Savoring Savannah

Gryphon Tea Room, Savannah, Georgia

By Shelly Steig

This historic Southern city is a gourmet's delight

I walked down a dirt alley and stood in front of a putty-colored shack with "Walls' Bar-B-Que" hand-painted across the brick. I thought, "Hmmm. I'm not so sure about this."

Then I went inside and tasted the flavorful ribs, salty collard greens and moist, frosting-laden red velvet cake. I told the cook that I preferred small samples, but he kept bringing me full portions—and they were so good I ate every bite.

Throughout my five-day sojourn in Savannah, Ga., this scenario repeated itself. I found so many delicious and distinctive restaurants that midway through the trip, my husband, who was home in Colorado, offered to FedEx me stretch pants.

Savannah has long been lauded for its dining scene, particularly when it comes to Southern specialties: fried green tomatoes, low-country cuisine (which focuses on coastal produce) and soul food (which has nothing to do with ethnicity but was named because it nourishes the spirit).

Paula Deen is perhaps the most celebrated Savannah chef. She made a cash cow out of her restaurant The Lady & Sons, where tourists flock as early as 9 a.m. for a lunch reservation and 3 p.m. for dinner. But there's no need to spend precious vacation time waiting. Instead, check out some of Savannah's other establishments that offer unique menus or locations. (Hint: If you must do something Deen, head to her brother's restaurant, Uncle Bubba's Oyster House. Or visit Paula's store to purchase sauces, dressings and cookbooks.)

Southern hospitality

Savannah is a city to be experienced on many levels, including its cuisine. For example, at Mrs. Wilkes' Dining Room, you can sample true Southern hospitality while sampling regional dishes served family-style to groups of 10. Tables groan under the weight of more than a dozen bowls filled with—to name a few—fried chicken, cabbage, candied yams and black-eyed peas.

For true soul food, go to The Masada Café at the United House of Prayer for All People. It's outside the historic district, but is the ultimate no-frills experience. The crispy fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, and German chocolate cake are heavenly.

Walls' isn't the only taste-tickling barbeque spot. Follow your nose to Sweet Leaf Smokery & Eatery for finger-licking, Southern-style, slow-cooked meats and a memorable corn pudding. Or experience one of Savannah's quiet neighborhoods while dining alfresco at Firefly Café. Located on Troup Square, the café serves a creamy corn chowder, artfully flavored Carolina red trout and authentic key lime pie.

Kids will love The Pirates' House, a historic spot that originally opened in 1753 as an inn. It quickly became a gathering point for wayfarers and a popular spot to Shanghai unsuspecting seamen. Here, Robert Louis Stevenson gained inspiration for "Treasure Island"—some say that bloodthirsty Captain Flint died in a room above the pirates' den and still wanders the place in ghostly form. Surprisingly for a theme restaurant, the food is excellent.

Eating on the go

Savannah's 24 park-like squares are lined with grand homes and towering live oaks. Moss drapes from these trees like a white lace mantilla, shrouding the streets and lending an air of enchantment. Many eateries have recognized that the scenery is perfect for a romantic picnic and offer varying menus to suit.

At Vinnie VanGoGos, you can order New York-style pizza to take out or have delivered via bicycle. The thin-crust dough is hand-tossed and covered with fresh grated cheeses, then your choice of toppings, including sun-dried tomatoes and chunks of fragrant garlic.

I would revisit Savannah just to have another bite of Zunzi's South African beef sausage, creamy hummus, home-made garlic bread and seasoned mashed potatoes. Zunzi's tiny shack is located on York and Drayton, midway between Oglethorpe and Wright Squares. Just a short walk away, Wright Square Café's menu includes salads, wraps and paninis as well as a divine selection of chocolate candies.

The finer things in life

Because of its sultry beauty, Savannah has become a premier honeymoon destination. During my visit, I saw many couples holding hands and gazing into each other's eyes at fine restaurants such as Sapphire Grill, Elizabeth on 37th and The Olde Pink House. The city has many other alluring spaces that also offer superb cuisine. Jazz'd is a hip, urbane tapas bar just off Broughton, Savannah's busiest shopping street. Selections in this colorful restaurant include an extensive wine and martini bar, as well as she-crab stew and skewered BBQ shrimp with grits.

Local 11ten, in the Victorian District, is the newest hangout for young professionals. It features an ultra-modern, Asian-influenced interior, as well as wonderful service, beautiful presentation and an eclectic menu.

Tea, scones and other sweets

Savannah's charm is due in part to its architecture and the stately homes which line the streets and squares. Many of the painstakingly preserved mansions have been turned into inns—for which the city is famous. And since a culinary tour of Savannah has to include the most important meal of the day, choose a bed and breakfast that's worth waking up for. I started one of my days with a very British serving of eggs Benedict, fruit, biscuits and a cup of tea at the tony Ballastone Inn.

Another day, Azalea Inn & Gardens cooked up creative gourmet breakfasts and evening sweets such as key lime bites and gooey cookies. I hoarded some for my flight home.

After gourmandizing all morning, I would experience a sinker in the afternoon and head to one of the city's tea rooms for a caffeine pick-me-up. Savannah Tea Room's peach iced tea with sugar syrup and shortbread was the perfect antidote for afternoon drowsiness. This Art Nouveau shop, fashioned after Charles Mackintosh's Willow Tea Rooms in Glasgow, Scotland, sells fine teas, accessories and unique handcrafted gifts. You can also make a reservation for three types of afternoon tea.

The Savannah College of Art and Design's Gryphon Tea Room features an extensive menu, including an artful version of traditional high tea. The light-filled space, which is a renovated turn-of the-century pharmacy, boasts original stained glass and opulently carved woodwork.

If it's sugar you crave for that mid-day uptick, head to Back in the Day Bakery for cupcakes in a multitude of flavors, or unique banana pudding made with shortbread instead of wafers. If the heat is getting to you, try Leopold's Ice Cream, which has scooped up 24 frozen concoctions to locals and visitors for 89 years. It is currently a favorite of Hilde Santos Tomas, Trading Spaces designer and part-time Savannah resident.

You'll have to wait a little longer to fulfill your chocolate cravings, but the wait will be worth it. Lulu's Chocolate Bar opens at 5 p.m., when you can order chocolate fondue for two, nut brownies with a pitcher of chocolate sauce, and white chocolate raspberry or chocolate espresso créme brulee—all of them diet free. Lulu's also specializes in chocolate dessert wine and a full range of martinis—which include flavors such as chocolate mint, white chocolate pomegranate and chocolate cake.

By dessert time, you might be feeling guilty. However, remember that Savannah is not the place for self-control. There'll be plenty of time for that back home.

Simply pull out those elastic waist pants that you had enough foresight to pack … and bon appétit.

Shelly Steig is a freelance writer based in Parker, Colorado.