11 Apr 2019: Even since reading Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, John Berendt's 1994 true crime novel set in a sultry atmospheric Savannah, the city has been on my travel bucket list. Georgia’s oldest city, it was once an English colony and boasts historic mansions, 22 inner city park-like squares and more than 100 restaurants serving up southern hospitality.

The non-fiction book depicts a time in the 1980’s when Jim Williams, a respected antiques dealer and dedicated private restorationist of historic homes, was put on trial for the killing of Danny Hansford, a local male prostitute. The killing took place in Williams’ home the ‘Mercer House’. Today, like a number of the most historic houses in Savannah, Mercer House has been fully restored and is open to the public for tours. http://www.mercerhouse.com

The historic nature of Savannah as described in the book and the caste of eccentric characters was what fascinated me. Later when Clint Eastwood directed a film about the crime drama starring Kevin Spacey as Jim Williams, the place was so etched into my mind that I knew I had to visit someday.

What I discovered when I finally visited last week was even more delightful than I imagined. The history is deep going back to 1733 when James Edward Oglethorpe and 113 other English colonists chose to settle in what is now downtown Savannah. The charter for the new colony included such prohibitions as no Catholics, lawyers or hard liquor. Modern day Savannah has no such restrictions to say the least.

Oglethorpe’s plan for Savannah which called for residential and commercial buildings to be built around central park-like squares set the scenario for how the place developed. By 1851 the original four squares had grown to 24. Todays 22 remaining squares make the city a beautiful and serene place for walking about. Each square offers something different such as gardens, monuments, statues and even graves. Walking and trolley tours of the historic downtown are available throughout the day year round.

My visit in the beginning of April also coincided with Savannah’s 30th annual Music Festival, Georgia’s largest musical arts event – a 17 day program that presents a wide range of music from classical to bluegrass to jazz. The show I saw ‘Billie and Blue Eyes’ featured the John Pizzarelli Trio performing Sinatra and Catherine Russell singing Billie Holiday tunes. www.savannahmusicfestival.org

The restaurant scene was equally dynamic. My list of places to dine was longer than my time in the city but my husband and I ate what we could to cover the best. Our hotel, Perry Lane, smack in the middle of the Historic District and part of Marriott’s The Luxury Collection, had an American brasserie The Emporium Kitchen and Wine Market as its prime dining spot. Every day we walked by delicious smelling chicken on their rotisserie until one day we caved and had their Smoked Springer Mountain Chicken Hash for breakfast. Truly yummy, it had ample amounts of that chicken along with sweet potatoes, onions, sweet peppers, poached eggs and smoked jalapeño hollandaise. (We had pre-booked all our lunches and dinners as April is a busy time in Savannah.) www.perrylanehotel.com

One of our favourite meals was at Elizabeth’s on 37th, where Gary and Greg Butch, brothers and partners in the restaurant, both worked the floor with great charm and character. “We are authentically southern,” Gary told me when describing their cuisine. “We speak to the place where we are.”

Head chefs Kelly Yambor and Jeremy Diehl (a married couple) whip up a refined version of southern with dishes such as coastal grouper celeste, where a satisfying crisp crust is achieved with sesame and almonds instead of deep fried breading. (Gary said their kitchen has never seen a deep fryer.)

Local seafoods included Half Moon River clams with cornbread madeleines, oysters roasted with caper-herb butter, flounder and the grouper. The wine (250 well-chosen selections) and spirit lists were also extraordinary as was the location in an historic mansion built in 1900. www.elizabethon37th.net

Husk was another favourite with its fresh interpretations of southern cooking. Husk Savannah is one of four locations for Husk restaurants which are all part of The Neighborhood Dining Group. Executive Chef and Savannah native, Chris Hathcock helms the kitchen here and the dishes we tried were all made with an expert touch – light not heavy, fresh, local and delicious. We started with the classic southern dish of pimento cheese (a spread made with cheddar and cream cheese, pimentos and spices) which Husk served with Benne wafers and house made pickles.

Their local lettuces topped with pickled onion, raw shitake mushrooms and crispy pig ear and drizzled with black garlic dressing was brilliant. So too was their version of hot fried chicken (crispy skin with juicy interior) served with a bowl of grits and raw local radishes. www.huskrestaurant.com

The Grey, located in a former Greyhound bus terminal, was a bustling restaurant with pizzazz. Quite casual but ultra fun with tables packed closely together, we ended up making friends with our fellow diners on both sides of our table. Local oysters were as fresh as could be. Our duck was perfectly cooked rare with crispy skin and tender, juicy meat. “Smashed” potatoes were a decadent butter drenched treat covered with sour cream and brewers’ yeast that our smoked collard greens helped balance. Here too the wine and cocktail list was top notch. www.thegreyrestaurant.com

Vic’s on the River, in a 1859 converted warehouse, had a commanding view of the Savannah River. The menu was pure, classic southern with rich belly filling dishes such as wild Georgian shrimp and smoked grits, creamy thick she-crab soup, heavily breaded fried green tomatoes topped with goat cheese and oyster po-boy (a deep fried twist on a submarine sandwich). www.vicsontheriver.com

Other highlights: Cha Bella served up tasty local farm to table cuisine in a homey, relaxed atmosphere. B. Matthews Eatery made wickedly good Bloody Mary’s. Leopold’s Ice Cream, which first opened in 1919, still draws long line ups for its famous cones such as tutti frutti, an ice cream flavour they created 100 years ago. www.visitsavannah.com

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Margaret Swaine

Margaret is a nationally published wine, spirits, food and travel writer, who has authored thousands of articles on these subjects for magazines and newspapers.

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