I think I should start with a disclaimer. My mother, saint that she is, loves Paula Deen. Absolutely loves the woman, her shows, her sons, her cookbooks, everything. Ma’s butter intake likely would not surprise you, given this information.
Last December, scrambling to figure out what my mother would want for Christmas — who needs more knick-knacks, anyway? — that she’d never think to do for herself, I realized, thanks to one Feisty Foodie, that Paula Deen has had a restaurant in Savannah, Georgia for over two decades. The Lady and Sons serves lunch and dinner six days a week (and an all-day Sunday dinner) from this sleepy little touristy town. My mother spends each April in northern Florida, and looking at the map, she was a mere 3 1/2 hours from Savannah. The plan took shape, and recently I found myself driving up I-95 at 6:15 in the morning toward the Paula Deen shrine to deep-fried, butter-laden goodness.
The Lady and Sons and its attached gift store take up much of a weathered brick building on Congress Street. I was struck by the impression that the building is in this state permanently — it won’t be spruced up, and it won’t be allowed to deteriorate further.
Each morning at 9:30, the restaurant sets up shop outside its front door to take reservations, first-come, first-served. There are apparently three lunch and three dinner seating times from which to choose, but once they’re gone, they’re gone. We arrived at the line, after parking, at 9:38; the line extended the entire block and around the corner. The line you see here is 20 minutes later, after I went back to the car and moved it to an all-day lot ($10, a block from the restaurant), correctly assuming we wouldn’t want to run back and forth feeding meters all day.
Mama Beer Boor is in that line; she doesn’t look nearly as touristy as a great number of the people we shared our morning with. By the time we made it to the desk, the 12:30 seating for lunch was gone, leaving us with 11:00 or 2:00, or a late dinner. We chose 11:00 and were instructed to meet across the street, at a tour operator’s storefront, fifteen minutes early to await our reservation. It had taken a half-hour in line to secure that seating, so we wandered around a bit, enjoyed a coffee from a French shop with a beautiful, ornate coffee counter, took in a nearby park, and came back in time to meet up with the other hundred or so tourists in tourist attire who wished to dine on Paula Deen’s recipes.
Clearly TL&S has been doing things this way for a very, very long time, as they have the process of ferrying diners into the restaurant down to a science. You wait for them to shout your name from across the street, then you cross, whereupon you’re handed a card saying you’re eating on the first floor or the third floor (which is really accessible by elevator only). Sure, a few people didn’t understand you should watch for traffic, but there’s only so much you can do for some people.
We were given a third-floor pass, so we walked in the front door to the elevator. Once on the third floor, the hostess cheerfully led us to a table by a window, in view of the buffet. Oh, that glorious buffet.
This is a view from our seats; we were one of the first tables seated in this part of the floor. The third floor is all dark woods, with timbered ceilings and walls, ceiling fans spinning high above in the ductwork, stenciled ivy and country-themed little pictures up the wall a bit, and, yes, the buffet in the corner by the kitchen. The first floor was similar, but I barely saw it before being elevatored here.
As we started to look at the menu, our server came over and dropped off a corncake (“treat it like a pancake, there’s syrup on the table there”) and a cheese biscuit.
Pulling off a piece of the warm biscuit… oh yeah, there’s a little butter in this already. It just melts, it’s so fluffy. I wanted to fill up on biscuits. So good, even better than the ones I make. Lots of cheese flavors this biscuit.
I opted not to use syrup on the corncake, but not for caloric reasons of course. It was a little shiny so I wound up cutting off a piece for the camera. This is one greasy corncake. It’s fresh oil, sure, and tastes as advertised, but it was too heavy, and I wound up leaving a lot of it on the plate.
What would a Southern lunch be without a big ol’ iced tea, specifically, a mint iced tea, sweet of course. Our server came back constantly with refills, which were very appreciated considering the contents of our lunch.
We both decided, after perusing the menu, that the buffet was the best way to experience Paula’s cooking. There aren’t too many entree choices — a meatloaf sandwich, crab cake, chicken pot pie — and very little deep frying seemed to be employed.
When I looked at the menu, I knew I had to add on the fried green tomatoes for an appetizer ($6.99). The tomato slices are dressed with a vidalia onion relish of sorts, then deep-fried and topped with a little roasted pepper jam.
And these were very tasty. Very buttery, and thanks to the pepper, a bit spicy, too, but so, so tasty. I’m pretty sure there was a slice of tomato in there, given the sweetness not attributable to the onion, but I’m not 100% on that. There’s got to be at least a tablespoon of butter in each fried green tomato. I loved these for a sheer Deen-ness of the preparation.
Time to stare down the buffet. When we walked in, I saw the pile of fried chicken just batting its eyelashes at me and adjusting its hair, and I knew I’d have to introduce myself. After figuring out that the menu did not offer a non-buffet version of this, my fate was sealed.
Next to the huge tray of fried chicken, lay the huge baked chicken tray, then another huge tray of fried fish, likely catfish (I didn’t in fact partake of this).
There’s always room for other Southern specialties, right? While I didn’t care to allot space for the rice, the grits and what I’m calling beef stew and Brunswick stew (without lima beans, fortunately) also graced the steam table. I want to say that the server called this jambalaya, but I really hope this wasn’t supposed to be jambalaya.
Creamed corn, more cream than corn, with an assortment of beans also lay in wait for hungry customers. Ma managed to try the green beans with potatoes, and liked it well enough. Oddly, there was a lot of butter in this dish, too!
Rounding out the buffet, the missing lima beans, required greens, cheesy mac — I believe she calls mac and cheese that — and yams all proved popular with the lunch seating.
In all fairness, there was a “salad bar” behind the real buffet, but I can’t in good conscience wax poetic about lettuce and a few salad toppings. I wasn’t there to eat remotely healthy, after all.
The smells at the buffet were overwhelmingly good, but I managed to focus, knowing there would be more food to be eaten. The dishes are reasonably-sized, not really big enough to load up — a blessing, as you’d rather not have cold food when there’s more available any time you like. I took it easy on my first trip: two fried chicken thighs, greens, grits, and a pile of Brunswick stew (once I determined there were no lima beans to eat around).
We’ll get to the star in a minute. The grits were, by and large, mere vehicles for the butter. I didn’t notice any condiments at the buffet — I prefer it that way, since “toppings” tend to get all over everything else — but there was that syrup at the table, which I decided not to use. Too much buttery, gritsy goodness here, and by no means do they taste instant.
The greens were fairly bland and boring. I didn’t see anything in the way of mountains of salty pork competing for space in the greens tray, what pork was there didn’t add anything that made me want to get more. The “Brunswick stew” fared better, with chunks of tomato in the thick, sweet tomato-based sauce, and lots of pulled pork without any smokiness. As good as any I’ve had in the South.
So, the fried chicken. In one bite, it became clear that Paula likes to butter her chicken prior to deep frying. In fact, I’d guess she butters underneath the skin before applying that delicious batter: so crunchy, a little sweet, a lot salty, and a bit spicy to boot. I found myself pulling the skin off the meat more than once. It’s a bit greasy, sure, but that chicken stayed juicy enough to run onto my fingers. It’s not often I say someone makes better fried chicken than I do, but… well, The Lady and Sons makes better fried chicken than I do.
It didn’t take long to require a second plate. I tried to get everything else I thought needed eating, so a baked drumstick, creamed corn, the beef stew-like dish, and a big spoon of the cheesy mac found a new home on my plate, with a fried chicken breast to compare to the thigh.
The baked chicken is dusted with a blend of spices likely the same as one of the blends on sale downstairs in the store — fairly tasty, but baked chicken is never going to live up to the taste standards of fried chicken, especially fried chicken as good as Paula’s. Certainly it’s worth trying, though, and Ma liked the baked a lot. Lest you worry, butter was in abundance in the tray and on the chicken.
The fried breast? Every bit as juicy as the thigh. I can’t adequately express my relief knowing that TL&S knows how to fry chicken.
As I intimated earlier, the creamed corn is pretty much just butter, cream, and a smattering of corn for flavor. It’s every bit as good as that sounds. The cheesy mac surprised me — I expected it to be overwhelmingly cheesy, to the point of being unrecognizable from a block of cheddar, but no, it’s got some texture and creaminess underneath that cheddar toupee.
The real surprise? The beef stew — I don’t have another name for the dish — was ridiculously good. Thick and rich, beefy in a pot roast way, this was the comfort-stew I could consume all day without getting tired of it. The flavor of the beef, plus salt, shone in the gravy, and the attendant pepper and onion chunks supplied the necessary textural contrasts, something to crunch (they weren’t cooked into soft chunks) while enjoying the taste of beef. I’m pretty sure there was diced jalapeno or other mildly hot green pepper included, too, which is always welcome in what I eat to add just a little kick.
Dessert is included with your meal, and while neither of us wanted to try the peach cobbler, I allowed Ma to get the banana pudding, opting for a “gooey butter cake” instead. I think this picture of a partially-devoured bar tells you all you need to know about the butter content. Brown sugar on the bottom, what appeared to be creamed sugar in the middle… it very nearly made my teeth ache from the sweetness, and I wasn’t able to finish it all, but for friends with a sweet tooth, this is the dessert to order.
The banana pudding arrived to Ma’s delight, and the server even offered to get her more whipped cream if the layer applied to this one didn’t suffice. Ma declined, and after allowing me a picture, dug into the vanilla pudding that bound together somewhat underripe slices of banana and better-than-Nilla vanilla wafers.
I polished off what she couldn’t eat, and I’m pretty sure I’d rather just eat this than the other desserts.
We looked around to see what we may have been missing by not ordering from the menu. While we were leisurely finishing dessert, a couple at the next table received their choices. One ordered the meatloaf sandwich — a huge chunk of meatloaf on what appeared to be good, but not suited to the task, bread slices, surely destined for open-faced eating. Her husband ordered the chicken pot pie. The pie top is a lattice of what seems to be biscuit dough, maybe pastry dough, but it rises so high as to garner stares from everyone in the vicinity. The man was gracious enough to take pictures with other tourists’ cameras of his meal, too (I did not, in fact, ask), and a good laugh was had all around. For next time, perhaps.
All of this took a shade over an hour to finish, and at no time were we made to feel rushed. The server came back repeatedly to clear plates and ask if we needed anything. The final tally for two buffets, an appetizer, and drinks came to about $42 with tax, which, frankly, is a bargain. Service, especially for a buffet lunch, was helpful, attentive, and friendly, which of course means a healthy tip.
One note: several of the lunch dishes are also on the dinner menu, unchanged except for a $4-$8 price increase. While I can appreciate that many restaurants do this, usually there’s more food delivered, but I can’t see how, for instance, that pot pie could get any bigger. Just something to know.
We left completely satisfied with the meal. Not once did I feel that we, as tourists, were being taken for a ride or overcharged in any way. The service was more polite than I’ve had in plenty of American tourist destinations. Mom of course wanted to meet Paula Deen, but our server sadly informed her she was not in town that day, but maybe the boys would be stopping by (they didn’t). We drowned our sorrows in the gift store next door, which had all the usual merchandise and nothing outlandishly necessary, but again, there was no pressure, no harried staff, just a very laid-back atmosphere of “do things at your own pace, it’s fine”.
Were I to find myself back in Savannah at the right time, sure, I’d see if I could eat there again. The process is tedious, as no reservations are taken, but sometimes a couple of bar-type seats open up for passersby. If you don’t mind the reservation process and you have a note from your doctor, I strongly recommend a visit.