Note: This is the first in a series of Day Tripping stories coming to this section in early summer.
Come the end of May, my red pen runs out of ink for yet another school year. Many years ago, my wife and I began marking this rite of summer with a quick trip, just a night’s escape to celebrate, to unwind, to walk and talk, to play Scrabble, to do crosswords, and to eat.
A few years ago, we discovered St. Simons. I do not mean to suggest that we rowed ashore and planted a flag or that we were the remotely the first to find refuge on the most popular Golden Isle. I simply mean that after our first visit back in November of 2016, St. Simons immediately became an apt replacement for Easton, Maryland and Lewes, Delaware, a lovely destination with a great beach, shady village walks, and plenty of quality restaurants.
In the last three years, we have made the quick drive down I-95 several times, always staying over at least one night at the incredibly convenient and homey Village Inn and Pub and, by design, always repeating our delightfully insouciant agenda and enjoying four meals at the same places.
BBQ worth the drive
Honestly, even if you could not, for whatever reason, spend the night on St. Simons, it would be perfectly reasonable to drive down just to eat lunch at Southern Soul Barbecue. Conveniently located at the Demere Road roundabout right when you pull onto the island, this gem has been deservedly praised and popular since Griffin Bufkin and Harrison Sapp first started smoking butts back in 2006.
Consider this: though it is a definite tourist destination, St. Simons is home to fewer than 15,000 residents, yet Southern Soul has nabbed Southern Living Magazine’s “The South’s Best Barbecue” award three years running.
Savannah proper has its fair share of really good barbecue but the meats and sides consistently churned out by Bufkin, Sapp, and their team are special. Depending on when you show up, you may have to hunt for parking in the sleepy neighborhood behind the rustic structure that was rebuilt after a 2010 fire and then wait in a decent line. Don’t worry, the front of house is friendly and efficient, so the line moves. When your name is called, throw up your arms like you just scored a TD.
You really cannot go wrong with anything on the menu. If these Q-men smoked cardboard, it would be fantastic, but if they have burnt ends, your decision has been made for you. The sandwiches are the best deal, piled higher with your chosen meat than are the plate-ups, though the latter come with two sides. The fries are hand-cut, and the Brunswick stew is sweet and spicy.
Do the town
What we enjoy so much in these St. Simons getaways is walking. Either after lunch, to walk off half a slice of brisket, or after lazing by the pool, we wander down Mallery Street to duck into the air-conditioned shops. We largely skip the souvenir shacks in favor of the beachy home decor stores before heading out onto the fishing pier and around the soundside promenade.
Neptune Park is a lovely centerpiece of Pier Village. Amble along the pathway. Sit under the canopy of giant live oaks or in a rocking chair on the public library’s porch and look out at the water. From Friday through Sunday, play a game mini-golf, or save that fun for after dinner.
After a little more lounging by and standing in the courtyard pool, playing Travel Scrabble and doing a few crosswords, we clean ourselves up and stroll 150 feet across Mallery Street for dinner at Georgia Sea Grill.
Some might call walking across the street for our evening meal lazy, but that is part of the charm of staying in Pier Village and that is where Georgia Sea Grill has been since 2015. There is no point to getting in our car if one of the island’s best restaurants is right there.
Opened in 1997 in a different space about 200 yards south on Mallery Street, Georgia Sea Grill was bought by current owner-proprietor Zack Gowen in 2014, and he moved it to its current location a year later. What was basically an alcove eatery for about three dozen diners blossomed into a mature restaurant that can seat 150 in three very distinct dining areas. We always sit at the high-top banquette in the snug, which is more comfy-cozy and quite a bit quieter than either of the restaurant’s larger dining rooms, which flank the property’s spacious interior.
Gowen estimates that during the summer months, 75% or more of his restaurant’s guests are tourists, and on our recent trip, by seven o’clock, no reservations remained available and only a few seats at either bar were free.
It’s a small wonder that the fresh catch is Execute Chef Tim Lensch’s most popular dinner item: every day, between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. fresh local fishes are featured, and each can be prepared any of four ways, blackened, pan-roasted, bronzed, and that night’s special set-up, all of which come with a variety of different but substitutable sides. Local vermillion snapper, grouper, tripletail, and redfish were among last Sunday’s possibilities, but we stuck with Plan A: splitting the crab-stuffed hush puppies with chive aioli, which need to be served by the dozen in a small bucket, and the corn-battered fried Georgia shrimp, which need to be served in an even bigger bucket. Plated with a delicious horseradish-tinged slaw, this fried shrimp is like a sexy corndog with the wiener replaced by fat, sweet local shrimp that you dip in a key lime remoulade. Even the bread service is made special courtesy of a house-made bourbon-pecan butter.
Gowen has every reason to be proud of what Georgia Sea Grill has become in the last four-plus years, but he is not resting on past and current successes. In the summer of 2018, he sowed the first seeds at Potlikker Farm on nearby Blythe Island with the goal of supplying his own restaurant with locally grown produce and, eventually, offering the same to other local-focused places on St. Simons and throughout Glynn County. Though it has not even been a year, specials at Georgia Sea Grill have featured its own-grown Sea Island red peas, radished, spinach, cucumbers, turnips, and lettuces.
A bit casual, a bit fancy, this is a nice restaurant for your nice dinner out while you are at the beach, either for date night or with the entire family—white tablecloth if you want it to be. No matter how many nights you are on St. Simons, this is your splurge dinner, so dress the part, gents: no hats and something with a collar, yeah? Wear walking shorts and your nice sandals.
If you did not have a slice of bourbon-honey pecan pie or Oreo turtle cheesecake, go for another stroll after dinner, heading just a block east on Ocean Boulevard: Moo Cow Ice Cream is open late. It’s not vacation without ice cream.
Rise and eat
If you want to eat breakfast at Palmer’s Village Café, showing up early is your best, or only, bet. Every time we have visited St. Simons, there has been a decent clutch of hungry folks, both locals and visitors, gathered outside Palmer Fortune’s eponymous fixture throughout the morning and well into the lunch hours.
For those who want to eat once between waking and, say, early afternoon, get in line and get ready to tuck into Chef John Belechak’s down home upscale creations. This is not a cheap breakfast, but the omelets, egg dishes, pancakes, and french toast are all clever and hearty, ample sustenance to let you coast through your next five-plus hours lying on East Beach.
Recently, half a dozen local gents were waiting outside before the doors opened at 7:30 a.m., and by 8 p.m., only three tables were unoccupied. The open kitchen churns out dishes quickly. The challah bread french toast was sweet and soft, topped with fresh berries, and the morning chef opened a biscuit and grilled it for me before setting two perfectly poached eggs on each half. The grits were already pale orange, which meant the cheese had been mixed in and melted before the bowl came to me: nice.
If the breakfast wait at Palmer’s throws a wrench in your morning plans, or if you want to try its Nermoe BLT, the Pimento Cheese, or the Thyme for Lump Crab salad come lunchtime, head up the street to Mallery Street Café, which is always busy but also always seems to have an open table for breakfast. Owner Lance Williams’ menu is more diner-esque with appropriate prices to match. Sometimes, all we want is an egg-and-biscuit sandwich with a side of cheesy grits, and the homemade biscuits here are flaky and filling and fit the bill.
Get your sand in your toes
Believe it or not, East Beach is an easy twenty-minute jaunt up Oglethorpe Avenue and then Beachview Drive. We like to pick out our favorite humble houses, preferring board-and-batten to tabby every time, while we watch the squirrels’ chase and listen to the cardinals’ trill.
Every two to four blocks, you will find another boardwalk staircase providing public beach access. We like the beach best early in the morning when just a few dozen other folks are out with their euphoric dogs or intrepid kids who cannot wait to play in the gentle surf.
If you rent bikes or do not mind a three-minute car ride, head up Ocean Boulevard to the main East Beach public access lot on 1st Street, where there is always far more sand than there are people. Walk, swim, or sit for a couple hours as you build up your appetite for lunch.
Finger Lickin’ Chicken
Before hitting the road, hit Porch, just a few blocks east of Mallery Street on Ocean Boulevard, right near Moo Cow. Opened a little more than a year ago, Porch is the restaurant you want in your hometown or your beach town—a fast-casual quick-service family-friendly place that stays true to its culinary DNA of fried chicken, fried catfish, and fresh Georgia shrimp.
Opened a little over a year ago, Palmer Fortune and Mills Garwood spent the prior year in research and development, working on their batters and their Nashville hot heats, and the results are superb. We freely admit that we are lightweights when it comes to hot chicken, but the naked tenders allow one to appreciate the crispy batter that sticks to each bite as well as the super-moist bird itself. Tots are a novel salty side, and the baked beans are tender and soupy. The cornmeal crust on the catfish is perfect, even if the taco deserves one more piece of fish and a bit less slaw.
The food is delicious, for sure, but part of the appeal of Porch is the property itself, a thoughtfully renovated village house whose woody interior makes it like a country lodge with a wrap-around screened porch for extra seating and a shaded artificial turf front yard with picnic tables and corn hole. It is both unpretentious and picturesque. With an always friendly and attentive staff as a final touch, you are happy to bring your family here both because of the food and the feel.
That is how we spend a little more than 24 blissful hours on St. Simons. What makes it so special is its simplicity. We have not yet trademarked this itinerary, so make a couple calls and pack a bag and a couple beach towels. You will eat well and enjoy this quick getaway. Last week, as we drove west over the Torras Causeway, my wife and I were already talking about when we would come back.
N.W. Gabbey writes the weekly Dine Savannah column for Do Savannah. Read more of his writing at dosavannah.com