Even though I moved to St. Petersburg this past summer and am loving my new Florida home, I am and always will be a Savannah, Ga., girl. I grew up there and pride myself on knowing all the best spots that don't show up on city maps or in popular travel guides. • Take food, and eating outdoors specifically. Most people think of Paula Deen or Mrs. Wilkes when they think of dining in Savannah, but there is much more to the city's culinary flavor than fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, and collard greens (sorry, Paula). • Most winters in Savannah are similar to those in Florida, so you don't have to wait until late spring or fall to take a weekend road trip there. In fact, many of the best and most quintessential Savannah restaurants have courtyards and patios that are comfortable during the winter months. • Here are a few of my favorite outdoor dining spots.
There's something about the smell of saltwater and the sound of the Back River crashing on the dock below that instantly puts you in vacation mode. AJ's is hands-down the best place in Tybee Island to watch the sunset, and you can usually spot a dolphin or two. Sadly, the place doesn't accept reservations, but with great cocktails and nearly 50 types of beer, it's worth putting your name in, grabbing a drink and taking a walk down on the docks. Most of the seating is on the back deck and the rear dock, so I wouldn't wear high heels, ladies, to avoid a heel-stuck-in-dock situation. Been there; done that. On the menu is all manner of fried shellfish and a must-try crab stew ($7.95 for a bowl).
1315 Chatham Ave., Tybee Island, Ga.; (912) 786-9533 or ajsdocksidetybee.com. Open 4-10 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday through Sunday.
Meredith Gaunce of St. Petersburg is the author of "Traveling Savannah: A Girl's Guide," which can be ordered at traveling-girls.com for $17.95, plus shipping. The book is illustrated by Erin Salzer Hanna.
The Bohemian Hotel: Rocks on the Roof
The Bohemian Hotel opened in the summer of 2009 (following in the footsteps of its sister hotel and hot spot, the Mansion on Forsyth Park, in Savannah's historic district). Probably the classiest, trendiest bar in Savannah is on the roof of the swanky Bohemian. Whether you go for a funky martini or tapas-style dinner with steamed mussels and goat cheese guacamole (most everything is in the $10 to $15 range) or just to listen to live music, you must go to Rocks on the Roof to check out the view. There are couches and a fire pit, and this is the "it" spot to see Savannah from above year-round. Be forewarned, though, that it'll be packed on a Friday or Saturday night. If you don't like crowds, it might be better to go for happy hour and a sunset. The perfect happy hour drink is the Savannah Tea, but it's not like the sweet tea you get from Chick-fil-A, if you catch my drift.
102 W Bay St., Savannah; (912) 721-3800 or bohemianhotelsavannah.com. Open 3 p.m. to midnight Monday through Wednesday, 11 a.m. to midnight Thursday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday and 11 a.m. to midnight Sunday.
If you're looking for quaint patio dining within walking distance of downtown and are willing to splurge (entrees average in the high $20s and small plates top $10), Cha Bella is your place. Those on tighter budgets should drop in for drinks and appetizers in the cozy courtyard. Chef Matt Roher prides himself on cooking with only locally grown organic foods. The menu changes weekly, depending on what's in season on the local farms. I wasn't thrilled with this concept at first, because I tend to find one fave dish and stick with it. But here, there are delicious items on the menu every time and I have always loved my meal. My caveat to you, though, is to avoid the patio swings after a few drinks. Cha Bella's famous mojitos go down so smoothly that you don't realize your clumsiness. It can be painful and embarrassing. Hypothetically speaking, of course.
102 E Broad St., Savannah; (912) 790-7888 or cha-bella.com. Open 5:30 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 5:30 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Leoci's, which opened last year, has quickly become one of the go-to outdoor dining spots downtown. It's on Abercorn Street behind the Mansion on Forsyth Park, so you might not happen upon it. I recommend checking out the patio seating and delicious Italian food, including brick-oven pizzas and homemade pastas (pasta entrees start at about $12, less for half-orders, with prices peaking at $30 for lamb osso buco). From the street, it looks like nothing special and the inside is classy, but the outside is where it's at. There is a deck with tables and umbrellas and a small area for live music. Even on a cool night, some heat lamps, a glass of red wine and a bowl of hot pasta will warm you right up. There's also a grassy area below the deck with cornhole boards — that game where you throw a beanbag into a board with holes cut into it — and everyone is always friendly. If you need a diversion, grab a beanbag and throw it.
606 Abercorn St., Savannah; (912) 335-7027 or leocis.com. Opens at 11 a.m. Monday through Friday and noon Saturday and Sunday. Closing time is fluid, but Leoci's offers late-night dining.
North Beach Grill
North Beach Grill is old-school Savannah. Growing up in this city, I'd go to this eatery with my friends when spending the day on Tybee Beach. The north end of Tybee, where the restaurant is, tends to be less crowded, and parking is easier to find than on the main strip. The city cried a few years ago when North Beach Grill closed, but thankfully it has reopened and is better than ever with its grilled fish, crab cakes, and red beans and rice at moderate prices. The picnic tables, umbrellas, island music and view of the beach can somehow take your stress level down 10 notches any time of year. So whether you go for chips and dip or a fresh fish sandwich, you will want to check out this Tybee Beach staple.
33 Meddin Drive, Tybee Island, Ga.; (912) 786-4442. Opens generally at 11 a.m. daily, but operates on "Tybee time," which means it opens and closes when it pleases, so you probably want to call first to make sure it's open.
Soho South Café
Soho just might be my all-time favorite place to have lunch in Savannah. It's also where I had my bridal shower. Probably the two coolest things about Soho are that it's a converted old garage and that it doubles as a gallery for local artists. Some of the artwork is big and pricey, such as large canvases costing hundreds of dollars or more, but some smaller pieces are more affordable, like paintings for $75 to $150 and hand-painted note cards for $15 to $30. Order your lunch — great sandwiches, salads, quiches and everything less than $13 — and then walk around and shop. Get there before 11:45 a.m., because there's a mad rush that descends right around noon. After that, there can be a bit of a wait. Order a cup (although I would suggest a bowl) of the tomato basil bisque. It's to die for and will certainly warm you up if it's chilly and you choose to sit outside. The bisque used to be a special, but it was so popular, it's now a permanent fixture on the menu and can come with a four-cheese grilled cheese sandwich (one is the Southern staple, pimento). Great for Sunday brunch, too, but get there early if you don't want to wait. Save room for dessert, too.
12 W Liberty St., Savannah; (912) 233-1633 or sohosouthcafe.com. Lunch served from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Sunday brunch is from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
This is not a place you would stumble upon just roaming Broughton or River streets. You probably wouldn't want to walk there from downtown, but it's only a few minutes by car. I must warn you that if you're looking for cheap, two-people-eat-and-drink-for-$25 Mexican food, this is not that kind of place. Entrees run $10 to $20, and some Savannians begrudge the fact that Sol charges for chips and salsa. But I haven't had a bad meal there, and I think the cost is on target for the caliber of food and the trendy yet laid-back atmosphere. The restaurant is in a converted garage in an up-and-coming section of town. There are tables inside and out with heat lamps to warm the outside diners. When the weather is nice, the garage doors come up and it's all open-air. I'm a huge fan of their ceviche and am pretty positive their fish tacos have a magical ingredient rendering them the best in the world. You'll find fusion in those tacos ($4 to $5 a la carte), too, with tandoori chicken and barbecued salmon fillings. Oh, and you have to try the mojitos. (I know I said that about Cha Bella, too, but they're delicious at both restaurants. You could have a mojito-off between Sol and Cha Bella. Just a suggestion . . .)
1611 Habersham St., Savannah; (912) 232-1874. Open 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday.