The beauty of Savannah lies not only in its historic squares and gracious Southern hospitality, but also in its quirky characters and unpredictability. Who would have thought that during last week's 24-hour birthday getaway with my friend the Mississippi Maven that we would luck into a no-wait table at Mrs. Wilkes' Dining Room?
Formerly known as Mrs. Wilkes' Boarding House, Mrs. Wilkes' is famous for its down-home Southern cuisine and the line of people willing to wait an ungodly amount of time to feast on it. Hubmeister, who often goes to Savannah for business, said he has never dined there because he refuses to get in the line that snakes daily down a picturesque residential street.
Figuratively and literally, the sun was shining on me and the Maven when we walked up Wednesday afternoon a little after 1. No line! A couple of people were waiting inside and the host told us a table would be ready momentarily. Are you kidding? Christmas had come early.
We were told to enter an adjacent dining room and grab a seat at the second table on the right. Unbeknownst to us, this place serves family style and you sit at a large round table with your brand-new family of 10, comprised of tourists and locals alike. The food is already on the table and it's a feast of Southern fare like you could only imagine. I counted 17 side dishes and four entrees. As soon as one bowl is emptied, another is brought to the table. You pass the bevy of bowls among your new family, and everyone prepares to bust a gut.
I can't begin to evaluate every dish, but I'll share my thoughts on a few. Best of the bunch were the fried chicken and biscuits. The chicken was crispy-crunchy outside and so moist inside that when I pulled off some golden skin, the piping-hot juices were pooling. These birds also had just the right amount of salty essence.
You know about my love affair with the biscuit and may recall how I recently wrote that biscuit recipes vary from one place to the next. Mrs. Wilkes' has a unique biscuit and one of the best. It isn't gargantuan, it isn't too buttery, it isn't too tangy, it isn't doughy, and it isn't round. It's a square of warm, tender fluff that dissolves on your tongue.
After leafing through one of Mrs. Wilkes' cookbooks - on sale at the restaurant and throughout the city - I noted that her biscuits combine self-rising flour with additional baking powder, blend buttermilk and whole milk, combine shortening and butter, and include a touch of water. According to the recipe, they are hand formed, but the restaurant serves perfect squares and produces such huge quantities that I assume they are cut. Whatever they do to them, they are amazing. Corn muffins were also on the bread plate, but if I had tried them, I wouldn't have had room for a second biscuit and you know I went for two.
Besides fried chicken, the entrees included beef stew, barbecued pork, and meat loaf. The stew and meat loaf were nothing to write home about and I didn't sample the pork. Popular at our table, the meat loaf and chicken plates were the ones replenished.
On the vegetable front, my favorite was the collard greens. Mississippi Maven enjoyed the creamed corn. The succotash, full of okra, was a big hit with everyone.
These are the other sides I remember: mac and cheese (okay but lukewarm and clumpy), cornbread stuffing, white rice, gravy, pole beans (wilted and tasty), lima beans (the usual), black-eyed peas, baked beans (nobody touched them), potato salad (very pickly in true Southern fashion), Cajun sausage and dirty rice (not my favorite and a bit out of sync with the rest of the menu), rutabagas (mashed, no thanks but you rarely see them and some people - Hubmeister - love them), sweet potatoes (mashed, didn't try them but they were a beautiful shade of sunset-orange), yellow squash (flavorful), green cabbage (didn't try because my plate was too full), cucumber salad (Mississippi Maven gave it a big thumbs up), and a noodle and English pea dish (didn't look appetizing but one lady at our table loved it).
Dessert was a choice of banana pudding or fruit cobbler. I sampled a typical banana pudding loaded with crushed vanilla wafers, which both the Maven and I thought would have been better if accompanied by a cup of hot coffee to cut the extreme sweetness, but that's not part of the meal. You are dining on the ground floor of a lovely three-story 1870 red-brick house, once a true boardinghouse, and you are getting a boardinghouse-style meal served with sweet tea, unsweetened tea on request, or water - something to keep in mind if you are a choosy diner.
Go to Mrs. Wilkes' to experience cooking like a real Southern grandma would put on the family table - authentic fried chicken and biscuits and vegetables that have been seasoned with love and bacon grease. Don't go with special requests and gourmet expectations. Go for the camaraderie, and go hungry.
Restaurant hours are 11 a.m. till 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Price range $16. Reservations and charge cards are not accepted.
Mrs. Wilkes' Boarding House
107 West Jones Street