I never thought I’d say it, but I was ready to say goodbye to the bright lights of Manhattan and begin the rest of our American travels. Five to six weeks based in New York was truly incredible; whether we had a day full of activities or one that was pure relaxation.
The next part of the U.S. to see our faces was far from the hustle and bustle we were accustomed to. And the only similarity was the heat. Although the heat and humidity in Savannah, Georgia, put those hot New York days to shame. Man it gets sticky down there!
Savannah’s historic district is dripping with beautiful architecture, manicured gardens and cobbled streets broken up with 22 leafy squares that vary in size. Many of these squares are named after people or significant events and decorated with statues, fountains or monuments. Huge oak trees shade the city and everywhere you look you can see Spanish moss swaying in the breeze. At times it can feel like you’re walking through a movie set. How about Forrest Gump, Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil or Cape Fear? The list goes on.
Down on the waterfront is River Street, a strip of old warehouses that used to store cotton, resin and slaves. The port of Savannah was once the worlds largest cotton exporter, as well as handling much of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Money-making in cotton upstairs, and very much the same with slaves in the basements. Those helpless guys were put to work during the day and then chained up in the dark, filthy and diseased basements to prevent them escaping.
Revitalisation of the area began in the 70’s and today it’s geared well and truly to the tourist. Nine blocks of art and craft stores, hotels, restaurants and bars, antique shops, candy stores, ice cream … it’s all there. A nice way to see the city from the water is by taking the free Savannah Belles Ferry from River Street at the Hyatt, stopping at the Marriott/Morrell Park and Hutchinson Island/Westin Hotel.
A block from Chippewa Square is a corner pub that looks like it’s been cut straight from the UK, complete with a red phone booth. Over forty years ago it was the home of Wally’s Sixpence. A watering hole owned and operated by Wally and Doris, a husband and wife team that liked to socialise and provide their own piece of England to the south.
At the turn of the millennium it was bought by a couple of guys that had their own fair share of booze at the same address. And I guess they only made it better by introducing more beer, wine and spirits, and an English and American menu.
Beer at noon and some good old pub stodge was in order for this pair. It’s a mish-mash of salads, pot roast, bangers & mash, nachos and sandwiches. The other half chooses the soup & ½ a sandwich (10.95); French onion soup with turkey on toasted wholemeal bread.
I start with a not-so-great example of Welsh rarebit (8.95). Barely-toasted slices of baguette topped with a gloopy cheddar, Worcestershire and Guinness concoction. It was probably good that I had a loaded banger (6.95) coming. This was beer food at its best. An English-style “Cumberland” sausage “stuffed” with potato mash, bacon and melted cheese.
Continuing along Bull Street by foot leads visitors through a few more squares and past many more stunning Victorian houses and mansions. You can’t help but gush at the magnificent architecture; wishing you could just walk up the stairs and take a sticky-beak at the interiors.
Before you know it you hit Forsyth Park. Thirty acres of sprawling lawns and gardens with paved walkways shaded by twisted branches of mature oak trees that are draped with silvery beards of moss. Clumps of it also lay beneath the trees and on walkways; the only visible “litter” in an otherwise perfectly manicured park.
Even further along Bull Street, past jaw-dropping mansions in the Victorian District is Foxy Loxy, a café-cum-print gallery that occupies two levels in an old Victorian house. Each room is cosily decorated with framed prints, and many concentrated faces can be seen illuminated by lap-tops and tablets, thanks to the free wifi. There’s a spacious courtyard out the back but due to the steamy weather, not a soul was out there.
Locally roasted Perc Coffee provides the beans, there’s a bunch of craft brews and vino and the menu looks a tad Tex-Mex. Huevos rancheros quiche, anyone?
Located in the northwest corner of Savannah’s historic downtown area is a.lure, a stylish-yet-casual restaurant owned by restaurateur Daniel Berman. It’s a place with friendly southern hospitality, somewhere to sit and have a drink, bar-nibble or relaxed filling meal.
Chef Charles Zeran brings his unique flair to the plate; taking low-country classics and making them his own. The hearty contemporary fare uses local produce wherever possible, with an occasional Asian twist with some of the dishes.
A couple of
scones biscuits pose as the “bread” starter, coupled with sweetened butter and a sweet fruit purée there for the spreading.
It was a given that I choose the foie “a la mode” (18), a dish that seems to be a house staple. Anything foie gras gets my attention so it was by default that this creation made it to the table. We have a beautifully seared slice of foie gras and grilled Krispy Kreme donut with grilled pineapple chutney and pomegranate reduction. Crowning the donut is white truffle black pepper ice cream.
Overall, this is a dish that celebrates the sweet stuff. The foie gras, a component that tends to be the star anywhere it appears, was sadly lost and completely overpowered by varying levels of sugar from the pineapple, donut and pomegranate reduction. The truffle ice cream struggles to bring a savoury element to the plate with its noticeable saltiness.
A low country boil (26) is a classic dish from Georgia and South Carolina. A one-pot “boil” of shrimp, corn, sausage and potatoes, cooked and then tumbled onto a platter for all to attack with fingers and forks. Here we have a modern version loaded with baby potatoes, local shrimp, a crab cake and smoked sausage. Collard greens join in on the fun and are very similar in flavour to a German red sauerkraut. The boiled corn is replaced by a sweet corn flan that’s akin to set custard, with a stream of Old Bay hollandaise tying it all together. It’s rustic and undeniably filling.
Another value-for-money dish is the pork shank (29), a remarkable piece of meat from the Niman Ranch network of farmers. You can seriously taste the quality here. Slow braised and doused in demi-glace, sided by haricot beans and a delicious roasted garlic & goat cheese polenta.
If the meal started sweet, it may as well have ended that way. Apple tarte tatin (8) swimming in sugary sauce and a frozen goat cheese soufflé (10) that didn’t quite hit the soufflé category. It’s a rather firm slice of goat cheese ice cream, topped with a honey tuile, topped with blackberry lemon sorbet and then more ice cream. Some passionfruit curd joined in on a garnish with some berries.
Thanks to its early opening times and convenient location, Goose Feather Café became our breakfast spot for three consecutive days. Arrive early enough and you have many empty seats to choose from. Arrive at 8.30 or 9am and you’ll be lining up with many other hungry souls.
It’s a café that feels very much like a diner or cafeteria; far from the “fused dining ambience of Manhattan’s Greenwich Village and Left Bank in Paris” the website proclaims. Waffles, eggs, soups, salads, sandwiches and pastries are all up for grabs at this downtown eatery.
A bit of southern stodge kicked things off for me on the first visit. The birds nest (6.75) is a pool of under-seasoned grits surrounded by grated white cheddar, topped with two soft poached eggs and a salsa of coriander, tomato and onion. It’s something I really liked, despite its soft on soft textures.
The bagels may not match those in New York, but the eggel bagel (5.55) that’s filled with cheddar, ham and scrambled eggs is not all that bad. And you’ve got to love a garnish of sliced orange.
If there’s anything that’s worth battling the morning humidity and lines of people, it’s got to be the sticky bun (2.95). I was in love with the ones from Balthazar in New York, thinking they were one of the best sticky pastries I’ve encountered. Well I can confidently say that here in downtown Savannah you can find a sticky bun that is better. The pastry scroll is served warm and as soon as it hits your incisors you’re stuck (literally) with the most beautiful caramel and pecan crunch. Soft and warm pecan crunch, that is. It’s the scroll of love. I kid you not.
The most serious coffee we came across in our Savannah walk-a-bouts was up at City Coffee. It’s spacious, a little industrial and seems popular with the SCAD (Savannah College of Art & Design) crowd. There’s brew, pour over and some mighty fine espresso by Counter Culture; a bean that leaves a lingering flavour on the tongue. It was probably a good thing that I didn’t try “the midterm” – a Red Bull with a shot of espresso. I’ll leave that one for the kids.
The service here couldn’t be any friendlier and their curiosity with how “us Australians” like our coffee is amusing. Even though they initially thought we were Brits. Finding this place on our second day was an absolute bonus.
A visit to Savannah should probably include a visit to The Olde Pink House. This relic of a building was built in 1771 for one of the towns founding family members and cotton factors, James Habersham Junior. This hero of the Revolutionary War was never happy with the fact that the render on his house kept turning pink from the bricks beneath the plaster. The house survived for centuries, making it through the war of 1812, the great fire of 1820 and the Civil War forty years later.
In the 1920’s it was bought by a lady that took to the house with pink paint, then fast forward to today and it’s a classy-yet-casual establishment offering new southern cuisine to locals and visitors alike.
It’s a popular stop for the Savannah ghost tours, thanks to the supposed frequent visitations by first owner James Habersham and several other spirits. Fascinating stuff, but we were there to sample some of its edibles.
Here we have fried green tomatoes (8.5) with crumbled crunchy bacon, braised red cabbage and sweet corn cream. I’m still unsure as to what the attraction is with frying green tomatoes, other than it being another ingredient that’s crumbed and deep-fried. There’s not a whole lot of flavour in there, ya’ll. I did love the sweetcorn cream, however.
The crispy calamari (8.95) went down a treat and verged on being akin to Japanese tempura. Some roasted jalapeño aioli and sweet apricot shallot sauce helped it along nicely.
My favourite, the fried chicken livers (8.95) was virtual perfection. More fried food, I know, but the livers were beautifully moist and creamy on the inside. Beneath the livers lay grits and on top is fried spinach and a rich bordelaise sauce. It’s delicious food like this that contributed to my newly developing gut. And I don’t regret it.
Because we needed it, we shared a solo wedge of the most incredible key lime pie (6) we’ve encountered. But let’s be honest, it’s not like we’ve eaten dozens of them. The combination of a crust made with Sandies pecan shortbread and the creamiest lime filling made for a little mouth magic. This thing truly was special.
Back in the Victorian District is Local 11ten, a locally-driven “farm to table” restaurant housed in a former 1950’s bank building. It’s crowned by Perch, a loungey roof bar that’s all about kicking back with a cocktail, perhaps a few bar snacks and enjoying a bird-eye view through the tops of oak trees. Thanks to a sudden rain shower, everyone clutched their icy bevies and made for a swift retreat to the restaurant.
Downstairs we tuck into a few dishes from the southern-influenced menu, starting with two rather enormous sea scallops (14) fresh from the Georgian coast. This was a dish that proved simple is often the best. Aside from the perfectly seared scallops, there was nothing more than a coil of pickled ramps (a variety of spring onion), confit chilli, peach preserve, toasted almonds and a champagne vinaigrette.
And then there are the North Carolina frogs legs (28), coated and crisp-fried with a “farmhouse” succotash of fava beans and corn, bacon lardons and smear of arugula pesto. The large legs offered a lot of juicy meat; a perfect match to the smokey succotash.
A rather light, but still reasonably-sized salad of Beauford County octopus (29) seemed to be thoroughly enjoyed by the other half. Soft and slightly charred baby octopus, tomato, marinated feta, watercress, lemon and dill.
Another restaurant that’s worth visiting is Alligator Soul. It’s fine dining without being ostentatious and a great place to kick back with some seriously delicious southern food.
Stepping down off the street into the basement of what was once a grain warehouse, first impressions give the feeling of an underground jazz bar. Brick walls, eclectic art, sit-up bar and dim lighting. The set-up is casual and pub-like, but pressed linen on the tables gives the impression of something a little more fine.
Some mixed bread options land on the table soon after a bottle of vino is ordered. Regular baguette and a couple of corn cupcakes. Perhaps it’s cornbread, but when something is that sweet and that shape it’s a cupcake, I’m afraid.
A good old beet carpaccio was a little something to nibble on before the mains arrived. Roasted and thinly sliced red and golden beets, walnuts, blue cheese, macerated apricot and champagne vinaigrette. Loved it. Earthy beets, sharp cheese and occasional sweetness from the apricot.
Shrimp & grits (14) was an absolute requirement, and it didn’t disappoint. In fact, it impressed. The Georgia wild shrimp were delicious on their own, sautéed with Creole spices and lemon butter. But it was those grits that melted my heart. Not the flavourless and sloppy grits I’d tried elsewhere, but ones with serious flavour and texture thanks to some aged cheddar, scallions and ham.
Another go-to southern classic was the Cajun gator gumbo (31). Small chunks of crispy fried alligator, and beneath is the most beautiful gumbo flecked with the typical trinity mirepoix of onion, celery and green pepper. Then there’s okra, ham hock, Andouille sausage, rice and house-cured Tasso ham. It’s rich and smokey with a good chilli bite. Amazing stuff.
It may have come with a lengthy description, but the dark chocolate raspberry tart (8) was the only let-down of the meal. A house-made butter tart shell, dark & milk chocolate Cognac ganache, Chambord reduction and sprinkled with Savannah spice and raspberry sugar. It arrived within a minute of being ordered, fresh from the fridge. Whilst the filling was ok, it was the very soft and floppy pastry that brought it down.
Time was approaching for us to say farewell to Savannah and move on with our travels. Not before we picked up a hire car and paid a visit to Bonaventure Cemetery, made famous by being featured in the movie Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
The cemetery sprawls across 100 acres of a former plantation, making it the city’s largest. Part of it overlooks the Wilmington River, whilst the rest is a network of old oak-lined roadways, obelisks and elaborate crypts, angel, cherubs and lifelike sculptures.
Many notable citizens are laid to rest throughout the grounds; town dignitaries and veterans from the Civil War and American Revolution, writer Conrad Aiken and songwriter Johnny Mercer.
One of the most visited grave sites in the cemetery is that of Little Gracie. Her caged-off plot is a well-kept flowering garden with one main centrepiece; a life-sized carved marble statue of Gracie sitting by a tree trunk, clutching a flower.
Little Gracie Watson was born in 1883, the only child to her parents. Her father was manager of one of Savannah’s leading hotels at the time, where Gracie was a bit of a favourite with the guests. At age six she died of pneumonia.
Walking around the cemetery reveals many more children’s graves, and stopping to read the headstones gives insight into who they were and when they passed. Some may think it’s a morbid exercise, but walking around a cemetery is strangely calming. It’s definitely a place that people should consider visiting when in Savannah.
And for us, it was time to grab one last espresso from City Coffee before crossing the towering Talmadge Memorial Bridge and head northeast up the coast.