When Sema Wilkes Puts Food on the Table, Her Guests Better Have a Boardinghouse Reach

updated 09/18/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/18/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Imagine a restaurant with an unlisted phone number, one that wouldn't honor your reservation in any case and makes all its customers wait in line, sometimes for an hour or more. And when the diners do get inside, they are seated willy-nilly among strangers at six massive oval-shaped tables covered with utilitarian oilcloth and paper napkins. There are no diet dishes to choose from, no menus to ponder and no beverages more potent than iced tea to drink. Just who, one might wonder, eats at such a place?

In the case of Mrs. Wilkes' Boarding House Restaurant in Savannah, Ga., the answer is just about everyone. The proprietor, Sema Wilkes, doesn't advertise, doesn't boast a location anywhere near a commercial area, and "yet as many as 250 people line up for her lunch every day," says Savannah's tourism promoter, Jenny Stacy. "Sema's a wonder, and still going strong, even though she's over 80."

Those looking to sample her fare make their way to West Jones Street, one of Savannah's prettiest residential areas. Federal and antebellum Victorian homes line the tree-shaded, gray brick-stone thoroughfare; window boxes of impatiens and geraniums blossom; horse-drawn carriages transporting curious tourists clip-clop by.

Then, at around 11 A.M., people in twos and threes begin lining up in front of 107 West Jones, the four-story ex-boarding-house built in 1870. Some are briefcase-toting business folk, some are uniformed Army officers from a nearby base. A couple of college kids pedal up and chain their bikes to a wrought-iron railing. Then some tourists join the queue.

When the food is ready, a spry octogenarian in spectacles and apron beckons from a side door, and the first 60 or so in line enter and take their seats. Inside, Mrs. Wilkes rings a bell and asks the diners to bow their heads. "Good Lord, bless this food to us. And us to thy service, Amen." The kitchen door bursts open revealing Mrs. Wilkes's daughter and granddaughter, a son-in-law and grand-son-in-law, two great-grandchildren and others in the kitchen staff. All are bearing steaming bowls and platters of fried chicken, corn bread, barbecued chicken legs and breasts, ribs, traditional Georgia low-country red rice and sausage, black-eyed peas, buttered carrots, string beans, okra, beets, gumbo, macaroni salad, mixed salad, mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, cole slaw and spaghetti. "We aim for about 17 different dishes for each meal," Mrs. Wilkes says. "That way, if someone doesn't like somethin', there'll be somethin' else to eat that they do like."

Lest Wilkes's regulars tire of the fare, "We change a couple of things every day," says Sema. "We've had some people coming here every luncheon for dozens of years. That nice Mr. I.J. Jones, for instance. A retired railway man. Always dresses up so nice in a jacket and tie. He even gives us a hand sometimes, passing around the silver pitchers of iced tea and the desserts."

Here, the time-honored boarding-house reach, if performed courteously, is encouraged. After finishing, diners carry their plates and cutlery back to the kitchen and leave them to be washed. Then they pay the bill, an almost shockingly modest $6.50.

Sema Wilkes, named for a schoolteacher in her hometown of Vidalia, Ga., came to Savannah in the early 1940s, a little while after her husband, Lois, began a new job at Southern Railroad. In those pre-motel days, Lois took what he thought was temporary lodging in the boarding house at 107 West Jones, and "I'd come to visit weekends, times like that," Sema remembers. "Mrs. Dennis Dixon, the landlady, was getting on in years, so in 1943 I started helping her in the kitchen and dining room. Then, after World War II, fewer people stayed in boardinghouses, so we began to encourage local people to buy their meals here. Finally Mrs. Dixon got too old to carry on, and Lois and I agreed to take over." In 1965 the couple bought the old dwelling, converting the upstairs rooms into rental apartments but keeping the dining area intact.

Lois Wilkes, now 83, suffered a stroke last September and is in a nursing home nearby. "I visit him every day without fail," says his wife who, assisted by the generations of younger Wilkeses, still supervises most of the cooking when she returns. In addition to the five-day-a-week gatherings for lunch, her Boarding House Restaurant offers gigantic breakfasts of grits, eggs, sausages, ham, corn bread, hot biscuits, juice and coffee for a mere $3.75. It also does a thriving take-out business, although it doesn't serve supper. For those who can't make the luncheon bell, Sema has put together a spiral bound notebook of her recipes, and so far more than 100,000 copies have been sold.

Further, Mrs. Wilkes's fame has gone global. In 1988 Tokyo's prestigious New Otani Hotel dispatched its chef to study for two weeks in her kitchen. Earlier this year, the hotel temporarily recast three of its restaurants in the Wilkes style, offering cosmopolitan, if mildly puzzled, Tokyo diners a bit of Savannah for a considerably less modest price of $56. Reportedly, the Japanese chefs had some trouble finding the Asian equivalents of Southern rutabagas, squash and collard greens. But they did pin a label on the cuisine, calling it ofukuro no aji. Spoken with or without a Southern accent, that translates roughly to "a taste of mamma's home cooking."

—Dan Chu, Arturo Gonzalez in Savannah

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