Home Cookin’, Prohibition, and So Many Squares
Savannah is thought of as a genteel southern town with lots of charm and hearty down-home food. And it has plenty of that. But, like the book “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find more than you expect.
A Short History
Tools and blades found in present-day Georgia date the first human settlement in the area to as long as 20,000 years ago. Several Native American tribes lived in the area before European contact, including Mississippian Moundbuilders.
Chief Tomochichi was the leader of the Yamacraws in 1733 when British General James Oglethorpe landed with 114 colonists at Yamacraw Bluff. European trappers and traders were already on site and acted as interpreters between the Native Americans and the British. Oglethorpe and Chief Tomochichi became friends which resulted in peaceful coexistence between the colonists and natives which was unusual at the time.
Chief Tomochichi died in 1739 and was buried in Wright Square. In the 1880’s his grave was desecrated and bulldozed to make room for the grave of a railroad baron. Later, a boulder and plaque were placed in Wright Square to memorialize the chief.
Oglethorpe’s colony in Savannah was also relatively tolerant of other religions. 41 Jewish settlers arrived in Savannah from London in 1733. These Sephardic Jews built Congregation Mickve Israel, one of the oldest in the United States. In addition, many Protestants other than Church of England members were welcomed into the colony.
Religious tolerance, however, stopped short when it came to Catholics. That’s because the colony of Georgia was established by the British to fend of Spanish (Catholic) expansion to the north from Florida. Just one more example of politics and religion becoming intertwined.
General Oglethorpe initially did not allow slavery, but when Georgia became an official Royal Colony in 1754, people were kidnapped from West Africa and slaves were imported into the Low Country of Georgia to grow rice. The theft of the Africans’ freedom and labor helped grow Savannah into a thriving city.
During much of the American Revolution, Savannah was controlled by the British. In 1779, American troops along with French troops fought the British in the famous Siege of Savannah. Casmir Pulaski led a group of cavalry against the British but was killed in the fighting. Today, one of Savannah’s squares is named for Pulaski. Black troops from the French colony of Haiti fought alongside the American troops and there is a monument recognizing them in Franklin Square. Ultimately, the British repelled the American/French/Hatian forces and Savannah remained in Loyalist hands for most of the war.
Georgia was a member of the Confederacy during the Civil War. General Sherman’s March to the Sea in 1864 destroyed much of Atlanta. Savannah was next on Sherman’s hit list and the city was defended by 10,000 Confederate troops led by General Hardee. After a couple of brief scuffles, Hardee and his troops fled Savannah, leaving the city undefended. Savannah’s mayor met with General Sherman and surrendered under the agreement that the city, unlike Atlanta, would be spared. Sherman complied.
Savannah’s prosperity in the late 19th century was linked to manufacturing as paper mills and ironworks opened and employed locals. As manufacturing declined, tourism took off in the second half of the 20th century. 14 million people visit Savannah annually to enjoy the history, architecture, culture, and, of course, food of the city.
So-called Belgian waffles are incredibly popular in the U.S., but they’ve only been stateside for 60+ years. Brussels waffles were first introduced at the 1962 Century 21 Exposition in Seattle and gained popularity at the 1964 New York World’s Fair.
Originally called Brussels waffles, the name was changed to Belgian waffles to avoid confusing Americans unfamiliar with the European city.
But, the Liege waffle is actually much more popular in Belgium. Thick like the Brussels waffle, the Liege waffle is chewier, like a brioche and often uses yeast as a leavening agent (many waffles use baking powder).
The biggest difference, though, is the sugar. Liege waffles use pearl sugar. This gives the Liege waffle its distinctive crunchiness and sweetness. Take a bite of the Liege waffle and the chewiness of the dough with the crunchiness of the pearl sugar makes for a delicious contrast.
Savannah certainly isn’t known for its Belgian immigrants or Belgian cuisine, but Mirabelle makes a fine Liege waffle. And, in addition to traditional Liege waffles, they also offer unusual flavors like the bananas foster Liege waffle. The Chocolate Library at Mirabelle’s has a great selection of artisan chocolate from makers around the world.
Savannah’s in the heart of the South and authentic home cooking and soul food can be found all over the city.
Sweet Potatoes and Sisters are two good options with lots of catfish, fried chicken, and collards on the menu. I like the fact that Sweet Potatoes offers vegan collards (a rarity in southern cuisine) and labels everything on the menu that is vegan, gf, dairy, or cooked with chicken stock. It’s nice to see that effort being made, especially the chicken stock because a lot of places will tell you something is vegetarian when it has been cooked in or contains animal stock. So, thank you, Sweet Potatoes.
For a real down-home experience, Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room fits the bill. No reservations, cash-only, and community tables seating ten people means a level playing field for everyone. The hedge fund manager and retail clerk all have to wait in the same line for Mrs. Wilkes to open at 11am.
And, there’s no menu; whatever they’re making that day, that’s what gets served. You can expect southern specialties like fried chicken, meatloaf, cornbread, black-eyed peas, and okra gumbo. $25 per person, lunch only, Monday through Friday. A real Savannah experience.
Drinking in Savannah
The 18th Amendment to the Constitution made the production or sale of alcoholic beverages illegal. It became the law throughout the United States in 1919 and was repealed by the 21st Amendment in 1933.
But, prohibition came to Savannah long before 1919. James Oglethorpe, the European founder of the British colony of Georgia, had high utopian ideals about the new land. He was supposedly good friends with the local Native Americans and prohibited slavery in Georgia (although neither lasted).
Oglethorpe also prohibited the consumption of alcohol, but this didn’t last either.
Later, the state of Georgia outlawed alcohol in 1909, ten years before the 18th Amendment, but that didn’t stop the flow of booze. Al Capone hired boats to bring rum from Cuba to Savannah and moonshiners brewed their own hooch in stills. So many moonshiners and bootleggers operated out of the area that Savannah became known as the Bootleg Spigot of the South.
The Prohibition Museum just off of Ellis Square in Savannah bills itself as the only Prohibition Museum in the United States. Inside are artifacts from the era and one of the best cocktail bars in the South.
So many places call themselves a Speakeasy these days but I suppose that if your place is inside a Prohibition Museum and your bartenders are dressed in authentic to the era garb, you’ve earned the right. The cocktails are era specific as well and mighty tasty.
St. Patrick’s Day and Drinking in Public
For some reason, people get very excited about cities with open container laws (eg. New Orleans). I’ve never quite understood this because if I want to enjoy a cocktail out of doors, I’ll do so, legality be damned. I mean, opaque metal water bottles are readily available and you can discreetly pour any beverage you like into them.
That said, Savannah is one of those towns with an open container law. That doesn’t, however, mean that you can drink whatever or wherever you want in the city.
The law stipulates that your bevvie must be in a plastic 16oz cup (no bottles or flasks) and must be consumed within the historic district (River Street to Jones Street and Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard to West Broad Street).
Despite my crankiness about open container laws, I must admit that the local law does add to the party atmosphere in Savannah. And this is especially true on St. Patrick’s Day. After NYC, Savannah has the largest St. Paddy’s celebration in the country. 300,000 to 500,000 revelers pack the city to watch the 3 1/2 hour parade and party hard. If you’re planning on checking out the green and shamrocked mass of humanity, make your reservations early, hotels book up far in advance.
Things to do in Savannah
Savannah’s downtown is compact and very walkable. It’s also laid out on a grid system making it easy to navigate.
A walking tour is a great way to see the city. The free walking tour (not really free; don’t forget to tip your guide) from Free Savannah Tours is very good.
There are also self-guided walking tours of the city. City Sidewalks has a good one. There is also a self-guided walking tour at GPS My City, but I’d recommend using it from the website rather than downloading the app which is a memory hog and often crashes.
The most interesting tours are from Journeys By Faith. Karen B. Worthman takes visitors on tours of Savannah that focus on the slave trade and the struggles of the Savannah African-American community.
Carriages and Trolleys
Horse-drawn carriage rides are very popular in Savannah. But, these seemingly quaint jaunts through the city are controversial as well. Runaway horses and crashes have led people to call for the end of horse-drawn carriage rides in the city, citing the stress on the animals in a busy urban environment where they are forced to share the streets with lots and lots of cars.
One of the most interesting features of Savannah is the squares. 24 squares were originally built, but only 22 survive. The squares are rather small (200 – 600 square feet) but serve as urban oases with their canopies of trees. The squares often have fountains, memorials, and statues as well.
Savannah is hot and muggy, especially in the summer, so everyone appreciates the benches in the squares where they can cool off in the shade.
Savannah Visitors has done a great job of mapping out a self-guided all day walking tour or all 22 squares, Forsyth Park, and several other attractions in the city.
Speaking of Forsyth Park, it’s a beautiful 30 acre park that was built when the city was expanded and plans for more squares were abandoned. The centerpiece of the park is the fountain, one of the best places to get an Instagram photo. The fountain’s water is dyed green every St. Patrick’s Day.
Nearby is the shocking Confederate Memorial, which was relocated to Forsyth Park when the James Oglethorpe statue was erected in Chippewa Square. I suppose the only solace that can be taken is that not a single person was looking at or taking a picture of the Confederate Monument when I was there. It was completely ignored while just a few yards away, children of all races were playing together in the spray pool.
Not everyone has all day to dedicate to a walking tour of every single square in Savannah, so I’d recommend seeing these (in addition to Forsyth Park).
Chippewa Square – Home to the statue of James Oglethorpe and a replica of the Forrest Gump bench. While most of the film was shot in and around Beaufort, SC, the famous opening scene was shot in Chippewa Square. The bench in the square is a replica, you can see the original in the Savannah History Museum.
Wright Square – Chief Tomachichi memorial site.
Johnson Square – The oldest and largest of Savannah’s squares. Burial and memorial site of Revolutionary General Nathanael Greene.
Ellis Square – Site of a slave market, now home of a touristy shopping and dining center.
Franklin Square – Original square was destroyed in the 1930’s and rebuilt in the 80’s. Home to the fascinating Haitian volunteers of the Revolutionary War Monument.
Go to Church
In 1773 war was brewing with the British and the slave trade was thriving in Savannah. It was also the year that Reverend George Liele organized the congregation of the First African Baptist Church.
Leile was a slave who was freed prior to the Revolution and fled to Jamaica with the British to avoid re-enslavement. He became a missionary in Jamaica. Meanwhile, in Savannah, Reverend Andrew C. Marshall obtained the land where the church stands. The sanctuary was built in 1859, all before the Civil War.
It’s incredible that African Americans (some members were Free People of Color, others were slaves) were able to accomplish this in the heart of what would become the Confederacy during slavery.
The Underground Railroad ran through Savannah and the First African Baptist Church hid escaped slaves under the floorboards. Holes were drilled in the floor to provide air to the people in the hidden underneath. The holes were strategically placed to resemble tribal symbols and avoid suspicion.
There’s a museum in the church with an incredible array of artifacts dating to 1773. Tours of the church are Wednesday through Sunday.
A short walk from the church is the African-American Monument. The sculpture depicts a family with the chains of bondage at their feet. Even more moving is the monument’s inscription by Maya Angelou. It reads:
We were stolen, sold and bought together from the African continent. We got on the slave ships together. We lay back to belly in the holds of the slave ships in each others excrement and urine together, sometimes died together, and our lifeless bodies thrown overboard together. Today, we are standing up together, with faith and even some joy.
Less interesting is St. John’s Cathedral. The church is in the center of the historic district across the street from Madison Square and a short walk to the wonderful Mirabelle’s. The main reason to visit St. John’s is to see the magnificent stained glass.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
I’m a big advocate for reading the local literature and watching films set in the locations I’m planning on visiting. With Savannah, that means one work; “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”
Called a “non-fiction novel” because it reads like a novel but is based on actual events, “Midnight” mostly takes place in Savannah. The 1997 Clint Eastwood directed movie was shot here as well.
The book and movie capture the unique characters that populate Savannah and rightly show off the beauty of the city and her architecture. Many of the places described in the book and shown in the movie can be visited by fans. Two of the most famous are Forsyth Park and Bonaventure Cemetery.
The Bonaventure Cemetery became famous for several scenes in “Midnight” that were set in the graveyard and for the cover of the book which featured the “Bird Girl” statue. The statue became so famous that it had to be relocated from the Bonaventure to the Jepson Center in Savannah to prevent it from being damaged.
Hard core fans can take the Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil Tour by Savannah Heritage Tours.
The Savannah School of Design is world famous for producing many artists and designers like India.Arie and Dean Trippe. The school doesn’t have a central campus. Instead, buildings are scattered throughout the city.
For a souvenir of your trip to Savannah, shopSCAD has unique pieces of art made by students and faculty.
Tybee Island is a quick daytrip from Savannah; only about a 30 minute drive from Savvi. The beach is long and clean but the noseeums (black gnats) are relentless. Wear sunscreen and bug repellent.
The Tybee Island Light Station boasts a 145 foot lighthouse and museum. Admission is ten bucks and the long climb to the top rewards with a great view of the island and ocean. The best time to visit the lighthouse is for the sunrise tour (they also offer a sunset tour). Photography buffs can score some great images.
Crab shacks, ice cream parlors, and dive bars litter Tybee Island. If drunken karaoke or Jello-O shots is your thing, you’ll be in heaven. Huc-A-Poos is the best of the lot with giant pizzas and cold brew.
If it sounds like I’m down on Tybee Island, I’m not. It has a kind of redneck Riviera charm that’s best experienced with a local. Gems like “Drunken Bicycle” which a bike that causes an accident because it was drunk, not the driver or “Mayberry by the Sea” which is a nickname for Tybee. Get into the action by dropping these terms into conversations while at “The Poo” (Huc-A-Poos) but don’t have too many drinks or “A.W.A.F.” (Alcohol was a factor) may be part of your story.
Savannah is compact and walkable with taxis and Uber readily available. You may want a car if you’re making a trip to Tybee Island
International airport 10 miles from the city with direct flights to many U.S. cities and (seasonally) to Toronto (I guess that’s what makes it international). Shuttles and local bus service (CAT) service the airport. Taxis and Uber are widely available.
City bus services the city, metro area, and airport.
Hop-on, Hop-off trolley tour.
Savannah is flat, which makes biking easy. Savannah is also very hot and has some rough cobblestone streets which makes biking more difficult.
Index of Things to Do in Savannah
Walking tour (don’t forget to tip your guide) of Savannah.
Self-guided, all day walking tour of the city’s 22 squares and other attractions.
Several tours that trace the history of African slaves in Savannah.
Self-guided walking tour of Savannah.
Self-guided walking tour of Savannah.
Church dating to 1773. Tours available.
African American family statue
Moving statue with an inscription by Maya Angelou.
Church famous for stained glass windows.
Savannah’s largest park and home to the city’s iconic fountain.
The famous bench scene in Forrest Gump was shot here.
The oldest and largest of Savannah’s squares. Burial and memorial site of Revolutionary General Nathanael Greene.
Home to the fascinating Haitian volunteers of the Revolutionary War Monument.
Site of a slave market, now home of a touristy shopping and dining center.
Barnard St & W Congress St, Savannah, GA 31410
Memorial to Chief Tomochichi is at the square.
The original bench from Forrest Gump is housed here.
Tour of many of the sights from the book and movie.
Setting for several scenes in “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” Original location for “Bird Girl” before she was relocated.
Location of the “Bird Girl” statue from “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”
Ruins of oldest buildings in GA, but the tree lined drive is the highlight.
Lighthouse and museum. Climb 178 steps to the top.
Index of Food & Drink in Savannah
Sophisticated southern fare.
Modern Southern restaurant in a building that used to be a bank.
Seasonal, local fine dining.
Lunch only. Served family style (no menu, no ordering, eat what they cook). Cash only.
Home-style southern comfort food.
Comfort soul food.
High end modern restaurant. Less expensive menu available at the bar.
African-inspired sandwiches. Takeout with limited outdoor seating.
Fair-trade coffee shop and vegetarian restaurant.
Restored 1950’s bank building now home to fine dining restaurant.
Melbourne, Australia comes to Savannah.
Liege waffles! Yes!
Great breakfast spot.
Cozy breakfast spot.
A Savannah institution for 100 years.
Great dive bar with cheap beer and the best jukebox. Cash only.
Sophisticated bar inside the Prohibition Museum
Over 300 martinis
Dive bar with live music and comedy.
Index of Shopping in Savannah
Beautifully unique chocolate creations.
Pecan pralines and many other treats.
One of a kind artistic work by students and faculty of SCAD
Saturday farmers market.
Index of Places to Stay in Savannah
Kitchy retro hotel ten minute walk from the historic district.
Supposedly haunted hotel located right on the water.
Supposedly haunted inn.
Victorian mansion hotel next to Forsyth Park.
About the Author
Brent Petersen is the Editor-in-Chief of Destination Eat Drink. He currently resides in Setubal, Portugal. Brent has written the novel “Truffle Hunt” (Eckhartz Press) and the short story collection “That Bird.” He’s also written dozens of foodie travel guides to cities around the world on Destination Eat Drink, including in-depth eating and drinking guides to Charleston, SC and Athens, GA. Brent’s podcast, also called Destination Eat Drink, is available on all major podcasting platforms and is distributed by the Radio Misfits Podcast Network.