Greetings From Oxford, Mississippi

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Many know Oxford, Miss., mainly as the home of the University of Mississippi, called Ole Miss by most. The campus is an integral part of the little city, and students account for a good chunk of its population. On home-game weekends each autumn, thousands of Ole Miss’ faithful fans swarm in for food, fun and football. But there’s much more to Oxford than pigskin and academics—and spring’s a smart time to discover it. The crowds are smaller compared to fall’s football frenzy, the temps are mild, a bevy of tulips provide pops of color and there’s plenty to see and do, including the 20th annual Double Decker Festival (April 24-25): a weekend-long celebration of music and art that’s grown from one band in the bed of a truck to a highly anticipated event that drew 60,000 people last year.

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Double Decker Festival Photo: Ben Pharr

Day One

If you wake up with raging appetite, tame it quickly (and deliciously) with a visit to Big Bad Breakfast. Owned by Chef John Currence (a torchbearer of modern Southern cuisine who put Oxford on the culinary map), BBB is known for its massive morning-meal options. Some are quite refined, like the house-made, sun-dried cranberry and almond granola over yogurt, but go for the signature BBB plate: two eggs, Andouille sausage, home fries, red-eye gravy and a cathead biscuit.

Fight the urge to take a nap, and head over to Ole Miss’ campus to walk off the 1,000+ calories you just consumed. Start at The Grove, 10 acres of green space shaded by ancient oaks. On weekends from September through November, it’s packed with tailgating tents decked out in chandeliers, grandma’s silver and other finery. But in spring, it’s an oasis of calm.

Stroll over to the Lyceum, the oldest building on campus, and look for the scars left by bullets ricocheting off its thick white columns when, in 1962, the arrival of the university’s first African-American student, James Meredith, sparked an ugly, violent protest. A statue honoring Meredith and the progress he symbolizes stands nearby.

The Lyceum Photo: Flickr/Joseph

Leave campus for The Square, the historic city center that’s anchored by the Layfayette County Courthouse. It looks like a set for a movie depicting idyllic small-town life, with its perfectly preserved buildings (many with balconies), immaculate landscaping and smiling citizens.

If you’re actually hungry again by noon, Ajax promises to undo all your ellmeaning exercise. This diner on The Square serves heaping helpings of classic comfort foods, and serves them up quick, even when it’s crowded (which it usually is). Try a veggie plate and choose from items like creamy broccoli-rice casserole that’s got two surprises inside, a spicy kick and the crunch of slivered almonds; potato salad heavy on red onion and dill; and slow-simmered black-eyed peas that aren’t embellished (and don’t need to be). A hunk of dense jalapeno cornbread teeters on the edge of every plate, ready to sop up juices and scoop up stray bites.

Step outside of Ajax and enter shopping nirvana. On all four sides of The Square, shops old and new offer all kinds of things to tempt money from your wallet. Don’t miss Neilson’s, the South’s oldest still-operating department store; Mississippi Madness, chock full of magnolia-state-made pottery, foodstuffs and more; and Therapy, a hip ladies’ boutique with flirty dresses and tops styled (and sized) for the younger set. Jewelry stores, home décor shops, art galleries, stores devoted solely to Ole Miss-themed items and three independent bookstores round out the mix.

If spending money makes you thirsty, make your way to City Grocery, another John Currence joint. But skip the restaurant downstairs, and look for the door with a glass panel that reads, “No belly aching. Must be 21 to enter” that will take you up to the bar. Snag a seat on the small balcony cooled by lazy ceiling fans and watch beautiful people go about their business below you. While the ghost of Oxford’s own literary luminary William Faulkner is everywhere (Faulkner’s Alley is right next door), he won’t care if you sip a Hemingway daiquiri as you wonder why everyone—men, women, children, dogs—in Oxford is so good looking.

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City Grocery Photo: Jennifer Stewart Kornegay

For dinner, leave the Square for a strip mall where Snackbar is waiting. A long bar-height table dominates its dimly lit dining room and leads to communal eating and conversations with strangers. But they won’t be strangers long; it’s hard not to get happy and friendly after a few seasonally available cocktails like the Smash That Ate the South: a sweet-sharp mash-up of tequila, strawberries and muddled mint with house-made kudzu bitters over crushed ice. Chef Vishwesh Bhatt’s French-meets-Southern cuisine will make you (and your taste buds) even happier still. Pan-roasted Mississippi redfish resting on fennel-cauliflower gratin is a must-try.

If you’re feeling happy enough to pretend you’re a college student when you leave, visit Funky’s, a loud, dark bar where the “cool” kids gather to dance amid colored lights and drink ridiculous, neon-hued frozen concoctions like the “Taylor Swift.” Try The Wine Bar for a more sophisticated nightlife experience and eclectic selection of vino.

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