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May 14, 2008

The New South

To market, to market.

by Mollie Chen

Within minutes of arriving in Savannah, I was smitten. Three days later, I was an avowed convert to the church of porch swings, Spanish moss, and shabby chic decor. I found myself continually ooh-ing over the picturesque square lined with antebellum mansions and oak trees, and I couldn't get over how unfailingly nice everyone was. I started to contemplate leaving New York to pursue a career as a southern belle.

And then there was the food.

Savannah's still got plenty of smoke, butter, and cream--it's the home of Paula Deen, after all--but there's also a new generation of restaurants that mix locavore leanings with down-home Southern traditions. The salesgirl at Shop SCAD, the Savannah College of Art and Design's well-edited gallery/store, directed me to the earthy-crunchy Sentient Bean on the border of Forsyth Park, and I went back every afternoon for their fair trade iced coffee and oversized vegan oatmeal raisin cookies. Locals also pointed me toward the latest hot spots: Local 11 Ten, set in a renovated bank, and the recently revamped Cha'Bella, on the outskirts of the historic district. Both champion seasonal, farm-focused cooking (without getting annoyingly self-righteous about it). Cha'Bella grows the majority of its own produce on its Hampton Island farm, but the restaurant certainly doesn't skimp on butter, knocking out a sumptuous, not-at-all-healthy shrimp and grits and a towering strawberry shortcake heaped with whipped cream.

No Carrie Bradshaw wannabes here.

I also stumbled upon a monthly food and music festival co-hosted by Blowin' Smoke BBQ and Green Tomato Concepts, a chef-run sustainable food consulting group/CSA/event facilitator. A local band, Jon Doe, played reggae covers, little kids ran around barefoot, and the Green Tomato folks served gussied-up picnic fare like mint and honey organic fruit salad and Vietnamese summer rolls stuffed with pulled pork.

Musubi madness.

Elsewhere, I found the city's hipster population alive and well and in the process of making over the Starland neighborhood into a folksy enclave of galleries and restaurants. The vintage-y Back in the Day Bakery is a less irritating version of Magnolia Bakery, with perfect red velvet cupcakes and crusty baguettes. Behind the bakery, the weekly farmers' market has everything from sweet potato waffles to hand-stitched felt beer cozies. My favorite find? A twenty-something woman in an American Apparel T-shirt and a straw cowboy hat was selling neatly wrapped Spam musubis, my favorite Hawaiian snack--and one that I've never seen this side of California. Now how's that for globalization?


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