Savannah, Georgia (CNN) — Savannah, Georgia, is one of the oldest cities in the United States, founded in 1733 by British Gen. James Oglethorpe. Over the nearly three centuries since, this city on a hill has endured two major wars, the horrors of slavery, reconstruction, and later segregation to emerge as one of America's most charming and storied destinations.
Chef Mashama Bailey has lived in Savannah for only a few years, but it has already cast its mysterious spell. Bailey relocated here from New York in 2014 to open a restaurant, The Grey, with her partner and fellow New Yorker, John "Johno" Morisano.
Since it opened in 2015, the restaurant has been the talk of the town and lauded by national press for its role in putting Savannah on the foodie map. This praise is the result of Bailey's distinctive approach to Southern cuisine as well as the thoughtful, visceral design of its space, courtesy of another New York collaborator, design firm Parts and Labor.
Lest this enterprise seem like (for lack of a more apt phrase) some kind of 21st century culinary carpetbagging, rest assured, The Grey turns out top-tier food with a side of genuine love and respect for the area and an understanding of its complicated history.
The Grey (109 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.) owes its name to its former life as the area's Greyhound station, which ceased operation in 1964, around the time segregation ended. With that history in mind, Morisano oversaw the building's restoration and transformation to stunning effect.
The skylight and fixtures imbue the space with airiness and sophistication that is distinctly modern, but the team tasked with creating The Grey left many of its prior identity's details intact.
The Grey retains vestiges of its past life as a Greyhound bus station.
There's a well-worn spot on its pink terrazzo floor, right by the open kitchen, which was the location of the window where riders would queue to buy their bus tickets. Other reimagined remnants include the floor-to-ceiling windows that were once the station gates, the curved front bar and its dramatic circular window, the soft-hued tiles that line the walls of the staircases toward the back of the restaurant and the footprints of old urinals in the basement.
Most hauntingly, guests can observe the station's previously segregated areas, the waiting room in the rear, the separate bathrooms.
The Grey balances these hard memories with effervescence and Bailey is first and foremost a chef, continually demonstrating her expertise and dexterity with dishes such as foie and grits in the evening, and her mastery of daytime classics like po' boys and patty melts.
Prior to The Grey, Bailey's most recent gig was as sous chef at Prune in New York, working for its chef and owner, Gabrielle Hamilton. It was Hamilton who introduced Johno and Mashama, the former persuading the latter to take a chance on him, though he had never owned or operated a restaurant before, and on Savannah.
Bailey has Southern roots; she spent a stint of her childhood nearby and her parents live in South Carolina. Her few years in town have been good for her, though she's been hard at work much of the time.
"I love Savannah. I really do," Bailey says. "I've been working a lot, but every time I have a day off, I'm able get out and talk to people -- they're so nice. You don't have the same pressures here as you do in a big city."
After a few years, Bailey says she's barely scratched the surface of her adopted home, but she's found her routine and enjoys a mild celebrity when walking around the city.
"The people here are so open, and it's beautiful here, the architecture and the weather. Except when it's really hot!"
Thankfully the day we follow Bailey as she hits her favorite spots, the weather pretty much cooperates; we see a little sun, a little rain and whole lot of charm.
Bailey's choice for her caffeine fix is Cup to Cup Café (140 Abercorn St.). They roast their own beans, and it's the coffee served at The Grey. Owner James Spano and his team trained all of The Grey managers to make espressos.
The vibe in the café is easy and relaxed, the kind of place anyone in search of an airy space to enjoy an expertly prepared caffeinated drink (or heck, even decaf) would love to have around the corner.
The café is housed in what was once a carriage house on a large estate from the mid-1860s. Regulars gather daily to read the paper or hang out and chill before work.
One of Savannah's architectural tour guides, Jonathan Stalcup fuels up here sometimes before meeting his tour group in a nearby square.
According to Spano, walking tourists (for the historic area of Savannah is made for strolling -- more on that later) stop in the café for a latte and a look at the locals.
Mrs. Wilkes' Dining Room (107 West Jones St.) is one of those places that everyone knows, where people like POTUS 44 and Ryan Gosling and Blake Lively make sure to visit when they're in town.
There are several reasons for this: the setting is along a very picturesque street, in a building that was once a boardinghouse that the original Mrs. Wilkes took over in 1943. Now run by her great-grandson Ryon Thompson, the spirit of hospitality remains with casually communal tables that make it likely that you're sharing a memorable meal with people you'd never meet otherwise, but for whom history, warmth and quality are shared values.
The menu can change on any given day. (Mrs. Wilkes' is only open for lunch Monday through Friday, and lines are routinely out the door -- and yes, there are a lot of tourists, but who cares?)
On the Tuesday Bailey dines there with her friend, Scott Waldrup, who is a bartender at The Grey, the team of energetic servers are dispensing heaps of fried chicken, butter beans, black-eyed peas, macaroni and cheese and pickled beets.
When Bailey is approached by a fellow diner who loves The Grey, it's clear that despite its repeated mentions in travel stories and its subsequent wait, neighbors still come by Mrs. Wilkes' from time to time.
Made for walking
The fountain at Forsyth Park is a frequently photographed symbol of Savannah.
Savannah's historic city center is a grid, comprised of 22 squares (there were once 24), making it an ideal city to stroll around on foot.
Wandering from square to square is the best way to experience Savannah's history, admiring its many exquisitely preserved 19th century mansions, historical monuments and elegant fountains, all under the shadow of drooping Spanish moss, the physical iteration of a southern drawl, lilting and magical.
The Architectural Savannah tour led by Stalcup (who holds a BFA and a Master of Architecture degree from SCAD, the Savannah College of Art and Design) features a chronological timeline of the city's most significant buildings. Another edifying option is Footprints of Savannah, a guided tour through the African-American experience. It focuses on the history of slavery, integral to achieving a complete understanding of the place Savannah has in American history.
There are myriad other group tours, trolleys and Segways, but if you prefer to take the city in alone at a leisurely pace, the $9 iOS Savannah Walking Tour app is a solid choice.
For relaxing walks, Bailey likes Forsyth Park, which is the largest in the historic district. On its northern end is its landmark fountain, which rhythmically jets water into the air -- a light breeze can waft a refreshing spray on sultry days. The park is a hub of local activity, with outdoor classes, concerts in the band shell, tennis courts and on Saturdays, a farmers market.
The Grey may be the hottest restaurant in town, but it is far from the only fantastic dining option.
In the morning and for lunch, try Goose Feathers (39 Barnard St.), a café and bakery just off Ellis Square, near the river. On the north end of Forsyth Park is The Sentient Bean (13 East Park Ave.), serving fair trade coffee and Rishi teas, alongside healthy vegan and vegetarian dishes. For a boozy brunch, The Collins Quarter (151 Bull St.) is a wholly unique experience from an Australian transplant. For lunch, a visit to The Olde Pink House (23 Abercorn St.) on Reynolds Square is a good option, though like Mrs. Wilkes', it is very much on the tourist to-do list. There, diners can enjoy contemporary iterations of classic Southern dishes, such as shrimp and grits and fried oysters, in a meticulously preserved 18th century mansion. And for those who enjoy a tipple by the fire, the basement bar is not to be missed. For dinner, Circa 1875 (48 Whitaker St.) has perfected classic French bistro fare, and patrons can choose between the dining room or the more casual gastropub. Both menus are replete with well-executed standards, such as escargots, coquilles St. Jacques and cassoulet. The Florence (1 West Victory Dr.) is a delightful Italian-focused spot, both neighborhoody and cool, offering an array of house-made pastas and wood-fired pizzas. They also do an incredible brunch. Ice cream lovers should make a stop at Leopold's (212 East Broughton St.) and marvel at its seemingly random collection of mounted movie posters and nostalgia -- owner Stratton Leopold is also a film producer.
Where to stay
Savannah is a strolling city, where charming streets are lined with historic homes.
Hotels in Savannah are refreshingly affordable, and there's truly something for everybody.
Bailey recommends friends stay at the Andaz (14 Barnard St.), which is modern yet homey, with an outdoor pool deck and sceney bar and restaurant.