Eat: Taste of Savannah

Hostess City earns its nickname.

By Jessen O’Brien | Photographs and video by Jennifer Chase

Don’t underestimate the power of Savannah’s appeal. The city has a way of captivating people. During the Civil War, General Sherman was so taken by its beauty that he left Savannah untouched on his march through Georgia—preserving its antebellum architecture so that now downtown is one of the largest National Historic Landmark Districts in the country. In the 1980s, journalist John Berendt was so taken by its people that his visit turned into a kind of semipermanent residency, that birthed the best seller Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and, with it, Savannah’s modern identity as a tourism hub.

And today? You might just be so taken in by the food that you forget to do anything but eat.

In recent years, Savannah has attracted a number of talented chefs, drawing them to—or, in some cases, back to—the city, where they’ve established restaurants that bring together all of the area’s major charms: lovely spaces, fascinating people, and meals so good you’ll be clamoring for seconds.



Setting the Table

Like any truly great host, Savannah invites you to stay awhile. In the historic district, the sky is filtered through countless Southern live oaks—their arms curved sideways and hung with Spanish moss—giving the light a warm, hazy quality and you the impression of wading underwater. Every few blocks, one of the city’s 22 squares fans out, disrupting the grid and forcing you to curve your path around a statue or fountain. The most direct route is almost never an option, so you might as well take your time.

If you’re staying in Hilton Head, South Carolina, Savannah is only about 30 miles away. It’s easy enough to park your car and explore the historic district on foot, getting behind the wheel for the occasional longer trek. Part of the joy of being here is the people, so sit at the bar or counter when you have the option. Maybe it’s something in the food, but everyone seems eager to strike up a conversation—even fellow travelers, suggesting that hospitality might just be infectious.

The Grey

In Savannah, some historic buildings are restored. Others, reclaimed.

The Grey occupies a former Jim Crow–era Greyhound bus terminal along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. This once segregated building is now a restaurant helmed by an African-American chef, Mashama Bailey, who became Savannah’s third James Beard Award recipient when she was crowned Best Chef: Southeast in May 2019.

A native New Yorker, Bailey grew up with one foot in Georgia, going to grammar school in Savannah and spending summers with her grandmother in the town of Waynesboro. Perhaps as a result, some of the best dishes play on Southern specialties, as with the Foie and Grits, a take on shrimp and grits that straddles the line between decadent and homey. Let your server guide you through the menu, which is divided up by main ingredient, and consider pairing your food with one of the Atlantic Trade Flights, which focus on spirits with historic ties to the Port of Savannah on the Savannah River. Two fun moments that bookend dinner: the complimentary barbecue popcorn that starts your meal and the tiny Thrill (a kind of ice pop) that ends it. 109 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.; 912-662-599; dinner for two, $50*

Husk Savannah

Opened in January 2018, Husk Savannah is the latest installment in the Husk restaurant group, founded in Charleston, South Carolina, by two-time James Beard Award winner Sean Brock. Like its forebears, Husk Savannah celebrates Southern ingredients, with a uniquely Georgian flair. “[Husk Savannah’s] ingredients are different,” explains executive chef Chris Hathcock, who returned to his childhood stomping grounds about a year ago. “We tend to do things that are a little lighter and more refined, with bold flavors and high acidity. There’s beautiful seafood right off our coast and the Carolinas, so I feature that a lot.”

One experiment in the works? Savannah Ice Cream, Hathcock’s riff on Charleston Ice Cream (pictured above), which is traditionally Carolina Gold Rice that’s fluffed with butter until it’s the texture of ice cream and served as a scoop. Here, Savannah Red Rice is used instead. “With some grilled shrimp, to give it even more Savannah vibes.”

Beyond the food, it’s the space—a renovated historic house whose “before” is detailed in photographs throughout the property—that gives the restaurant its own Savannah vibes. The building also allegedly has a ghost, which tour guides often point out to travelers from the sidewalk. (Hathcock hasn’t seen evidence of paranormal activity but jokes that the ghost gives everyone a convenient scapegoat.) 12 W. Oglethorpe Ave.; 912-349-2600; dinner for two, $80

Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room

The spread at Savannah’s most famous restaurant, Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room, puts Thanksgiving dinner to shame: fried chicken, beef stew, collard greens, succotash, cabbage, creamed corn, mac and cheese, three types of mashed potatoes—and that’s not even half of it. Sema Wilkes first started serving meals when she opened the building as a boardinghouse, in 1943; today her granddaughter Marcia Thompson runs the restaurant, which still seats everyone family-style and usually has a line down the block hours before it opens at 11 a.m.

Chatting with people as you wait is part of the appeal. “My grandmother always said, ‘If we could all sit down and have lunch together, we wouldn’t have had to fight all those wars,’” Thompson says. “That’s basically true. You can sit down with people, and sometimes they’re a little hesitant about who they’re sitting with, but by the time they get to eating, they’re all just best friends.” 107 W. Jones St.; 912-232-5997; lunch, $25 a person, cash or check only

Savannah Taste Experience

To pack in a few more places—and a little local color along the way—sign up for the Famous and Secret East Side Food Tour with Savannah Taste Experience. Don’t go big on breakfast beforehand; you’ll need room for all six stops, which range from Zunzi’s, a South African-style sandwich shop, to Walls’ BBQ, a gem so hidden even longtime residents don’t know about this 56-year-old spot, possibly because it’s in an alley.

The tour culminates in a skip-the-line scoop at Leopold’s Ice Cream—a big deal because people are more than willing to wait three hours at this century-old ice cream parlor. If you’re lucky enough to have “Country” Stokes as your guide for the day, you’ll (slowly) walk away with half a dozen other restaurant recommendations, a recipe for pound cake, and several ghost stories. 426 Barnard St.; 912-221-4439; three-hour tours, from $60 a person, including meals

Back in the Day Bakery

Sweet and savory temptations vie for your attention from the cheery display case at Back in the Day Bakery, a gloriously retro pastry shop in the Starland District south of downtown. Do yourself a favor and order whatever catches your eye.

Wife-and-husband team Cheryl and Griffith Day started the bakery nearly 20 years ago with the goal of creating a neighborhood gathering spot after visiting the area. “I just fell in love with Savannah,” Cheryl says. “It’s so easy to do—it’s such a beautiful city. I really felt right at home and thought it was a place I could live a creative life in.”

A pair of best-selling cookbooks have brought the bakery visitors from around the country who sometimes ask for an autograph as well as a bite. Soon they’ll have yet another reason to drop by: The Days plan to offer Southern-baking classes by the end of the year. 2403 Bull St.; 912-495-9292; breakfast for two, $10

The Wyld

It’s well worth driving 15 minutes beyond downtown to check out The Wyld, a creekside local hangout that seems to be a favorite among Savannah’s culinary stars. (Bailey recommends going in the afternoon, Hathcock likes to sit at the bar, and Cheryl Day calls it a “special place.”) This low-key dock bar juts out into Georgia’s marshlands. Some days, you can see the owner, chef Tony Seichrist, catch blue crab from your table. Other times, it’s all about gazing out at the water as you work your way through a tray of crispy local shrimp and a rum old-fashioned. For once, there’s no Spanish moss in sight—but a welcome this warm is pure Hostess City. 2740 Livingston Ave.; 912-692-1219; dinner for two, $37



STAY
RCI® affiliated resorts near Savannah include:
Island Links Resort by Palmera 7630

Stretch your legs on the miles of biking and walking paths throughout this property. 1 Coggins Point Rd., Hilton Head Island, SC
Member Review: “The pool area is lovely.”

Coral Sands Resort 6736

There are dozens of exceptional golf courses nearby so you can play a different one each day. 66 Pope Ave., Hilton Head Island, SC
Member Review: “A beautiful resort.”

Coral Reef Resort 3975

Shares amenities with Coral Sands Resort. 66 Pope Ave., Hilton Head Island, SC
Member Review: “Would love to
return.

Port O’Call 0995

Shares amenities with Coral Sands Resort. 66 Pope Ave., Hilton Head Island, SC
Member Review: “Clean, quiet, and all you could want.”

Coral Sands Resort by Palmera C688

Shares amenities with Coral Sands Resort. 66 Pope Ave., Hilton Head Island, SC
Member Review: “Friendly, helpful staff.”

Sea Crest Surf and Racquet Club 0578

From crafts to water aerobics, there are activities for travelers of every age. 3 Avocet Rd., Hilton Head Island, SC
Member Review: “Close to shopping, restaurants, and the beach.”

For complete member reviews (as member reviews have been condensed) and additional resort listings, visit RCI.com or call 800-338-7777 (Weeks) or 877-968-7476 (Points). Club Members, please call your specific Club or RCI telephone number.

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Non-RCI affiliated resorts in Savannah include:
East Bay Inn

A historic inn built in 1852 that has its own ghost as well as an on-site café and cocktail bar. What could be more Savannah than that? 225 E. Bay St.; 912-238-1225; eastbayinn.com; doubles from $144 a night

  • *Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax, or tip.
  • NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
  • Published: Winter 2019