Asked about Savannah's favorite pursuits, a prominent citizen replied, "We like to eat and drink a lot." Nothing exemplifies better the city's quest for pleasure. Moreover, everything— from the placement of oysters on a platter to the restoration of a Federal façade— is done with great style, yet the people are completely without pretense. Savannah reveres its heritage but has moved on. (In the stately squares, blue-blazered bankers share benches with green-haired art students.) Unruffled by the attention brought by what locals call the Book (maybe you've heard of it— John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) and now the Film, Savannahians love company, and the company they keep loves them right back.
Much of the history in Savannah's landmark district was recounted in the Book. But there's enough in those two square miles to keep John Berendt busy writing for years. Here's a taste. . . .
The first protagonist was General James Edward Oglethorpe, a British parliamentarian who established the 13th crown colony here in 1733. Though he failed— resoundingly— in his plan to establish a community free of slavery, lawyers, and liquor, he did create 24 gracious, green-leafed squares (22 of which remain today).
Fast-forward to the Civil War, when shrewd Savannah charm persuaded General Sherman not to burn the city, and then to 1954, by which time the squares, rimmed with Federal, Regency, Italianate, Victorian, and Greek and Gothic Revival houses, had become unfashionable and neglected. Galvanized by the impending demolition of an 1820's residence, seven women founded the Historic Savannah Foundation and rescued the house for their headquarters. It is now the DAVENPORT HOUSE MUSEUM (324 E. State St.; 912/236-8097), one of many buildings open for tours.
The district's southern border is Gwinnett Street, where you'll find FORSYTH PARK, jammed with oaks and joggers. To the north lies the Savannah River; at the water is RIVERWALK, a stretch of gift shops. Along the bluffs are the 19th-century buildings of FACTORS WALK— factors were cotton merchants— reached by wrought-iron bridges.
Savannah's many squares are credited with the city's stately pace; cars must slow down to maneuver around them, and pedestrians are always tempted to linger. The most photographed is MONTEREY SQUARE, described once as "a stage set with pink azaleas billowing beneath a tattered valance of live oaks and Spanish moss." The marble pedestal in the middle— its statue is currently off being refurbished— honors a Revolutionary War hero. The buildings surrounding the square include America's only Gothic-style synagogue and one of Savannah's grandest residences. Built in the 1860's for General Hugh Weedon Mercer— an ancestor of songwriter Johnny Mercer— MERCER HOUSE was trashed by Shriners 100 years later (they rode motorcycles around inside). The next owner, Jim Williams, was the man whose four murder trials inspired the Book. The house is currently occupied by his sister; her claim to have trademarked the red-brick Italianate façade made front-page news.
WHERE TO EAT
In Savannah, whether you like your Southern cooking haute or hotter'n hell, you can count on plenty of it. At the following down-home favorite spots, be warned that "eating light" just means leaving the cheese off the grits.
MRS. WILKES' DINING ROOM 107 W. Jones St.; 912/232-5997; lunch for two $20. The term boardinghouse reach may have been coined at the long tables of this legendary family-style restaurant in the historic district, open since 1943 and now run by three generations of Wilkeses. Don't be put off by the line stretching down the block; it moves quickly. Breakfast (8-9 a.m.) is eggs and grits. Lunch (11 a.m.-3 p.m.) means fried chicken, pork barbecue, Brunswick stew, sausage, chicken dumplings, macaroni and cheese, okra, black-eyed peas, greens, sweet potatoes, beets, squash . . . all served in big, white bowls. Local diners cheerfully deconstruct the offerings for Northerners and other foreigners in a form of culinary camaraderie that just might have defused the Civil War. (Take a look at Mrs. Wilkes's cookbook, copies of which are for sale.)
NITA'S PLACE 140 Abercorn St.; 912/238-8233; lunch for two $15. Owner Juanita Dixon does some serious nurturing in a low-frills, historic-district room with only 12 tables (if you're lucky, she'll call you "baby"). Though there's a steam table in the back, this isn't cafeteria fare— it's food from the heart and for the soul. The ever-changing menu may include beef short ribs, shrimp gumbo, and greens.
CRAB SHACK 40 Estill Hammock Rd., Tybee Island; 912/786-9857; dinner for two $30. Don't drive to Tybee Beach to order anything but the Captain's Sampler, a foil-lined platter heaped with crab, crayfish, shrimp, mussels, sausage, corn on the cob, and potatoes. Awash in beer or margaritas, you'll soon get the hang of "sucking head and pinching tail" (that is, eating crayfish). Tables for two and for 20 are set on a large deck under tall trees and "Crab Shack chandeliers": upside-down bushel baskets with light bulbs inside. Ask for a postprandial wet wipe, and you will be sent instead to scrub up like a surgeon at one of several outdoor sinks. The place officially closes at 11, but they'll keep serving as long as there's a line.
NORTH BEACH GRILL 41A Meddin Dr., Tybee Island; 912/786-9003; lunch for two $15, dinner for two $20. Oh, what a lunch: succulent crab-cake sandwich, mouth-searing jerk chicken, coleslaw and fries, a little reggae, and an Atlantic breeze on the deck of a funky pink-and-green beach shack. It's still Savannah, but with sleepy, island style. Entrées may require a half-hour; handwritten signs warn, "If you are in a hurry or have difficulty waiting, we respectfully suggest that you not order! Thank you."
Located in a grand white mansion in an "unsteady" neighborhood south of the historic district, Elizabeth on 37th (105 E. 37th St.; 912/236-5547; dinner for two $80) has been Savannah's best restaurant since it opened in 1981. Both the Book and Pat Conroy's Beach Music have mentioned it.
Elizabeth Terry is the mother of New Southern Cuisine, which means classic Southern cooking turned on its head. Yes, grits are on the menu, but here they're fried like polenta, set in a red-pepper reduction with ginger and curried cream, and topped with a scoop of goat cheese. "I like to use sweet and sour and salty and crunchy in combination," Terry says, which means that coastal grouper comes with a sesame-almond crust and peanut sauce, and greens and black-eyed peas are prepared with sage, raspberry vinegar, and a dash of hot chili sauce.
Terry's culinary career started in the 1960's. As a newlywed lab technician more comfortable with a Bunsen burner than a stovetop, she wasn't offended the day her husband, Michael, came home with two cookbooks and a gentle suggestion: "You'd be good at this." The Terrys moved to Atlanta in 1968, and friends soon remarked that the city's best food was at their house. Michael quit his law career when he and Elizabeth moved to Savannah to start the restaurant; he's now the wine steward.