Culinary — 01 September 2012
Belly Up to the Lowcountry Table

By Hope S. Philbrick

To say that food is important to Southern culture would be like pointing out that fish enjoy water. Down here, even while we’re eating we’re usually planning the next meal.

In Georgia, as is true across the United States, the leading food trend is to use local, seasonal ingredients. That’s really nothing new along Georgia’s coastline, where cooking traditions have long showcased the region’s bountiful agricultural diversity.

A rainbow of produce grows in Georgia’s red soil: Tomatoes, peaches, corn, collard greens, okra, blueberries, eggplant and black-eyed peas. Swimming in the state’s fresh, salt and briny waters are wild shrimp, blue crab, skate and hundreds of species of fish including amberjack, whiting, king mackerel, flounder and redfish. The town of Darien, located midway along Georgia’s coastline, is home to one of the largest shrimp fleets on the East Coast as well as Walter’s Caviar & Seafood. In Savannah’s Wassaw Sound, clams are being farmed. “The clams that grow along the Atlantic coast are Mercenaria mercenaria or hard shell clams,” says John Pelli, owner/operator of Savannah Clam Company. Whether fried, added to chowder or served atop pasta, Georgia clams deliver a salty bite.

Georgia coastal cuisine can be elegant yet is generally unpretentious—just what you might expect of the region that’s home to Savannah-based celebrity chef Paula Deen. Restaurants often refer to their offerings as either ‘lowcountry’ or ‘southern coastal’ cuisine. “The difference is in the spices,” says John Howton, owner of Blackwater Grill on St. Simons Island. “Lowcountry cuisine tends to be spicier and more often utilizes shrimp and crab,” while southern coastal cuisine is more often mildly seasoned fin fish. But the distinctions blur and most menus up and down Georgia’s coast feature both culinary styles to please a broad range of palates.

While preparations vary by each individual chef, menus throughout the region share common dishes. Lowcountry boil (sometimes also referred to as frogmore stew) is a one-pot dish comprised of potatoes, corn on the cob, sausage and shrimp. Shrimp and grits, arguably the best-known lowcountry dish, originated as a humble breakfast enjoyed by fishermen; today it’s on lunch and dinner menus in every price category. Georgia crab cakes are typically dense with soft, shredded meat. Boiled shrimp are popular served with a choice of tartar, cocktail, remoulade or butter dipping sauce—and are typically presented with their shells on, so be prepared to peel them yourself.

Then there’s barbecue: Across the state Georgians adore slow-roasted meat slathered with tangy sauce and the coast is no exception. “The cooking process defines barbecue,” says Wiley McCrary, proprietor of Wiley’s Championship BBQ in Savannah. “You cook on indirect heat and you cook it long—a period of 10 to 14 hours. It’s the sauce and the wood that you cook with that generally denote the region.” McCrary favors pecan wood with a bit of hickory. While chicken, turkey and beef can be found on Georgia barbecue menus, pork is most popular, whether it’s pulled, chopped or sliced, served on its own or atop a bun.

Brunswick stew is a one-pot dish that combines left-over barbecue meat with vegetables; it’s often served alongside barbecue and also appears on soup menus. Other popular side dishes include onion rings (often made with Georgia’s world-famous Vidalia onions when they’re in season), hot boiled or roasted peanuts, fried green tomatoes, coleslaw, baked beans, potato salad, sweet potato fries, green beans, and macaroni and cheese.

Save room for regional desserts like pecan pralines, pecan pie, key lime pie, peach cobbler, bread pudding with bourbon sauce and butter pecan ice cream. As if the ocean views weren’t sweet enough.

My best advice for visitors to the Georgia Coast: Arrive hungry.

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Where To Eat…

Cities along the Georgia Coast are listed from north to south; restaurant recommendations within each city are alphabetized.

Savannah

Cha-Bella
102 E. Broad St.
Savannah, GA 31401
912-790-7888
Cha Bella Restaurant on Urbanspoon
Organic, seasonal ingredients are transformed by Executive Chef and Owner Matthew Roher into delicious creations like Sapelo clams and Georgia white shrimp scampi, Georgia white shrimp Carolina gold risotto and local black grouper with succotash. Contemporary Georgia coastal cuisine at its best.

Goose Feathers
39 Barnard St.
Savannah, GA 31401
912-233-4683
Goose Feathers Bakery and Cafe on Urbanspoon
For 24 years, this family-owned restaurant has served consistently tasty breakfast and lunch dishes plus breads and pastries baked on site. Eggs Benedict is served in a non-traditional croissant; one bite proves it’s an inspired interpretation.

Leoci’s Trattoria
606 Abercorn St.
Savannah, GA 31401
912-335-7027
Leoci's Trattoria on Urbanspoon
The menu features authentic Italian cuisine, from homemade pastas to brick-oven pizzas, risotto to cannoli, roasted meats to olives, all so delicious this place has ardent fans. Dishes are crafted from fresh ingredients–local, as much as possible–and “mingled with a savory simplicity,” says Chef Roberto Leoci.

Leopolds Ice Cream Savannah GALeopold’s Ice Cream
212 E. Broughton St.
Savannah, GA 31401
912-234-4442
Leopold's Ice Cream on Urbanspoon
Feel nostalgic for the good old days at this original soda fountain (circa 1935), consistently named “Best Ice Cream” in Savannah by several local publications. The ice cream is so yummy you’ll wish it was nationally distributed.

LuLu’s Chocolate Bar
42 MLK Jr. Blvd.
Savannah, GA 31401
912-790-7888
Lulu's Chocolate Bar on Urbanspoon
Enjoy a decadent dessert or martini—or both!—at this funky pub where the menu bursts with truffles, brownies, cakes, mousse, crème brulée, tarts and more.

Wiley's Championship BBQWiley’s Championship BBQ
4700 Hwy. 80 East, Suite N
Savannah, GA 31410
912-201-3259
Wiley's Championship BBQ on Urbanspoon
This restaurant consistently produces award-winning barbecue. Pulled pork is a personal favorite, with sweet potato fries and macaroni and cheese served alongside.

Tybee Island

AJ’s Dockside
1315 Chatham Ave.
912-786-9533
AJ's Dockside Restaurant on Urbanspoon
Excellent fresh seafood, pleasant servers and fun ambiance make this a great island dining choice. Don’t miss the crab stew.

The Breakfast Club
1500 Butler Avenue
Tybee Island, GA 31328
912-786-5984
Breakfast Club on Urbanspoon
Blunt inside jokes between the staffers add to the ambiance of this locals’ favorite. The food will keep you coming back for more.

Crab Shack
40 Estill Hammock Rd.
912-786-9857
Crab Shack on Urbanspoon
Roll up your sleeves and peel yummy shrimp, crawfish and more at this hotspot. The place is touristy, but even locals can’t resist the lowcountry fare served here.

Social Club
1311 Butler Ave
Tybee Island, GA 31328
912-472-4044
Tybee Island Social Club on Urbanspoon
This new addition to the Tybee Island dining scene is sure to become a staple. Creative tacos taste so good they lure sun worshippers indoors.

Darien

Darien River House Restaurant & Wine Bar
306 Fort King George Drive
Darien, GA 31305
912-437-2510
The best restaurant in town serves upscale creations that are expertly executed yet as unpretentious, friendly and approachable as Chef Eric Lynch himself. At this most highly recommended cozy gem, savor winning preparations of regional classics like shrimp bisque, Brunswick pot pie and wild Georgia shrimp and grits alongside international creations like Thai coconut curry seafood noodles.

The Purple Pickle
102 Screven St.
912-437-2391
Funky and casual, this place gives family recipes a fresh spin. Opt for a table on the patio if the weather cooperates.

Sapelo Station Crossing
1172 Pine Harbor Marina Rd. NE
912-832-3555
Authentic Cajun and Southern fare served in casual style. Traveling alone? No problem. Sit at the bar.

Skippers Fish Camp
85 Screven St.
Darien, GA 31305
912-437-FISH
This casual eatery presents regional dishes like oysters, fried flounder, soft shell crab, fried calamari and peel-and-eat shrimp in a welcoming, family-friendly atmosphere. Seafood reigns here and can be prepared raw, steamed, grilled, broiled and fried. Other options like sandwiches, salads, chicken, pork and steaks are available, but you’re in the state’s seafood capital so unless you’re allergic don’t miss out.

St. Simons Island

Blackwater Grill
260 Redfern Village
St. Simons Island, GA 31522
912-634-6333
Blackwater Grill on Urbanspoon
Featured on the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” this place may be casual but it’s no dump. Excellent Brunswick stew and lowcountry boil are served by friendly staffers.

Gnat’s Landing
310 Redfern Village
Saint Simons Island, GA 31522
912-638-7378
Gnats Landing on Urbanspoon
This casual eatery with an energetic vibe serves regional favorites like Brunswick stew, crab corn chowder, Vidalia onion pie and fish sandwiches.

The King and Prince Beach and Golf Resort
201 Arnold Rd.
St. Simons Island, GA 31522
912-638-3631
Celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2010, this historic gem serves an expansive breakfast buffet with classic offerings like biscuits and gravy, peach melba, cheese grits and made-to-order omelets.

St. Marys

Lang’s Marina Seafood Market Restaurant
307 W. St. Marys St.
St. Marys, GA 31558
912-882-4432
Locals are willing to stand in line for hours to get into this restaurant, which doesn’t accept reservations; one bite will prove it’s worth the wait. Local seafood at its best; specializes in shrimp and rock shrimp.

CIMG0022Shrimp and Grits - StudioBurns, Inc.
Where To Stay…

Coastal Georgia: Sleep Easy

 

What To Do…

Coastal Georgia: Play Hard

 

More Information…

Georgia Tourism
404-962-4000

Local Experts…

Brunswick & The Golden Isles
912-265-0620

Okefenokee Chamber of Commerce
912-496-2536

St. Marys Tourism Board
912-882-4000

Tybee Island Tourism Council
912-786-5444

Visit Darien
912-437-4837

Visit Savannah
1-877-SAVANNAH or 912-944-0455

-Photo Credits: top image courtesy Middleton Place; large photo courtesy Cha-Bella/Visit Savannah; fried shrimp and grits © StudioBurns, Inc.; ice cream, barbecue and low country boil, © HSP Media LLC.

HopeP_144Hope S. Philbrick is founder and editor-in-chief of Getaways for Grownups. Her work has appeared in dozens of publications nationwide. She’s reviewed restaurants for several Atlanta-based newspapers and magazines for more than 10 years. When not writing, she can usually be found on the road or savoring something tasty.

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