Savannah is the idyllic southern city – outstretched oaks dripping in Spanish moss shade perfectly manicured park squares while horse-drawn carriages stroll visitors down cobblestoned streets, past historic antebellum architecture. It’s where southern hospitality meets a progressive art scene. It’s the city whose unique beauty and Southern Gothic charm has drawn the attention of Hollywood, having served as the backdrop for countless classics such as the beloved Forrest Gump, Something to Talk About and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (based on the novel of the same name).
However, there’s one Savannah fixture that’s become just as iconic as the city itself – Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room. This family-owned southern style eatery offers copious amounts of traditional classics such as fried chicken, cornbread, Mac n cheese, collard greens and okra gumbo just to name a few. Everything at Mrs. Wilkes is served family style, meaning there is no menu and you’ll have to get in line early (a line starts forming outside the restaurant as early as 10am) to grab seats at one of the large communal tables set for ten and share a meal with strangers. Locals and visitors alike chow down on the same original recipes from when it’s doors first opened back in 1943.
And just like Savannah, Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room attracts it’s fair share of Hollywood big shots as Blake Lively, Ryan Reynolds, Gwyneth Paltrow, Denis Quaid, Walter Cronkite and Obama are just a few of the famous faces to have eaten here.
In 1943 a young Sema Wilkes took over a boarding house in the heart of historic downtown Savannah from her mother-in-law. Along side her husband, Mrs. Wilkes planned to make a simple living by continuing to provide comfortable lodging as well as 3 meals a day to the property’s 11 boarders (mostly WWII widows and widowers). However, news of her culinary abilities quickly spread among the neighbors and before she knew it, Mrs. Wilkes was preparing dinner for a packed house almost every night, thus Mrs. Wilke’s Dinning Room was born. To this day, the restaurant has never paid for any advertising and relies solely on word of mouth.
Although Sema Wilkes passed away in 2002, her restaurant and recipes still live on thanks to her granddaughter, Marcia Thompson.
Meet Marcia Thompson
As a Savannah native, some of Marcia’s earliest memories include helping her grandmother peel potatoes and snap beans in the kitchen. While she loved growing up in Savannah, Marcia left the city after high school to attend an all girls college in Northern Georgia followed by a 5 year stint as a Delta Airline stewardess based out of Atlanta.
Eventually in 1975, Marcia and her husband (another Savannah native, the late Ronnie Thompson) decided to come home. Soon after their return, the Thompsons began helping out at the restaurant while her grandmother recovered from a broken ankle… and never left. Together, Marcia and Ronnie had been running and managing the restaurant until very recently when the reins were passed down to their son, Ryon – keeping Mrs. Wilkes Dinning Room in the family.
LMT: As a Savannah native, what’s your favorite thing about your hometown?
MT: First of all the beauty is outstanding, it’s like living in a garden. Even after all of these years I still get overwhelmed by the beauty of the trees.
But what really drew me back here after I left was the small town feel. It’s wonderful going to the grocery store and running into everyone I know. But at the same time, it’s very international. 3/4 of my garden club are transplants, not people originally from Savanah. It’s small town America with all of the benefits of a big city – a diverse population with a strong focus on the arts. Savannah is the best of both worlds.
And it’s not just a great place to live, it’s also a great place to visit. With the city’s historic park squares being laid out so perfectly, you’ll be able to find your way around in no time. Plus, throw in all of the friendly and welcoming locals and you’ll begin to feel like one yourself.
LMT: What are your top recommendations for travelers visiting Savannah for the first time?
Ships of the Sea Museum – This museum is set in the historic 19th century home of respected shipping merchant William Scarbrough. This home features 9 galleries of ship models and maritime paintings. It also has a gorgeous garden in the back.
The Bonaventure cemetery – This cemetery is eerily beautiful and a step back into history. It’s filled with gorgeous monuments, giant oaks draped in Spanish moss and vibrant azaleas. This cemetery became famous after the 1994 novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
River Street – a strip of restaurants, bars and shops that line the river. It’s fascinating to be enjoying lunch while watching the massive container ships sail by, they are so close it feels like you could reach out and touch them.
SCADS Museum of Art – Something else that I would highly recommend is visiting the SCADS (Savannah College of Art and Design) Museum. This is a gorgeous art museum and a great way to support the school. After all, SCADS is responsible for the restoration of many of the city’s historic buildings.
Visit the historic homes – You also need to be sure to tour a few of the city’s historic homes which have since been converted into museums. The Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters is probably the most historic, giving you a glimpse into the past, while the architecture in the Green-Mildrim House is beyond compare.
LMT: What’s something that you recommend that travelers won’t find in a guidebook?
MT: I would have to say a visit to Service Brewing Co. It’s a brewery geared towards the military that is relatively new and was actually started by my neighbors! They make their own craft beer, have live music, games etc. and a portion of everything they make is donated to charities that support service men and women and first responders. It’s very community oriented and would be a great place to tap into the city’s local vibe.
574 Indian Street, Savannah, GA 31401
LMT: Besides Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room, are there any other can’t miss dining experiences in Savannah?
MT: There are so many great restaurants and places to eat in Savannah but the ones that come to mind are…
The Grey – this restaurant is run by a famous New York City chef and offers modern southern cooking. It’s a trendy fine dining spot located in a renovated Greyhound Bus Station
The Olde Pink House – old lowcountry cuisine in an beautiful 18th century mansion
AJ’s Dockside Restaurant – This restaurant is located on the Back River on Tybee Island, just 20 minutes from historic downtown Savannah. This rustic seafood shack offers great food and beautiful sunset views.
Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room is located at 107 W Jones Street and is open Monday – Friday, 11am-2pm. Credit cards are not accepted. If you want to be sure to sit down and eat during the first shift, get in line no later than 10:30am. Otherwise, you’ll have to wait in line until the first round of guests finishes their meal (It’s absolutely worth the wait!)
Mrs. Wilkes Dinning Room is closed for the month of January and will reopen in February.