Eating at a Boarding House

Several years ago our company undertook a massive project in renovating the Hay/Webb House for our offices at the corner of Highways 84 and 91 in Donalsonville.   It took two full years, three contractors and several discarded budgets before it was finally completed.  We have never regretted the move for a moment.
The home was originally built at the end of the 19th century as a four room boarding house to serve salesmen traveling by railroad, which was just a block away.  While little history is known about the building during this time, our renovation did reveal the tongue-and-groove walls and ceilings still decorated with original bright colors.
My travels took me to Savannah last week, where I had a full day to myself.  I decided to eat lunch at a famous dining room that once fed the residents of another boarding house.  Mrs. Wilkes’ Boarding House opened in 1943, when she took over from the previous operator.  I am sure many of those reading this column, along with many people from around the world, have tasted the Southern cooking that has made this restaurant so well known.
Boarding houses were common throughout the South.   They offered a simple but comfortable room upstairs and usually served two meals family style downstairs.  It wasn’t just traveling workers that would stay in the boarding houses, but also young schoolteachers, laborers, bankers, and middle class merchants. The food they served was the same as would likely be found in the average home in town.
The meat being served at Mrs. Wilkes’ is similar to the standard fare during my own childhood; meatloaf, beef stew, and always a steady diet of fried chicken.   We don’t fry chicken in the old cast iron skillet in our house any more, but the first bite of Mrs. Wilkes’ chicken took me immediately back to my childhood memories of meal time.  It was that good.
I sat between a mother and daughter traveling from Minnesota and a couple from Wisconsin.  The daughter was a young librarian giving us much to talk about during our hour long wait before the doors opened at 11:00 a.m.  People start arriving at 10:00 a.m. and we were the third in line.
There were several men seated at our table as we walked into the dining room.  It turns out they work there, either full or part time and take their meals along with the guests.  This was an unexpected treat and allowed us to hear some of the backroom secrets of the place.
The dining room seats 80 so when it fills up, people wait outside until a table is finished.  That is quite a task given the hot, humid Summers of Savannah. The dining room closes at 2:30 p.m.  It is a restaurant operator’s dream to only be open for three and a half hours a day with a steady line outside the door.  As I left 40 minutes later, the line stretched to the corner of the block.
They don’t serve every dish every day, but I counted twenty serving dishes on our table for ten.  Of course that included the chicken gravy that goes with the white rice.  Who from the South doesn’t remember that combination when you had fried chicken on the table?  What I don’t remember was having dirty rice, macaroni and cheese along with rice and gravy at the same meal.
It was delightful watching my new northern friends try dishes they had never heard of and then asking for seconds.  The final debate was about which was better, the peach cobbler or the old fashioned banana pudding.   I may have to go back for a second visit to finalize my decision about the dessert.
I don’t usually write about other restaurants and I almost never stand in line for a table before the establishment even opens.   In this case, Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room has a well-deserved reputation and I will be back.
o0o
Dan Ponder can be reached at [email protected]

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