Savannah is a small town and the pace is leisurely. Walking down Broughton, the main shopping street, I noted a storefront sign for deals on gold teeth. On the same side of the street is a huge Marc Jacobs boutique, complete with shelves of extremely pricey purses and shoes. The window display featured silver mannequins strategically placed amid hundreds of tacky plastic flowers. A human in a bunny get-up was the greeter and you could pose for your picture with him.
It's a town in transition.
In spite of its increasingly chic, hipster ambience, Savannah is still a distinctively Southern town. We had a simple mission: finding home-style Southern cooking in the historic district.
"Savannah has four basic food groups: gin, vodka, fried and au gratin," Charles Edelan, a 10-year resident and Tennessee transplant, told me when I arrived. He was mostly right, except for the au gratin, which seems to be beating a hasty retreat from the menus. So we took a Southern sojourn into fried.
A good friend and former Savannah restaurateur had insisted we try Crystal Beer Parlor (301 W Jones St.) for the authentic seafood. It was not too impressive from the outside, and my husband, not taken with the menu on display by the door, was searching the map for another spot when a huckster bartender came out and started talking up the food.
A few people were at the bar, discussing the Democratic primaries, and a couple of others were eating in the dim light of faux Tiffany fixtures. Turns out, the pan-fried crab cake dinner ($15.99) was excellent, not at all greasy, full of crab and accompanied by great homemade fries. Also available were homemade potato chips and fabulous desserts. The place has been around for 75 years, since its speakeasy days.
Food with a following
Of course, thanks to the Food Network, millions of folks know about Paula Deen's the Lady & Sons (102 W Congress St.), a three-story restaurant, with a shop next door. Deen also has numerous spin-off enterprises, from cookbooks to appliances to sauces and seasonings. The Deen family now owns half a block of prime real estate in the center of the tourist district. Forbes ranks her 99th of its list of the 100 most powerful celebrities.
The popular restaurant doesn't accept reservations by phone unless you have a party of 10 or more. Smaller parties have to wait in line to reserve a table. On the weekends, hordes of hungry tourists can be seen milling about on Congress Street waiting for directions about which line to stand in, when to return, where to wait when it is actually time for their meal. One poor toddler I spotted was sleeping on the pavement, his head on a folded windbreaker.
We hit the late Sunday lunch buffet ($14.99) after securing a reservation early in the morning. The food is pretty good, except for the fatty pork and ho-hum mashed potatoes. They've got fried and baked chicken, collards, lima beans, okra, creamed corn, boiled potatoes, macaroni laden with thick cheese, a basic salad bar, garlic and cheese muffins, corn cake and desserts like cheesecake and banana pudding. Everything is replenished with assembly-line efficiency, and the three-story place has the feel of a chain restaurant. Some of the staff wear T-shirts saying "I'm your cook not your doctor."
The atmosphere is cheerful, though, and background music includes Aretha Franklin and the Jackson 5. Instead of the buffet, customers can order from a diverse menu during the week for lunch and dinner.
Some down-home fare
But for similar food, I'd recommend Mrs. Wilkes' Dining Room (107 W Jones St.). Mrs. Sema Wilkes began a boardinghouse at the location in 1943. She died at age 95 in 2002, and the restaurant is still operated by the family.
The hours of operation are limited: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Here, too, you've got to stand in line, but just one time. You must also pay the $16 per person by cash or check. As at Paula Deen's, once you're in, the atmosphere is very friendly.
The Wilkes family seats you at tables of 10, and the food is served family-style, with a table full of bowls to pass around. The menu is much like the Deen buffet, but the food is better, with excellent pulled pork the day we were there. They've got great biscuits and corn bread, and fine iced tea. The menu varies slightly each day, but fried chicken is a staple.
Sharing sociability too
The great round table seating is a fun way to meet people when you're traveling. We sat with folks from Seattle, Ontario, San Francisco and Wisconsin. The Seattle couple looked askance at the dumplings — the flat strips drenched in chicken broth, impersonating a mound of anemic Play-Doh. But the young fellow from Wisconsin said the dumplings were just like his grandmother's. When you finish eating, you're told to take your dirty plates to the kitchen, in true boardinghouse style.
The decor is homey. When we were there, Mrs. Wilkes' great-great granddaughter, toddler Julianna Wilkes, was strolling around and posing for pictures. The place is run by a great-grandson with a master's in business, and the restaurant has cookbooks for sale.
The excursion into the Southern buffets reminded me of food in the small restaurants surrounding Florida State University when I attended there, like the Mecca. It was also a bit like the old Morrison's cafeterias. But the Savannah food was not as overcooked. It is comfort food for many and both the Wilkeses and the Deens offer a good deal, especially for hearty eaters.
Exercises in creativity
When you've finished your meal, you'll need to walk it off, and the Savannah Historic District is perfect for that. It has been a National Historic Landmark since 1966. Over the past 40 years, most of the lovely 18th and 19th century Greek Revival row houses, Gothic Revival mansions and Federal buildings have been restored. What makes the area especially appealing is its grid pattern of streets, broken up by 24 oak-shaded 1-acre squares.
When we visited in March, the azaleas were blooming, and the Savannah River rolled along, visible only when we walked down toward Riverfront Plaza. The Ellis Square construction project still takes up a chunk of the market area. A parking garage has been torn down, and parking will be moved underground as eventually another square is restored.
We finished our weekend listening to some roots-rock musicians in the market square. They drew a crowd of middle class middle-age bikers, spring breakers from out of state, and families from the northeast looking for a taste of the South. It was an amiable mix in a city where much public space has been preserved and where things are still on a human scale.
Kathleen Ochshorn teaches English and writing at the University of Tampa, where she also edits fiction for the Tampa Review.