AUGUSTA, GEORGIA | Golf, of course, is the main attraction during Masters week in this east Georgia metropolis of nearly 200,000 people. But once the sun sets at the end of play each day, patrons of the year’s first major championship indulge in another form of recreation. That would be eating and drinking, and while the pleasures of dining in Augusta never will quite compete with walking the grounds of Augusta National when the best golfers in the world are competing, there is nonetheless very good fun to be had – and some very good meals to be enjoyed – in a number of eateries here.
After covering some 20 Masters through the years, I certainly have developed a few favorites, and the following list should sate any golf fan’s appetite while they are visiting the Garden City. As one might expect, the majority specialize in Southern fare. But there is plenty to satisfy those with different culinary tastes:
Freeman’s Bar-B-Q – Located in a red, cinder-block building across the Savannah River in Beech Island, S.C., the main attraction at this delightful spot is a barbecue sandwich filled with succulent pulled pork shoulder and slathered with zesty sauce from a recipe passed down from owner James Freeman’s father, with baby back ribs a close second. A former Augusta fireman who has played Augusta National several times (when the course is opened to members of the local police and fire departments), Freeman is sure to go to work during tournament week clad in Masters-logoed merchandise. He also makes a mean mac-and-cheese, and the lemon pound cake is first-rate. Hours run from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and I make a point of having lunch there at least one day when I am in town. It works for an early dinner, too.
Rae’s Coastal Café – This Augusta eatery, tucked away in a small residential community off Walton Way, specializes in Caribbean fare. The jerk chicken wings and jerk baby back ribs that owner Walter Clay and his cheerful staff serve up each evening possess just the right amount of spice, and seafood selections range from shrimp and grits to broiled scallops. As for the wine list, it is well considered and well priced. Just as good is the neighborhood bar aura that is especially welcoming during Masters week. The place is often packed with golf fans, both local and from out-of-town, and longtime regulars include PGA Tour standout-turned-television-commentator Brad Faxon and high-living Spaniard Miguel Ángel Jiménez. Rae’s is open for lunch and dinner, with the kitchen closing at 10 p.m. each evening.
Friends have long touted WifeSaver, which is the name of a chain of five Augusta-area restaurants founded in 1965 by a local named George Cunningham, who was looking for a way to defray the massive medical bills he had accumulated after his son contracted polio. The fried chicken is just what one would hope to find in this part of the world, and the fried fish and shrimp are pretty strong, too. Open seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., with one location just a couple of miles up the road from Augusta National on Washington Road, WifeSaver also metes out terrific iced tea. And the dessert menu hits all the right notes, with banana pudding, red velvet cake and pecan pie being the best options. To be sure, the food is high-calorie, and high-fat. But you should be able to walk it all off on the golf course the following day.
For those who fancy Italian food, there is Giuseppe’s Pizza & Italian Specialties on Wheeler Road. Founded in 1993 by Giuseppe Gentile, who grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and is the son of Italian immigrants, it cooks up very solid Italian food that is offered at reasonable prices. My friends rave about the pizzas, both Neapolitan (thin-crust) and Sicilian (thick-crust), and swear by the mouthwatering chicken, veal and pasta dishes the kitchen produces.
While I have not visited Nacho Mama’s on my own, several Augusta residents I know highly recommend this fun, funky place on Broad Street downtown. For the burritos and guacamole, and also the margaritas, which are served by the glass and by the pitcher.
One of the more unusual places for lunch in the home of the Masters also happens to be one of the most conveniently located, for Honey from the Rock Café sits just across the street from Augusta National. Owned and operated by the Whole Life Ministries, it is open Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and best known for its fried catfish, fried chicken, fried pork chops and fried green tomatoes. Add-ons include sweet potato casserole, cornbread and hush puppies.
Some patrons prefer to get away from the crowds and chaos that often envelope eateries in and around Augusta National. So they head somewhat farther afield for their post-round meals. If you are similarly inclined, you might consider Sheehan’s Irish Pub on the corner of Central and Monte Sano avenues and not far from Daniel Field. The restaurant offers more than mere Irish fare, and as good as the grub is here, the ambience is even better, especially if you sit in the bar area.
Finally, let’s give well-deserved shout-outs to a couple of fairly well-known chains for the wonderful food they dish out and the pure gastronomical pleasure they have given me after long days at the golf course. One is Bonefish Grill, which has an outlet on Washington Road just off I-20. Nothing beats the Bang-Bang Shrimp they make, and the Ahi Tuna Sashimi is nearly as strong. I also love how engaging and efficient the staff is, and they never fail to take good care of their customer. Then, there is Bojangles’ Famous Chicken ‘n Biscuits, and I have colleagues in the media world who damn near live off the fried chicken and Cajun-seasoned fries that are available in the eight or so restaurants the company has in the greater Augusta area when they are in town for the tournament. And they love the sweet tea.