Just a block from the Savannah River at the edge of downtown is a restaurant that has been open in one capacity or another since 1753. It’s a not-so-hidden treasure with a fascinating origin story, friendly service, and delicious food. It’s called The Pirates’ House and yes, there are pirate tunnels beneath the restaurant that were once used to smuggle an unconscious police officer onto a boat to Shanghai.
Food is that one universal constant to travel that you can always count on. And by count on I mean that people will always have suggestions. “Oh you have to go here,” and “You really need to try this,” flood my email and social media accounts when I say I’m going somewhere. These tips and suggestions are almost always helpful but sometimes they are repetitive and downright dull. This one time a person even suggested I eat at the Golden Corral in this one town because “it’s the place where all the locals go.”
When I decided to head to Savannah for a weekend I was flooded with suggestions for eateries ranging from quaint bakeries or upscale restaurants, but the one that stuck out right from the beginning was The Pirates’ House. It had a cool name. That alone drove me to want to know more. So I visited their website and learned pirates did indeed spend time here in the 1700s. Now I was just downright thrilled.
The Pirates’ House goes all out with their legacy. Tour guides dressed to the nines in period clothing are ready and willing to walk you through the history of the restaurant. Elizabeth had a light in her eyes as she extolled the history of the restaurant, starting with the tavern established in 1753. With the river just a block away and an inn upstairs it was a good place for seafarers, some not so reputable, to spend some time. The locals were terrified of the place.
The ten miles of tunnels beneath the restaurant leading to the water were finally sealed in 1991 to prevent people from trying to explore them. Those tunnels were used for moving illicit cargo that sometimes included unwilling new crew members. One such newfound seafarer was a local police officer who was drugged unconscious, carried through the tunnel, and placed on a boat heading for Shanghai. As the local story goes this was the origin of the word “Shanghaied”.
Whether or not the local stories are true one thing is undeniable: they have great food here. The restaurant features a lunch menu with smaller portions, few options, but also cheaper prices. Salads, burger, and sandwiches dominate this menu, while the dinner menu expands to include appetizers, “Captain Flints Favorite” items such as pecan fried chicken and fried pork chops, and a long list of delectable entrees.
I was in the middle of an Old Town Trolley tour of Savannah so I hopped by for lunch. The hostess told me the wait for a table was forty-five minutes and I got that table in thirty-five minutes. I took the guided tour that clocked about ten minutes and then waited in the air conditioned and comfortable lobby. The wait for a table might have been long but I didn’t have to wait long for the food. I had an ice cold sweet tea within a minute of sitting at my table and my 1776 Burger arrived less than ten minutes later.
I’m a burger guy. But not a cheap burger guy. I know how to make a whopper of a burger on a charcoal grill and I look for the same when I travel. Thus far my favorite burger had been at the Burger Bar in Bristol, Tennessee, a tiny hole-in-the-wall local eatery in a former Greyhound bus station. But after nearly five years that burger was knocked off the top of the list of Best Burgers I’ve Ever Eaten by The Pirates’ House. I prefer my meat cooked through which usually means it’s a bit dry; this was the first time I had ordered a burger cooked thoroughly that was still juicy. The entire thing practically melted in my mouth and left me more than fully satisfied.
I had been here for awhile now, and I could have stayed so much longer. Two large families were celebrating birthdays, the chairs were really comfortable, and this restaurant knows how to make a good southern sweet tea. But I had a tour to finish and it was my first time in Savannah so I didn’t want to lose any more time. I know I’m supposed to explore a destination and try different foods but I can’t help but feel the next time I return to Savannah I’ll be getting dinner here, and this time I’ll ask for a seat in the Herb House and try one of those desserts.
But I’ll leave this question up to you to discover: did you know the original tavern is mentioned in Treasure Island by Robert Lewis Stevenson? There is a reason why, and a connection to the author, but you’ll need to visit for yourself to find out because I’m not spilling the beans.