Don’t let tourists outdo us; visit Laurel this summer
By Kara Kimbrough
Mississippi is blessed to be the destination of choice for travelers from around the U.S. and countries across the globe. A few tourism spots that come to mind are the Gulf Coast, Natchez, Vicksburg and assorted college towns around the state. Add Laurel to the list of places that are drawing tourists from far and near, all eager to walk the same streets, dine at the restaurants and view “up close and personal” the homes featured on the hit HGTV show, Hometown.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, really, to learn that the once-medium-sized city in Jones County is now a hot tourism spot. In fact, residents of other states are selling their homes, packing their belongings and moving to Laurel. The city’s sudden prominence on the world stage is similar to the popularity experienced by many cities and towns once they’re featured on a television show, Laurel is the destination of choice for thousands on a mission to see the Laurel Mercantile Co. owned by show hosts Ben and Erin Napier, The Pearl Diner and other places made famous after appearances on the show.
I often hear Mississippians say they’ve never visited some of Mississippi's tourism spots frequented by guests from faraway places. Don’t make that mistake with Laurel. Incidentally, it shouldn’t matter if you’re a fan of the show or not. Laurel is a city worth visiting, filled as it is with amazing restaurants, the state’s first art museum, better known as the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art and a quaint, historic downtown area. Just in time for summer travels, plenty of family-oriented events are planned across the city, ranging from farmer’s markets to movie nights to fireworks shows.
There’s plenty to see and do in Laurel, as most tourists can attest. However, one of the city’s most valuable resources is its historic downtown area. Filled with plenty of green spaces and many of the original buildings that made Laurel a bustling retail hub in the 1950’s and 60’s, the brick-lined area transports visitors back to a simpler time. Despite the influx of new businesses and a steady streams of cars and tourists on foot, it’s easy to feel like you’re in a bygone era when time storefronts were ornate, time moved at a slower pace and people were friendly.
When it’s time for a meal, Laurel has something for every age group and taste bud, ranging from family-owned diners and butcher shops to fine dining establishments and everything in between.
There are many new restaurants I’ve heard about but have not found time to visit. Instead, I tend to gravitate toward a favorite - The Loft. And the reason for my favoritism? The Loft’s steaks, seafood and sides are simply the best. I’ve never experienced a less than outstanding meal inside the restaurant tucked in a row of historic building in downtown Laurel.
Grilled steak is a dish that tends to polarize and create dissension among otherwise civil people. Arguments abound over the perfect cut of meat, sauce or marinade, grilling technique and the charcoal versus wood chips debate. Sometimes it’s best to leave the grilling to other and enjoy a succulent grilled steak in a restaurant. The Loft is worth the trip if you’re a steak aficionado or like me, hadn’t considered it a favorite food until I sampled the hand-cut grilled steaks served at the charming eatery.
The Loft wasn’t created solely with the goal of becoming a steak restaurant. Instead, Jon and Roxanne Diggetts wanted to offer a family-owned alternative to the plethora of chain restaurants dotting the Laurel landscape. In 2009, The Loft opened in an old bank building and relocated not long after to the current multi-room space on Central Avenue.
Inside the ivy-covered building exists a charming ambiance courtesy of exposed brick walls and wooden beams, brick floors and cozy seating areas, all of which set the stage for the meal to come. Guests can choose to dine in the spacious dining areas, relax outside on the double-decker outdoor patio and courtyard reminiscent of New Orleans or head to the full-service bar.
The Napiers’ decision to film several on-camera meetings at the restaurant with home renovation clients has been good for business. As a result, tourists from around the country regularly drop by to experience The Loft after seeing it on television. Yet despite the show’s popularity combined with the steady growth of a revitalized downtown area, there’s another reason for the restaurant’s success – the owners’ desire to prepare consistently good, made-from-scratch food and an on-site grill so that each steak is moist, tender and seared to perfection.
I hate to focus solely on the steaks. After all, there are many other items on the menu. However, I must mention one of the best appetizers I’ve ever sampled.
Grilled steak bites with two dipping sauces, miniature coming attractions of the larger delight to come, are succulent, smoky and melt-in-your-mouth delicious. I almost – make that almost – didn’t need to order an entrée after my friend and I shared an overflowing platter of the smoky bites. But, of course, I did.
While the large ribeye is the most popular entrée (and other cuts are also on the menu), the Loft’s version of surf and turf is my go-to dish. The dish’s grilled ribeye contains just the right amount of seasoning and is neither dripping with marinade or too dry. Almost as good is the generous serving of large, lightly breaded butterflied fried shrimp. They’re prepared and fried with a light hand and are crispy, not greasy.
The Loft also serves a delicious lineup of pasta dishes, appetizers and desserts. It’s not on the menu, but friendly service and the cozy, charming space is almost as good as the grilled steak and shrimp…almost.
The Loft opens for dinner at 5 p.m., Tuesday – Saturday. They are not open for lunch. The restaurant is closed on Sunday and Monday. The restaurant is located at 535 Central Ave. in downtown Laurel. Call 601-518-0404 for additional information.
For information on summer events taking place in Laurel, visit: thenewstateofjones.com.
Kara Kimbrough is a food and travel writer from Mississippi. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.