Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Bits and Morsels in Savannah

The table is set (well, everything but the fried chicken ) at Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room in Savannah.

Come Fly With Me. When I told my friends and colleagues that I was going to Savannah for a few days: "eat your heart out" was the most popular response. I dare say, they almost got their wish. Savannah is a fascinating city filled with style, grace, Spanish moss, grits, pralines, pimento cheese, iced tea, good-old southern cooking, and (bursting with) history.

I stayed in the historic district with its lush green squares, each with its own unique story and charm. The best way to explore Savannah is on foot. The city is flat and besides its inviting public spaces, there are cafes, antique shops, and house museums on almost every street.

One of my favorite locales was Monterey Square with its grand statue honoring General Casimir Pulaski (he saved the life of George Washington during the Revolutionary War, and became a general in the Continental Army. He died of wounds suffered in the Battle of Savannah).

There is an absolutely lovely antique bookshop called V. & J. Duncan, which specializes in old maps, prints and  books. The owners, John and Ginger  Duncan, literally know everything about their beloved city and are two of the most gracious people I have met down south or up north.
V. & J. Duncan Antique Maps, Prints, and Books.
Ginger and John Duncan of V. & J.
Temple Mickve Israel is also on the square and it is one of the oldest synagogues in  America. It’s especially curious because it is the only synagogue in America built in a gothic style.

Across the square from the synagogue is the Mercer Williams House. It’s impossible to make the trip to Savannah without John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil coming to mind. I love the book -- not only is it a true crime story, but it's all about life in Savannah. The Mercer Williams house is where Jim Williams was accused of shooting Danny Hansford in the study of the house (he was found not guilty of the murder after his fourth murder trial).
Temple Mickve Israels.
The Mercer Williams House.
My fascination with “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” led me to take a tour which visited all the locations in the book and the movie. The highlight of this tour was  the Bonaventure Cemetery. A history lesson awaits all who pass through its gates. Johnny Mercer and Conrad Aiken are among the celebrated who are buried there and the cemetery is filled with glorious and lifelike statues framed by trees draped in Spanish moss. Many of the graves have benches intended for visitors to sit and reflect on their own lives.

It’s a 15-minute drive from downtown Savannah and not long ago, people who visted the cemetary and its inhabitants would stay for the whole day. I too, stayed much longer than I expcected.

• Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil Tour
• V. & J. Duncan
Bonaventure Cemetery - Little Gracie Watson statue.
The veteran section.
A grave of a Confederate soldier. A beautiful statue of an angel.
A Johnny Mercer bench (his songs are engraved on the side).
The entrance to the Jewish Section of Bonaventure Cemetery.
Everyone knows the real reason for my visit to Savannah: Paula Deen, Pralines, and Pizza (yes, pizza). Whenever I visit a new city I love taking a horse and carriage ride around town. It’s a peaceful way to get your bearings and see the city in slow motion. We met our sweet little horse, Ladybug, in City Market.

After saying goodbye to Ladybug, I stumbled upon a pizza joint named Vinnie Van GoGo’s. Of course I had to try it (with NO expectations) ... and lo and behold I was eating a delicious slice of mushroom and tomato pizza in an unpretentious setting. Go figure, I had to come all the way to Savannah for a good slice. A few doors down is the Savannah Candy Kitchen. Their specialty: freshly baked southern pralines and salt water taffy. The shop's warm air smells of hot sugar and pecans -- just intoxicating.

• Vinnie Van GoGo’s
• The Savannah Candy Kitchen
Our trusty and well-mannered mode of transportation, Ladybug.
Tossing the pizza at Vinnie Van Go go's.
A mushroom and tomato pie at Vinnie Van Go go's.
A sprinkling of red pepper flakes and I'm transported back to NY.
Savannah Candy Kitchen.
Freshly baked Southern pralines from Savannah Candy Kitchen.
There are many hotels in Savannah, but I chose the Avia Hotel, a short stroll down the street from City Market. The Avia opened a few months ago and is modern yet elegant with free wifi and an outdoor pool. The staff was very accomodating, and on the weekends they put out homemade chocolate chip cookies and lemonade.
The Avia's dining room.
The Avia's breakfast was one of the best breakfast buffets that I have ever partaken in. I've seen plenty of buffet breakfasts all over the world, but Avia's takes the cake. They have everything you could possibly imagine. Grits are big in Savannah and at the Avia they cook up shrimp and grits to order. The lovely ladies who make it are real southern cooks who put loads of love (and butter) in everything. They also make eggs, crepes and waffles to order. I did my best to stick to somewhat of a regimen and order egg whites with fruit  for breakfast – don’t even bother asking for skim milk, because they don’t have it. The breakfast is a steal at $12.95. And if you pay for it the night before, you get it for under $10.00.

• The Avia
Avia breakfast of fruit and eggs ...
Waffles ...
Making shrimp and grits to order ...
Paula Deen lives in Savannah and much of her career got started here. I’m a Paula Deen fan to the point that I even took a Paula Deen Tour of Savannah (no laughing please). The tour pointed out all her film locations, Polk’s Produce (where she  buys all her ingredients) and the Byrd Cookie Company.
Juicy Georgia peaches at Polk's Farm Fresh Market.
The tour also included lunch at Uncle Bubba’s Oyster House. Paula Deen’s other restaurant, The Lady and Sons, is something to see. People line up and wait online for hours to eat there. They serve lunch and dinner and are known for their fabulous buffet, which is loaded with goodies like fried chicken and mac and cheese. I went to the Lady and Sons solo and there was no wait to sit at the bar. The food, like most of Paula Deen’s cooking, is over the top (and also heavy on the butter). All I can say was my asparagus, onion and jack cheese sandwich was both the gooiest and crispiest grilled cheese I have ever had.
Paula Dean's The Lady and Sons.
The bar at The Lady and Sons.
The dining room.
Fried green tomatoes.
Biscuits and corncakes.
The buffet.
Fried chicken and low country boil.
Asparagus sandwich.
Another sandwich I will be dreaming about for a while is the pimento cheese sandwich at Leopold’s ice cream shop. I am officially spoiled -- I don’t think my open face Alpine lace grilled cheese sandwiches on whole wheat will do the trick anymore.

• The Paula Deen Tour
• The Lady and Sons
• Leopold’s
Leopold's sandwich menu.
Pimento cheese sandwich.
The highlight of my trip was lunch at Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room. The dining room used to be part of a boarding house, but now it is a stand-alone restaurant run by Mrs. Wilkes’ great grandson, Ryon Thompson and his parents, Ronnie and Marcia Thompson. They serve lunch for $16 dollars, Monday through Friday. Basically, the second you walk in the food is already on the table and you end up sitting with strangers who pass the old-time family-style food around the table.

The dining room smells and feels like you are a lunch guest in someone’s home, and once you start eating ... you feel like family. It is genuinely scrumptious food in a down to earth setting. The table is loaded with hot biscuits, corn muffins, fried chicken, black eyed peas, lima beans, candied yams and collard greens and much more. It’s a feast for all senses. I can't describe how pleasant it was to sit down with veritable strangers and converse over delicious southern food. I can’t wait to go back to Savannah just for lunch at Mrs. Wilkes'.

• Mrs. Wilkes' Dining Room
The Wilkes House.
Ryon Thompson and Marcia and Ronnie Thompson of The Wilkes House.
In the kitchen with the sweet potatoes.
Cucumber salad.
Black eyed peas.
Dressing, okra and tomatoes and white rice.
Fried chicken.
The table is set.
A plate of Southern goodness brought to you by Mrs. Wilkes’: lima beans, mashed potatoes, cabbage, macaroni and cheese, green beens, black eyed peas, and collard greens.
One big happy family Inside Mrs. Wilkes’.

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