Legendary Burgers in the American South

#FoodieScore’s Matthew Tessnear ranks his 10 favorite burgers ever

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Nothing quite defines my culinary life like the experience of savoring a delicious cheeseburger enjoyed at a unique restaurant in the American South. It’s that very activity that provides a lasting snapshot of my childhood and my young adulthood in my home state of North Carolina and throughout the region. Maybe it’s a hereditary drive to find every great cheeseburger out there, thanks to my dad’s equal enjoyment of a delicious burger. Certainly, my love for cheeseburgers has never waned, and it’s only grown stronger since marrying my wife Molly, who’s become my #FoodieScore partner in crime.

My all-time favorite take on the American beef burger comes on a hearty bun with melted cheese. The cheese is non-negotiable, and I will tell you there is no such thing as a hamburger. Every other topping is unnecessary, but I do enjoy just minimal lettuce and a light dose of mayonnaise, which I find brings out the flavor of the meat, bread and cheese.

There are so many great restaurants across America that have perfected their own unique cheeseburger, but the South is the only region in which I’d consider myself a burger connoisseur because it’s the only section of the country that I’ve frequented enough to become an expert. I’ve sampled—ahem, devoured—hundreds of different restaurant burgers across the South, and now for the first time I’m proud to share my very favorites with you. These are my top 10 burgers in the American South, until I try my next new cheeseburger, at which time the list immediately is subject to change with the insertion of another classic.

 

Betty Bombers

The Classic Bomber at Betty Bombers in Savannah

 

  1. THE CLASSIC BOMBER
    Betty Bombers
    Savannah, Georgia

It’s always my first choice to enjoy a cheeseburger that, in some way, accents the key elements of beef, bread and melty cheese, even if it includes additional toppings. Betty Bombers does just that, serving up a burger cooked with ever the slightest grilled crust on the bottom and gooey cheese on top. The veggie toppings are just the right kind of dressing that don’t disrupt the essentials. On top of everything, you get to enjoy this delightful sandwich among World War II relics that celebrate the “Greatest Generation,” in a restaurant located inside the local American Legion post headquarters.

 

Burger Bar

“Move It On Over” at Burger Bar in Bristol

  1. MOVE IT ON OVER
    Burger Bar
    Bristol, Virginia

Burger Bar has captured an expert flavor combination with the smoky barbecue sauce, grilled onions and your choice of cheese on the “Move It On Over.” And I must suggest you try it with a side of sweet potato fries accompanied by a sweet aioli for dipping. This stop also offers a sea of memorabilia about country music legend Hank Williams who, legend has it, was last seen alive outside the restaurant.

 

 

  1. CHEESEBURGER
    Steak-Out
    Birmingham, Alabama

Steak-Out has the ambiance of a fast food restaurant that just so happens to deliver. So you wouldn’t expect to necessarily get one of the best burgers you’ll ever eat. But that’s exactly what they do. You get a premium-beef burger and high-quality toppings that tastes like it came off the grill at a high-end steakhouse. You can even get a baked potato as a side at this place. I’m not sure I’ve ever visited a restaurant or burger joint that so expertly blurs the lines between fast food and fine dining. (Unfortunately, I don’t have my own photo of the delicious Steak-Out Burger.)

 

Phillips Grocery

The Cheeseburger Single at Phillips Grocery in Holly Springs

  1. CHEESEBURGER SINGLE
    Phillips Grocery
    Holly Springs, Mississippi

It’s just fun to enjoy a cheeseburger inside a more than century-old building that once housed a lively saloon. On top of that, Phillips serves up a funky little cheeseburger with a standard topping combination I’ve never found anywhere else. The single gives you just the right amount of beef to enjoy the dressing of mustard, pickle, onion and muenster cheese. Well done, Phillips. It’s just an extra treat that you also get to enjoy the place’s general store feel with its furnishings of antique relics of the past.

 

Pawley's Front Porch

Kiawah at Pawleys Front Porch in Columbia

  1. KIAWAH
    Pawleys Front Porch
    Columbia, South Carolina

Pawleys exudes a college-town vibe in its location in the Five Points neighborhood, cozied next to the University of South Carolina campus. The shop’s burger menu salutes the state’s great resort island destinations, and it just so happens to include a tribute to my favorite getaway locale of all time, Kiawah Island. The burger’s topped with one of my favorite cheeses, brie, as well as marinated portabella mushrooms, and fire-roasted peppers. This is one of the juiciest, most flavorful burgers I’ve ever put in my mouth.

 

Cal Dreaming

Barbecue Bacon Cheeseburger at California Dreaming in Charleston

  1. BARBECUE BACON CHEESEBURGER
    California Dreaming
    Charleston, South Carolina

Outside of the classic/basic/house cheeseburger style that emphasizes the meat, bread and cheese, a set of toppings with sweet barbecue sauce and bacon is my all-time favorite, and no one does that combination any better than California Dreaming. It’s the perfect amount of sauce and a generous helping of perfectly crispy bacon. There are a couple of California Dreaming locations—which also give you the feel of a fine-dining experience with their snappily-dressed servers—but the Charleston location has consistently had the very best burger of them, and it easily has the best setting with a panoramic view of the river harbor near downtown.

 

Al's Burger Shack

Kenny J at Al’s Burger Shack in Chapel Hill

  1. KENNY J
    Al’s Burger Shack
    Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Al Bowers knows Chapel Hill (he previously worked at another local legendary restaurant, Merritt’s Store & Grill) and he knows a delicious, creative burger. His joint, just down the street from the University of North Carolina, tops its delicious patties with fun toppings like those on the Kenny J, which is both distinctly North Carolina and Southern with its Cheerwine barbecue sauce, not-too-spicy pimento cheese, grilled onions and bacon. I must also praise him for not completely splitting his buns, which allow the sandwich to envelope its toppings, making the burgers easier to eat. Additionally, he caters to your size preference with the buddy bite, Al and Big Al sizes. And if all of that is not enough, he may serve the most flavorful French fries (with sea salt and rosemary seasonings) I’ve ever had alongside a burger.

 

 

  1. EXTRA SHARP CHEDDAR STEAK BURGER
    McGuire’s Irish Pub
    Destin, Florida

Adjacent to the white-sand beaches and emerald-colored waters of the Gulf of Mexico, you’ll find that this joint, with money taped everywhere, offers quite the valuable burger. McGuire’s calls its creations Angus Steak Burgers, and the quality is so good you’ll feel like you’ve got a tender steak on your bun. If that’s not enough for ya, try the $100 Grand Burger of Filet Mignon, caviar, merlot sauce and imperial champagne. Seriously. I’ve never sampled the high-dollar version myself because I haven’t seen a way to top the Angus Steak Burgers. (Sadly, I haven’t had a McGuire’s burger since 2006, and that was before everyone carried a high-quality camera phone, so I have no personal photo here. I need to fix that soon with a trip to Florida’s beautiful panhandle.)

 

Lankford Grocery

Old Fashion Hamburger (with cheese) at Lankford Grocery & Market in Houston

No. 2 OLD FASHION HAMBURGER (WITH CHEESE)
Lankford Grocery & Market
Houston, Texas

In this restaurant tucked into a friendly neighborhood between the Fourth Ward and Midtown sections of the nation’s fourth-largest city, you’ll find a remarkable cheeseburger that offers the freshest overall combination of toppings I’ve ever eaten on a burger. I enjoyed the softest bun, the greenest, leafiest lettuce, the crunchiest, most flavorful onion, and a fresh beef patty that is second in quality only to the No. 1 sandwich on this list. I’ve discovered that not all of Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” spots are legendary in quality. This one deserves that status.

 

Kim's Kitchen

Cheeseburger at Kim’s Kitchen in Stanley

No. 1 CHEESEBURGER
Kim’s Kitchen
Stanley, North Carolina

Kim Millman’s cheeseburger has topped this list throughout my life because of a steady diet of the most important ingredient in a burger: the beef. You won’t top the fresh, hand-pattied, perfectly cooked beef on a Kim’s cheeseburger. You also get a substantial sandwich that’s an incredible value for your money, while adhering to Sheldon Cooper’s (of Big Bang Theory fame) burger formula that prizes the perfect bun-meat-condiment ratio. And you’re pretty much guaranteed to get a friendly table visit from Kim herself while you’re dining in this community fixture between Charlotte and Asheville.

Where do you get your favorite cheeseburgers? Share with us in the comments section, or share with #FoodieScore on social media. Follow @FoodieScore on Facebook and Instagram, or @Foodie_Score on Twitter.

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5 Tips for Easier, Better Burger Grilling

 

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The family backyard barbecue marks the arrival of spring and summer for many of us. And as amateur domestic chefs, there are few things that thrill us more than firing up the grill (either gas or charcoal) and cooking our favorite homemade burgers to share with the most special people in our lives.

Unfortunately, grilling can be a hassle along with the fun. It takes skill and patience to cook good beef on a grilltop. And it takes energy and time to guide and maintenance your grill through the process.

But grilling burgers doesn’t have to be all pain and no pleasure. Here are five very quick and super simple tips I’ve discovered that I guarantee will both improve your cooking results and increase your enjoyment in the grilling process. Cooking is a science, and you should experiment and find your own tricks, but it doesn’t have to be a rocket science process.

1 – MIX IT UP: Season and blend your own beef. No doubt, it’s easier to use frozen or pre-prepared fresh patties. But if you really want your burgers to impress your diners and yourself, buy fresh ground beef and mix in your own seasonings. It takes a little more effort but not much more cost, and you’ll thank yourself when everybody (you included) takes the first bite.

2 – TAKE SHAPE: Press a thumb print into the center of each patty before cooling (see tip No. 3) and cooking them. This indentation will help your patties hold their shape during cooking, instead of swelling in the center and shrinking on the outsides.

3 – COOL IT: Flash freeze your burger patties after you hand-shape them. We’re not talking long here so that your burgers turn into frozen patties. Just 15-20 minutes or so in the fridge or freezer or long enough to cool the meat so that it holds together better on the grill. This will keep you from dealing with your fresh meat trying to fall apart on the grill.

4 – DON’T CROWD: Don’t put too many burgers, or other foods, on your grill surface at any one time. Your meat, and everything else for that matter, will cook better with space around it. No matter your cooking method, you get better heat on your food if you’re not distributing it to more items. So be sure you allot enough time and be patient with the cooking process.

5 – KEEP IT CLEAN: When you’re done cooking and after your grill cools down, go ahead and clean it up before putting it away for next time. (I use a charcoal grill and have found that soap pads and warm water work wonders on a dirty grill top. I clean it and then store my grill grate in our pantry until the next use. And I go ahead and remove all of the used coals from the bottom of my grill to be ready to add fresh coals the next time I grill.) You’ll thank yourself when you get ready to grill next time and you don’t have to go through a long process to clean before you begin cooking.

What are your best tips for grilling out? Share them in our comments section or on social media. Find us @foodiescore on Facebook and Instagram, or on Twitter at @Foodie_Score.

Flavor-Packed, Restaurant-Quality Texas Burgers

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Texans are known in the culinary world for their ability to create powerful flavors in meats. That’s a good explanation for why this Weber recipe for Texas Burgers is one of the all-time favorites in our house. This has become one of our favorite ways to season our burgers, no matter how we cook and top them. We’ve used this blend of seasonings for burgers cooked on the grill and in the oven, and we’ve now topped these delicious sandwiches with more varieties of toppings than makes sense to list here.

What makes this combination so good? It all starts with just a little bit of kick. You don’t want to give your burgers a funny taste that strays too far from what beef tastes like. But you don’t want a bland burger with no flavor. This blend is just the right amount of taste without going too far.

So far, my favorite way to top these burgers is the assortment you see in the picture above. A few pieces or a small bed of shredded lettuce, a hunk of fresh-sliced cheddar cheese and the desired amount of your favorite barbecue sauce. Per my experiences as a Texas barbecue consumer, I’d suggest a sauce that’s a bit more smoky than sweet, but not one that’s heavy on vinegar. Honestly, one of my favorites for this recipe is Heinz’s Kansas City BBQ Sauce, right out of the bottle. Top off your burgers with a couple of pickle chips for an extra little crunch if you like.

Most importantly though, be sure you can enjoy the flavor of your beef. Here’s how you can do that. The yield for this recipe is 4 burgers.

Ingredients

1.6 pounds of fresh ground beef (I like at least 80-20, and 90-10 is even better)

1 tablespoon chili powder

½ teaspoon garlic salt

4 hearty buns (I like Brioche)

12 pickle chips

BBQ sauce (of your choice)

4 pieces of freshly sliced cheddar cheese

lettuce (small pieces or leaves to shred)

Process

1 – The most important step is to blend your own burger meat and hand-patty the burgers yourself. The best burgers I’ve ever had – at home or in a restaurant – were clearly hand-pattied. So get your hands dirty and mix your beef, chili powder and garlic salt together. Start by tearing the ground beef into small pieces in a bowl, then top with the seasonings, and finally incorporate by hand.

2 – Once everything is nice and mixed, divide the meat into four equal amounts (if you want all of your burgers to be the same size) and roll each one into a ball. Then, if you don’t have a burger press, use your hands to press the burgers into patties less than an inch thick (any thicker and cooking will take longer and be more difficult to gauge).

3 – Cook your burgers with your desired method and to desired doneness, either on a grill, stovetop or in the oven. I prefer using the oven method – cooking them in an aluminum foil packet – and seeing all of the grease that drains off. You end up with a well-cooked burger that maintains its juiciness without all of the fat. The oven process can also be ideal to save time and hassle with the grill, and if you cook the meat in a packet to catch the juices, you won’t have a dirty pan or grill grate to clean up later.

4 – Lightly toast your buns, then top with your burger patty and a piece of cheddar cheese. Put your burger and cheese in the microwave for 20-30 seconds to melt the cheese perfectly and re-soften the now-toasted bun (this is a trick I like to use to toast a bun and then remove any excess crunch…I don’t like a toasted bun that creates all of the pieces that fall off, meaning parts of the bun I don’t eat).

5 – Add the lettuce and top with the barbecue sauce and pickles and serve.

We’ve tried a lot of burger combinations at our house, but this simple two-seasoning, hand-pattied option has become our go-to method for a delicious homemade burger. And if you’ve read to the very end, I must leave you a golden coin of information that may be the best part of all. The recipe above costs me less than $2 per serving, without sacrificing good meat, good bread, fresh cheese and other ingredients for toppings. Good luck finding a $2 burger this good at any restaurant. (I suggest you try this recipe instead!)

Foodie Travels: Cindy’s Starlite Café, Catawba, N.C.

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I’m a retired competitive eater now (Molly rejoices for that), but at one time I had eyes far larger than my belly, as the Southern saying goes.

I once ate more than 100 fried shrimp in one sitting. I could knock down a couple dozen Taco Bell tacos, no problem. I’d devour more than 20 pieces of buffet pizza. If it was a challenge, either officially or informally and no matter how unhealthy, I was game.

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One of my bites into the Wicked Willy Challenge in 2012.

So when my newsroom colleagues and I heard about “The Wicked Willy Challenge” at Cindy’s Starlite Café back in 2012, I was naturally intrigued. The Catawba, N.C., restaurant offered a two-pound cheeseburger with chili and slaw, a large side of chili-cheese fries and a 32-ounce drink. If you could stomach it in 20 minutes or less, it was free. If not, you paid the price. And let me tell you, there was a price to pay either way.

My news publisher at the time, Michael Willard, took the challenge – health waiver and all – alongside me. And we both failed…miserably. Michael made more of a “dent” in his plate than I did, but both of our names went on a failures list on the restaurant menu board behind the cash register.

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This is the Wicked Willy Challenge plate in 2012.

One of my many sensory memories of that day has been the appetizing-looking “normal” cheeseburgers on the plates of other people dining in the restaurant at the time of our demising challenge. A group of firefighters and residents watched as we succumbed to the Wicked Willy, and I’ve wondered since that day what it would be like to actually enjoy my visit to Cindy’s, with no pressure and at least a pound less of food sitting in front of me.

Well, I wonder no more. Almost five years to the day of my Wicked Willy challenge, I took Molly to Cindy’s on the main street in the small eastern Catawba County community to try out a normal meal. She enjoyed a delicious Chicken Philly and Potato Wedges, and I calmly savored a basic Cheeseburger and Fries. Both plates were flavorful, freshly made and just the right amount of filling.

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The Chicken Philly and Potato Wedges at Cindy’s

The service at Cindy’s was just what you’d hope for in a Southern hometown-friendly restaurant. You’ll get great attention and care whether you’re a regular or a visitor, like we were.

You’ll find lots of your favorite diner-style food at Cindy’s, both breakfast and lunch/dinner favorites. You will even spot a framed copy of the article about our food challenge on the wall.

But what you won’t find: my name on the failures board as it was back in 2012, or my Wicked Willy plate sitting in front of me ever again.

The Wicked Willy challenge was the effective end of my competitive eating career. But it wasn’t the end of my love for a great regular-people-sized cheeseburger, or my support for the wonderful local restaurant and staff at Cindy’s Starlite Café.

 

Cindy’s Starlite Café

110 S. Main St., Catawba, N.C.

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Foodie Travels: Phillips Grocery, Holly Springs, Miss.

Fifteen years after America’s Civil War in the 1800s, Oliver Quiggins built a saloon across from a Mississippi Central Railroad depot and hotel in Holly Springs, Miss. Business boomed until prohibition, when the saloon transitioned into a grocery store and new owner Walter Curry started making hamburgers. W.L. Phillips and his wife acquired the old saloon building and store in the 1940s, and it has served up the popular local hamburger ever since.

img_1135You can picture the small town’s busy past when you drive up to Phillips Grocery in northern Mississippi, but life is much different in these parts now. Though there’s consideration of restoring the old hotel and depot across the street, the neighborhood is quiet, far different I’m sure than its days with a saloon.

The inside of Phillips Grocery has the feel of an old country store, with relics of the past on the walls, snacks and bottled drinks for sale and just a few tables set up in the back. When you step to the counter, you’re greeted by a hand-written menu above a small window into the kitchen.

img_1136Our visit to Phillips was a cheeseburger trail stop for me, so I knew what to order. I sampled a Phillips single, served with unique toppings of mustard, onion, pickle and muenster cheese. The juicy burger patty was no doubt freshly homemade, and the toppings were a delightful mix that offered such wonderful variety from the typical lettuce, tomato and mayo we experience most places in North Carolina.

My side of seasoned fries were crunchy and, well, tastily seasoned as well. And Molly was very pleased with her thick-cut bologna sandwich (one of her favorites) and side of tater tots.

img_1127After our meal, we ventured back out into the street, and as I snapped a few pictures, I imagined the saloon and grocery past. On the way to the car, we encountered a local Mississippi photographer. After exchanging pleasantries and learning he was in Holly Springs to talk to the owner of the depot property, he wished us well on our journey. “Welcome to Mississippi,” he said. Welcome, from both the past and the present at the wonderful Phillips Grocery, indeed.

 

Phillips Grocery

541 E. Van Dorn Ave., Holly Springs, Miss. (if following GPS, be patient, it may take you along a few turns and lead you to believe you are lost…this is a local place tucked off the main roads of town for an out-of-town traveler)

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Info Credit: History of Phillips Grocery inside the Holly Springs location

Foodie Travels: Burger Bar, Bristol, Va.

This was the last place legendary country musician Hank Williams Sr. was seen alive. At least that’s how local lore tells the story.

Burgers on the menu bear the names of some of his most famous hit songs.

And the restaurant sits just a few paces from the Virginia-Tennessee border, which runs right down State Street in historic downtown Bristol, the designated “Birthplace of Country Music” (there’s a museum in the city).

restaurant

Burger Bar, which was been here since 1942, has embraced the legend that Hank Williams turned down a bite to eat at the restaurant years ago, only to be discovered dead in the back seat of his car on up the road in West Virginia. And they have embraced the classic diner feel—and the delicious homemade burger, fries and shake combination that accompanies the territory.

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Whether you like mushrooms, onions and cheese (the Hey Good Lookin’), barbecue sauce, onions and cheese (the Move It On Over), or a number of other combinations, you’re sure to enjoy the ½-pound burgers you’ll find here. They’re juicy, perfectly thick and enhanced by the variety of delicious toppings.

And the sides that can accompany your sandwich are just as exciting as the main course itself. How about some parmesan fries with several dipping sauces? Or would you rather have sweet potato fries with a sweet, creamy aioli for dipping?

parmesan-fries

If you save enough room, you will have to narrow down your choice of milkshake. There’s something for almost any flavor preference. Truth be told, we couldn’t manage a milkshake during our first visit. The meal filled us up…and we had water to drink.

This is the type of place where you can sit at the counter or choose a table. It’s also the kind of place where you can tell the locals are well-known by the wait staff, but there are an equal number of tourists crossing the foodie stop off their list. We saw people taking pictures of each other with the restaurant menus during our visit.

With plenty of history, plenty of flavor, and fast service from a kind and helpful staff, you’ll enjoy Burger Bar, whether you’re visiting Bristol itself or just passing through on your travels along Interstate 81 through northeastern Tennessee and southwestern Virginia.

Be sure to check out the newspaper coverage of the Hank Williams legend on the walls, and if you eat at the Burger Bar let me know which Hank-inspired sandwich you choose.

Burger Bar

8 Piedmont Ave., Bristol, VA

theoriginalburgerbar.com

Foodie Travels: Carolina Cafe, Gaffney, S.C.

“Get there early.” That’s the advice we received from several sources about the Carolina Cafe, off Highway 11 in the Upstate of South Carolina. And when we rounded the corner and saw the parking lot of the place at 7:15 p.m. on a Friday night, we understood.

We were told to expect a 40-minute wait for a table for the two of us, but it only took 15 minutes before we were seated in a cozy, but very chilly, corner of the restaurant. That pleasant service surprise was the first of many fond moments during our dinner experience.

img_8314Warm yeast rolls and fresh honey butter arrived at the table along with our drinks, another check mark for a great dining outing. It’s always a plus when you get delicious bread with a meal; it’s a type of free appetizer, if you will.

The menu offers a little bit of everything you’d expect to find at a nice casual American family restaurant in the South. There are burgers, sandwiches, salads, steaks, seafood, ribs and more.

Molly ordered the shrimp and grits, one of her favorites. The grits were creamy, and the shrimp were plump, flavorfully sautéed and generously portioned. It was also a great deal at $10.99. You’ll often pay closer to $13 or $15 or more for this dish. And I often have a hard time justifying that cost, unless I’m eating premium shrimp and grits in a coastal area.

img_8316I decided to try the beef tips – a less-fussy compromise for a steak. As much as I love a great cut of beef, I often find my steaks come with too much fat, or not enough bites, not cooked as well as I like, or too much price for what I’m eating. I’m not saying any of those apply at Carolina Cafe, but restaurants in general have led me to the beef tip. And the version at this particular establishment was very satisfying: a great portion for $10.99, served alongside a flavorful baked potato.

We both got salads as part of our meals, and they were just as satisfying as the rest of the entree. Nice portion, fresh ingredients and just the right amount of dressing on the side. Outback Steakhouse serves one of my favorite side salads, and the Carolina Cafe’s salad matches it.

img_8323Our visit was a special date night on the spur of the moment, so we decided to order a dessert. Our choice: the $4.99 Caramel Apple Cheesecake. The piece we shared was a rich and creamy cheesecake, filled with small pieces of flavorful apple, topped with a caramel sauce layer and covered with pecans. Along with the Graham cracker-style crust, it was one of the tastiest cheesecakes we’ve sampled in recent memory. And we love a delicious slice of cheesecake.

Carolina Cafe impressed us at every turn, from that very first glimpse around the highway corner. The restaurant was full of families and couples all night, and a crowd was still waiting outside when we left. The recommendations we received to try this place were spot on. Similar to a well-known pancake house’s slogan, when you come to Carolina Cafe hungry, you leave happy.

The Carolina Cafe gets a $-$$ on our price scale of $ (cheapest), $$ (middle of the road), $$$ (expensive). You can go $ with burgers, or you can go $$ with steaks and shrimp. As always, it’s your choice!

Carolina Cafe

211 Old Metal Road, Gaffney, S.C.

CarolinaCafeGaffney.com

Foodie Travels: Eating Through a Weekend in Savannah, Ga.

We recently traveled to Savannah for a long-weekend-style summer vacation. As much as we were excited to explore the city’s history, culture and natural beauty, we anticipated its extensive and varied culinary offerings. When we arrived and started to sample food at a wide range of different restaurants throughout the area, we were even more pleased with our plates than we expected.

Savannah sits in what I’d call the Deep South, right on the border of South Carolina’s Lowcountry and Georgia’s short-and-sweet coastline. So it’s reasonable to expect a delicious lineup of stellar Southern cooking. We found that, but we also discovered so much more.

The following is a breakdown of our #FoodieScore journey through the restaurants we chose in Savannah, including when we visited and a variety of other thoughts. Keep in mind that we were in town for a total of about 72 hours over four days, that we ate a small breakfast early each morning at our hotel and there is a lengthy list of other eateries that we must try when we return, perhaps most notably the famed Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room, a legendary spot that offers a variety of Southern comfort foods in dishes that you pass around tables with other guests. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Well, that’s what Savannah offered us everywhere we turned our stomachs, and here’s the play-by-play of where we picked up our forks.

Each bit of information includes a dollar sign to denote the relative price, with one dollar sign meaning most affordable and three dollar signs meaning most expensive.

 

Friday night

Leopold’s

After a four-hour drive and a few hours exploring the Savannah riverfront in the Georgia summer heat (mid-to-upper 90s), the ice cream spot seemed to be our best source of refreshment. It was the right choice.
LOCATION: Broughton Street, known as Savannah’s Main Street
FOOD TYPE: Ice Cream and American Deli
WHAT’S UNIQUE: This place is all about the fabulous ice cream, and the constant line out the door proves that Leopold’s has achieved high satisfaction since 1919.
PRICE: $
SEATING: Expect a crowd, so you may have to take your ice cream to one of several tables out front or on a walk through town. The option of getting a milkshake makes the walk possibility much better.
PARKING: We parked in the Drayton Street garage nearby and lucked out on a $2 total charge for the evening. That was much simpler than feeding a meter and it kept us from parking on the street.
LASTING IMPRESSION: This was the smoothest and most flavorful ice cream I’ve ever had in a milkshake (and I had the lemon custard). They even delivered the extra milkshake that wouldn’t fit in my glass and offered complimentary water.

ONLINE: leopoldsicecream.com

 

Saturday morning

The Collins Quarter
Everything about this place beckoned us to try it, but we decided on brunch to sample a delicious menu alongside a cup of coffee from the coffee bar during weekend breakfast time.
LOCATION: Bull Street, along a fabulous walking tour route for checking out the city’s beautiful park squares.
FOOD TYPE: American
WHAT’S UNIQUE: Don’t let the “American food” fool you. The owners have ties to Australia (hence the name, Collins Quarter, which references a cafe district in Melbourne) and the menu gets Aussie and other global infusions.
PRICE: $$
SEATING: Arrive ahead of the typical meal times. This place fills up quickly.
PARKING: I would again recommend the inexpensive Drayton Street garage, but be aware that the prices for parking in the city’s garages vary on the weekends.
LASTING IMPRESSION: I tried eggs benedict for the first time and the balanced flavors blew me away, as did the surprising potato bites as a side item unlisted on the menu. Molly had the smashed avocado, billed as the house specialty. It was heavy on the avocado, but she also enjoyed it. The atmosphere in this place was also incredible. It felt like we were dining in another country, save for the music. I counted four Michael Jackson songs in the playlist during our brunch, but that didn’t bother me because all of the music was upbeat and added to the ambiance. The modern decor and use of natural light also really made this place shine.

ONLINE: thecollinsquarter.com
Saturday afternoon

Pie Society

After a filling brunch, we took a self-guided tour of the public squares along Bull Street and then headed to the market portion of the city to browse a few shops. We had seen the words “British Bakery” the night before and knew we wanted to return to the spot. It was the perfect time, too, as we decided to have a savory item (sausage roll) and a sweet item (vanilla custard tart), along with a water, all for $8. That combo provided a nice small meal in the afternoon to supplement our morning feast.
LOCATION: Just a few blocks from the riverwalk in the city’s North Historic District
FOOD TYPE: Bakery
WHAT’S UNIQUE: Its British ownership offered more of an English-style taste, with different savory foods than you see in American bakeries, as well as treats that are less sweet (but not less satisfying) than American bakery goods.
PRICE: $
SEATING: Not much room, but many patrons get their baked goods to go.
PARKING: We would suggest parking elsewhere and walking to Pie Society. The parking garages closer to the riverfront are more expensive (more on that later) and the meters are less plentiful in this area.
LASTING IMPRESSION: We enjoy pies and other goodies that aren’t quite as sweet as the typical American chocolate-based desserts, and we greatly enjoyed the savory choices that allowed us to share a light meal. There are cake, doughnut, candy, cupcake and other treat shops galore in Savannah. This was a unique option.

ONLINE: thebritishpiecompany.com
Sunday lunch

Lady and Sons

Paula Deen is revered among women in the South as one of the greatest cooks, if for no other reason that she encourages the use of butter to make foods even better. Lady and Sons receives its share of criticism through reviews online, but most restaurants with a high profile do. The restaurant offers only a buffet on Sundays, so we decided that would be an appropriate time to sample as many items from their Southern comfort menu as possible, even if the choices varied from the everyday menu.
LOCATION: Congress Street in the North Historic District
FOOD TYPE: Southern, American
WHAT’S UNIQUE: Paula Deen is the owner, of course. That and the special accents on parts of the meal. Sweet tea comes with refreshing mint garnish. You get cornbread and a cheddar biscuit with each Sunday buffet. You can eat as much of the meat and sides as you can hold, all for $16 per adult. And you get your choice of dessert (we had peach cobbler and gooey butter cake) that comes to your table straight from the kitchen.
PRICE: $$
SEATING: Make a reservation. Priority is given to those who reserve a spot in advance. You’re thankful for that pecking order when you arrive.
PARKING: Again, I’d recommend parking at a garage or a meter farther from the riverfront section of the city to avoid higher costs. We parked at the closest garage, had to get our bearings of where we were when we emerged because we parked underground, and we paid $10 to park on a Sunday when downtown was busier.
LASTING IMPRESSION: Despite the scathing comments from some diners online, we were incredibly pleased. The hostess and waiter offered Southern hospitality you’d expect from a restaurant owned by Paula Deen, and all of the food was incredibly tasty. Molly raved about the fried catfish, and I greatly enjoyed everything from the breads to the tea to the dessert. The venue in a historic city building with multiple floors of seating also offered nice views out the windows and a slightly different perspective than a normal restaurant setting.

ONLINE: ladyandsons.com
Sunday dinner

Desposito’s

We wore our swimsuits underneath our clothes to dine at Paula Deen’s restaurant, and we traveled to Tybee Island for an afternoon exploring and relaxing on the beach after a filling lunch. (By the way, we recommend the north end of the island for the ocean breeze and the view of the lighthouse and the Savannah River channel.) After the beach, I was in the mood for seafood, and Molly searched online for a place to have dinner. Her find, Desposito’s, was completely unexpected. We plan much of our stops on our travels, even to new places, but this one of those times when we ended up glad that we diverted from our course.
LOCATION: 15 minutes east of Savannah, on the way to Tybee Island, along the Intracoastal Waterway
FOOD TYPE: Seafood
WHAT’S UNIQUE: The basic menu without the frills, its low profile and its high praise make it a gem of a find. We drove down a road that looked like it couldn’t possibly lead to a restaurant. But this place has been recommended by Southern Living magazine, and its guests include actors Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
PRICE: $$
SEATING: Small but ample
PARKING: It has its own parking lot.
LASTING IMPRESSION: We ordered deviled crab and a half pound of boiled shrimp. The deviled crab was the most flavorful we’ve ever eaten, and the boiled shrimp boasted a fresh, natural flavor without unnecessary seasoning. The food tasted like a place you’d find right beside the water. When I asked where the shrimp came from, the response was “two doors down, at Nelson’s.” Now that’s local eating! Our server was friendly and attentive. This place is all about simplicity, and it was a relaxing, quiet dinner after a few hours in the sun.

ONLINE: Desposito’s on Facebook
Monday lunch

Betty Bombers
On our final morning in Savannah, we visited a bookstore and then decided to have lunch on the way out of town before returning to North Carolina. I had heard about Betty Bombers in searches for burger restaurants in Savannah, and it attracted me with both its menu and its setting.
LOCATION: Bull Street, near the massive Forsyth Park (also the first stop on our walking tour of the city’s delightfully tree-shaded squares)
FOOD TYPE: American
WHAT’S UNIQUE: This place is located within an American Legion building, and the whole restaurant is decked out in gear that pays homage to American efforts in World War II. Even the server at the counter was dressed as Betty Bomber herself. The menu also offers touches of food from other types of restaurants, such as chips and salsa as a replacement for fries.
PRICE: $
SEATING: Plenty of space
PARKING: We parked at a meter along Bull Street. We arrived early at 11 a.m., so there were plenty available. If you plan to spend the day in the city and walk to eat at Betty Bombers, you might try the Drayton Street garage.
LASTING IMPRESSION: The food was incredible, and the portions were substantial when you consider we paid $21 to both have a nice sit-down lunch and beverages. Molly enjoyed perhaps her favorite Philly Cheesesteak (with a queso cheese) outside of Philadelphia, and I had the basic Bomber burger with fries. It was a nice American dining experience to end our weekend in Savannah and send us home wanting to return and eat more.

ONLINE: bettybombers.com