September 4, 2012 by Ashlee Clark Thompson
(Blogger’s note: Click here to read more about Treat Yo’ Self, a new series of posts on Ashlee Eats.)
It took my husband and me 10 months to make it Savannah, Ga., for our honeymoon. And when we arrived, we ate our way through this great Southern city — and a nearby beach town, too.
Savannah and neighboring Tybee Island should be on all food lovers’ list of travel destinations. The food is some of the finest that the South has to offer, and the dishes represent the best parts of living in this region: simple, homegrown and full of love.
We visited nearly a dozen restaurants, dessert shops, sandwich stands and any other place that struck our fancy during our four-day stay (including a certain restaurant owned by a famous, flamboyant Southern gal and her two sons). Two places stand out as worthy of spending a few extra bucks: Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room in Savannah and The Crab Shack in Tybee Island (I’ll focus on Mrs. Wilkes’ in this post, then follow up with a separate post about The Crab Shack).
Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room, 107 W. Jones St., Savannah
Three of the travel and food books I bought for this trip declared that you can’t leave Savannah without a meal at Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room. Sema Wilkes, the restaurant’s namesake, began running the dining room of the boarding house that was originally at this site during World War II, according to her cookbook, Mrs. Wilkes’ Famous Recipes. Mrs. Wilkes’ food eventually became more sought-after than a room for rent, and the restaurant has operated for more than 50 years. Mrs. Wilkes died in 2005.
This cozy dining room is nestled in the historic district of downtown Savannah, an area full of beautiful architecture and breathtaking oak trees dripping with Spanish moss. It’s easy to miss until about 10:15 a.m. — that’s when a line starts to form down the sidewalk in anticipation of the 11 a.m. opening of the restaurant.
Rob and I were two of the first dozen people through the doors. Once inside, we were seated family style, meaning that we shared a 10-seat table with other hungry strangers.
The bowls of steaming side dishes were already on the table, waiting for our arrival. The menu changes each day, so I didn’t know what to expect. There were lima beans, baked beans, green beans and collard greens. Black-eyed peas and macaroni and cheese. Rutabagas, mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes. And at each place setting, a tall glass of sweet tea. Soon, waiters came around with platters of fried chicken stacked in precarious pyramids.
After Ryon Thompson, Mrs. Wilkes’ great-grandson who now operates the restaurant, prayed over the food, it was time for Rob and me to get friendly with our neighbors. Eating family-style brings out the best in folks — lots of “pleases” and “thank yous” as the bowls were passed, smiles as everyone took their first bite, and a shared appreciation for old-fashioned Southern fare.
There’s nothing jazzy about Mrs. Wilkes’ food. No exotic flavors, culinary fusions or experimental cooking techniques. Our meals were something you could find in a church basement or a mother’s kitchen. The food was cooked with a heap of love — and a ham hock or two.
All this food, plus a dessert, is an even $18 a person. I left with a full belly and a case of the warm fuzzies from all the Southern hospitality at my table. That was 18 bucks well spent.