Travel: Don’t let the tourists outrun us; Visit Laurel this summer

Kara Kimbrough

Mississippi is a favorite destination for travelers from all over the United States and countries around the world. Some of the tourist spots that come to mind are the Gulf Coast, Natchez, Vicksburg, and various college towns across the state. Add Laurel to your list of places that attract tourists from far and near, all eager to walk the same streets, dine at restaurants and see the homes “up close and in character” featured on the popular HGTV show, “Hometown.”

It shouldn’t really come as a surprise to learn that the mid-sized town in Jones County is now a tourist hot spot. In fact, residents of other states are selling their homes, packing up and moving to Laurel. Similar to the city’s sudden emergence on the world stage, the popularity many cities and towns experienced once it appeared on a TV show, Laurel is the destination of choice for thousands on a mission to watch show-owned Laurel Mercantile host Ben, Erin Napier, The Pearl Diner, and other venues that became famous after their appearance on the show.

I often hear Mississippians say they’ve never visited some of the Mississippi tourist spots frequented by guests from far away. Don’t make that mistake with Laurel. By the way, it does not matter if you are a fan of the show or not. Laurel is a city worth visiting, it’s full of great restaurants, the state’s first art museum, better known as the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art and an attractive historic downtown area. In time for summer excursions, many family-oriented events are planned throughout the city, from farmers markets to movie nights to fireworks displays.

The streets of downtown Laurel that were once quiet seven days a week are now filled with tourists from all over the country and the world. In the center is the former Burton jewelry store, now home to Pearl’s Diner, a restaurant made famous on the HGTV show. Photo submitted by the Emirates Diplomatic Academy of Jones County

There is plenty to see and do in Laurel, as most tourists can attest. However, one of the city’s most important resources is the historic downtown area. Filled with plenty of green space and many of the original buildings that made Laurel a bustling retail center in the 1950s and 1960s, the brick-lined district transports visitors back to a simpler time. Despite the influx of new businesses and the constant influx of cars and tourists on foot, it’s easy to feel like you’re in a bygone era when storefronts were ornate, time moved at a slower pace and people were friendly.

When it’s mealtime, Laurel has something for every age group and taste, from family-owned restaurants and butcher shops to fine dining and everything in between.

Located on Central Avenue in downtown Laurel, The Loft is known for its delicious grilled steaks. Photo submitted by the Emirates Diplomatic Academy of Jones County

There are many new restaurants I’ve heard about but never found time to visit. Instead, I tend to gravitate toward my favorite – The Loft. What is the reason for my love? The steaks, seafood and side dishes at Loft are simply the best. I’ve never had a less than great meal inside the restaurant tucked away in a row of historic buildings in downtown Laurel.

Grilled steak is a dish that tends to polarize and create discord among civilian people. Debate abounds over the ideal cutting of meat, sauce or marinade, grilling technique, and the debate of charcoal versus wood chips. Sometimes it’s best to leave the roast to others and enjoy a grilled steak in the restaurant. The Loft is well worth the trip if you’re a steak lover or like me, didn’t consider it a favorite until you tried the hand-cut grilled steaks served in the charming restaurant.

Nothing better than a grilled steak from The Loft. Photo submitted by the Emirates Diplomatic Academy of Jones County

The Loft was not created with the intention of becoming a steakhouse only. Instead, John and Roxanne Digges wanted to offer a family-owned alternative to the plethora of chain restaurants scattered across the Laurel landscape. In 2009, The Loft opened in an old bank building and was soon relocated to the current multi-room space on Central Avenue.

Inside the ivy-covered building there is a charming atmosphere thanks to exposed brick walls, wooden beams, brick floors, and comfortable seating areas, all of which set the stage for an upcoming meal. Guests can choose to dine in the spacious dining areas, relax outside in the two-story outdoor patio and courtyard reminiscent of New Orleans, or head to the full-service bar.

Napiers’ decision to film several meetings on camera in the restaurant with home renovation clients was good for business. As a result, tourists from all over the country visit regularly to experience The Loft after seeing it on TV. However, despite the show’s popularity combined with the steady growth of the revitalized downtown area, there is another reason for the restaurant’s success – the owners’ desire to prepare quality food made from scratch and grill on site so that every steak is ready. Moist, tender and browned to perfection.

I hate focusing only on steaks. After all, there are many other items on the menu. However, I have to mention one of the best appetizers I’ve ever tried.

Grilled cuts of meat with two dipping sauces, miniature attractions of the next big delight, succulent, smoky and delicious that melt in your mouth. I almost – almost make it – didn’t need to order an appetizer after my friend and I shared an overflowing platter of smoked bites. But I did, of course.

While the large ribeye is the most popular appetizer (and there are other cuts on the menu as well), Loft’s version of surf and turf is a go-to dish. The grilled ribeye has just the right amount of spice and isn’t dripping with marinade or too dry. A generous serving of lightly breaded, breaded shrimp is almost as good. It is prepared and lightly fried by hand and is crunchy and not greasy.

The Loft also serves a delicious selection of pasta dishes, appetizers and desserts. It’s not on the menu, but the friendly service and the charming warm space are almost as good as the grilled steak and shrimp…almost.

The Loft is open for dinner at 5 PM from Tuesday to Saturday. They are not open for lunch. The restaurant is closed on Sundays and Mondays. The restaurant is located at 535 Central Ave. In downtown Laurel. For information, call 601-518-0404.

For information on summer events held in Laurel, visit: thenewstateofjones.com.

Kara Kimbrough is a Mississippi food and travel writer. Email it to [email protected]

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