Savannah Smiles - Part 2

Touring the historic city: part two of a two-part report

On hungry locals, visitors... and celebrities

We did a lot of walking, looking and listening in Savannah's historic district, and it made us hungry. Jill Smith of Destinations Southern Style recommended some fine restaurants. They included:

17Hundred90 Inn. This is the hotel/restaurant Maggie Lacey wrote about in Travel and Sun Coast Living two weeks ago in her story "Ghosts of Savannah." The place is haunted, Maggie noted, by the ghost of a broken-hearted girl who threw herself from the window in room 204 when her sailor failed to return from sea.

We saw no spirits -- other than the liquid kind -- at the 17Hundred90 restaurant and lounge, located below the main building in what could have been a brick cellar or slave quarters. It is cool and dark, with brick fireplaces restored to their original condition.

The food at lunch was tasty and moderately priced, with Southern blue crab cakes a specialty. The $8.95 specials included talapia, escargot and lobster quiche. Never mind about the "chocolate bombe."

Belford's. The crab cakes here were also excellent, having earned Belford's an award from Southern Living magazine in 2001. Located among the bustle of City Market, this restaurant has attracted a number of celebrities, including Clint Eastwood, fellow movie director Robert Altman and Garrison Keilor of "Prairie Home Companion" fame.

We arrived for dinner hours after two other famous guests, Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck, had lunch. Manager Donna Israel gave us the cold shoulder initially when we told her we were with the press, thinking we were on the lookout for the famous couple.

"We were bombarded," she said after learning we were not chasing celebrities. "Reporters from newspapers, TV stations, even a magazine from New York called. Channel 11 was outside the door when they left."

Seems "Bennifer," as the couple is referred to in the tabloids, bought a house on one of the nearby islands and were touring around Savannah that day. The two of them and a companion simply walked into Belford's and asked for a table.

"We didn't let anybody else in," Donna said. "We had to run people away from the windows."

Donna and executive chef George Demark served up quite a meal. The award-winning crab cake ($9.95) was served with lemon aioli and a spicy tomato jam. Other unique dishes included lobster ravioli ($18.95) and grouper anglais ($21.95). Never mind about the "fried banana cheesecake."

City Market Cafe. We only had a quick lunch there, but we'll say this: Try the grilled chicken pizza, with sun dried tomatoes, feta cheese and spinach.

45 bistro. One of the city's most popular and exclusive restaurants -- although still reasonably priced -- this award-winning establishment is located adjacent to the Marshall House historic hotel.

Two weddings were being held the night we were there, so we were escorted to the secondary dining room, which could have been the main dining room anywhere else. The forest green walls were filled with oil paintings from area artists and the dark wood furnishings shined with the reflections from candles and the fireplace.

Owner Sandy Hollander, formerly with the Hyatt in Sarasota, said 45 South had been renovated in 1998 at a cost of $13 million. He said patronage was about 60 percent local residents and 40 percent tourists.

"Tour groups are down," Sandy noted, "primarily because of 9/11. People just don't want to travel.

"For four or five years after The Book came out, it was pretty good," he said, "but that's history now."

Sandy has a connection to The Book, John Berendt's bestseller about Savannah, "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil." He once owned the Pirate's House jazz club, where Emma Kelly played. Made famous in The Book as "The Lady of 6,000 Songs," Emma, who sang and played piano, was a grand lady, whom we met the first time we went to Savannah. She died in 1999.

"She was the best," Sandy said. "They broke the mold when they made her."

45 bistro offers a wide variety of unique menu items, including quail, sweetbreads, free range chicken, duck and other rarities, with appetizers priced from $8 to $12 and entrees ranging from $15 to $28. The filet of salmon and filet mignon were excellent. Never mind the "Grand Mariner banana spring rolls with creme anglaise."

A modern history lesson

Our trip to Savannah would not be complete without a visit to an old friend, Pat C. Tuttle, who took us on our first tour of the city. The Savannah native now conducts a variety of tours centering on The Book, ghosts and history. She also teaches classes on Savannah history and has her own Web site, www.pattuttle.com

Pat knew just about everyone in The Book, including Jim Williams, the ubiquitous Joe Odom, and Emma Kelly, who performed at her daughter's wedding. Pat still frequents Clary's, the drug store/restaurant where much of The Book's characters congregated.

"You can still go there in the morning and pick up on all the gossip, then go back at noon and find out some more," she said.

With her lilting Southern accent and keen knowledge of Savannah, Pat makes the perfect tour guide, as she demonstrated in an Arts and Entertainment network documentary on The Book.

Tourism jumped nearly 50 percent with The Book and movie, Pat said, and her own business climbed nearly 80 percent.

"There were thousands of people in the streets," she recalled, "wanting to go places and see the people in The Book and movie.

"We had over 70 inns at one time," she said. "People made money, bought high-end homes and turned them into high-priced inns."

There aren't that many tourists nowadays, but Savannah remains a popular destination. Pat said most visitors want to take the ghost tour, which takes place, naturally, at night, with costumed guides telling tales to visitors at various spooky sites.

"We'll have 100 people standing out there on a Saturday night," Pat said.

Pat recommended two books on Savannah history, both novels by Dr. William Harris: "Delirium of the Brave," which covers the time from Savannah's founding through the Civil War, and "No Time but the Enemy," which deals with the 1920s through the 1960s.

Savannah has had its ups and downs in the past, with the rise and fall of the cotton industry, the Civil War, the Great Depression and other national and regional trends. Pat told us about it all, from the first African-American church in the country (located just outside City Market) to the rise of the giant Westin Hotel just across the river.

She knows about all the movies filmed in and around the city, why the houses are mostly painted in the same four colors, where to go and where not to go and how "Jingle Bells" came to be written in Savannah. She told us stories about the neighborhoods -- some elegant, some blighted, some being rebuilt -- about the Low Country (where Bonaventure Cemetery is located) and about the huge mansions surrounding the squares.

Pat advises first-time visitors to take a tour immediately upon arrival, and she said it was important to make sure your tour guide is a native Savannahian. We can make a recommendation.

By DAN & SHERRY MEARNS Staff Writers

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OUR CUSTOMERS SAY IT BEST
…As Savannah is considered a top U.S. ‘walking’ city, it is important to book lodging within the Historical District – SPR’s preferred hotel, the Hyatt is located within this district. However, if you are looking for alternative lodging for a more ‘local’ feel and often cost effective trip, consider rentals by owner. The preferred agent for these rentals is Savannah Getaways. Rentals can be viewed…(www.savannahgetaways.net)…(choose browse rentals, browse ALL listings and then choose the number of bedrooms, bathrooms, location etc., email to inquire about the rates and availability, and you may want to inform them if you will be female and traveling alone, as they do attempt to place you in a safe area. My preference is to stay closer to Bull Street, preferably East, and North of Gaston as the area is always hopping with tourists (areas nearer to Forsyth Park tend to grow a little shady after dark)…
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