FED WHITE & BLUE: SOAKED IN SAVANNAH
By the time we pulled up to our hotel on the edges of Savannah’s beautiful historic neighbourhood, the skies had already taken on a threatening dark hue. It brought with it the thunderstorms and torrential downpours we had seen forecast on the news before we left Atlanta.
Determined to see some of the city before supper, we dropped our bags in the room and immediately headed out to see if Savannah lived up to its reputation as one of the most beautiful cities in the United States. Even in the rapidly diminishing daylight, it was obvious that it did.
Savannah was founded in 1733 and the original city was designed along European lines with wide avenues and manicured squares. Most of these still remain and when combined with the local architecture and trees, dripping with Spanish Moss, it makes for one of the most engaging cities I have seen on my considerable travels around the US. Of particular interest to Sybil was The Mercer House, made famous in the evocative book “Midnight in The Garden of Good & Evil”. But, at every turn there are stunning buildings and sights to require taking the lens cap from your camera.
Our supper that evening was at on of Savannah’s most popular fine dining restaurants “Elizabeth on 37th”. As the name suggests the restaurant is housed in what I believe was once an antebellum mansion on 37th St. It was opened in 1981 by famous local chef, Elizabeth Terry and soon became known for its modern take on Southern coastal cooking. It was already filling with Savannah’s wealthy set when we arrived and were shown to a table in what had once been the gentlemen’s drawing room.
In truth, the food chosen from a small menu was fine, but nothing to write home about. Particular mention should go to a dish of local clams with cornbread Madeleines and an excellent apple tart. What made the meal memorable however was the service, which was as good as I have experienced anywhere in the US. That opinion may, of course, be coloured by the fact that our excellent server kindly brought over a bottle of Montrachet for us to finish, when he had poured a glass for another customer.
The next morning, the threatened storm had arrived with knobs on and, after a quick breakfast, we wrapped up in raincoats and braved the weather to try and complete the double task of seeing more of the city, while trying to remain reasonably dry. It was a hopeless endeavour, and, by the time it got to 11am, rainwater had already seeped through my clothing leaving me to steam inside my expensive and fetching green Cagoule.
For lunch, we had decided to brave the queues at one of Savannah’s most famous restaurants, Mrs Wilkes' Dining Room. Here, vast portions of Southern cooking have been served, family style, on communal tables for over sixty years. It is only open for three hours every day and all visitors to Savannah mark it on their list as a place to visit. That being the case, about a hundred other people had the same brilliant idea as us and we found ourselves tagging on to the end of a long line of folks sheltering under an assortment of umbrellas.
The notion of standing in the rain for at least an hour for some fried chicken did not seem anywhere close to my idea of a good time. You will know by now, however, that Sybil is made of sterner stuff than I and she remained obdurate when I suggested we should head back to the hotel and dry out. I am not very good in these circumstances, but am quietly proud of the fact that I stood in the torrent of rain for a good sixty minutes, as far from my happy place as it was possible to be, with barely a disgruntled comment.
By the time we reached the front of the line, I was pretty sure that Mrs Wilkes would have to serve up the meal of a lifetime to make it worthwhile. We were allowed in and seated at a large table filled with ten other miserable customers, all of whom were steaming nicely as they dried off in the warmth of the room and none of who seemed in the mood for conversation.
We began to silently pass around the huge plates of food that had been laid out to await our arrival. There were collared greens, yams, beans, ribs, meatloaf, corn pudding, biscuits and cornbread, pinot beans, carrot and raisin salad, apple sauce, BBQ pork, gravy and of course, their most famous dish, chicken pan fried in shortening. The chicken was magnificent stuff, the crisp coating giving way to moist flesh. We at least got enough of a response from our fellow diners to agree that we should request two more plates full of it before we were done. However, much as I am fan of Southern cooking, the rest of the food at Mrs Wilkes was a disappointment and spoke as much to the need to mass produce for the tourist hordes as it did to the Georgian hospitality that was the intention of its original owner.
Last summer I had experienced a similar style of meal at Monell’s in Nashville and told Sybil, more than once, how much better it had been. That pleased her as you can imagine. Thirty minutes after we arrived, we paid our bill of about $35 and I trudged back to the hotel to sulk. As I am sure you can guess, I rarely have need to use a hairdryer, but was thankful of the one in our hotel room, which I put to good use drying my shoes.
Our last meal in Savannah itself was taken in Noble Fare, a restaurant near our hotel with a decent reputation and a dreadful name. It was pleasant enough, if only remarkable for supplying a decent martini and a plate of domestic cheeses that confirmed my long held opinion that American cheese makers still have a long, long way to go before they deserve the name. We retired to bed by 10pm and I had vivid nightmares about standing in line at Mrs Wilkes.
Fortunately, the storms had passed by the time we woke up the next morning. We still had a couple of hours before we had to check out and drive back to Atlanta Airport for our flight back to Los Angeles. So, we took the opportunity to walk along the restored riverfront area of the city and back through the business district where we passed the crowds of people waiting for a table at “The Lady & Sons” the restaurant owned by the walking butter mountain that is Paula Dean. Suckers.
I wanted one more taste of Georgia BBQ before we left and made good use of my GPS system to guide us to the tiny town of Soperton, which boasts not only what must be the smallest City Hall on earth, but also the highly recommended BBQ joint that is Ware’s.
The meaty ribs and a first taste of Brunswick Stew, were as perfect a way to end what had been a hugely enjoyable first trip to Atlanta and Savannah
Despite the weather, we both agreed that it wont be too far in the future before we have Georgia on our minds once more.