Monday, April 23, 2012

Scouting out Savannah, Part Three: Where to Eat

Savannah couldn't be the Hostess City of the South without a plethora of good restaurants because a Southern hostess always makes sure her guests have a beverage of choice and more good food than anyone could eat. Whatever you do, leave the diet at home.

Marcia and son, Roan
Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room is a Savannah experience everyone ought to have at least once. Morning newspapers have barely been delivered when folks start lining up. Doors open at 11 a.m. and diners keep pouring in, 75 at a time, for a spot at the communal, family-style tables for 10 until 2 p.m. or when the last person who was in line by then is seated. Price, cash only, $18; children 12 and under, $9. No reservations although exceptions have been made for presidents and a few fortunate others.

How many courses?
The food - three meats (we had fried chicken, beef stew and barbecue) and a dozen vegetables, biscuits and cornbread, a choice of two desserts and tea - keeps coming as long as you're eating. When you're finished, please carry your plate to the kitchen; it's a tradition.

Wilkes House no longer boards guests, but it is still a family affair: Mrs. Wilkes' granddaughter, Marcia, and her son, Roan, keep it moving and Marcia's husband, Ronnie, keeps tabs on the till.

Pistachio and chocolate, anyone?
Leopold's Ice Cream is another Savannah tradition and "must." Founded in 1919 by three Greek brothers, it serves up the finest ice cream you are likely to find. Made fresh, one batch at a time, from secret family recipes, this is one treat worth the calories. Their chocolate is the best I've tasted since my father was in the ice cream business with the best production manager around who had his secret recipes. Everything here is made from scratch from bread, soup and salads to sandwich fillings and candy.

Mary and Stratton Leopold
Mary and Stratton Leopold, son of founder, Peter, run it today. Stratton scoops up a mean cone when he isn't producing movies. Yes, he's that Stratton Leopold, the one who produced Mission: Impossible III and The Wolfman among others.

Tea Room owners Becky Wright and Elizabeth Ruby.
The Tea Room in downtown is owned by mother-daughter Elizabeth Ruby and Becky Wright, who designed it so their husbands would feel comfortable eating there. Actually, men love the library room and they won't feel like looking for the nearest burger joint after having lunch. A long way of saying the portions are generous. Delicious, too. You'll find as many locals as tourists here.

Flaming tea
These women know their tea, from buying to brewing, and have some you've probably never encountered. Emperor's Bride, for example; theirs is the only tea room in America where you can find it. Do not miss the Flaming Tea - Imperial Black Dragon, an oolong, is treated to a sugar cube flambeed in a brulee spoon.

Alligator Soul is hot. Every local I encountered, when hearing I planned to dine there, sighed and said it was their favorite. Now I know why.

Heaven on a plate for carnivores - they specialize in game, steaks and local seafood -  it's also beloved by vegetarians, vegans and the gluten-free set. It was founded by Maureen Craig and her late chef husband, who had a rare but successful mixed marriage: he loved meat and she's a vegetarian. These Washington State restaurateurs relocated, bringing that Northwest sensitivity to freshness and flavor to what used to be an underground grain warehouse.

You will want to linger at Alligator Soul.
Chef Chris DiNello keeps that touch in the kitchen and Maureen makes sure everyone in the warm and cozy dining room is happy.

"I like to bring people around a table," she said. "I want to entice people to stay around longer like we used to."

Tell the waiter you're a vegetarian or have allergies and Chef Chris is likely to come out to confer; he loves adapting to challenging diets. This is where Savannah gourmets go for that special meal.

Tip: There are 17 steps from street level.

Vic's on the River is in a five-story, circa 1859, former cotton warehouse slap dab in the middle of the Bay and River Street party district.
All that and entertainment, too.

Tip: The entrance on River Street leads to a coffee shop, the second floor is a gift shop.  The kitchen, restrooms and a private dining room are on the third floor. The main Bay Street entrance, bar and dining room are on the fourth floor. Fortunately for Levelers, there's an elevator that connects it all. A good thing: floors are 18 steps apart.

Vic's Crab and Avocado Tower
"Sophisticates Southern" is the way I'd describe its decor and food. Exposed brick, a cool bar - a very good chanteuse sang the night I was there - and entrees that go from Mixed Grill to Meatloaf. The appetizers were my favorites, especially the new Crab and Avocado Tower. Chef Brian Hanson is an alumnus of the prestigious Ponte Vedra Inn and Club, the Sawgrass Beach Club (both in Florida) and The Lodge at Little St. Simons Island.

Leoci's Trattoria is a small, owner/chef restaurant near Forsyth Park that you aren't likely to stop at unless someone tells you about it. Consider yourself told.

After I checked into the Dresser Palmer House I asked if there were any good places for something light nearby. This was one. Wish I'd been hungrier. I ordered a grilled vegetable panini, planning to eat only the vegetables. So much for good intentions; not a morsel remained. Excellent veggies, delicious balsamic flavor, extraordinary bread. Just too good to leave. 


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