Decadence meets elegance in the South's quirkiest city
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.
WHERE TO STAY
THE GASTONIAN 220 E. Gaston St.; 800/322-6603 or 912/232-2869, fax 912/232-0710; doubles from $200, with full breakfast and afternoon tea. At this 17-room inn in two 1868 town houses at the southern edge of the historic district, most rooms have antique iron beds and enormous round tubs (you can request a bathroom with a walk-in shower, too). Silver and china are set for breakfast in the dining room, but you can also sit in the kitchen and joke with owner Anne Landers (not the columnist) as the staff serves up chilled melon soup, scrambled eggs in phyllo cups, and cherry muffins.
MAGNOLIA PLACE INN 503 Whitaker St.; 800/238-7674 or 912/ 236-7674; doubles from $110 with continental breakfast and afternoon tea. There's a drowsy charm to this shaded mansion overlooking Forsyth Park. All 12 rooms have four-poster beds; half have big round tubs. (Sound familiar?They inspired two former guests to open the Gastonian.) The Nathanael Greene room has a porch reached by stepping through a 10-foot window.
FOLEY HOUSE INN 14 W. Hull St; 800/ 647-3708 or 912/232-6622, fax 912/ 231-1218; doubles from $165 with continental breakfast and afternoon tea. The 19 rooms are set in adjoining houses at the center of the historic district. Most have four-posters and— surprise!— enormous tubs set into tiled platforms. The Stafford room offers a tiny terrace overlooking Chippewa Square, the site of the bench scene in Forrest Gump.
BED & BREAKFAST INN 117 W. Gordon St; 912/238-0518, fax 912/233-2537; doubles from $75, with "full Southern" breakfast. A sweet, simple 16-room Federal row house in the historic district. Guests forgo soaking tubs for an excellent value on rooms with queen-size or twin beds and cable television. The garden suites have kitchens.
HYATT REGENCY SAVANNAH 2 W. Bay St.; 800/233-1234 or 912/238-1234, fax 912/944-3678; doubles from $175. This 346-room hotel on the riverfront has corner rooms with especially wide river views. At night, a staffer sits in the lounge and scouts for ships; when he sees one, he alerts guests who want to watch them pass by activating a small red light on the wall in each room. Facilities include an indoor pool, a gym, a private dock, and two rooftop helipads.
FOR THE KIDS
The Book presents Savannah as an exclusively adult environment, but there's a lot here to amuse children, too.
Of the city's many house tours, the most fun is the JULIETTE GORDON LOW BIRTHPLACE (142 Bull St.; 912/233-4501), early home to the founder of the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A., born in 1860. "Daisy," as she was known, was a painter and sculptor from a prominent family. Though she married young and unhappily, Girl Scouting brought her international acclaim. The elegant English Regency house retains its original furnishings, and the staff enjoys describing Daisy's outgoing ways.
Any child old enough to meander for a mile will enjoy exploring the historic district with an illustrated walking-tour workbook called SAVANNAH SAFARI ($5 at the Savannah Visitors Center and the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace). It outlines a route with up to 50 different stops; at 112 East Harris, the book asks: "Through the plunge in the gate, peek quietly. This timid _____ is hard to see." Don't call us for the answer— you'll find it in the back.
There's swashbuckling aplenty at the PIRATES' HOUSE (20 E. Broad St.; 912/233-5757), a popular restaurant where children are greeted with a combination pirate mask and menu. When leaving, they get to take a treat from the treasure chest.
The wide, rarely crowded beach at TYBEE ISLAND, 25 minutes east of the historic district on Highway 80, has miles of white sand for building castles. The town itself is somewhat touristy, but children enjoy climbing the 178 steps of TYBEE LIGHTHOUSE (912/786-5801).
READY, SET, ROW!
After a few days of serious Southern cooking, I discovered the perfect antidote for the overfed and under-exerted urbanite: a cool, clear morning on sheltered waters.
Among the offerings of SEA KAYAK GEORGIA (Tybee Island; 888/529-2542 or 912/786-8732) is a three-hour trip from Tybee Island through narrow tidal creeks and a maze of barrier islets. I was the only client that day, so Bryan Briscoe— a certified coastal kayak instructor and a student at SCAD, the Savannah College of Art & Design— was my private guide. He helped me pull on the inelegant spray skirt and squirm into the kayak. As we glided along in companionable silence, the air was still and bright. Every rustle in the grass meant an animal or bird was near; I kept my eyes peeled for otter.
A half-hour later, we had reached a deserted lighthouse on a tiny island that seemed to be formed entirely of oyster shells. We beached the kayaks, climbed up the small tower, and sat admiring the wide water view. I would happily have spent the entire day there.
On our return, Bryan whispered, "Dolphins, to your left." Sure enough, a fin was slicing through the water, and then another, smaller one— a mother and baby. We trailed them for 10 magical minutes, trying to respect their privacy but also maneuver a close-up encounter. I think I held my breath the entire time.
Based on a sensational murder, John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil has sold 1.6 million copies since 1994 and contributed an estimated $100 million in tourism to the city. When Clint Eastwood arrived last May to direct the Film, excitement notched even higher. Whether or not you're a fan, you'll get a kick out of the following people and places associated with the Book.
JOHN AND VIRGINIA DUNCAN are friends of Berendt's (Virginia appears on ). John gives an entertaining Midnight slide show to groups, though his most memorable audience was one person: Clint Eastwood. At press time, the Duncans were hoping their cameos in the movie survived the final edit. (John plays a town gossip.)
Esther Shaver, owner of E. SHAVER BOOKSELLER (326 Bull St.; 912/234-7257), Savannah's finest bookstore, is not in the Book— "blessedly," she says— but more than 17,000 copies of it, all autographed by the author, have been sold there. "John has been just wonderful to us," she says. "He comes by every two months to do signings, and it takes three of us to keep up. He's the fastest pen in the South!"
THE LADY CHABLIS is a popular drag queen in the Book, the Film, and the city. She holds court monthly at Club One (1 Jefferson St.; 912/232-0200). Anyone new to drag shows should be prepared for lots of salty talk and sequins.
Turbaned chanteuse and pianist EMMA KELLY, who has a whole chapter in Midnight, performs most evenings at Hannah's East (20 E. Broad St.; 912/233-2225).
In one of the book's most memorable passages, a friend drives Berendt to the BONAVENTURE CEMETERY, where author Conrad Aiken had his gravestone built in the shape of a bench so his friends could sit and sip martinis while watching ships pass on the river. Though cocktails are now discouraged, the cemetery is worth a visit. Look for the Stranger's Tomb, built by a frequent party-thrower to house out-of-towners until their families can collect the bodies.
Don't spend all day searching Bonaventure for BIRD GIRL, the statue immortalized on the cover. It's been moved to the Telfair Museum of Art (121 Barnard St.; 912/232-1177). Jack Leigh, who took the photograph, sells copies at Southern Images (132 E. Oglethorpe Ave.; 912/234-6449).