Newk's Eatery—you can just call it Newk's—is the brainchild of a retired dentist in Mississippi, and it's about to go wide.

newks eatery
Credit: Courtesy of Newk’s Eatery

The first time at Newk's, your eyes will inevitably be drawn first to the condiment bar. There are a lot of things to appreciate about this popular counter-service joint that feels something like a Southern-inflected version of Panera Bread, offering up a robust menu of salads, sandwiches, soups and baked goods. It's totally fine, however, if you find yourself immediately drawn to those complimentary condiments—you're not the only one.

Fresh roasted garlic you could eat with a spoon, nutty parmesan, piquant capers, crispy breadsticks, housemade croutons all but dripping in garlicky butter, imported pepperoncinis, jalapenos, cherry peppers, pickles—all are laid out on a glass table (and under a cleverly-designed sneeze guard), for everyone to admire and help themselves to. A sign above the table lets you know that Newk's is serious about their food—tuna is sushi-grade, steak is petite tenderloin, sauces are "scratch-made," teas are Rainforest Alliance Certified.

Oh, and—keep reading—don't forget to order a slice of their famous 12-layer cake, which comes in caramel, strawberry and chocolate. They've even got a photo that shows you just how pretty their cakes are. (They are very pretty, indeed.)

Everything you need to know about Newk's can pretty much be summed up by reading that sign—you are in a place that takes its food seriously, sure, but this is also a restaurant unafraid of a little bit of fun. Newk's is not necessarily obsessed with calorie counts, or, at the very least, not obsessed with getting you to stick to them. Ahi tuna, or shrimp and avocado salads share menu board real estate with a decadent toasted pimento cheese sandwich; white bean and kale soup are on offer, but so is a very fine crab and lobster bisque.

Veggie sandwiches on dark, probably-good-for-you bread go up against the "Q," flame-grilled chicken, bacon and Swiss, doused in Alabama-style white barbecue sauce. The restaurant is happy to tell you about its 600-calorie menu pairings, offering a half sandwich and soup or salad combo for health-conscious diners. You will not, however, find their six-cheese pimento mac (and cheese, if that wasn't clear) with bacon on the calorie-counters menu—the very popular pizzas, neither.

Founded in Oxford, Mississippi in 2004 by retired dentist Don Newcomb and his son Chris, Newk's is a follow-up to the hugely popular McAlister's Deli, for a long time now a staple in many a Southern town (and beyond). Newk's came to be after the Newcomb's sold the sandwich-centric McAlister's, which now has 400 locations in 26 states.

For the first decade, Newk's remained a fairly regional thing, opening about ten restaurants and franchising nearly sixty more; after selling the majority of the company to a private equity firm in 2014, the expansion of Newk's has been accelerating relatively quickly—there are now roughly 100 stores in over a dozen states, with plans for hundreds more in the near future.

Eat at Newk's a couple of times—there are stores now as far north as suburban Baltimore, Indianapolis and as far west as Denver—and you'll quickly see why the concept is taking off.

Unlike Panera, which tends to lean heavily toward healthy offerings, Newk's stays entirely neutral, managing to pull off both the good-for-you items and the more indulgent ones equally well. Want a salad and an unsweetened iced tea? Go for it. Want to emotionally eat large portions of bacon macaroni and cheese, followed up by a slice of twelve-layer cake? It's all the same to them. On recent visits to multiple locations across the South, the lines to get in suggest that Newk's come one, come all strategy is winning them a lot of fans.

While the concept is more geared towards eating in—you order, then take a seat, and someone will bring you your food—Newk's is equally adept at doing takeout; they also sell a lot of their popular items in bulk, because sometimes, you just need 32 oz. of housemade pimento cheese to take home, right? Can't get that at Panera.