I've driven Interstate 95 so often that I can almost recite by heart the South of the Border billboards from New Jersey to Dillon, S.C. Sometimes I just want to get there, hurtling nonstop in my leather-padded cocoon. But other times, instead of driving the road, I travel it in search of unfranchised experiences, foraging beyond the off-ramps to see what's there. That's how I learned that Georgia not only has the lowest gas prices but also some of the best wayside food on the I-95 trip.
My discoveries seemed at first like happy accidents, but as they collected in a 100-mile area south of Savannah, a regional pattern emerged. Brochures at the I-95 Georgia Welcome Center call the area the "Colonial Coast." An Atlanta couple at the Old School Diner confirmed, "There's nothing like it in the rest of Georgia. You're in another universe here." Centuries of rice, indigo, and cotton plantations and waves of European and African cultures left a mark on southeastern Georgia that's still in evidence. The landscape broods with Spanish moss and ancient memories. Huge shrimpers puff up skinny creeks toward home.
Many local eateries take their cue from these historical and geographical contexts. Their seafood wherever possible is drawn from Georgian tidewaters. Their portions encourage us to eat for a hunger to come. And while broiled, baked, and grilled are options, they fry with an authority passed down from a time before kitchen appliances.
From north to south on I-95, several stops to arrest your appetite:
Exit 76 to Sunbury
The vacancy of the landscape and length of the oaks' gray beards tell you that Sunbury is an ancient place even before you notice the signs pointing to historic attractions. Here beside the Medway River, Barney and Elaine Maley have raised a marina, a restaurant, and their sons, Joe and Clay, who help with the cooking and harvest the blue crabs featured on the menu of Sunbury Crab Co..
"Things didn't turn out as we planned," Elaine Maley said of their intention to start a small business in a setting where they might one day retire. "It isn't small, and we don't get to retire." Although the restaurant's in-the-rough atmosphere and tidewater location are a draw by themselves, the food more than equals the views. My crab cake wasn't a cake at all but a big, flaky lump of the real McCoy ($9.50). The oysters came from nearby beds harvested by Barney Maley's brother Joe. Special that night was a seafood gumbo of chunky ingredients smoking with diced bacon and kielbasa ($8.95 a bowl). Even the sides were memorable, including a sweet potato souffle from a recipe handed down from Elaine Maley's grandmother.
Exit 67 to Shellman Bluff
East of Route 17, the fishing village of Shellman Bluff cozies up to the Broro River, a trackless body of water that seems to swallow boats whole. "We move slow here," read the placemats at Speeds Kitchen, where Linda Howard and Karen Burns turn out large helpings of oysters, shrimp, flounder, and scallops one reasonably priced meal at a time. Howard, who was born on the bluff, remembers when Ma Speed started packing the fishermen's lunches more than 50 years ago. When Howard was 11 and peeling shrimp at nearby Hunters Café, the Speeds opened their restaurant consisting of a couple of trailers hidden in the pines. (Hunter's Café still serves seafood and a great burger from a low-ceilinged shack beside the Broro.) Little did she know that she would buy the eatery when the Speeds retired.
Now billionaires and boilermakers have been arriving for 30 years with coolers of beer (the Speeds couldn't be bothered with a liquor license), but Howard still hasn't gotten over the restaurant's renown.
"We'll be back in two weeks," promised an Ohio couple who plan their highway stops to eat at her kitchen.
Howard smiled. "And they will, too."
Exit 58 to Eulonia, Harris Neck, and Crescent
Eulonia seemed little more than a crossroads to points elsewhere, but it was one rainy night in Georgia when we stopped at Sapelo Station Crossing and raced inside. Owner-chef Ray Jarreau was catching raindrops in silver buckets as we pulled up bar stools and ordered the Turbodog from his native Louisiana. A woody atmosphere and convivial locals warmed us like a hearth. The huge, thick cheeseburger cost $8. A Voodoo skillet creolizing the local wild shrimp with sausage, peppers, and spice cost $18. Maybe it was the roof leak and nautical charts that reminded my boyfriend of Connecticut's Saybrook Fish House. Definitely a feel-good, taste-good kind of place.
Opposite the Piggly Wiggly, the last thing we expected of Eulonia was McIntosh Manor, a bed-and-breakfast (912-832-3198, $19). I thank the downpour for a reason to meet owner Sharon Townsend, a cypress logger's daughter whose childhood home this is, and to eat at the in-house Low Country Cafe recently opened by Susana Gifford, a New York-trained chef. How improbable was it that on this off-season night Gifford cooked - or should I say as she does, "chefed" - for us alone as she has for wealthy private clients throughout her career. Fusing regional and rural European cuisines, she changes her menu with the day's shopping forays. Fresh steelhead salmon, pork roasted with apricots and asiago, and an artfully fashioned pear tart garnished with fresh raspberries cost $68 including French press coffee and wine. Although Gifford has lived in the South for two decades, her New York accent lingers - all part of the charm.
Plastic flamingos and a hand-painted sign mark the turn from Harris Neck Road to Old School Diner. Carpet remnants pave the parking lot and found objects ornament the entrance in fantastic array. Six-foot-two Jerome Brown gave us a bear hug and led us through dim rooms hung with fish nets and photographs to a table beside an oak-burning fire where Ben Affleck brought the in-laws for fried chicken. The autographed chair hangs on the wall.
"You're in for a treat," said a couple at the next table. Our fried shrimp and huge filet of grouper arrived with the best hushpuppies I've ever tasted ($46 for two including sweet tea, coffee, and dessert). The real treat though was our chef, who has been cooking and caring for people since his childhood when flour and water fried in fatback often was dinner. "The man upstairs had his hand on me," said Brown, who built scaffolds and picked deer tongue tobacco in the woods for 20 cents a pound to get where he is today.
A party from Jekyll Island called in a reservation for 40 while we talked. "I am large on Jekyll," Brown said with a grin. In old school tradition, his diners pay cash.
In the day when no one guessed who was coming for dinner, a peephole at the Buccaneer Club told if you were black or white and a buzzer let you in. Yet Brown was practically raised by the late Minnie Clelland, who founded the Buccaneer and trained him in her kitchen before he started his own. The restaurant on the Sapelo River in sleepy Crescent wasn't quite as I remembered it on a previous visit before it acquired its present vinyl-clad log cabin look. But the fried batter was still fine and the Captain's Platter so outsized it should have been served on a skid ($23). Young John Johnson, whose father took the reins from Clelland, verified the menu "hasn't changed in forever." Although he thinks having to ring in every customer is a needless interruption, "My dad says it's a tradition and we have to keep it." Actually, the stir-fry dinners are new.
Exit 49 to Darien
As charming as its oak-draped Oglethorpe town squares are, historic Darien is no tourist hot spot, and restaurants here must have a local following to survive. For over 50 years until it closed, people came from miles around for the fried shrimp at Archie's. Now Terry and Nicole Dowling have filled the aching void. The cement block building that houses B & J's is so nondescript that I wouldn't have noticed it if not for the traffic: Breakfast, lunch, or dinner, the parking spaces are filled.
"Everyone who eats here comes back. It's the best in McIntosh County," said Danny Grissette, who moved to Darien from Savannah and owns Altamaha Coastal Tours. "I always get the shrimp basket [$9.99]; it's the local product of course. I like it fried." Me, too.
Exit 29 to Brunswick
The El Cheapo fuel station has been leveled and smoked hams no longer hang in the rafters, but 30 years after The
Inside, a blue haze hangs in the air as pulled pork, ribs, and bottom-round flats of beef slow-cook in the brick oven fueled with oak split and stacked outside.
Jane and Gene Olsen, who've been stopping since the 1980s en route from their home in Hudson, N.Y., to Florida, always order the Pig's signature shredded pork sandwich in a toasted, pressed bun ($4.49 including barbecue beans and slaw). I favor the ribs ($9.49 for the dinner or $10 a pound). Juicy.
As heartening as the food is the fact that Michael Strickland, a 16-year employee, and his aunt, uncle, mother, and brother are carrying on the business founded by Ed Powell, who passed away last year. If the guest log is any indication, they haven't missed a beat:
"Best in GA."
"Don't ever close."
"Fifth time around and just as good," (Craig Claiborne).
And my favorite, simply, "Yeah."
Patricia Borns, a freelance writer on Amelia Island, Fla., can be reached at email@example.com.