A return of sorts to Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room


Back in October of 2012, the gang of four (Terry, Ellen, Richard and I) set off on a journey to Savannah, Georgia. The adventures were chronicled here on the In My Backpack web site, and also included in my 20016 travel book (Something Old, Something New).

In the heart of Savannah is an absolutely legendary hidden treasure, Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room. I have said, on several occasions, that this restaurant is… bar none… the best restaurant I have ever set foot inside. Brilliant. Outstanding. Delicious. Incredible. In summarizing of our lunch, I stated that our one visit featured several of the greatest meals I have ever eaten. (And honestly, it might not even be close.)

I recently heard from a very special lady about her experience reading my book, and I was grateful for her kind words. She made several wonderful observations, but one in particular nudged me to action. It was pointed out to me that I didn’t really describe much of what happened at Mrs. Wilkes’.

And so… I’m offering this up as a way to step back in time a bit. I grabbed my original notes, reviewed a few things, and set off for 2012 and Savannah…

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I am convinced that one of the greatest resources any traveler could benefit from is the average person right there on the street. And such a resource is, sadly, far too often never acknowledged or explored.

The premise is simple enough. As an example – You’ve spent the morning doing something… shopping, visiting an attraction, walking around gazing at sights… and it’s almost lunch time. Walk up to a cashier at the shop… the front desk representative at your hotel… a park ranger… and ask some version of:

“We’re out here on vacation. If you were getting ready to head to lunch nearby, what place would be the best to stop at that I won’t find near my home?”

Yes. I’ve simplified things here. It works best when you have established some type of connection with the person you’re asking as opposed to someone you blindly approached. The question can also be modified for any dining, sightseeing, and more. But I think you get the idea. People that live and work in an area know more about that area than someone around for a few days.

And so it was that on the afternoon of October 2, 2012, Terry, Ellen, Richard and I found ourselves in a gift shop on Bull Street. We had been to a nice railroad museum, a breathtaking cathedral, and moved around to a variety of places in Savannah. Mom has trained me well—always take a moment for any store themed to Christmas—and we are looking around one last place before heading off to lunch. The connection is made…

We have selected a few items for purchase, and while bring them to the counter and looking around just a bit more, we have an ongoing conversation with some of the people working there. Turns out, we all share Rhode Island in our history. We talked and laughed and exchanged all sorts of observations and stories. And then… we were ready to head off to lunch. But not before they asked us a question:

“Are you going to Mrs. Wilkes’?”

A brief detour…

If you were to sit down at your computer right now, pull up your favorite search engine, and look for the best things to do… the must things to do… or some variation of that idea for Savannah, Georgia, you will get:

Referrals to trolley tours

The Savannah Bee Company

Details about all of the historic squares

Details about all of the historic mansions

Forsyth Park

Hanging moss

River Street

We could go on, but the general idea I want to establish is that even with an occasional mention of Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room to come across… you are going to find other places noted more prominently, and are actually far more likely to find restaurant information for The Lady & Sons. And dear lord, in my opinion, such misinformation and poor references as presenting the Paula Deen landmark over The Wilkes House should be punishable with jail time.

I have no clue how we entered Savannah without knowing about Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room. But I have looked around since we’ve returned, and I cannot find a way to be certain it was our fault for not knowing of it. And yet, because of a casual conversation with some area residents, that wove in and out and around several topics before arriving at heading off for lunch, there we were, presented with:

“Are you going to Mrs. Wilkes’?”

On that day, we were not. But we were curious and had another day or two in the city. They filled us in on most of the details and told us to arrive early. These notes were much appreciated, as apparently Mrs. Wilkes’ was able to pull off a few quite unique and amazing business practices. For your consideration:

(1) Cash only. Credit cards are not accepted.

(2) Hours of operation cover fifteen hours. (Each week. No, really. Just fifteen hours of open doors every week. Open Monday through Friday, from 11am to 2pm. Closed on weekends. Closed in the evenings. Closed for the month of January.)

(3) There is a menu section on the Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room web site. You will never be handed a menu inside.

(4) If you are in line an hour before the 11am opening, you might—stress might—be seated before noon. (I cannot prove it… but I would advise you that it’s worth believing if you are even thinking of going: if you are in line at or after the 11am opening, keep your fingers crossed that you’ll get inside. (Yes. Get there early.))

We arrived for our meal of a lifetime on Wednesday, October 3, 2012. I dropped off Terry, Ellen and Richard before parking the car. The clock had not yet reached 10am by the time I joined them in a line that was beginning to wind along down the sidewalk on West Jones Street.

While we couldn’t be certain, a quick estimate of the number of people ahead of us created a feeling that even on a beautiful autumn Wednesday morning, having arrived more than an hour ahead of opening, we might not make the cutoff for the first seating. By 11:15am, we had reached the doors and were part of the last table filled for the initial service of the day.

I’ve been trying to decide how to describe the interior of Mrs. Wilkes’ or the experience of the meal service. And it’s not because there are no words. Instead, it’s because offering up a list of those words begin with expressions of comfort… pleasantries… caring… and, in essence, almost a family reunion being held at a place quite familiar to every person attending.

For example… let’s head to Walton’s Mountain. Did you ever watch The Waltons?

Seven children in that family. Small town folks in Virginia, where everyone knew each other by name. Running a family lumber mill. Living together in a big house, trying to survive and make things better.

Now let’s move away from The Waltons as a show, and if you can just try to picture that family… seven children… and that setting a generation later, gathering in that home for a meal. It’s a place they had been in so often that numbers could no longer count the hours spent inside. And for this meal, with husbands and wives and children and so on, there could easily be two or three dozen people arriving at that home.

Tables would be set up wherever they could fit… most of the chairs might not match… the food would be served, would be hot, and there would be plenty of it. Smiles… laughter… great food and good conversation.

And with such an image, welcome to Mrs. Wilkes’.

When you arrive in the dining area, you will be seated at a table with others. Just about every table is set for ten, and I think chances are very good that your party won’t be that large… meaning you will get to meet some wonderful people that will be dining with you.

I remember each table as being a bit different. Meaning everything at one table would match from the place settings to the chairs, but the tables nearby had a slightly different look and arrangement. I recall a rectangular or oval table next to a larger round table. Chairs that matched for one group did not match those for the next. Yet it all worked. It all seemed perfectly in place. And it all created a warm atmosphere… one that almost said the hosts welcomed the additional people and simply found a way to have a seat for everyone in their home.

The food defies the proper superlatives. It is delicious. It is amazing. And it has a way of making you feel wonderful beyond any comfort food you could imagine.

Officially, there is no menu. You will not be presented with anything to order. The biggest decision you may have to make is what to drink… and that means sweet tea or water. (Ok… I believe it could also mean unsweetened tea. But it arrived in pitchers and you made the selection.)

Once your table has settled in, the food begins to arrive. Entrees and side dishes and biscuits and more. A general rundown from our day: friend chicken, meat loaf, beef stew, pulled pork, green beans, turnip, squash, black-eyed peas, carrot salad, collard greens, red rice, okra, mashed potatoes, corn bread, and… about two dozen different items were served between the main course and dessert. (I need to mention the banana pudding and blueberry cobbler.)

The experience is a celebration of quality and comfort and food and friendship. And I cannot stress that word comfort enough. There is nothing flashy or shouting for attention. It’s a place where “family-style” captures more than passing food around the table. Family-style is the entire visit from the moment you step inside until you leave.

As I sit to write this, it’s been more than four years since I joined my friends for a meal at Mrs. Wilkes’. If I close my eyes I can remember the arrival of the food at the table… I can see the faces of those sitting with us… and I can feel myself moving around after, as we paid our bill and purchased copies of the signature cookbook, knowing it was time to go but feeling something pulling me to stay.

More than anything else, I remember taking it with me in a way I had really never encountered on any vacation before. This was a welcoming place, where it seemed like you belonged. I may not recall the decorations on the walls… I do know that I felt as if I was joining a family for dinner. Much more than a restaurant, Mrs. Wilkes’ offers the culinary equivalent of a hug, which is no small achievement.

I don’t know that I will ever go back again. Not that I wouldn’t. If offered an opportunity, I would gladly sit down for another helping or two. I simply don’t see how any future visit could match the magic of that October day with good friends, both long known and just met.

If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at Bob@inmybackpack.com