Savannah Face Off: Mrs. Wilkes vs. Paula Deen

A city with a booming tourist trade usually means a city with 2 sides, one for the tourists and one for everyone else. The tourist side has upscale mediocre restaurants with gorgeous views, gift shops selling overpriced everything, a grand attraction or two and no parking. The other side has restaurants with great food and no atmosphere where the locals hang out, dive bars with character(s) and funky neighborhoods with interesting shops. The unfortunate part about being in a tourist city for one day is I can’t fight the tractor beam of the tourist side because there are always a few things I want to do there. 24 hours isn’t enough to explore both sides of a city unless I know exactly where I’m going (never) or get incredibly lucky (happens occasionally, didn’t today).

All this to say that I had a straightforwardly touristy  day here in Savannah.

Woke up late, needed coffee, and remembered a bakery I’d driven past yesterday so I went out to find it. Closed.

Regrouped, found another place in the touristy district with good reviews and drove over there. The line wrapped around the restaurant inside and after standing in line for 10 minutes and moving not at all, I left.

Hello starbucks with your quick service, delicious Americano coffee and free wi-fi! This is why I keep coming back to you. After a life giving cup of coffee I ventured out to get lunch. I had two restaurants to try today and one was only open for lunch so that made it an easy choice. I drove closeish, found metered parking and walked over to find this:

People fall into two camps when they see a line like this for food. One camp’s spokesperson walked past the line saying “You have GOT to be kidding! Nothing is worth this!!” And everyone in the line belongs to the other camp, standing in the cold and the damp forever, knowing that if the line stretches around the corner, the food must be worth it.

We all know what camp I belong in, so I got in line to eat at Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room.

I had put an hour and a half on the meter thinking that would probably be enough. Oh, how naïve. How adorably mistaken was that thought. I fed the meter twice while I stood in line. I stood in line (in heels) for at least 2 hours. It was damply bitterly cold (misty drizzly but no rain) and I definitely wasn’t wearing warm enough clothes. But despite the miserable weather, hundreds of people around me also stood in line for hours with no complaints, cheerfully waiting to get into this restaurant. And as people exited the restaurant, all the hungry freezing people in line asked “Was it worth the wait?” and every single person coming out of the restaurant said “Yes.”

Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room (formerly Boarding House) is a tiny little place with about 7 tables seating around 10 people at each table. People start lining up for lunch between 9-10am and the doors open at 11am. At 2pm (ish) an employee walks out and marks the last person in line to cut off the line. They will then serve everyone in line and close up shop when everyone’s eaten.

Everyone eats at communal tables. When I got into the restaurant, the food was already on the table in bowls and a glass of sweet tea sat at my place. The only active choice we got was what to drink – sweet tea, regular tea or water. Then we dug in to the most delicious soul food in the world. Here’s my plate:

And I didn’t even try everything! Black eyed peas, fried chicken, collard greens, mashed potatoes, barbq, creamed corn, squash, lima beans, sweet potatoes, dirty rice, biscuits, cornbread etc. etc. etc. SO MUCH FOOD. If we emptied a bowl, they refilled it. I knew I had yoga later and a date with Paula Deen so I didn’t even eat everything on my plate but I gave it a shot. I’ve eaten some good soul food in my day and this place ranks with the best. The fried chicken was light and crispy, the mashed potatoes were creamy, the dirty rice was spicy with andouille sausage chunks, the squash was amazing and I don’t know what was in it. I didn’t love the creamed corn but everything else I tried was incredible.

When we slowed down they brought around tiny dishes of banana pudding and then told us that it’s a Wilkes Dining Room tradition to bring your dirty dishes to the kitchen when you’re finished.

To repeat, we stood in line for 2+ hours to eat soul food we didn’t order with strangers at a communal table and then to bus our own dirty dishes and paid $16 apiece for this privilege (cash only). After which, one of the pretty waitresses patted me on the shoulder and said “have a nice day now, you hear?” and that’s it. Then we walked out the door and past all the people still in line and got to say “Yes, yes. Totally worth it. Delicious!”

After that extravaganza, I took a tour of the Mercer-Williams house, formerly owned by John Williams who was featured in the book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Gorgeous house. Underwhelming tour. But I’m intrigued by John Williams who started preserving historic houses in Savannah in the 1950s, when such a thing was unheard of. He collected art pieces all his life (he became an antiques dealer at age 14, selling pieces out of his parent’s house) and used this house to display his collection. My favorite story involved his china set, which had gone down in the hold of a sinking ship and he acquired it after it had sat at the bottom of the China Sea for 200 years. Apparently the glaze wasn’t waterproof and the china looked normal but was so impregnated with salt from the 200 years of sea water that he couldn’t use the dishes for hot food or the salt would leach out of the porcelain and into the food.

I took a break from the touristy gallivanting to do yoga at Bikram Savannah again, this time with Chris. He’s a nice guy but maybe he’s a newer teacher? His class seemed a little generic, lacking some personality.

My Bikram lesson today: where your mind is, there your body is also.

I was again distracted by food, but this time instead of giddy saliva inducing visions of fried chicken, I was wishing I didn’t have to eat again after class. For the record, conspicuous consumption of soul food goes counter to the Bikram ethic of sweating and stretching. They really aren’t good companions. But it’s Savannah and Paul Deen lives here and I have to eat at her restaurant. Obligated. Must.

So I girded up the loins of my mind (probably 2 metaphors that shouldn’t be mixed…) and headed over to the Lady and Sons for a late dinner. I’m happy to say that I was seated immediately, both because I wasn’t in the mood for another 2 hour wait and because I’d have been angry had I waited for that meal.

Oh Paula! You’re the sweetest and your hair is so pretty but your food is just not that good. Here’s my shrimp and grits:

Looks good, right? Shrimp = overcooked. Sauce = underseasoned. Sigh. And they didn’t course the food properly so this came out while I was still eating my salad, though the waitress was really apologetic about that. The key lime pie had a strange crust with limp pieces of almond and the filling should be tarter. The garlic cheddar biscuit was delicious, but who eats at Lady and Sons for the biscuits? And the water glasses were plastic. Really?

But you know what, oh well. She’s an empire, she’s making a million, her restaurant has 3 stories and a line out the door every day. Her food doesn’t have to be good. People will eat there anyway.

Savannah bottom line: eat at Mrs. Wilkes if you want good food. Eat at Paula’s so you can say you did it.

I’m giving this round to the Dining Room.

Tomorrow – ATL.