normally skip the line and head to the register for those. Try the Key lime-filled doughnut or the Vanilla Angel for something unusual. But no matter what you choose, you can’t go wrong.
Glazed Gourmet Doughnuts
Charleston, South Carolina
You’ll get a wonderful glazed doughnut at Glazed Gourmet Doughnuts, as well as tremendous variety and surprises. Chef Allison Smith makes the dough, fillings, and glazes fresh daily from as many local ingredients as possible. And she shows her creativity, turning an apple-filled doughnut into art with a cinnamon glaze and Cheddar cheese. A big favorite is the Purple Goat with berry and goat cheese filling and a lavender glaze. And these doughnuts aren’t relegated to morning or snacks. Allison serves up a Monte Cristo doughnut and a ham, cream cheese, and pepper jelly fritter to tempt your savory side for a sinful lunch break.
Ocean Springs, Mississippi
Maybe it’s the not-so-secret ingredient of potato flour that makes the Tato-Nut Donut Shop so special. Maybe it’s small-town charm. Maybe it’s being a survivor against the odds. (Not only has the Tato-Nut weathered the economic downturn of late, but it was also one of the first area businesses to bounce back after Hurricane Katrina.) Maybe it’s just the combination that makes the magic happen here. Whatever it is, the doughnuts are light, airy, and sweet with a local following that means there will be lines at rush hour on weekday mornings. For the best selection, plan ahead to beat the rush, but the folks at Tato-Nut won’t let you down if you show up later. You may not have as many choices at 10:30 a.m., but you’ll still have some amazing doughnuts to share.
RoundRock Donuts at the Lone StarBakery
Round Rock, Texas
One of the first things you might notice about a doughnut from Round Rock Donuts is the color. They’re more yellow than most other doughnuts. They don’t achieve this with food coloring, though. It’s just the effect of using really fresh eggs in their handmade yeast dough. While the shop offers cake doughnuts and more, it’s those yeast doughnuts that made the shop famous, and they’re what keep people coming back for more. Lone Star Bakery opened in 1926, but the Round Rock doughnut didn’t become a star until the 1940s when Texas servicemen shared doughnuts from care packages from home with their friends. While ownership has changed hands, the recipes are the same as always. And even though you absolutely have to have a doughnut, don’t miss out on the other baked goods here that are still made in the secondhand open-flame oven bought in 1929. It has no thermostat, which means the bakers using it cook magnificent loaves of bread and delicious cinnamon rolls by know-how and intuition.
Britt’s Donut Shop
Carolina Beach, North Carolina
We’ve all been told that good things come to those who wait, and Britt’s Donut Shop is a perfect example of that. Everyone near Carolina Beach waits for Britt’s to open in the spring. This seasonal shop is an icon on the boardwalk and has been since 1939. If you’re looking for a bite of nostalgia, this is the place to take it because not much has changed. Britt’s offers hot, fresh glazed yeast doughnuts. That’s it. No sprinkles. No cream-filled. No crullers. No cake. But they don’t need to offer anything else. Just hop up on one of the few stools at the counter in the narrow shop, order one or six or a dozen or more, sip on some cold milk or soda, and enjoy an iconic summer experience.
When you visit Jeri-Lin Donuts, be prepared for one of those eye-rolling, taste-bud-overwhelming, ultimate-satisfaction experiences. Everything in this small family-operated business is made from scratch. Divine cinnamon rolls that make instant fans of everyone who tries them are paired with caramel-topped, light-as-air yeast doughnuts. Let owner Linda Musser put them together for the shop’s custom Smush, a unique combination that might sound odd but will leave you breathless.
Hotel Tabard Inn
Sometimes the best doughnuts aren’t found in a doughnut shop. Those in the know in DC head for the Hotel Tabard Inn for weekend brunch and don’t leave without an order of freshly made doughnuts topped with whipped cream that are almost always named DC’s best. The Tabard Inn serves more than doughnuts, but start there. And have some in the middle. And have some for dessert (or with dessert if you’re living dangerously). However you do it, just have some. But plan ahead because people really want these doughnuts. Brunch reservations usually fill up two to three weeks in advance. But if you’re willing to risk it, the bar at the Tabard Inn does serve these infamously addictive doughnuts to walk-in customers during brunch hours.
Gibson’s is an institution in Memphis because of the philosophy that went into its creation: to provide a sense of community, be a happy place, always welcome everyone, always smell good, and always have something that anyone can afford. It’s not an easy philosophy to live up to, but the folks at Gibson’s have been doing it 24 hours a day for more than 40 years. And are the doughnuts good? The glazed doughnuts are ethereally light, while the devil’s food is a rich chocolate crumb under a crackling glaze. The signature doughnut, though, is the New Orleans, a round ball of dough with the sour tang of buttermilk and a touch of nutmeg. And if you don’t mind a crowd, show up at 11 p.m. for the 25-cent daily doughnut clearance sale. Needless to say, it’s popular with the local college kids. And it’s a great way to make room for the
fresh batches coming out of the oven.
Atlanta is full of great food, so it’s no wonder that you can find some amazing doughnuts there, too. Sublime Doughnuts takes the fried dough way beyond the basic. You won’t find a plain glazed here, but you won’t mind. Instead, you get to choose from flavors like Nutella, butter toffee, maple bacon Cheddar, or sweet potato cake. Seasonal favorites include a doughnut split and filled with fresh strawberries and cream or a pumpkin cake doughnut. There’s something different every day to keep you coming back. Oh, and by the way, did we mention doughnut ice cream sandwiches? You probably aren’t interested in something like that, but if you are, Sublime is the place to have one. Or two. Or a few.
by Paul & Angela Knipple