Adaptability has served as an invaluable tool for Andy Holmes, owner of the popular slice of Great Britain known as Churchill's Pub and Restaurant.

"Everything changes," says the focused and amiable 47-year-old native of Manchester, England. "You just have to react."

Holmes recalls how he embarked on his journey in restaurant ownership not long after his initial visit to Savannah in the mid 1990s during an "extended vacation."

"I met some people when I was traveling around the East Coast who were from here," he said. "I came down for a weekend, and I really liked it. It felt very British to me: the architectural style, the squares and the fact that downtown is not like regular America."

He soon felt the urge to open a British pub.

"About a year or two after I had been here, I just decided, 'Why not? Let's give it a shot.' Not a lot of thought went into it," he said. "It just seemed like a good idea at the time."

Holmes' original Churchill's opened in 1996 in a historic, three-story building at Drayton Street and Bay Lane that now houses Zunzi's 2 restaurant. At the time, Holmes had no experience at managing a restaurant, he said, and it showed at first.

"You think you know what you're doing, but you don't know what you're doing. I mean, you just don't. You're clueless. That's why so many people fail, because they think they're going to know what to do, but they don't."

 

Triumph and tragedy

Holmes always will cherish the high points of running his first pub. It's where he met his wife, Tracy. And it was visited by several A-list actors who were in town for the filming of the 1997 movie "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil."

As many locals know, the Clint Eastwood-directed film includes a scene filmed in the old Churchill's.

"That was a load of fun," Holmes said of mingling with the Hollywood elite. "We were in the middle of lunch one day, and Mr. Eastwood walked in through the front door about 12:30, right in the middle of the lunch rush. And it just brought the place to a standstill.

"The actual filming, they did fairly quickly. It was just fun to be around the Hollywood stars. A lot of them have since gone on to become quite big stars.

"John Cusak's become a big star. Kevin Spacey probably is not quite as big now as he was then, but he was still a big star at the time. Of course, it doesn't get much bigger than Clint Eastwood."

Holmes also experienced heartbreak at his first Churchill's, which operated in a building built in 1853. In June 2003, much of the business was extensively damaged by a kitchen fire caused by an electrical malfunction.

"Fires are very devastating," he said. "The destruction is ugly. In a minute, everything's gone, everything changes.

"But you just got to get on with it. It's done. It happened. There's nothing you can do about it. You just have to try to think of a way to get over it."

 

Looking forward

The existing Churchill's, which stands in a historic, three-story building at 13 W. Bay St. that once housed a telegraph office, opened in late 2004 after an immense renovation. Overall, the business has the potential for about 400 seats, compared to the original Churchill's, which had 72.

"The reason why we ended up moving was the rent was too high for that small of a location (on Drayton)," Holmes said. "It would have been extremely difficult to meet our obligations."

About $2 million worth of renovations at the West Bay Street site included deepening the basement, adding a rooftop terrace that overlooks a part of Johnson Square and installing an elevator.

In addition, a 34-foot English mahogany bar that exudes the grandeur and tradition of the original Churchill's was installed on the main floor.

Besides the chief dining area, the property includes the glamorous 10 Downing, next to the rooftop terrace, and the ritzy Winston's Wine Cellar. Each of these spaces can be reserved for wedding receptions and other celebrations.

"It was redone from scratch," Holmes said of the overall project. "It was a combination effort between myself and the landlord at the time. Without the landlord's determination to do the job properly, it probably wouldn't have happened."

He added with a laugh, "I would like to do that full-time if I could - just build restaurants. It's a lot of fun."

 

Choices

British menu items at Churchill's include shepherd's pie, bangers and mash and fish and chips, as well as Guinness meatloaf and roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. Those who crave an English beer can choose from the likes of Old Speckled Hen, Wells Bombardier Bitter and Strongbow Cider.

Patrons also can find American fare such as steaks and sandwiches and specific Lowcountry favorites such as shrimp and grits.

The restaurant's newest menu, however, takes things up a notch, Holmes said. It includes selections for all customers, including those who admire the massive wine list at Winston's, which opened in February.

"By producing a menu that was for a wine bar, as well as a pub, it took us in a direction that I would not have gone in under normal circumstances," Holmes said, noting his patrons enjoy having cheese boards and small plates - such as beef short ribs with goat cheese grits - along with standard pub food choices.

Have his customers changed over the years?

"When you see something every day, you don't necessarily always notice the change," he said. "There's no question the restaurants in the historic district are certainly more upscale since we started the original Churchill's. We were probably one of the first to offer something a bit more upscale.

"And in the last eight years, the quality of the restaurants in downtown Savannah has improved dramatically."

He attributes this upgrade to various factors, such as increases in the number of visitors to the city and the quantity of downtown hotels.

"I think it's just a natural progression," he said.

Overall, Holmes said, business is good at Churchill's.

"It's just ⦠it's hard. There's a huge amount of competition downtown now, so you've got to be on top of your game all the time." To do so requires constant learning, he said.

"You've got to be able to wear 1,000 hats in this business. One minute you're working in the restaurant, the next minute you're an accountant, then you're a marketing person. It's everything. You have to be good all-around. Restaurant margins are tight."

He noted that his staff includes several employees who were with him at his former Churchill's, including prep cook Chris Melvin.

"It's good to have core members who you can trust," Holmes said. "Every business needs its core people, the people who give it its identity and hold it together."

 

Churchill's Pub and Restaurant is at 13 W. Bay St., between Bull and Whitaker streets. It's open daily from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. for food, with the bar remaining open until at least 2 a.m. Call 912-232-8501 or go to www.thebritishpub.com.