Expect not just olive oil, but butter and lard on a low-country culinary tour of historic, gay-friendly Savannah. But it’s so worth the extra time on the treadmill
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Life+Style Editor
Like Charleston, S.C., its neighbor to the north, Savannah, Ga., is a coastal community steeped in history and tradition — a characteristic that extends naturally to its culinary scene. “Low-country cuisine” is a discrete genre of Southern cooking, marked by its Afro-Caribbean influences (okra gumbo, hoppin’ john, and red beans and rice are staples) and predominance of seafood, especially shrimp and crab.
But it’s not just low-country food that distinguishes Savannah’s food scene — or the city as a whole, for that matter. It’s a place that oozes gentility with a welcoming attitude that supersedes its Old-South atmosphere. Whether going there for historic walks down its charming streets or to focus on a fattening but oh-so-worth-it foodie tour, Savannah is a great gay destination.
Without waving its rainbow flags too boldly, Savannah still celebrates its gay-friendly faves (hag chef Paula Deen is a local; composer and native Johnny Mercer has his name slapped on countless roads and landmarks) and even its queer scandals — Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, gay author John Berendt’s phenomenally popular 1994 yarn about how an antique dealer Jim Williams shot his lover, remains the unofficial history of the city, and is proudly on display throughout the city even still.
Such longevity is not altogether a surprise. People speak of the city’s most famous residents, past and current, as if they are personal friends who might pop around the corner at any moment.
They very well may. Even the dead ones. Savannah has a mystical quality to it. Elders proudly tout its reputation among paranormalists as the most haunted city in the U.S. Even non-believers may sense an aura of the supernatural. About two dozen squares dots the downtown district, imbuing the city with the shadowy, Victorian mood of a Bronte novel. Scattered among the squares are houses with long-standing ghost stories attached, and cemeteries that glow under a full moon with spooky drama.
Want to know just how much? Take a walking tour of the city’s graveyards and haunted squares, courtesy SavannahTours.us. This dusk-to-darkness stroll depends, of course, on your guide; we had a good one, who took us by the convincingly creepy 432 Abercorn on Calhoun Square.
The gay scene is undeniable here; even the tour guides mention it. But it’s not just the historic touches, but the current. Yes, The Lady Chablis became America’s most famous drag queen (sorry, Ru!) after the publication of Midnight, and she still performs regularly at Club One, the premiere dance club in the city. The gay club Chuck’s Bar abuts the river.
Savannah’s Riverfront is another draw of the city. A cobblestone thoroughfare fully 30 feet below street-level, it’s a touristy but fun way to spend an afternoon. Docked sailing ships are available for walk-throughs, and you can take a slow riverboat ride up and down the waterway.
On land, shops sell everything from knickknacks and T-shirts to pulled taffy and other confections, including the best damn pralines you’ll ever have. Indeed, the Savannah Candy Kitchen is about as close as you can come to feeling like Charlie Bucket let loose in Willy Wonka’s factory.
Which raises a point: For all the charming history and attractions, Savannah’s food beckons. Along River Street, Rocks on the River provides a distinctly Southern take on soul-food classics like chicken and waffles drizzled in a fruit demi-glace, or a sea scallop on spoetzl courtesy chef Jonathan Massey, amid a rustic atmosphere and exceptional service.
Rocks on the River is inside the Bohemian Hotel, a funky-assed property with moody lighting, intriguing décor and plush rooms. The resto is at ground-level; go to the top floor for Rocks on the Roof, a buzzy, gay-friendly bar that serves a kicky brunch.
Low-country cooking is plentiful, but not the exclusive option in this savvy city of savory sophisticates. We happily ventured over to Gallery Espresso, Savannah’s oldest coffeehouse and another bit of bohemian in this staid Southern ’burg.
Moon River Brewing Co. is the local micro-brewery not to miss, with a selection of in-house suds available along with its bar menu. Their Hefeweizen (a citrusy, Belgian-style wheat beer) and chocolatey porter are must-tastes for avid beer drinkers. (Like much of Savannah, the building itself is almost as much a destination as what’s inside it. Ask nicely, and you might get a tour of the attic here, with lovely bones, like exposed latticework and beautiful masonry.)
You can sample an authentic afternoon tea at Davenport House, including a participatory recreation of any antebellum interaction with actors in period costume.
Head outside the city to tour the Savannah Bee Company and sample some locally produced honeys (the whipped winter white is heavenly on scones). Keep driving for an even better excursion: a kayak trip out on Tybee Island.
You’ll be hungry when you get back, so that’s a perfect opportunity to sample more low-country cooking. Of course, this is Paula Deen territory, but don’t be fooled: All the locals will tell you, the better food is at Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room. No reservations are accepted so arrive early — the lunch line snakes around the block quickly. Seating (and service) is family style, so expect to dine with strangers. But you won’t have to fight over the food — there’s simply too much of it to consume, including the best banana pudding and mac & cheese you’ll likely taste anywhere. (The motto here: “If the colonel made chicken this good, he’d be a General.” No truer words spoken.)
Don’t be put off that the Mansion on Forsyth Park used to be a funeral home; it’s just another otherworldly aspect of Savannah that you have to accept. Anyway, you’d be lucky to lie in repose here. Part of the Kessler Collection of boutique properties (it also includes the vastly different Bohemian), the Mansion offers an enchanting spa experience in its basement (please don’t call it the embalming room) and spectacular rooms with cushy beds, beautiful décor and spacious claw-foot tubs.
The art here is not to be missed. Mr. Kessler, whom you’re likely to meet walking through one of his hotels, or even around the city, is a furious art collector who proudly displays his eclectic tastes in every room. There’s even a gallery attached that’s worth a gander.
Some of the art here isn’t on the walls; it’s on the plate. 700 Drayton, the hotel’s elegant new restaurant in an old-school setting, offers, once again, Southern specialties presented with culinary flair. Chef Michael Semancik tweaks the standbys, like blackened shrimp and grits abed microgreens, stunning fried green tomatoes and a blueberry crème brulee than will lead you back to eating crème brulee again.
But the restaurant isn’t the only way to eat here — though the other way requires some work. Chef Darin Sehnert leads the 700 Cooking School, a three-hour experience in learning to make your own low-country food, from red-eye gravy to blackeyed pea salad and rosemary biscuits. You do a lot of the work, but Sehnert guides you with exceptionally useful advice from knife techniques to seasoning. Plus you get to eat what you cook at the end. It’s a fabulous way to spend an evening, and a great conclusion to a culinary adventure in Georgia.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 10, 2012.