For a true taste of Savannah, stop in at Mrs. Wilkes Boarding House. Set in an old brick building that dates back to 1870, this is one of Savannah’s legendary spots. Mrs. Wilkes passed away in 2003 and although she had not taken in any boarders in around 40 years, her hometown cooking and hospitality continue on. The famous dining room is so popular that although the sign is not visible from the road, hungry tourists and locals alike begin lining up before the restaurant even opens every morning. Serving up family-style meals at large tables, Mrs. Wilkes Boarding House delights guests with traditional down home fried chicken, gumbo, creamed corn, Savannah red rice, biscuits and more. Come hungry and ready to dine alongside of folks you may not know; because at Mrs. Wilkes, everyone is family and is seated together at large 10-top tables.
When Sema Wilkes took over a Savannah boarding house in 1943, it’s likely she had no idea that she would one day become one of the city’s most well-known restaurateurs and an unofficial ambassador for the state of Georgia. In fact, her goal was much simpler—to offer locals and visitors a hearty, home-cooked southern meal, some friendly conversation and a comfortable place to stay in historic downtown. At the boarding house that dates back to 1870, Mrs. Wilkes began doing what she’d done her whole life—serving up delicious southern specialties in a family-style setting, carrying on a tradition that had been commonplace in most southern cities. In fact, boarding houses were how many cities in the U.S. grew in the early 19th century; some parts of the country had whole neighborhoods made up of these communal-living quarters.
After she took the reigns at the boarding house, Sema continued working with local farmers and fishermen as her predecessor had, and cultivating new relationships that would ensure she had the freshest ingredients to prepare her coveted cuisine. And although dishes like fried chicken, meatloaf, collard greens, okra gumbo, butter beans, black-eyed peas and others could be found in many restaurants in Savannah, Mrs. Wilkes possessed a seemingly magic formula—so much so that folks from all corners of the earth were willing to wait in line to dine side-by-side with strangers.
For Sema, building a successful business that would sustain her family was the only goal. She didn’t even hang a sign outside to advertise her restaurant until 1987. Growing up as the oldest of four children who were orphaned at a young age, learning to cook was a necessity. Using her skills in the kitchen, coupled with true Southern charm and hospitality, Mrs. Wilkes achieved much more than she set out to, becoming a local celebrity and being featured in many magazine and newspaper stories, as well as writing her own cookbooks. It wasn’t uncommon for tourists to stand in line for hours, not just for the opportunity to enjoy a meal at the restaurant, but also for the chance to meet the lady at the helm.
When she passed away in 2002 at the age of 95, Sema Wilkes left behind a true legacy—having spent her entire life doing what she loved and sharing her passion for Southern food with thousands of people.
Today, a visit to Savannah isn’t complete without a stop in to Mrs. Wilkes Boarding House—still a local favorite and popular tourist attraction. Now run by her granddaughter Marcia Thompson and other family members, the warm and welcoming ambiance that Sema created three-quarters of a century ago still radiates throughout the dining room.
Although the line outside the building may be a bit daunting, the experience at Mrs. Wilkes is definitely worth it. When the doors open at 11am, diners are sat at large tables topped with plates of delectable house specialties. There’s no set menu; you’ll find yourself indulging in a variety of dishes including BBQ, Southern fried chicken, meatloaf, candied yams, macaroni and cheese, collard greens, butter beans, rice and gravy, pickled beets, baked beans, coleslaw and much more. Iced tea and dessert are included! The most important thing to remember is to come hungry!
Located on the beautiful cobblestone-paved East Jones Street in the Historic District, Mrs. Wilkes Boarding House is ideally situated for exploring many Savannah attractions. Some of the sites you won’t want to miss are just footsteps away:
Although there’s never a bad time to visit Mrs. Wilkes Boarding House, the restaurant is closed in January and because you can expect to wait in line, it’s a good idea to visit when the weather is mild. Best times of year would be fall and spring; but even in the summer and winter, the restaurant opens at 11am and closes at 2pm, which is typically before it gets too hot or too chilly depending on the season.