Most of Marcia Thompson’s life has unfolded within a quarter mile of her grandmother’s boarding house—she went to school at Independent Presbyterian, took ballet lessons at Ruth Goodman (now Savannah College of Art and Design’s Poetter Hall), and, of course, returned to that boarding house every evening for dinner, prepared by her grandmother, Sema Wilkes.
“There were only three tables here at the time,” recalls Thompson, standing inside Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room, the local institution that serves family-style meals to locals and tourists alike. “Everyone came to eat: the boarders, the neighbors. It was really a big family here.”
After high school, Brenau University took Thompson north to Gainesville, Georgia, and after graduation she moved to Atlanta, where she would become a stewardess, and later a manager, for Delta Airlines. In the Seventies, providence pulled her and her husband Ronnie back to Savannah, where she picked up right where she left off: bustling about Mrs. Wilkes’ dining room.
Since 2003, Thompson’s son Ryon has managed the restaurant, but she’s still a daily fixture, greeting customers, swapping stories and, recently, documenting the hometowns of all those who sit down for fried chicken, biscuits and greens. Two maps, added to the second dining room wall earlier this year, have become her latest obsession, and they already include pins from just about everywhere: The United States is almost entirely filled in, of course, but also Chile, Transylvania, Madagascar and South Korea. It’s a testament to the universal legacy of the southern gathering that is the essence of Mrs. Wilkes’—a feeling that wafts from the kitchen with every dish.
“Really, it’s like having 250 people over to your house for lunch,” Thompson says. “Isn’t that just wonderful?”