Marcia Thompson is one happy grandma.
By rights, the renowned restaurateur, who prefers to be called "the granddaughter of Mrs. Wilkes," as opposed to the owner of the eponymous Dining Room, could either be wringing her hands or have her head in them, worried about keeping the legacy landmark alive in the wake of the pandemic.
Nope, not this grandma.
Though she now finds herself busier than ever, Thompson’s voice is full of life and of love for her family, those dear relatives who are around her right now and those whose memories are manifest in the restaurant as well as her blithe spirit.
When she and her son, Ryon, reopened Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room on May 26, it was "all kin to the kitchen," if you will, and Grandma could not be gladder.
"We’ve got two thirteen-year-olds and two nine-year-olds, and it’s just been so much fun," said the adoring grandmother of Julianna, Peter, Lena, and Tyler, all of whom have pitched in to help retool the historic dining destination in this Era of New Normals.
"I can’t tell you how good they are," Thompson said in a phone interview a week ago Tuesday, even though each word clearly conveyed her love and appreciation for her grandchildren.
Most days, the younger two, Lena and Tyler, have been delivering orders to the waiting guests or to the diners at the handful of outside tables, and the two teens, Julianna and Peter, have been hands-on inside, helping to expedite the newly implemented takeaway service.
"It really has been fun to be with the children," Thompson reiterated. "As a grandmother, I’m just not with them on a day-to-day basis, working or playing or whatever, so it’s wonderful."
Audibly glowing, she then spoke about finally having the chance to work alongside her daughter, Emily Jones, who has headed up the order-taking operations both outside and over the phone.
"She is fabulous doing it."
Ryon Thompson has resumed his comprehensive general manager’s role, while his wife, Lindsay, has also been busy with both FOH and BOH duties.
"He’s the one that does all the hard work and all the logistics. He does everything," said the proud mom.
Meanwhile, Thompson has primarily been back in the kitchen, baking and organizing and orchestrating, leaving the rest to the kids and grand-kids. For the want of a full dining room, just a few of the restaurant’s employees have been brought back, notably the most essential cooks, a biscuit baker, and a dishwasher. Otherwise, this incarnation of Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room is truly a family affair.
"It’s just such fun working with your family because it’s just been Ryon and I since my husband died," she said, tenderly reminiscing Ronnie Thompson, who passed away in July 2018, having served in Vietnam, lived a lifetime with crippling arthritis, and helped to keep the restaurant going when the couple moved back home to Savannah in 1975 after Mrs. Sema Wilkes broke her ankle.
"That was forty years ago," Marcia Thompson recalled. "Once we started helping her, that was it."
And now, history lovingly repeats itself as her own grandchildren work alongside her.
"All the time we’ve been there, we’ve worked with family," she reflected. "It was my grandmother and my granddaddy, then my husband and I, and then my son. It’s always been a family business."
Perhaps more so now than it ever has been.
Devotees of Mrs. Wilkes’ down home delicacies are well aware that takeaway is not an entirely new practice. Undoubtedly, thousands remember walking down West Jones Lane in years past to the stately house’s back door for a to-go order.
"That was the way we did it for sixty years," Thompson said before explaining that producing provisions for both front-door dining room guests and back-door takeaway patrons became untenable for the small kitchen, so the latter option ceased some twenty years ago.
"It was more than we could handle," she added.
A normal mid-June day might see anywhere between 250 and 300 restaurant guests, and we all know what The Line looks like, hundreds of hungry folks in a queue under the live oaks that wraps around the corner. Imagine one line on West Jones Street of dine-in customers and another one just as long extending down West Jones Lane. Yikes.
When regular days and hours of service recommenced, Monday to Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., the quaint dining room remained closed, making this the first time in twenty years that Mrs. Wilkes has offered takeout service. In non-pandemic times, guests gladly wait two hours to gain entrance, so whiling away a bit on the prettiest street in America for a pick-up order now is neither a significant departure nor a big ask.
The famous dining room itself has become an al fresco one, nine wrought-iron tables set up on the West Jones Street sidewalk and a couple more on the house’s first floor portico. The family has not yet taken advantage of the City’s pilot program to expand outdoor seating to Jones Street itself, but that may be a next step in a series of next steps.
Instead of feeding roughly 80 guests at a time in the family-style set-up inside, aliments are now à la carte, updated on social media each day and neatly written on a chalk sandwich board outside. Incredibly, the usual voluminous menu is still pretty huge, though some items not conducive for takeaway and traveling have been removed.
The dinner ($20) is a traditional meat and three, plus biscuits and tea, and the box ($15) is filled with six pieces of the world famous fried chicken, a biscuit, cornbread, and a piece of homemade pound cake Thompson has recently been baking herself.
"It’s a lot of food," she promises, just like it always has been.
The chicken and beef stew are always on the menu, with meatloaf or chicken and dumplings occasionally featured, but the entire slate has understandably been pared down a bit to make it all more manageable, with sides changing only slightly from day to day.
"We’ve had so many requests for rutabagas, so we started having those. Now, everybody wants butterbeans, so I guess we’ll start having those," Thompson said with a laugh and the genuine pride of a restaurateur who cherishes each and every guest and wants to make them all happy at her family’s place.
Not surprisingly, this format is working.
"We ran out of food today," Thompson said, noting that several large groups had visited and that furnishing individualized to-go orders is no easy task, at least compared to the customary family-style sit-down format.
A party of twelve all ordering à la carte takeaway at once? Think about it.
They had entertained the idea of remaining open until three o’clock but quickly realized that was asking too much, both of themselves and of their supplies.
"We’ve got to try to find a happy medium," said Thompson, who, like most Savannah restaurateurs right now, is living and learning each day with the ‘new normals’, hinting that service modifications might be in the offing.
"We’ve just got to do the best we can."
A PINCH OF THE PAST AT GRANDMA’S HOUSE
Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room is usually closed on St. Patrick’s Day because of Marcia Thompson’s living on the parade route, but it stayed open this year once the parade was canceled.
The following day, the restaurant followed health and safety’s suit and shuttered up. Two months later, the family was ready to welcome back its eager admirers.
"I felt like if we went back to work and tried this and somethings changed, which hopefully they will, maybe we would have a vision of what we can do eventually," Thompson reasoned.
"We’ve basically tried to keep it relatively small," she said, describing the takeaway service, "just like it always was, which, I think, is the charm of it."
"I truly hope that eventually we’ll have some kind of vision of what’s next for us," Thompson added, wistfully referring to the dining room. "I just can’t think that it could be gone forever."
She hopes that, perhaps, in-house dining might be able to resume with family groups or coworkers from local offices, people who have been around one another long enough to be ‘free-and-clear’ of any COVID-19 concerns.
"People just love that old nostalgia, like it’s [being] back at their grandmother’s house," said Thompson.
For the time being, we can all come back to this grandma’s house for a takeaway picnic, just like her grandma used to cook up.