Friday, March 1, 2013

Savannah versus Charleston: Restaurants

It’s coming up on six months since my wife and I travelled to Savannah and Charleston.  The memories remain strong, but it’s time to wrap up my comparative comments on the two cities.

One can hardly write about Savannah versus Charleston without writing about the local food.  The Low Country cuisine has a special place in the American culinary experience.  Having enjoyed a few Low Country meals on our trip and having acquired the appropriate cookbook, my wife and I continue to make Low Country dishes at home, including much of our Christmas dinner.

Although one can find good Low Country meals in any of the smaller towns in the coastal areas, it’s in the cities of Savannah and Charleston where the cuisine intersects with the larger world and becomes an urban cuisine.

However, for at least two reasons, I’m a poor judge of good dining.  For one, my tastes can be low-brow.  If I must ever choose a final meal, it’d probably be corndogs.  Although I’d ask for Grey Poupon as a condiment.

(Lest you think that this blog is written with a corndog next to my keyboard, I can assure you otherwise.  I may love them, but I know to leave them alone.  I think the last time I ate a corndog intentionally was at a poker game in 1997.  I use the caveat “intentionally” because I mistakenly had a corndog at a Memphis ballpark in 2011.  I ordered a “Delta Dog” thinking that it would be southern version of a hot dog.  I was surprised when the concessionaire gave me a giant corndog, but didn’t complain.)

The other reason that I’m an imperfect judge of fine Low Country dining is that my wife and I missed some of the obligatory stops on the Low Country dining tour.  In particular, anyone who hopes to offer a credible opinion on Savannah cuisine must eat at, and be able to compare, Paula Deen’s The Lady and Sons and Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room.  My wife and I ate at neither.  It was just the way our days worked out.

Nonetheless, I’ll offer my thoughts on urban eating in Savannah and Charleston.  I won’t try to judge best.  I’ll just write about what tickled my palate and my sense of urbanism.  And what didn’t.

Our favorite urban eating experience in Savannah was a diner in the area of the public squares, away from the tourist hubbub.   J. Christopher’s was located in what appeared to be former car repair shop.  The service was attentive and the food was solid.  For a reason I can no longer recall, I had a chorizo scramble.  Despite inexplicably abandoning the Low Country in favor of the Southwest, I was rewarded with a dish had a great balance of flavors that played off the spiciness of the chorizo.

J. Christopher’s seems to have found a place in the heart of the locals.  On a subsequent morning when I attempted to return, I was dissuaded by the long wait.

To my chagrin, I later found that J. Christopher’s is a regional chain, with about fifteen restaurants in the Southeast, mostly Georgia.  But if all of them integrate into neighborhoods and provide good food as well as the one in Savannah, I’d be willing to make an exception to my feelings on chains.

We did a better job of sampling the wealth of opportunities in Charleston.  Our big night out was at Hank’s, near City Market.  The food was good Low Country fare, fresh local seafood prepared with local produce.  But the large dining room and the white-uniformed waitstaff gave the impression of a dinner house that could have been anywhere in the U.S. and just happened to be in Charleston.  There was no sense of localness to the experience.

Somewhat more satisfying was Husk, located in a former home on a side street near the core of the commercial district.  Following the lead of a baseball/food/fiction blogger whose work I enjoy, we made a reservation at Husk long before we arrived in Charleston.  Husk, which received an award as the best new restaurant in the U.S. for 2011, almost lived up to my expectations.

I had the pulled pork sandwich.  The meat was delectable, the flavors were well balanced, and the roll stood up well to the sauce.  My wife went lighter, trying the succotash, and was reminded how well butter can play off of good fresh vegetables.  We also split a skillet of bacon cornbread.

Had the cornbread lived up to our expectations, the meal would have been excellent.  And the cornbread might have met that standard.  Two minutes before it was removed from the heat.  But instead it was a dry and unsatisfying end to an otherwise enjoyable meal.

However, the best was yet to come.  Our final night in Charleston was my favorite dining experience.  Jestine was a long-time cook for a local family who loved her Low Country recipes.  Despite many imprecations, she was never willing to open a restaurant.  But after her passing, her relatives and friends took the leap.  And I’m pleased that they did.  Jestine’s was a great experience.

I tried for the full Low Country experience, with fried chicken, collard greens, fried okra, and a piece of Coca-Cola cake for dessert.  Except for the cake, was moist and delectable, the food was good, but not exquisite.  The chicken was a little dry, collard greens are an acquired taste which I haven’t yet acquired, and okra was interesting, but unexciting.

However, where Jestine’s worked superbly was a neighborhood meeting place.  As the few tourists such as my wife and I watched on, the waitstaff greeting long-time diners with enthusiasm, parents arrived with students from the nearby College of Charleston for a family meal, and the place sang with a harmony of shared memories and good times.

Jestine’s is what every good neighborhood needs in order to become a great neighborhood.  I could go back there again and again.

I’ll have one more post on Savannah versus Charleston, in which I’ll muse about where I’d rather live.  Then I’ll put the Low Country behind me in time to begin planning for urban travels in the coming summer.  Current plans include San Diego, Salt Lake City, Spokane, Seattle, Portland, Omaha, and Des Moines.  It’ll be a varied and interesting summer.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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