by Lauren Winter
Southern food is on a bittersweet upswing. Even as trendy restaurants like Nashville’s Pinewood Social and Husk in Charleston are giving new life to old Southern staples (and receiving serious accolades for it), classic stops such as Carver’s Country Kitchen in Atlanta are disappearing as older generations pass away.
Fortunately for Savannah, the city’s Southern restaurants are still going strong. Easily a mainstay in the Savannah eating scene is Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room, a popular spot for locals and visitors alike on West Jones Street.
Sema Wilkes opened the restaurant in 1943. She and her staff became so familiar with the dishes, they eventually ousted written recipes altogether. When Mrs. Wilkes passed away in 2002, she left the business in her family’s capable hands. The place never skipped a beat.
Over seventy years since it began, Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room still serves a packed house daily. Driving by Jones Street on a weekday afternoon usually means catching a glimpse of a line half a block long. Even in the off-season, it’s common to wait in line, but visiting early in slower months is recommended. When we snuck in just after 11am on a Thursday in February, we were greeted with no wait at all.
The food is served communal-style around a large table, prompting dish passing amongst new and familiar faces. Don’t worry about taking the last helping of baked beans or rutabaga, the attentive staff regularly replenishes empty bowls.
Each dish is perfectly prepared. For serving large amounts of food to so many, the level of consistency with each dish is impressive. Biscuits taste like they just left the oven. The meat is tender and juicy, stewed vegetables are soft and full of flavor.
Even for a Midwestern transplant like myself who didn’t grow up with turnip greens or black-eyed peas, I am right at home at Mrs. Wilkes’. The meatloaf, corn muffins, mac and cheese, and greens are my personal favorites. For heat lovers, red beans and rice are served with spicy andouille sausage. Crispy cucumbers are lightly pickled with a dash of pepper, a refreshing accompaniment to an otherwise hearty and heavy meal. Mrs. Wilkes’ fried chicken is famous.
18 bucks a person includes sweet or unsweet iced tea and a dessert at the end. Heads up – cash only.
When exploring Savannah, a visit to Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room is just as important as a walk through Forsyth Park. It’s a piece of the city’s past and present. And it might just become one of the best meals you’ve ever had.
My advice? Try everything.