By CALLIE DANIELS BRYANT
Imagine South Mississippi, and it’s easy to envision the casinos, glamorous hotels and a New Orleans vibe. But imagine a small town in the Pine Belt with beautifully restored houses, restaurants offering homemade Southern cuisine with seafood right out of Gulf of Mexico, and the site of HGTV’s Home Town.
That town is Laurel.
Founded in 1882 as a lumber town, Laurel was named after laurel thickets surrounding it. It became known as “The Town that Timber Built,” evident in its oak-lined avenues and historic craftsman homes built in 1920s and 1930s.
As the town grew over a century it garnered recognition for a few things, namely being the site of Mississippi’s oldest art museum, the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art, which opened in 1923. It is also the hometown of musician Lance Bass, actress Mary Elizabeth Ellis, the Christian rock band David and Giants, and NFL football player Jason Campbell, to name a few of its famous residents.
Laurel is on the national stage thanks to HGTV’s Home Town, starring Ben and Erin Napier who lovingly restore historical houses for its residents and newcomers.
“The best place to catch a glimpse of the stars of HGTV is at the Laurel Mercantile at 414 Front Street. Filming takes place throughout the summer with 13 new episodes on order for 2019,” said Anicia Hill, public relations director for the city of Laurel.
While the city is on national television the small town vibe hasn’t gone away. Hill says that Downtown Thursday, held every Thursday in June, is the “highlight of the year” with Farmers Market on the city’s main street along with Downtown Movie Night where hundreds of Laurelites will watch family movies for free.
“It is small town living at its finest,” Hill said.
And the dining matches that hometown feel. Lee’s Coffee & Tea, named after late “Aunt Lee” Barnett, is a place where “everybody knows your name and you’re always glad you came,” said Hill who added the restaurant is where you can pick up a classic pimiento-and-cheese sandwich with a pour-over coffee. Be sure to come early to meet a local named George who can tell you about the town’s history.
And then there’s Estelle’s Southern Cuisine which is Laurel’s original soul food restaurant and a favorite go-to place for fried chicken and catfish blue plate special.
For fine dining, the Loft on Central Avenue is a standout.
“They are known amongst locals for their amazing steaks and red royal shrimps,” Hill said. “The Loft is one of only a few dine-in restaurants in Downtown Laurel. They have a full bar and a great atmosphere with outdoor dining open year-round.”
For those with a sweet tooth and an itch for authentic cuisine can visit Julia’s Bakery where they can eat carne asada tacos and then pick up a homemade cake! If you just want a good Southern barbecue then stop by Hog Heaven, proclaimed by Hill as “best BBQ hands down” with its pork ribs, smoked brisket, turkey legs and all the trimmings to chow down.
To walk off the calories, the city has plenty of shopping from antiques to malls. HGTV’s Napiers have a store with close friends called Laurel Mercantile Co. where you can find vintage tees, cast-iron skillets, Delta grits, casserole totes and furniture and more!
You can go antique-hunting at Southern Antiques, The Cotton Boll and The Rusty Chandelier.
To get a feel of the town’s culture, visit its boutiques and gift shops like The Laurel Leaf, The Boutique on Central and Loblolly Boutique and Jack & Jill’s children boutique and Goodness Gracious. And that’s just off top of the list. Take a drive around to find one-of-a-kind shopping destinations, especially in downtown Laurel.
Downtown is an undeniable hub of history, culture, and style. There, you can find its historic Guild & Gentry’s, a fine men’s fashion store named after the Gentry family who moved to Laurel from Iowa to invest in and expand the city. The century-old Lott Furniture resides there with hand-picked furniture and a painting store within called HAND+made by Clairmont & Co. for those who want to decorate with original art and crafts. For more home goods visit Adam Trest Home which offers nearly everything from stationery to nursery décor to house portraits.
The stores, restaurants, and a national television show along with national features in Southern Living and The Voice, may all make Laurel sound like a booming city, but take a drive there and bask in the charm of a Southern town.
For more information, visit laurelms.com and laurelmainstreet.com.
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