Savannah: Strangers sit down in ol' southern comfort

By Graham Reid

Mrs. Wilkes' Dining Room in Savannah is famous for its delicious food, friendly atmosphere and even friendlier prices, writes Graham Reid.

Mrs Wilkes' Dining Room in Savannah, Georgia, doesn't take bookings - but there are always queues out the door. Photo / Creative Commons image by Wikimedia user Jimbo Wales
Mrs Wilkes' Dining Room in Savannah, Georgia, doesn't take bookings - but there are always queues out the door. Photo / Creative Commons image by Wikimedia user Jimbo Wales

We were a diverse bunch seated around the large table, but in many ways not that unusual a collection in this charming old place.

Among us were an older, patrician couple down from Cape Cod; two brassy and sunburned women up from Florida with the teenage daughter of one; a mousy and quiet man with his equally silent wife and cheerful daughter who were inlanders as they describe them in this town (meaning they came from somewhere far from the Atlantic Ocean); and us.

And there we all were, sitting around having lunch together. Total strangers pulled by the promise of fine food and the convivial atmosphere that has made Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room in central Savannah famous far and wide.

Mrs. Wilkes is a restaurant serving breakfast and lunch, and is a Savannah institution.

But finding it isn't easy. There is only the most modest of signs outside so you need to know the address although - because it takes no bookings - as you get close you'll spot the queue.

It is at 107 West Jones St between Madison and Monterey Squares in this pretty town which is laid out on a sensible grid pattern around a series of charming, tree-filled squares.

We had been told about Mrs Wilkes' fine southern food and homely downstairs restaurant two states away by someone whose taste in cocktails and humour we enjoyed, so took their advice when arriving in historic Savannah.

And now on this warm day we were seated at one the big tables and before us was a feast of southern fried chicken, sweet potato, beans, okra, spaghetti, pumpkin pie the likes of which we had never had before or since, various homemade breads, and that great American tradition, bottomless cups of coffee.

Mrs. Wilkes has a simple formula: it takes all-comers, seats them at huge tables and then stacks them with food from its busy kitchen. There is no menu, and no need for anyone to go hungry.

You introduce yourself to your fellow diners, you chat and exchange stories, you pass around steaming plates of spinach and sweet desserts, and all this costs you as little as US$12 a head for lunch (cash only) which, when we were there and our dollar was stronger, translated to somewhere around a paltry $18.

The food is wonderful, but there is also the conversation.

We listened and learned about regional problems that people had - garbage disposal is woeful in one part of Cape Cod apparently, and Florida has such a rocketing population and no assured supply of fresh water that a crisis is imminent - and swapped stories about things we had seen on the way to Savannah.

And at the end of our lunch we all, as tradition dictates, took our plates back to the kitchen while large women - who looked like they ate at Mrs. Wilkes' far too often - cleared the table.

From them we learned about the famous Sema Wilkes who died in 2002 at age 95 and had run her boarding house and kitchen here for 59 years.

Then we all - staff and guests alike - said our farewells. We stepped back into the many charms of Savannah full of fine food and carrying wallets that had felt no pain at all.

* Graham Reid's website is elsewhere.co.nz.

- NZ Herald

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