Mossy oak trees and sprawling old Colonial-style homes can make Savannah feel more like a Civil War time capsule than a modern culinary destination. The city packs plenty of small-town charm and loads of history into its tree-lined streets and quaint city squares, not to mention its bars and restaurants, many of which have their own tales (and ghost stories) to tell. The beauty of dining in Savannah is that you can still enjoy old-school Southern staples along with spiffed-up classics making modern-day history. Here’s where to get your historical eats and drinks on in the Hostess City.
Southern Seafood Bouillabaisse at Vic’s on the River
With a perch overlooking the Savannah River, Vic’s emphasis on fresh, local seafood feels especially right. Before it was a restaurant, the waterfront building was once a cotton warehouse and later the Stephen Shipping Company. The seafood-heavy menu is full of enticements, including the signature pecan-crusted flounder, but the Southern Seafood Bouillabaisse is the heartiest option after a day of wandering. The bowl holds sea scallops, wild Georgia shrimp, Sapelo Island clams, mussels and a daily fish, all clustered in a smoked tomato broth. When the weather’s nice, ask for a table on the patio beneath the canopy of centuries-old live oaks.
Crystal Crab Stew at Crystal Beer Parlor
Housed in a converted 1900s grocery store, The Crystal Beer Parlor is one of Savannah’s oldest and most-beloved local eateries. Rumored to have been a speakeasy, it was one of the first establishments to serve alcohol after Prohibition was repealed. Today, it lives up to its name, pouring more than 25 beers on tap, to serve alongside burgers like the Au Poivre, smothered in green peppercorn brandy sauce. Start with the namesake Crystal Crab Stew, a creamy sherry-based soup that is chock-full of blue crab claw meat and has been a menu staple since 1933.
Pork Cornucopia at Alligator Soul
Tucked beneath the town’s post office in what was once a grain warehouse, Alligator Soul is a Creole-Southern restaurant with a penchant for local ingredients and a dash of global flair. Try the Pork Cornucopia, an Instagram-worthy dish that features ham hock-stewed cannellini beans and sauteed rainbow Swiss chard spilling out from a roasted acorn squash half onto a fan of herb-encrusted Savannah River Farms pork tenderloin. Bookend the meal with menu mainstays like the crawfish-bacon-stuffed baked Oysters a la Soul and puffy, caramel-drizzled banana beignets. The adventurous can opt for the rotating exotic-meat specials, such as elk pad Thai or python spring rolls.
Chocolate Chewies & Cream at Leopold’s Ice Cream
At Leopold’s ice cream parlor, you’ll get a sprinkling of vintage soda-fountain charm with your scoop. Every flavor is still made one batch at a time according to a nearly century-old top-secret family recipe handed down from the original Leopold brothers. Their hallmark flavor is Tutti Frutti, a retro rum-based scoop studded with candied cherries, pineapples and pecans that was famed lyricist Johnny Mercer’s go-to. Chocolate fans should go for the perennially popular Chocolate Chewies & Cream, vanilla ice cream strewn with pieces of pecan brownie cookie made according to the original recipe from local institution Gottlieb’s Bakery.
Black Bucatini at The Florence
Chef Hugh Acheson’s newest restaurant is named partly for local legend Florence “the Waving Girl” Martus, the unofficial greeter of all vessels entering and departing the Port of Savannah (look for her statue at the eastern end of River Street). But it’s also a nod to the city of Florence in Italy, the country that inspires much of the menu. Signatures include Neapolitan oven-fired pizzas and handmade pastas, like Black Bucatini, a local flour-squid-ink extruded pasta that’s pan-finished with spicy Calabrian chiles, scratch-made pork sausage, plump local shrimp and clams. Don’t overlook the bar seats: Acheson’s favorite perch is on a stool in front of the pizza oven, where he recommends relaxing with a glass of wine and watching the pizzas cook.
Smoked Collards at The Grey
Whether you graze on charcuterie at the bar or feast on inventive Southern cuisine under the skylit main dining room, you’ll want to drink in The Grey’s sublime decor. The restaurant, which was once home to a 1930s art deco Greyhound bus terminal, echoes the original footprint: The old ticket counter is now a glass-walled kitchen; the old Union News Cafe, a diner-style bar; and the driver’s bunk room became the wine collection. Chef Mashama Bailey’s menu takes cues from the past, too, but is firmly rooted in the present. For example, instead of relying on traditional smoky ham hocks to flavor collard greens, Bailey ingeniously smokes the collards and then cooks them with an aromatic mix of leeks, onions and shallots.
Baked Local Oysters at Local 11ten
About a block from Forsyth Park — and a short way off the beaten tourist path —Local 11ten occupies the restored ’50s-era Old Savannah Bank. If you’re dining with a crew (up to seven guests), request the cozy semiprivate vault room, which houses the original Mosler Safe Company bank vault. It’s a fitting setting for the kitchen’s contemporary Southern take on throwback cuisine, such as Baked Local Oysters, a riff on Oysters Rockefeller. Briny Ace Basin South Carolina oysters, topped with a creamy mixture of Swiss chard, Benton’s bacon and cornbread, are broiled until bubbling hot and then finished with a bacon-drippings-infused hollandaise.
Grouper Celeste at Elizabeth on 37th
You can easily pick out the 1900s Gothic mansion on East 37th Street from among the neighborhood’s usual Southern Victorian homes. For the last 34 years, its main floor has been home to Elizabeth on 37th, an upscale spot serving heritage Southern coastal cuisine with modern touches. The Grouper Celeste, named for the original owner’s daughter, stars roasted local grouper encrusted in a crisp, golden coating of ground almonds, toasty sesame-like benne seeds and whole-wheat cracker crumbs, finished with a velvety peanut cream sauce. If it’s on special, order Chef Kelly Yambor’s Vidalia onion cheese pie, a classic Southern dish she learned to make from her mother.
Corned Beef Hash at Clary’s Cafe
Established in 1903 as Clary’s Pharmacy, this favorite greasy spoon gained national attention for its cameo in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The novel’s author, John Berendt, and one of the story’s real-life characters, The Lady Chablis, are known to be breakfast regulars. Make like a local and start your morning with a Southern favorite like buttermilk biscuits smothered with country sausage gravy, Georgia pecan pancakes or Clary’s famous Corned Beef Hash, made in-house with fresh kosher corned beef brisket and served with two eggs.
The Olde Pink House Woodford Reserve at Planters Tavern at The Olde Pink House
There’s history at every turn in this 18th-century Colonial mansion-turned-bank (Georgia’s first)-turned-restaurant, but where you’ll really feel like you’ve traveled back in time is in the candlelit bar downstairs. The exposed beams and many of the hand-hewn nails are from the original 1700s construction; the two huge fireplaces flanking the bar were used to do all of the cooking for the original owners. One of the bank’s vaults (circa 1812) houses the Tavern’s wine collection and a cozy table for two. Take it all in over The Olde Pink House’s custom Woodford Reserve bourbon — the staff sampled multiple barrels to distill a one-of-a-kind spirit that’s light in body and heavy on the orange peel. Speaking of spirits, if you’re not easily spooked, ask servers to share ghost stories — guests often report white orbs showing up in photographs taken around the piano, particularly when lively tunes are being played.
Photos courtesy of Vic’s on the River, Chia Chong, Local 11ten