Every year, thousands of visitors come to Savannah  for the privilege of waiting for hours outside in all weather, the line stretching a full city block, for a chance to eat at The Lady & Sons (102 W. Congress St., 912/233-2600, www.ladyandsons.com , lunch Mon.–Sat. 11 a.m.–3 p.m., dinner Mon.–Sat. begins at 5 p.m., Sunday buffets 11 a.m.–5 p.m., $17–25) and sample some of local celebrity Paula Deen’s “home” cooking—actually a fairly typical Southern buffet with some decent fried chicken, collard greens, and mac and cheese. For the privilege, you must begin waiting in line as early as 9:30 a.m. for lunch and as early as 3:30 p.m. for dinner in order to be assigned a dining time. You almost assuredly will never see Paula, who has precious little to do with the restaurant these days.
Eating at this Savannah landmark provides a story that visitors will be able to tell friends and family for the rest of their lives, and far be it from me to look down upon them for doing so. That being said—if it were me, I’d take that four hours spent waiting in line and instead go to one of Savannah’s many other excellent eating establishments, leaving lots of time left over for an afternoon beer or coffee or dessert, and leaving yet more time to see one of Savannah’s many interesting and beautiful sights. A chef friend of mine puts it best: When food sits out under a heat lamp too long, it all tastes the same anyway.
One would never call Savannah a great pizza town, but the best pizza here is Vinnie VanGoGo’s (317 W. Bryan St., 912/233-6394, www.vinnievangogos.com , Mon.–Thurs. 4–11:30 p.m., Fri. 4 p.m.–1 a.m., Sat. noon–1 a.m., Sun. noon–11:30 p.m., $3–13, cash only) at the west end of City Market on Franklin Square. Featuring some of the best local characters both in the dining area and behind the counter, Vinnie’s is a classic Savannah hangout, due in no small part to its excellent beer selection and late hours on weekends.
Their pizza is a thin-crust Neapolitan style—though the menu claims it to be New York style—with a delightful tangy sauce and fresh cheese. Individual slices are huge, so don’t feel obliged to order a whole pie. Personally I opt for Italian sausage and extra cheese to offset the richness of the sauce. Calzones are also massive and well stuffed. The waiting list for a table can get pretty long, but take heart: Vinnie’s offers free delivery throughout downtown, delivered by bicycle courier. Remember, cash only!
Many Savannahians recall a time when the charmingly old-school Garibaldi Café (315 W. Congress St., 912/232-7118, daily 5–10 p.m., $11–33) was the only fine dining restaurant downtown. And you know what? It’s still great. More like a spot you’d find in Little Italy than Savannah, Garibaldi features the over-the-top decor typical of the genre, from Roman busts to massive brocade curtains and the huge chandelier in the “Grand Ballroom.” But longtime master chef Gerald Green’s food is still the draw, a dependable Northern Italian menu known for its well-made veal dishes, its raw bar offerings, and the signature dish, the popular crispy scored flounder with apricot glaze (don’t forget to flip the flounder over; there’s more fish under there to enjoy). Reservations recommended.
Accomplishing the difficult task of being achingly hip while also offering some of the best food in town, Sapphire Grill (110 W. Congress St., 912/443-9962, www.sapphiregrill.com , Fri.–Sat. 5:30–11:30 p.m., Sun.–Thurs. 6–10:30 p.m., $25–40) comes closer than any other Savannah  restaurant to replicating a high-class, trendy Manhattan eatery—at prices to match. With its bare stone walls, lean ambience, and romantically dark interior, you’d be tempted to think it’s all sizzle and no steak.
But executive chef Chris Nason, former exec at Charleston’s Anson Restaurant, has a way with coastal cuisine, relying on the freshest local seafood. But his classic meat dishes like lamb, filet mignon, and veal are equally skillful. The lobster bisque is a must-have, and the benne-encrusted local black grouper is always a good choice. As you’d expect, the wine list is impressive, but a close look shows a refined taste for some of the lesser-known labels that other local places miss. Reservations are essential, and while there’s no dress code per se, you don’t want to go here looking unkempt.
Combine a hip bar with outrageously tasty dessert items, and you get
Lulu’s Chocolate Bar (42 MLK Jr. Blvd., 912/238-2012, www.luluschocolatebar.net ). While the whole family is welcome before 10 p.m. to enjoy chocolate chip cheesecake and the like, after that it’s strictly 21-and-over. The late crowd is younger and trendier and there mostly for the unique specialty martinis like the Pineapple Upside Down Martini.