The biggest disappointment of my recent trip to Savannah, Ga.: waiting in line for 45 minutes to eat with strangers in the dreary tourist trap known as Mrs. Wilkes' Dining Room, where the highlight of an abundant but mediocre Southern spread was . . . rutabagas. The sweet surprise of the journey? Multiple visits to the City Market branch of Savannah's Candy Kitchen (318 W. Saint Julian St., 912-201-9501), where customers are offered tastes of freshly made pralines, and saltwater taffy is stretched before their eyes. On the savory side, I also enjoyed meals at the following trio of restaurants.ELIZABETH ON 37TH
"Elizabeth" refers to the long-retired Elizabeth Terry, the muse behind Savannah's best-known restaurant, set in a worn-but-warm mansion dating to 1900. If you're looking for that legendary Southern charm, here's where you'll find it. Dinner starts with cheese biscuits, warm from the oven, and might continue with a surprisingly light cake of black-eyed peas, grouper lapped with a delicate peanut sauce and a pan-fried chicken breast that has everyone at the table marveling at how crunchy yet juicy it is. (A soak in buttermilk helps. So does a veneer of goat cheese beneath its golden coat.) Save space for dessert. The gooey pecan pie is good, but even better is angel food cake torn into chunks, sweetened with sherry-laced custard, reassembled and frosted with whipped cream: bliss in every bite. Entrees $28.95-$36.95DESPOSITO'S SEAFOOD
"Where's the shrimp from?" we ask. "Right here," the waitress says, pointing to the ground beneath this scrappy, low-slung, family-run seafood dive overlooking the Wilmington River. Desposito's is just 15 miles and a bridge removed from downtown Savannah, but the joint feels a world away from the big city. Tables are spread with newspapers instead of linens, wine is poured into cups rather than glasses, and $20 buys you a catch of a meal. The fun starts with some saltines and a vinegar-and-mustard-stoked red dip. ("Our appetizer," cracks the waitress.) Remember where you are when you order, and go for the sweet boiled shrimp, spicy deviled crab, maybe shrimp salad lightly bound with egg, relish and a whisper of mayonnaise. The frills are few (your food shows up in a plastic basket), but the entertainment quotient runs high. "Why are there newspapers on the tables?" a pint-size diner wonders aloud when he strolls in with his tribe. "So you can make a big mess!" the waitress shoots back.
The airy, light-filled interior and elegant cocktails suggest a hot spot in Chicago or New York, but outside the broad windows of this former bank building we spot Spanish moss hanging from the trees. The cooking -- shrimp ignited with cayenne and hot sauce, an old-fashioned chocolate layer cake -- reminds us we're in Savannah, too. Chef Jeff Rodgers was raised in southwest Mississippi and admires Italian style: details that translate into such seductive dishes as squid ink pasta staged with squid, local tomatoes and biting chorizo. Named both for its reliance on area farmers and fishermen and as an attempt to woo residents, this two-year-old restaurant is perhaps the city's most exciting place to eat and drink these days. Come fall, its allure should extend to the rooftop, where a bar and herb garden are planned. Entrees $24-$30.
PHOTOS: Local 11 Ten (Jeff Moore -- Green Olive Media); EDITED BY: Tom Sietsema - The Washington Post; WEB EDITOR: Christian Pelusi - washingtonpost.com