By James Calemine

James Calemine’s “Never Ending Soul Food Tour” includes documented visits to barbecue joints, catfish dens, chicken shacks and any establishment serving memorable vittles.  

“I’m goin’ back to Savannah/Sign my initial down
The men all like me/And the women all want me around.”
“Savannah Mama”
–Blind Willie McTell.

Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room
107 West Jones Street
Savannah, Georgia 31401

On Thursday, January 23, 2020, we stopped by the legendary Wilkes House for lunch. Unfortunately, a sign indicated they’re closed until February 2. So, I thought I’d run this old Soul Food dispatch until we make it back to Savannah.

Located in historic downtown Savannah, Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room remains a landmark in the city. Not far from Flannery O’Connor’s childhood home, this venerable eatery always draws a crowd. Savannah’s architecture makes it apparent why Sherman didn’t burn this city down like he did in Atlanta…and all points in between…

Mrs. Wilkes’ cooking lured Hollywood heavyweights such as Robert Duvall, Gregory Peck and Kate Smith to Savannah, who raved to their thespian friends out west about the southern food. Even when the July temperature hovers around 97 degrees in the shade, one’s anticipation for this indelible cuisine overshadows relentless humidity.

Mrs. Sema Wilkes started her cooking career in 1943. She and her husband bought their home (The Wilkes House) on West Jones Street in 1965, opened their boardinghouse-style restaurant, and never moved again. Everyone sits at a ten-seat table. The food is passed to the person on your right, family-style, and it’s all you can eat for $15. Today’s spread included: rice & gravy, fried chicken, collard greens, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, stuffing, pot roast, barbecue, squash casserole, black eyed peas, okra, rutabagas, macaroni and cheese, lima beans, green beans, cucumber salad, baked beans and banana pudding for dessert.

The place never disappoints, and although it’s a tourist attraction the clientele remains predominately southern. Mrs. Wilkes died in 2002 at 95. Her book, Mrs. Wilkes Boardinghouse Cookbook, contains over 250 recipes and has sold over 300,000 copies.

Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room operates on the main artery of the Old South…