SAVANNAH, Ga. - It was far from cozy and it sure wasn't elegant. If you get right down to it, the food wasn't anything to make you want to return, either, but it was a great eating experience and a study in human nature.
I had lunch at Paula Deen's and that's what y'all are supposed to do in Savannah ever since the bubbly lady armed with butter and sugar took to the airwaves to become a household word. Between 1,500 and 1,600 people eat there daily.
When visiting Savannah, take a trolley ride to learn about the history of the grand old Georgia city, walk the riverfront, and maybe catch a museum. That done, the next step is to make plans for lunch or dinner at Paula's restaurant, The Lady and Sons. No, you can't call for a reservation unless you have a busload of people.
The procedure is to go to the restaurant at 102 West Congress St. downtown and wait in line. It's easy to tell you are in the right place by the line of people standing under the red-and-white striped awning. The line begins to form at 9 a.m. You will be told what time you can have lunch or dinner, either that day or more than likely the next day.
I was determined to wait if necessary after I convinced the trolley driver to drop me off at the restaurant. I lucked out. There were only about eight people ahead of me at 10:30 a.m. If I didn't mind sitting at the bar there would be room for lunch.
No, you don't go inside yet. The people who have been accepted for lunch or dinner cross the street to wait for their names to be called over a microphone. Of course conversation in line is a given. People discuss why they are so excited to be at Paula Deen's restaurant. A group of 19 drove from Chicago to Savannah for the experience. They didn't care about the collection of preserved historic buildings in Savannah nearly as much as they did about checking out Paula's menu.
The Lady and Sons is in a large building. Seating for meals is on the first and third floors. The tables are naked, no linens or placemats, at least at lunch. The kitchens are on the second floor. My seat was at the bar on the third floor. The lady to my left was a devoted Paula fan. She has all her cookbooks and wouldn't miss a TV show. When I asked her what she would do if Paula walked in, she said she would faint and I believed it.
It was the third time the couple to my right had driven from Dayton to Savannah just to go to Paula Deen's. We shared desserts: peach cobbler, banana pudding, and Paula's gooey butter cake. All were sweet enough to lock your teeth.
I was told the southern cooking queen stops at the restaurant about once a month, but we know she is busy doing all the things food celebrities do besides their TV show when they make it to the top, including a magazine and always writing one more cookbook. A Paula Deen buffet is at Harrah's at Tunica, Mi.
Paula's story is one of those warm and fuzzy tales that began in her grandmother's kitchen where she learned the secrets of southern cooking. Years and two sons later, as a divorcee, her foods came into public tasting when she prepared, and her sons delivered, box lunches in Savannah. Now the sons, Jamie and Bobby, have their own show on the Food Network. Road Tasted features food finds around the country. Paula's brother Bubba is the proprietor of Uncle Bubba's Oyster House in Savannah, known for char grilled oysters.
A limited menu was offered at lunch, including fried green tomatoes and crab stew, but it seemed everyone went for the buffet, $13.95. It was definitely a southern potluck style of buffet, beginning with chicken, turkey, and ham. Collard greens, macaroni and cheese, sweet potatoes, rice, summer squash casserole, mashed potatoes, creamed corn, lima beans, and black-eyed peas were in the lineup.
The dinner menu features peach barbecued grouper, crab cakes, and shrimp and grits. On Sunday only a buffet is served. At the Paula Deen Gift Shop, next to the restaurant, T-shirts and cookbooks are the big sellers or fans can shop on line, www.pauladeen.com.