We had a number of great suggestions from people as to where to eat while we were in Savannah. One place that came up numerous times was Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room. Since they only serve lunch from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. through the weekdays, our only chance to go was on a hot and muggy Friday midday. We walked down there from our hotel which was about a three minute walk, tops. (See map)
There actually was a Mrs. Wilkes at one time. In 1942, the L.H. Wilkes family were displaced from their farm near Vidalia, GA so the U.S. Army could build an air corps base. Seeking work in Savannah's shipyards, L.H. Wilkes stayed in a boardinghouse owned by Mrs. Dennis Dixon. His wife, Sema, would come to visit him on the weekends with their kids. In 1942, Sema Wilkes began to help Mrs. Dixon in the kitchen at the boardinghouse when Mrs. Dixon fell ill. Mrs. Dixon never fully recovered and in the winter of 1943, L.H. Wilkes began to work for the railroad and Sema Wilkes bought the boardinghouse.
Railroads workers, which made up the majority of boarders at the now Mrs. Wilkes Boardinghouse, flocked to the dining room on the word that she made some of the best meals in Savannah. Suddenly, instead of serving breakfast or lunch for 12 people, she was serving up to 60 meals at a time.
When the railroads began to slow down, and hotels and motels became more prevalent in the 60's, Mrs. Wilkes shut down the boarding house and converted the upstairs rooms into apartments. However, Mrs. Wilkes continued to serve her lavish, Southern-style, down-home breakfasts and lunches (also known as "dinner" in the south). Her meals were served family-style on large communal tables that served up to 12 people. Soon, long lines began to form outside Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room restaurant as word got out to locals and tourists, alike, that her food was exceptional.
Wilkes daughter, Margie, was the bookkeeper and part-time hostess, while her son was the cashier. As Mrs. Wilkes reputation grew, she published her first cookbook - Mrs. Wilkes Boardinghouse Cookbook - which, it turns out, was actually written by her daughter, Margie. She spent most of her time signing books and giving the blessing at the start of each breakfast or lunch.
In 2002, Mrs. Wilkes passed away suddenly at the age of 95. The family had a dilemma - what to do with the restaurant. Margie Thompson and her husband, Bill, had retired from the restaurant years prior; and a case of acute arthritis was making it tough for their son, Ronny, to continue to run the business. After Mrs. Wilkes died, the family had a meeting as to the future of the restaurant. Ronny Thompson's son, Ryon, only 25 at the time, stepped forward and said that he'd run the restaurant.
Mrs. Wilkes shut down for a period, went through an extensive remodel of the dining rooms and an updating of the kitchen, and then re-opened under Ryon Thompson's management in February 2004. He cut out the breakfast service and reduced the lunches to five days a week, cutting out Saturday service. (Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room will serve lunch for private functions from time to time on Saturday's.) The recipes used are the same ones used by his great-grandmother when she ran the place over 60 years ago. Many of the cooks are second and third generation cooks who learned the recipes directly from Mrs. Wilkes. Ryon Thompson greets and seats the patrons with help from his mom, his grandmother, Margie Thompson, is usually at the place signing cook books, and 89-year old grandpa Bill Thompson runs the cash register.
We got to Mrs. Wilkes a little past 1 p.m. and the line was already half a block long running up to the door. As I said, it was a hot, muggy day and standing in line was not my idea of a good time. There was a small antique shop near Mrs. Wilkes that was air conditioned, so Cindy ended up hanging out in there for awhile as I kept our place in line.
The people who left the restaurant would invariably tell those of us in line that the food was "outstanding" and some were having trouble walking because they were so stuffed from over-eating. Someone ahead of me asked a gentleman who had walked out if the food was worth the wait. "Oh, it's worth it," he said. "And then some."
We finally got to the door around 1:50 p.m., just ten minutes before they closed. There were still people walking up to get in line. I suppose, once you're in line at 2 p.m., you get in. Ryon Thompson greeted us and let us in the side door on the ground level. Another lady directed us to a large table just behind the cashiers station, manned by Bill Thompson. We did not see Margie Thompson or her daughter (Ryon's mom) in the restaurant. When the last patrons would get up from a table, it was cleared and another 12 people would be seated. This would go on for three hours, five days a week.
Now, I'm not big on communal dining where they put you at a table with a bunch of strangers and expect to share bowls and plates of food with each other. But we were so intrigued with the concept that we bought into it. We were seated with a Chinese family whose son was graduating from Savannah College of Art and Design that weekend. At the opposite end of our table was a 50-ish, sort-of-stylish couple from Arkansas who appeared to be newly dating from their conversations they were having while waiting in line (that is, when he wasn't on his cellphone talking way too loudly), and then a young couple from Chicago.
On our table were huge bowls and plates of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, beef stew, rice, black-eyed peas, snap beans, squash, butter beans, candied yams, peas and noodles, pickled beets, cole slaw, baked beans, biscuits, mac and cheese, okra, collard greens, potato salad - Jesus Christ! The list went on and on! The menu changes daily, but fried chicken and beef stew are daily staples. Sweet tea and water were also served with the meal.
One of the waitresses, a matronly lady quite possibly in her 60's, shouted out the rules - in tradition of the former boarders at Mrs. Wilkes, everyone is responsible for taking their plates, glasses and silverware to the kitchen when they're finished. She said, "We'll keep bringin' food to your table as long as you eat it. Don't like to waste anything here!"
Looking at all the food, I was incredulous. "How are we going to eat all this," I asked.
Finally, the guy from Arkansas at the other end of the table said, "Well, I guess we all dig in." So we did. The bowls and plates were passed around. There wasn't enough room on our plates for all the food. And I wanted to sample nearly everything.
Actually, what I was after was the fried chicken. I'd heard that it was even better than the fried chicken at The Lady and Sons. And it was very good. Probably better than The Lady and Sons, but it was tough to say because it had been days between the time we'd eaten there and when we ate at Mrs. Wilkes. It was still very good, though. As a table, we all asked for more chicken, that was for sure.
We made some small talk with the young couple from Chicago. Even though the Quad Cities are only 175 miles from downtown Chicago, the couple - probably in their mid-20's - weren't familiar with the area. "Is that Rockford or Rock Island that is part of the Quad Cities," the young man asked. We decided the food was much more interesting than they were.
The Chinese family - a man, his wife and their son - pretty much kept to themselves except to ask for someone on our end to pass a plate or dish back. The Arkansas couple at the other end kept their conversations to themselves, as well.
The Arkansas lady appeared finished and excused herself to get up and go to the restroom. The Arkansas man also stood up and began to look around the dining room. They left their plates, glasses and silverware on the table. When the lady came out of the bathroom, the man had already paid for the meal and they were out the door. The waitress who had shouted out the "rules" at the start of the meal came over, saw the empty plates with the people gone. He said, "Now, didn't I say that you need to take your plates back to the kitchen when you've finished?"
Cindy said, "You sure did!"
She said, "I thought so! Some people!" She gathered up the plates and took 'em to the kitchen. Cindy and I made damn sure that we took our plates, glasses and silverware back to the kitchen.
I went up and paid for lunch - $16 bucks per person - and Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room doesn't take credit cards. Man, I was stuffed! The food was superb, the ambiance was interesting, but it would have been better to dine with a large group of people that we knew. I just don't feel comfortable sitting next to people I don't know, especially when I'm eating. The food definitely made up for the uncomfortable feeling that I had eating with strangers who really had little to nothing in common - other than the food. If you like that kind of thing, you'll absolutely love Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room. But for me, the excellent food would be the only reason I'd go back.