In Savannah, Ga., the ghosts of the Civil War hang thick in the air. The gnarled arms of live oaks arc over rows of historical homes full of heirlooms. Horse-drawn carriages click-clack around the lush public squares that dapple the map.
It’s a city obsessed with its history and with its Southerness. At the heart of all things Southern, there is food.
Dining here, there’s soul and comfort food, barbecue, seafood shacks and generations-old recipes hewed from particular local ingredients such as loquats and satsumas (exotic fruits that have taken to Georgia’s warm climate), butter beans, pecans, crabs (try deviled or stewed) and Georgia shrimp (prepared all the ways).
From the Ogeechee River come catfish and shad. From the edges of town, boiled peanuts. From the docks and back porches of friends’ houses on breezy evenings, oyster roasts and lowcountry boils.
At the best eateries in town, whether they’ve been in business for three years or three-quarters of a century, patrons who pay attention will find, woven through the menus, traces of these obsessions: a deeply Southern culture and history.
Clanging pans, hissing fryers, laughter and lively conversation echo through Narobia’s Grits & Gravy (narobiasgrits.restaurantwebexpert.com; 912-231-0563; 2019 Habersham St.), an off-the-beaten-path, eight-table establishment where proprietor Renee Reid and the cooks on her sprawling line — mostly made up of family — happily welcome all every morning but Sunday. Early birds will avoid a wait. “I’m standing on the shoulders of giants,” says Reid, “trying to listen and please, and just trying to use the simplest ingredients possible.” If the menu overwhelms (there are 44 dishes for breakfast alone, some branching into your choice of grilled or fried), just consult the signage: You can’t misstep with the headlining items, and a sign on the building’s exterior proclaims the perfect maple-sweet French toast ($4.99) to be “so good it don’t need syrup!” Generous, meat-and-three-style breakfast platters ($6.75 to $9.95) come with eggs any style, grits and a warm, buttery, sweet-salty biscuit. Shrimp and grits ($7.50) is one of Savannah’s classic dishes and, thusly, subject to much judgment, but Narobia’s passes the test: a healthy handful of petite peeled shrimp top a mound of light, creamy grits, crowned with onions, peppers and the much-discussed house gravy that’s flavorful, peppery and, breaking from standards, pork free. For lighter fare, try the perfectly simple chicken biscuit ($2.25), a fried chicken patty — crispy, flavorful, light on the grease — in the middle of one of those perfect biscuits.
Every weekday morning, a line forms in front of an 1870s house on perhaps the most beautiful street in Savannah. Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room (mrswilkes.com; 912-232-5997; 107 W. Jones St.) has been serving lunches since Sema Wilkes opened its doors in the early 1940s. She ran the place until she died at 95, and her restaurant and adjoining boardinghouse have been maintained by her family. Strangers are seated together at round tables of 10 for the South’s greatest impetus for gathering: the sharing of a feast. A one-size-fills-all, prix-fixe menu ($23) changes daily, but often includes the likes of fried chicken, beef stew, collards, okra, black-eyed peas, sweet potato souffle and corn bread. “Family-style” in the truest sense, dishes are placed and passed around each group of 10, and they are bottomless. This carb-forward magic unfolds only from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; do set aside time for a wait in line, a leisurely meal and the nap that may follow.
A resurrected 1938 Greyhound depot at the edge of downtown is now the Grey (thegreyrestaurant.com; 912-662-5999; 109 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.), where Chef Mashama Bailey’s dishes playfully reference Savannah’s culinary past while standing out as the freshest ideas in town. Her perfectly tender Chicken Country Captain ($28) — a lowcountry favorite rumored to have originated at the city’s own port during the spice trade — is celebrated for its exotic, savory and sweet sauce of curry, currants, and almonds. But start with oysters ($3.50), and try the smashed new potato dish ($8), small purple potatoes with their skins crispened in brewer’s yeast and doused in an elegant cascade of sour cream topped with scallions. A challenge though it may be, save room: The warm beignets ($8), reminiscent of hush puppies rolled in sugar, are served five across the plate with a streak of ginger cream a dollop of chocolate sauce. A flight of this city’s favorite digestif ($19) tours your palate through the salt, cinnamon and caramel refrains of four historic Madeira styles from cities including, of course, Charleston, S.C., and Savannah. Make a reservation to score a seat at the elegant horseshoe bar, framed by art deco details and holdovers from the space’s past life, such as luggage racks above the kitchen-side booths and the faded gate numbers still posted above the old bus-lane boarding doors.