The languorous pace of life in Savannah is written in its landscape, in the drooping limbs of its hundred-year-old oaks and the gracefully arching wrought iron that garlands the city's mansions. But during the lunchtime rush outside the Lady and Sons, a restaurant that serves Southern home cooking to around 1,600 diners a day, Savannah appears to have found some hustle.
On a recent visit, New York chef Bobby Flay (Mesa Grill, Bolo, Bar Americain) and his wife, actress Stephanie March (Law and Order: SVU, Conviction), were in search of lunch when they saw a crowd gathered around a headset-wearing hostess at a sidewalk kiosk. They crossed the street to see what the commotion was about.
Flay, in Prada shades and a leather jacket, and March, in a Severyn tee over Seven jeans, looked every bit the red-carpet couple; as they approached, the throng of tourists fairly parted for them. But the hostess registered no recognition, and told Flay the wait would be close to an hour—news that only made this couple more excited.
"Any place with a 45-minute wait at 2 o'clock on a Monday is a place I want to eat at," he said. They took the beeper the hostess offered and retreated to a nearby bar.
Flay had first visited Savannah several years ago during the taping of his Food Network show Food Nation; in all his meals around the country, the ones here had amazed him the most. He'd been eager to come back to check out restaurants, both new and classic, that he hoped would inspire recipes for Bar Americain. March was curious about the shops; the city's blue-chip antique stores had joined forces with new boutiques to form a downtown design district. So during a lull in the planning for his next restaurant, Bobby Flay Steak (due to open this summer in Atlantic City), and before March was to begin filming Conviction, the pair flew to Savannah for a tour.
The Lady and Sons' founding chef and owner is Flay's friend and Food Network colleague Paula Deen. A passionate home cook, Deen entered the food business in Savannah 17 years ago, selling sandwiches door-to-door to downtown office workers. She saved up enough money to open a home-style Southern-food restaurant in 1991, and the place—until recently housed in a much smaller location—was a local favorite for years. Then word got out and best-selling cookbooks followed, along with a Food Network series, Paula's Home Cooking.
Once inside the restaurant, Flay and March both opted for the buffet, choosing crispy fried chicken, perfectly vinegary and slightly sweet collard greens and black-eyed peas. March, who grew up in Texas, loves Southern food and is known in her family for her voracious appetite. As she deliberated over a third helping of chicken, Flay lowered his voice to the growl of a television policeman: "Stop. Put down the fork. Walk away from the plate."
On the way out, the couple indulged several tables of autograph-and-photo seekers, then hit the street. Back in 1733, when the British general James Oglethorpe founded Savannah, he designed the town around 24 "squares"—small, leafy parks laid out in neat grids so that most houses, churches and stores face the greens. Cars slow down to circumnavigate the squares—another landscape feature that slackens the pace here.
As Flay and March stopped to rest on a park bench in Oglethorpe Square, a skateboarder flew past, a drafting tube slung over his shoulder, followed by two women toting enormous black portfolios. Although Savannah's first industry is tourism, it has become in recent years a bustling college town. The Savannah College of Art and Design, a school founded in 1979 with 71 students, today brings more than 7,300 ambitious young photographers, designers and artists to the old city's most venerable institutions. The legendary dive-bar Pinkie Masters, once favored by politicos, now hosts a young crowd whose precisely styled dishevelment suggests they might be in the running to compete in next season's Project Runway.
The college—"SCAD" to locals—runs a large boutique called ShopSCAD, an anchor of the historic district, which sells only the work of the school's students, faculty and alumni. March checked out the dresses by Brooklyn's Little by Jenny, but was particularly taken with Joe Bush's colorful photo transfers of downtown landmarks on stretched canvas. She was also impressed by the school's own line of inexpensive home furnishings, called Working Class Concepts, zooming in on toile napkins depicting scenes from Savannah life.
The toile wouldn't have seemed out of place at the Mansion on Forsyth Park, one of the newest and most luxurious hotels in town, where Flay and March had chosen to stay. A brilliant pastiche of Savannah's traditionalist past and design-conscious present, the hotel is a Victorian brick castle, which was built as a private home in 1888. Rooms are outfitted with tufted red velvet daybeds and flat- or plasma-screen TVs; halls are lined with German Expressionist portraits in Day-Glo colors. It's postmodern bordello luxe, firmly tongue-in-cheek.
That night, Flay and March had reserved a table at 700 Drayton, the Mansion's restaurant, where paintings of leopards and chandeliers dripping amber-colored crystal elaborate upon the hotel's exuberant style. Flay and March tucked into a nicely done Asian-inflected tuna tartare and a tasty pheasant ravioli. Foie gras? Check. Truffles? Check. Yet the menu paid little homage to the shrimp, oysters, crabs, rice, grits and greens that are the backbone of the region's cuisine.
A native New Yorker, Flay is a passionate advocate for the cuisine of the American South, and the menu at Bar Americain features a few of the region's classics (shrimp and grits, dirty rice, barbecue) torqued up with his trademark bold flavors. When the waiter set down a lovely seared scallop scented with vanilla, Flay joked, sotto voce, "Where are the grits?!"
The following morning, Flay and March went shopping for their apartment, a loft in New York's Chelsea. Flay was single when he bought the place; shortly after the couple got married in February 2005, they acquired the apartment below and were in the process of joining the two. While Flay favors mid-century Danish Modern, March's taste is more wide-ranging. "I think one or two modern pieces is fine, but you've got to warm it up with something really ornate and classic, like an old chandelier and nice bedding," March said. "The first time I walked into Bobby's apartment, I thought, Hmm, a bachelor's lair. A gray flokati rug, a huge TV and gray soap dishes everywhere."
March, in a sleeveless Jane Mayle dress and riding boots, browsed the selections at One Fish Two Fish, a home furnishings store with an eclectic selection. Flay and March bypassed less portable items, like a 19th-century English silver chest, for a few hand-painted Italian purses by Sweet Bella and several jars of a stunningly golden-colored honey, harvested by Ted Dennard, a St. Simons Island native who's become a local food hero. Every spring, when the tupelo trees in southeast Georgia put out their short-lived blossoms, Dennard heads into the swamps to set his hives. His Savannah Bee Company honey is prized for its rich taste.
"I love working with big flavors like chiles and smoke," Flay said. "Honey is perfect for softening the edges, mellowing them out a bit."
"I don't really like sweet things," March chimed in, "but honey doesn't taste very sugary to me."
"I put it in everything—vinaigrettes, soups, stocks, salsas," Flay continued. "So I'm always on the hunt for great honey."
Flay was getting hungry, so he and March headed to a smokehouse just outside town, Muther's Old Timey Bar-B-Que, which is sandwiched between fast-food joints on a six-lane commercial strip. They readily polished off smoky ribs and chicken quarters, though Flay found the sauce a tad sweet.
As they sat on Muther's front porch, overlooking the traffic-choked strip, the couple agreed they needed some nature. So they drove toward the coast on a road through a marsh, turning off sharply when March spotted a dock with several shrimp boats tied to it. A group of fishermen mending nets paid them no mind as they strolled hand-in-hand to the end of the dock. An older fisherman eventually ambled over and explained that these boats harvest most of Savannah's shrimp.
Less than a half hour later, March and Flay got a taste of the harvest in a shrimp "corn dog" at Gottlieb's. Once a beloved bakery, the place has been reinvented by three great-grandsons of the founder and now serves updated Southern cuisine as well as baked goods.
"Now this is a chef who knows where he is," Flay remarked as he tucked into a beautifully reimagined Brunswick stew, made with rabbit and wild mushrooms. Here, Flay found his grits, enriched with cream cheese and keeping company with a rack of lamb glazed with local cane syrup. He ordered one of every dish on the menu.
Flay was ecstatic, but there was no time to relax (or stop eating) because Deen had invited him and March to her brother Bubba Hiers's new restaurant, Uncle Bubba's Seafood and Oyster House, for the house specialty: buttery chargrilled oysters.
Flay and March found Deen partying on the restaurant's back terrace. Deen, who has a motherly bearing and a radiant silver coiffure, saw them and shouted "I love me some Bobby Flay!" then embraced the couple in a bear hug.
Deen and March compared shopping notes—March had missed one of Deen's favorite stores, the Paris Market & Brocante. Flay and Deen swapped war stories, of renegade staffs and the annoyance of having to film holiday shows months in advance.
"Honey," Deen drawled, wagging an index finger at Flay, "you have never lived until you've walked the streets of Savannah in July wearing a Santa suit!"
Flay told Deen he was gearing up for a new season of Food Network's Iron Chef, the arena-style contest in which two chefs prepare elaborate menus around a single ingredient that's kept secret from them until the start of the show.
Deen expressed a desire to be a challenger: "How surprised are you gonna be when I walk on?"
"You'd win," Flay said, "because I'd concede."
"Secret ingredient—butter!" Deen exclaimed. "No, even better—canned biscuits!"
"Forfeit!" Flay yelled.
Matt Lee and Ted Lee are the authors of The Lee Bros. Cookbook, due out this fall.