Genteel Savannah is quaint, historic … and enthusiastically embraces its gay roots
We saved you a seat right next to the chicken,” Marcia Thompson says to me. When the granddaughter of Mrs. Wilkes — the boardinghouse owner whose home-cooking restaurant has customers lined up like flappers outside a speakeasy — invites you to enjoy her chicken, you’re in high cotton.
You’re also in Savannah, Ga., a gem of southern gentility that is also surprisingly (perversely?) proud of its gay appeal. Maybe it’s that Southern Gothic breeding that always makes butter out of cream, no matter how rancid. Consider: in the late 20th century, Savannah became famous as the site of a murder mystery when gentrified gay socialite Jim Williams killed his rent-boy lover inside his house, a palace once owned by the family of Johnny Mercer. Murder, intrigue, scandal, society, gay sex, and a drag queen named The Lady Chablis put the sleepy town on the map in a way it hasn’t been since the age of King Cotton. (Even today, every museum shop and bookstore in town sells hardback editions of the best seller about the crime, John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, in which the most vivid character is surely Savannah itself.)
Chablis (who played herself in the film version) is probably one of the city’s four or five most celebrated residents (even though she actually lives in neighboring South Carolina, where she’s better able to maintain some anonymity): Mercer (songwriter of “Days of Wine and Roses” and “Moon River”), Williams, Chablis, Paula Deen and Juliette Gordon Low (who in 1912 founded the Girl Scouts) are just some of the recurrent names that live there alongside you … even the dead ones. Chablis shares the mantle of Grande Dame with another “Lady,” tele-chef Deen, whose Lady and Sons restaurant is a popular tourist attraction.
That brings us back to Mrs. Wilkes. Paula has the TV presence and the marketing, but there’s hardly a local who won’t tell you Mrs. Wilkes serves better food. It’s pointless to argue: The spread I sat down to, strategically next to a plate of still-steaming fried chicken, is like Thanksgiving in springtime, or any time of the year … as long as you’re there for lunch Monday through Friday — it’s not open for dinner or on weekends.
Don’t count calories here; “Our mac and cheese is gluten-free, our chicken skinless and all the dishes are low fat” is something you will never hear anyone say at Mrs. Wilkes. Instead, feast in the food orgy before you, reveling in the genius of the elasticized waistband.
You’ll need to do that the length of your trip. Savannah is a foodie city by any standard, and for its size, a veritable cornucopia of inviting aromas and flavors: Pralines, barbecue, ice cream and most of all, Low Country cuisine, named for the area of Carolina and stretching down the Georgia coast where the essentials of soul food — blackeyed peas, shrimp and grits, pork and okra — got their earliest expression in the New World when imported from West Africa during the slave trade. If you’re a fan, Savannah’s the place to be.
The Olde Pink House is a staple of Low Country cuisine, excelling particularly with a delicious she-crab soup, delectable fried chicken (too much for an honest man to eat) and gourmet shrimp and grits (the grits prepared as a fluffy cake with perfectly cooked shrimp atop), all served in a cozy manse on one of the city’s two dozen quaint squares.
Alligator Soul, grotto-like with its below-street-level entrance, specializes in inventive wild game, but also Southern favorites like fried green tomatoes. The soda fountain Leopold’s (founded in 1919) serves homemade ice cream including their original — an unusual fruitti-tutti blend, though the rum bisque can’t be beat.
Even with historic eateries everywhere, new ones pop up constantly. Over at City Market, a buzzy social center for many restaurants and clubs that’s active well into the late night, A.Lure has thrived since opening last year, extending the food-lovers’ reach with crazed Savannahesque dishes like foie gras on a fried Krispy Kreme glazed donut. Another newcomer, The Public Kitchen on Bull and Liberty, opened just in September and is already popular with the funkier set. A casual, no-reservations bistro, it’s a nice place for brunch, cooking up fluffy frittatas and adding chorizo to breakfast hash and even shrimp and grits. (Co-owner Jamie Durrence’s partner, a grad of the prestigious Savannah College of Art and Design, designed the welcoming look.)
If you wanna bring back more than just memories of the food, though, an unmissable excursion is to enroll in the 700 Kitchen Cooking School inside the Mansion on Forsyth Park, the city’s first Five Diamond accommodation. Taught by puckish gay chef Darin Sehnert, you learn not only how to prepare Low Country specialties like a native, but techniques that flower over into everyday kitchen adventures. It’s insanely fun and educational, and a perfect bonding experience for couples or groups (up to 12 can take a class).
Afterward, stick around The Mansion to listen to live jazz, or head to one of the gay bars or gay-friendly pubs.
The Spare Time is a hipster hang with mixed gay-straight crowd, serving nifty cocktails while the retro-loving DJ spins everything from Xanadu to Grandmaster Flash. Chuck’s on River Street by the water is a neighborhoody gay bar, while Club One at Bay and Jefferson is where you go for drag shows … including, once a month, The Lady Chablis herself, who can throw more shade than the noonday sun. “I don’t eat pussy — I don’t even know how to cook that shit,” she drawls from the stage.
Like her accent? You’ll notice a lilting patois from many of the locals, an infectious charm that almost insists you slow down and mind your manners. While it’s a tourism-rich city, hospitality is almost a religion here.
Savannah exudes gentility like oxygen; one local compared it to nearby Charleston, S.C., noting that
Charleston “has a shorter skirt than us.” To me, it resonates more as a clean version of New Orleans.
Like NOLA, this is a city of history. Founded in 1733, it’s resplendent with anecdotal beauty. To visit Savannah is to commit yourself to going on an historical tour, whether by motor coach (Oglethorpe Tours does especially good ones), pedicab, horse-drawn carriage, Segway or just walking, and whether you concentrate on architecture, celebrities or ghosts. (The fact you can take some haunted tours in converted hearses bespeaks to Savannah’s self-aware vibe. As with the Williams murder, Savannah revels in its reputation as one of the most haunted cities in the U.S.)
On of the best escapades (and a bargain at just $20) is a walking architectural tour conducted by Jonathan Stalcup, a gay graduate of SCAD who shares terrific information about cornices and stucco, but also social histories about the city, such as how The First Baptist Church on Chippewa Square, founded in the 1830s, has been accepting of all sexual orientations since its charter.
The city may be a textbook of architectural history (it’s the kind of town where the provenance of your brick speaks a lot to your history and why not when every stone has a story), but it is not stuck in time; it continues to grow and develop, with Art Moderne and Art Deco buildings alongside colonial and Georgian. The SCAD Museum, opened in 2011, reflects the more modern side, with many rotating art exhibitions, including a current one called Queen: Portraits of Madonna featuring 30 televised heads singing Madge tunes a capella.
For more classical art, many historic homes are museums themselves, including the Mercer-Williams House, scene of that famous crime, only two blocks from Mrs. Wilkes’.
Getting out of the city can be fun, too. Nearby Tybee Island is the oceanfront resort for locals and tourists, though not as crowded as, say, Myrtle Beach to the north or Fort Lauderdale to the south. The popular pier is a great meeting point, but to eat beachcomb over to Marlin Monroe’s, a lesbian-owned eatery featuring reasonably priced and tasty coastal dishes, like pecan-crusted flounder and, conch fritters. Earlier this month, it hosted the island’s first Gay Days celebration with Village People cowboy Randy Jones. (Delicious irony?
Rain forced the party to move … into the YMCA.) Down the causeway a bit is Coco’s, which hosts occasional gay nights.
For accommodations, the pet-friendly Bohemian Riverfront Hotel lives up to its name with quirky artwork in each room, a happening rooftop resto-bar (weekends, the entrance line can stretch like Mrs. Wilkes’) and comfy rooms, all with a crackerjack staff. It’s conveniently the midpoint of Club One and Chuck’s, making no more convenient way to get your gay on in Savannah, my huckleberry friend.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 31, 2013.