Eat and Play in Savannah

Savannah was propelled into a gay hotspot almost overnight

After years of lagging behind nearby Charleston in popularity, historic Savannah soared to new heights in the ’90s and remains one of the nation’s hottest destinations. Much of the city’s renaissance had do to with the staggering popularity of John Berendt’s best-seller, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, whose droll yet salacious account of Savannah society propelled the city into a gay hotspot almost overnight.

The jewel of Georgia’s lazily enchanting seacoast, Savannah was founded in 1733 by British General James Oglethorpe, who designed the perfect grid of streets and grassy tree-shaded squares for which this city of 130,000 is still famous. Savannah prospered as a silk exporter during its first century, before developing into one of the world’s major cotton suppliers. Much of downtown consists of elaborate brick and stucco Victorian buildings built following an 1820 fire that destroyed many of the city’s beautiful wood-frame Colonial homes. Had General Sherman not spared Savannah during his notorious and destructive “March to the Sea,” most of these Victorian structures would also have been burned.

Begin your explorations of the city inside the restored 1860s rail terminal that houses both the Savannah Visitor Information Center and the Savannah History Museum. This complex is at the southwestern edge of historic downtown. From here it’s a short walk north to City Market, a three-block pedestrian mall with a handful of gay-friendly shops and restaurants. Downtown Savannah’s shopping scene continues to evolve from traditional to fashion-forward – a Marc by Marc Jacobs flagship store opened here in April 2007, and many contemporary boutiques and art galleries now line the city’s oak-shaded streets.

Near City Market, you’ll find the gay disco, Club One, which is the performing home of The Lady Chablis, who figured so prominently in The Book, as Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is commonly referred to by locals. Plenty of folks come to Savannah to seek out the sites that were brought to life in this mesmerizing tale (although it is nonfiction, The Book reads like a delicious novel). Of particular note is the privately owned Mercer House, in which Midnight’s central figure, antiques dealer Jim Williams, shot and killed his young lover, Danny Hansford, in 1981 (the question of whether Williams fired in self-defense or as a calculated act of murder is debated to this day).

Its literary fame – or notoriety – notwithstanding, Savannah still rivals any Southern destination for its bedazzled and meticulously restored house museums. If you have time for only one, visit the Owens-Thomas House, a splendid 1819 Regency mansion built by renowned British architect William Jay. Nearby is the Isaiah Davenport House, an 1815 Federal beauty. To see a fine collection of classical sculpture and Impressionist painting, visit the Telfair Mansion and Art Museum, a memorable 1818 structure in its own right. In 2006, the museum expanded with the construction of the striking new Jepson Center for the Arts, which added more galleries and exhibition space.

At the north end of the historic district, the city’s riverfront is lined with a stately row of restored cotton warehouses – now containing a slew of touristy businesses – and a cobbled lane that’s sits a full flight of steps below the rest of the city. The best time to appreciate it and the views of the bridge and freighters chugging along the Savannah River is in the morning, when you’ll encounter few crowds. One great way to explore downtown and get some advice on the local gay scene is to take a guided walk with knowledgeable local Jonathan Stalcup, who runs Architectural Tours of Savannah.

For dining, avoid most of the mediocre eateries by the river and stick to one of the several local favorites, virtually all of them gay-friendly. One of the most famous restaurants in the South, Elizabeth on 37th specializes in subtly sublime regional cooking, such as sesame-almond-crusted grouper with peanut sauce; and grilled rack of lamb with corn pudding, stewed okra, and tomatoes. Sexy and sophisticated Sapphire Grill serves some exciting and innovative contemporary American fare – consider the jumbo lump crab cake with lemon curd, green-zebra tomatoes, and red chard.

A bit more affordable, chic Il Pasticcio presents contemporary Northern Italian cuisine – try the grilled gorgonzola-crusted filet mignon with a potato-pancetta gratin. Olde Pink House is one of those Savannah traditions that everybody should experience at least once – fine Continental fare with regional twists, like black grouper stuffed with blue crab and a Vidalia onion sauce, is served. Garibaldi’s, in an 1870s firehouse, prepares simple but very good Italian fare, such as pesto shrimp with angel hair pasta. For either lunch or dinner, the trendy City Market Cafe is a dependable choice, serving delicious wild mushroom, blue cheese, and prosciutto salad, as well as terrific thin-crust pizzas.

It’s touristy, but fans of Food Network TV star Paula Deen won’t want to pass up a chance to dine at her downtown Savannah restaurant, The Lady & Sons, known for its down-home Southern cuisine. An elegant basement space with a youthful, see-and-be-seen following, Jazz’d Tapas Bar is perfect for late-night snacking – recommended fare include potato-leek frittata with fig chutney, and citrus-ginger-glazed shrimp-and-scallops skewers. The lesbian-owned Firefly Cafe serves affordable American fare, including plenty of fresh veggie dishes. This dapper spot overlooks Troup Square and is especially popular for brunch (try the Savannah eggs Benedict topped with fresh crab meat). For post-club noshing, check out Sushi Zen, a hip and gay-popular Asian restaurant with a convivial vibe.

The bar staff and regulars in Savannah’s bars are friendly and forward. Although some locals shun the touristy and cavernous Club One, it’s one of the most impressive clubs in the Southeast, and it can be fun when The Lady Chablis is performing. Other options include Chuck’s, a friendly locals joint near the river that draws a mixed bunch; and Blaine’s Back Door Bar, a casual cruise and dance lounge that also has a deli serving pretty tasty sandwiches and pizza. Not gay per se, Venus de Milo is a sexy and sophisticated wine bar with a welcoming, bohemian vibe – it’s just west of City Market. Down along the riverfront, gay-friendly Kevin Barry’s Irish Pub is popular early in the evening for Irish music, food, and drink.

With the recent rise in gay tourism, Savannah’s grand old hotels have become increasingly hospitable to visiting same-sex couples. Among the city’s many classic luxury inns, the Ballastone Inn is renowned for its gracious hospitality and over-the-top, lavish rooms. The four-story 1838 mansion sits along one of the prettiest streets in the city. A mid-19th-century inn with an expansive landscaped courtyard, the Eliza Thompson House and its grand guest rooms look much as you might imagine they did when cotton was king of Savannah. Original heart-pine floors and period antiques impart a romantic ambience, and yet rooms have comfortable, modern amenities, especially the bathrooms. Of affordable chain properties, the Comfort Suites Historic District is clean, pleasantly furnished, and a short walk from City Market.

For the most memorable accommodations, however, look to the gay-friendly Mansion on Forsyth Park, which offers some of finest digs in town. This stylish mini-resort beside verdant Forsyth Park contains 126 rooms with smart, contemporary furnishings, plus a top-notch spa, a cooking school, two cool bars, an art gallery, and the highly regarded 700 Drayton Restaurant. Opened in 2005, the hotel offers further evidence of Savannah’s gradual shift from a bastion of Old South gentility to a beacon of New South panache and style.