Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room ~ Savannah, GA
So far we’ve been through a dozen states along the Atlantic coastline, each with hundreds of fantastic restaurants to offer. So how do we pick which ones to stop at? Well early on, we set ourselves a couple of ground rules that a restaurant must have. 1) The place cannot be corporate, we wanted to focus on family-run or locally-owned restaurants. 2) It can’t be very expensive, we wanted to prove to ourselves and others, that you can get amazing quality food without a hefty price tag attached to it. And 3) no white tablecloths, so in a sense, no fine dining. So far on this trip, we’ve stayed true to our promise, and have found such a wealth of fantastic restaurants. So when we came to Savannah, GA, there was one place that was recommended to us, both by locals AND social media... but we initially passed on it because, from the pictures, it looked like they had white table cloths. But in a city such as Savannah, where there’s a never-ending list of amazing places to eat at, nearly everyone we interacted with suggested the same restaurant. From the sheer volume of recommendations alone, we decided that we just had to go. And I got to say, I’m so glad we bent the rules a little because Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room gave us one of the best meals we’ve ever had.
We were warned many times, there will be a line. O.K. cool. Well, maybe we’ll go on a Monday, get there 10 minutes after they open, I’m sure the line won’t be too bad. Oh, how naive we were! The line circled around the block. Well, they must be doing SOMETHING right if people are willing to wait in a 1/4 mile-long line. But as we found our place in line and waited, it turns out waiting in line is part of the experience. While in line, you almost have no choice but to start up conversations, even build friendships with the people waiting with you. And just like us, everyone we talked to came from a different part of the nation. We met with this lovely couple from Colorado—Keith & Mary. While we waited, we bonded over the harsh winters of our regions, and even shared similar stories about how our vegetables both suffered last summer! It was a fabulous way to pass the time. We chatted away in the warm Southern afternoon sun, inching closer & closer.
Each time a table got up and left, people were quickly ushered in to replace them. Waiting in this line felt like we were waiting in line to see a Harry Potter movie in theaters, every time the line moved, you were overcome with anticipation, knowing you were almost inside to witness the magic. As people left, everyone in line would ask them how it was, or if it was worth the wait. One guy in particular—looking like he was about to burst—when asked how it was said only one thing, “that was intense”. We were practically bouncing with anticipation. Once we were ‘on deck’ we got motioned inside the house to sit on a bench while our table was finished getting ready. While we sat, we were greeted by the most heartwarming & charismatic man we’ve ever met, Doug. He was incredibly friendly, asking everyone where they were visiting from, not because it was his job, more like he genuinely wanted to know where we’re from and the story of how we got here! OUR STORY?? I want to know all about THIS place! So he graciously told us:
Mrs. Sema Wilkes had operated this restaurant since 1943 (back then it was just a boardinghouse), after taking it over for a friend. She operated her boardinghouse with a simple goal in mind: to make a modest living offering comfortable lodging, as well as providing home-style Southern cooking (served family style) in her dining room for all her guests to enjoy. For years she cooked for her boardinghouse guests exclusively, but eventually, the word of her world-class cooking got out, and she opened her dining room to the general public. From there, success only followed. Her southern charm & hospitality was renowned across the nation, even culminating with several best-selling cookbooks. Unfortunately in 2002, after operating her dining room for decades, Mrs. Wilkes passed away at 95.
Today, Marcia Thompson (Mrs. Wilkes granddaughter) and her son, Ryon, run the show keeping Mrs. Wilkes’ legacy alive. Although I never had the privilege to meet the late Mrs. Wilkes, Marcia & Ryon wanted to honor her memory, by operating the restaurant as if she was still there, serving her boardinghouse guests. Mrs. Wilkes didn’t give a-flying-southern-care who you were, everyone was welcomed in, and she treated everyone with the southern hospitality they deserved. Today you’ll find that same mentality alive and well in her dining room. Folks from all over the globe have dined in this historic building, built-in 1870, including many celebrities and even President Obama! If we thought the anticipation was killing us just from waiting in line, after sitting in on Doug’s little history lesson, we were chomping at the bit!
Just like in her boardinghouse, in the dining room, all meals are served family-style. We sat down at a large circular table for 10, with people from all around the nation, Colorado, Illinois, Texas, and us, Massachusetts. Each spot at the table was set with silverware, plates, napkins, and sweet tea. Coming from New England, pre-sweetened tea was definitely a strange experience for us, but a very welcomed one after waiting in line. And the white table clothes that we initially turned our noses up at? Well, turns out it was a vinyl tablecloth that was NAILED to the table, making it more of a utilitarian choice, than just for looks (speaking of looks, it looked just like material from our bus seats!). As we sat down, we began to introduce ourselves, but before we could get around to everybody, the bowls of delicious-looking food appeared before us like magic. It was like The Great Hall's feast appearing before them in Harry Potter (I don’t know why I keep referencing Harry Potter… I guess everything felt like magic to me). We stared at all this delicious food in total disbelief, like it was a mirage. Can this be true? We can eat all of this? We can get refills? The endless array of food in front of us left me awestruck. I had to make sure I kept my mouth closed, so I wouldn’t drool on the table...
AND on the menu for that day was as follows (and no I’m not kidding):
Braised cabbage, dressed cucumber salad, Mac & Cheese, coleslaw, cornbread & biscuits, succotash (mix of seasonal vegetables), cornbread stuffing, rice & gravy, black-eyed peas, beef stew, mashed potatoes, candied yams (with cinnamon & raisins), smoky BBQ pork, collard greens (just called collards in the south), Savannah red rice, green beans, fried chicken, creamed corn, baked beans, stewed parsnips, potatoes au gratin and potato salad. Oh, and for dessert—banana pudding or cherry pie. ALL for just $25 (cash only). Holy CRAP that’s a lot of food, and for not a whole lot of money!
Once it was all laid out in front of us, arms were reaching out in all directions, it really felt like we were having Thanksgiving Dinner, except this time we were with complete strangers! We were passing bowls back and forth, making sure everyone got a helping. It was an amazing feeling to come together, regardless of your background, your political views, or even your financial status. We all had a common goal, and that’s the only thing that mattered, to eat this decadent, home-cooked Southern Food. And let me tell ya, this food deserved all the hype. Each dish was more mouth-watering than the last. The fried chicken was out of this world, juicy & sweet with a nice healthy crunch to it. Chris couldn’t get over the coleslaw. We’ve had excellent coleslaw (Dave’s BBQ), but Dave really mixed it up, making it spicy on the finish. But Mrs. Wilkes' coleslaw kept it traditional, easily the gold standard that all slaws should follow. I couldn’t get over the smoked BBQ pork either. It melted in your mouth, incredibly tender, slightly sweet, and a little smokey. I really just wanted to dump the entire bowl on my plate but then I remembered, there are nine other people at the table… I should probably share. There were so many dishes that I’ve never tried before, like black-eyed peas or succotash, which after having them here, now might be part of my regular diet. Before I knew it, I was full—beyond full really—I was stuffed. Just when I thought I couldn’t possibly eat another bite, a bowl of banana pudding appeared before me and suddenly I was feeling a bit peckish. This banana pudding, man, If I had a giant bowl of this in front of me, I could probably eat the whole thing. Such a perfect way to finish a meal.
Marcia Thompson herself came over throughout the whole meal, making sure we were taken care of, offering biscuits here and there (although I don’t think offer is the right word, she wouldn’t take no for an answer). She also delighted us with stories that really painted a picture of who her grandmother was, and how they’re preserving her memory here in her dining room today, so everyone can appreciate what real home-cooked Southern food is. And boy, did we appreciate it. Mrs. Wilkes' Dining Room ISN’T JUST about amazing southern food, but rather, the sense of family that it fosters. You can get this food to go if you want, and don’t get me wrong, it’s still probably the best southern food you’ll ever have... but it wouldn’t have the same effect. The experience of sitting down with people from all walks of life, to share a meal together, is what makes Mrs. Wilkes' Dining Room what it is, and what it has been for generations (four of them to be exact). We need more of that in this nation. As servers ourselves, I can’t tell you how many meals we’ve served to people who have their faces buried in their phones, rather than talk to the person a foot away from them. Needless to say, dining at Mrs, Wilkes' was a breath of fresh air, and we hope more restaurants take note and follow suit. Marcia Thompson and her family really m