One of the biggest reasons why Cindy has always wanted to go to Savannah is to eat at Paula Deen's restaurant, The Lady and Sons. Cindy is a big Paula Deen fan, even having met her at a book signing in Chicago a few years ago. I also like Paula Deen for her down-home, Southern style recipes. As Paula Deen has said many times - and it's a doctrine I follow - "I'm a cook, not a chef."
With a couple popular shows on The Food Network, a number of cook books and regular appearances on The Today Show, Paula Deen's star has rocketed since she opened her restaurant in downtown Savannah in the mid-90's. Her restaurant is packed for lunch and dinner nearly every day. And because of that, she doesn't take conventional reservations like other restaurants do. More about that later on.
The downtown area of Savannah was beginning to make a comeback 15 years ago when Paula Deen, helped by her sons Bobby and Jamie, opened her own restaurant after years of running a catering business out of her home. The old building that the Deen's originally moved into proved to be too small after Paula was "discovered" by Gordon Elliott, who was hosting his own show on The Food Network. In 1999, they moved to their present location in Savannah's Historic District at the corner of West Congress and Whitaker Streets (see map). People from all over the world have visited the three-story restaurant that has dining areas on the first and third floors.
With a little bit of trepidation, I also wanted to eat at Paula Deen's restaurant. Like I wondered with her other restaurant that we'd eaten at the night before, Uncle Bubba's Oyster House, I feared the hype surrounding The Lady and Sons was going to raise my expectations to a level that I knew I'd be disappointed from my first bite. But I was pleasantly surprised by Uncle Bubba's and I hoped I'd be as equally surprised with The Lady and Sons.
Because of the overwhelming popularity of Paula Deen, The Lady and Sons does not take conventional reservations the way other restaurants will - either over the phone or via e-mail. (We found out later they do take phone reservations for some holidays - Memorial Day was not one of them.) In order to eat at the restaurant, a person has to show up at 9:30 a.m. each day and reserve a table in person for either lunch or dinner. You have a choice of times - usually in 15 minute increments - so they can turn the tables a couple three times for lunch and as many as four or five times at dinner. Most restaurants consider it a successful day if they get 1.5 to 2 table turns for either lunch or dinner. The Lady and Sons is a rockin' restaurant.
The line outside the restaurant was very long, nearly stretching around the building to the west when we showed up just after 9:30. We were wondering if we had a chance to get in for dinner because of the crowd of people. But then we found a number of people around us in line were there for lunch and were then heading home because it was Memorial Day. I think we stood in line for about 15 minutes before a lady with a clipboard made her way back asking, "Lunch or dinner?" The people who said, "Lunch," and there were a lot of them, had to remain in the line to talk with the girls at the outdoor reservation desk. Those of us who wanted dinner, the lady signed us up on the spot. We got a reservation for 6:30 (dinner begins at 5 p.m. - we had our pick from between 5:00 to 9:30). Then we peeled off and took our trolley tour around Savannah's Historic District.
At 6:20, we showed up and checked in with the hostess. She handed us over to another young girl who took us to the elevator that would take us up to the third floor. We were sort of disappointed that we weren't going to eat in the open and airy first floor dining area that had large windows that afforded nice views out onto Whitaker Street. But we thought the third floor would be nice.
It was nice, but it was dark, yet sort of cozy up there. We were seated at what appeared to be an antique table with matching chairs. While The Lady and Sons buffet is what made them famous, you can also order off a rather extensive menu. While her other restaurant didn't have lemonade, The Lady and Sons did so I got a Bacardi Limon and lemonade for a drink. Cindy ordered up an unsweetened Luzianne iced tea.
Our waiter was a nice young guy who said he was a student at Savannah State. He'd worked at The Lady and Sons for a couple of years. He said it was a lot of hard work, but he said it was a good job. He talked to us a little about the offerings on the buffet and then told us about a couple specials they had off the menu that evening. One was a 9 oz. beef tenderloin filet topped with a m ushroom ragout sauce and caramelized onions and then served with five large scallops. Garlic mashed potatoes, sauteed zucchini slices and cherry tomatoes rounded out the plate. Man, that sounded great. I almost ordered that on the spot.
The waiter invited us to go over and take a look at the buffet (which cost $16.95 per person, all you could eat) before we made up our mind whether we wanted to order off the menu or do some of Paula Deen's famous fried chicken. The buffet had a large pan of fried chicken, beef stew, her famous "Mac and Cheese", garlic mashed potatoes, collard greens, corn casserole, yams, black-eyed peas, and other Southern-style foods. The chicken looked great, but I didn't want to do the rest of the buffet.
When our waiter came back with our drinks, I said, "Hey, is there any way that I can get a couple pieces of chicken off the buffet and pay you, say, a couple bucks a piece for them? I want to try the chicken here, but I don't think I'm going to do the buffet."
He said, "Well, my manager isn't here tonight and if you want to go up and get a couple pieces to try, I don't have a problem with that. I won't charge you for 'em." (Geez, I hope I don't get the kid in trouble for writing that.)
I ordered up the beef filet special they had that evening. Cindy ordered the crab cakes topped with a lemon dill tartar sauce. The crab cakes came on a bed of black beans with rice with a pico salsa and a side of collard greens. The waiter asked if we wanted a house salad or appetizers. We passed knowing that I was about to steal a couple three pieces of chicken from the buffet. He said, "OK, you can go get your chicken now. I won't look."
I went up and got a couple chicken legs and what I think was a thigh. I'm over 50 years old and I still don't know what pieces of chicken are called other than legs and wings. I don't know what is dark meat or white meat. I just eat the chicken.
Well, I made a monumental mistake. I got the chicken from the bottom of the pan and it had been sitting there under the hot buffet light for quite sometime. It was sort of warm, yet dried out. It wasn't more than two minutes after I bit into my first chicken leg that Cindy said, "Oh, Will. They're bringing more chicken out."
I looked over at the buffet and a cook was dumping steaming hot and juicy chicken into the buffet pan. Well, I didn't feel right about jumping up and grabbing a couple other pieces. We nibbled on the three pieces I grabbed. While they were still good, I was disappointed not to get the fresh chicken directly out of the fryer.
Speaking of the chicken, while Paula Deen's original recipe for fried chicken calls for peanut oil, the chicken had a distinct taste to it - sort of like my Uncle Jack's fried chicken that he cooked in lard and beef suet. I would have guessed that her chicken was cooked in lard, which was fine with me. Even though the chicken was sort of luke warm and a little dry, I wasn't going to complain because we got them for free.
Before our main course came out, Cindy got up and went to the restroom. She came back and said, "There's a whole big bar area with more seating over on the other side of the floor. It looks kind of neat in there!" I went to the bathroom and took a look around the area. It was pretty neat in there with a sort of large bar, a number of booths and kind of a cozy feel to the place. Actually, I would have rather eaten in there than in the dining room. And there wasn't really anything wrong about the dining room.
Our entrees made it to the table and mine looked great. The beef filet looked to be a little larger than 9 oz, but it was cooked to the rare side of medium-rare - which I didn't mind a bit. The scallops were huge and there was an ample side of garlic-mashed potatoes, which I knew I would sample, but potatoes are still not on my diet these days.
From the first bite of my steak, the taste sensation of a perfectly cooked steak with the mushroom ragout sauce dropped any qualms I had about The Lady and Sons being an overrated tourist trap. It was one of the finest steaks I'd ever had, rivaling some I've had at many of the Midwestern steak houses I've eaten at over the years. It was just fabulous.
Cindy was equally thrilled with her crab cakes. She said the lemon dill tartar sauce was a wonderful complement to the fresh mixed crab meat in the cakes. We traded bites of our steak and crab cakes. Cindy loved the taste of my steak and I thought her crab cakes were very good, as well.
The crab cakes were very rich and filling for Cindy. She was having trouble finishing the second crab cake. She said, "But it's so good that I don't want to stop!" She finally did finish off the second cake, but not before stopping a couple times to let the food settle.
As waiters are supposed to do, ours tempted us with dessert. They had four selections including ice cream, a decadent Chocolate Mousse pie, Paula Deen's famous Pecan pie and Key Lime pie - probably the same recipe from Uncle Bubba's. I'm not much on Pecans and my taste for chocolate has waned over the years, so we went with a piece of the Key Lime pie. Cindy also wanted to try a cup of Captain Michael's coffee, The Lady and Sons house coffee that's named after Paula Deen's husband, Michael.
The Key Lime pie was nearly the same as what we had the night before - full of richness and flavor. It was just excellent. I wouldn't have cared if I found out the secret ingredient was dog urine, I would have still eaten the pie, it was that good. Cindy declared Captain Michael's coffee as "good", but nothing that would have wanted her to buy a bag of it at Paula Deen's gift shop attached to the restaurant on the first floor.
Actually, we had gone through Paula Deen's gift shop earlier in the day when we were out and about looking around Savannah's Historic District. The shop features all the type of touristy stuff that you'd expect from a place like that - shirts, coffee mugs, cook books (each of them signed by Paula Deen - but then you looked a little more closely and it turns out they were actually stamped with her signature), and cooking utensils. We bought a couple of small knick-knacks, but nothing significant from the gift shop.
OK - The Lady and Sons was NOT over-hyped and is NOT a tourist trap. It is a legitimate place to dine in Savannah. It was one of the best meals I've had in a restaurant. We overtipped our waiter, mainly for allowing us to get some chicken from the buffet, and the fact that he was a good, hard-working college kid. We're happy we didn't do the buffet as we'd heard from other people who have dined at The Lady and Sons that the buffet was, indeed, over-hyped and over-rated. My advice to those of you going to Savannah - stand in line at 9:30 a.m., get in there for dinner and order off the menu. The Lady and Sons is worth the experience.