Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room brings back memories. Those of family get-togethers and holidays spent around the table, passing sweet potato casserole and ham dinner. A fellow diner at our table put it in these words: “It’s like having Thanksgiving dinner with family. And you eat so much that all you want to do after is sleep!”
Indeed, Mrs. Wilkes’ is all about maintaining tradition. Established in 1943 by Sema Wilkes, her view for the boardinghouse was to create a place where weary travelers and tired laborers might find a home away from home. And still today strangers become family in the basement of the Wilkes’ boardinghouse, rubbing shoulders with each other and passing food. The restaurant is arranged with family-style seating, with multiple ten-seat tables set up around the two dining rooms. While still living, Mrs. Wilkes would lead the patrons in prayer every morning before beginning the meal.
It’s easy to see why there is a line outside the door every morning. According to a 1976 article on Mrs. Wilkes, “She’s been called the ‘Julia Child of country cooking.’” Sema Wilkes died in 2002, but her legacy lives on in her food. The menu changes daily so as to give regulars variety, but the style of dishes is always southern home cooking, with classic staples like fried chicken, collared greens, fried cabbage, and gumbo. The food is laid out on the table and is served like a potluck supper, with diners (whether they know each other or not) passing the sides around. The experience of sharing a meal with perfect strangers makes it that much more memorable.
The Dishes: the menu changes every day, but it always includes fried chicken and country-style dishes
What’s Special About It?
Kenda: “I grew up on southern dishes, like what is served at Mrs. Wilkes’. For me, dining here is like a trip to my Mom’s or Grandma’s kitchen. The food at Mrs. Wilkes’ is quintessential southern fare done right! The locals swear by it, and the tourists can’t get enough of it – it’s a Savannah institution.”
Eleanor: “For a shy person such as myself, eating at a table of strangers is a little out of the comfort zone. But having to ask the man next to you to pass the mashed potatoes makes lunch actually meaningful. It’s community cultivated over fried chicken.”
What Did It Taste Like?
Eleanor: “Honestly, this food tastes just like a family reunion in Michigan for me. For all it’s southernness, Mrs. Wilkes’ transcends regional boundaries by making country cooking that relates to all. My grandpa couldn’t have made fried chicken like that (perfectly breaded and not a bit greasy), but the vinegar cucumber salad was all his, as was the green beans and sweet potato casserole.”
Kenda: “The great thing about Mrs. Wilkes’ is getting to sample so many dishes. It’s easy to fill up on your favorites, though. The fried chicken was tender and juicy, with a nice buttermilk-brine taste on the inside and crunch on the outside. I especially loved the fried cabbage, mac ‘n cheese, and black-eyed-peas – all home-cooked and packed with southern flavor. For the dessert choices, between the banana pudding and the berry cobbler, I had to pick the traditional banana pudding. It was smooth, sweet and irresistibly delicious. Everything was satisfying and true comfort food!”
What Did We Say About It?
Eleanor: ”If it’s good enough for President Obama, it’s good enough for us!”
Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room
705 Jones Street
Hours: Monday – Friday, 11am-2pm