Part of the badge of honor that comes with being able to call this beautiful city home is the obligation to talk about it and however-so-innocently promote it whenever the opportunity arises.
I know I am not the only person out there who calls Savannah home but also travels quite a bit. Inevitably, the question comes up when you tell someone where you are from. "Oh, you are from Savannah?! I've never been but I've heard great things!" If I only had a nickel.
My responses, for obvious reasons, generally revolve around food. Yes, I can talk about how beautiful Savannah is or how many movies have been shot here lately, but I can also brag about some of the great food we have here. I have found the farther North you travel, the more likely any food conversations are going to start with either fried green tomatoes or fried chicken. Yes, once upon a time (not all that long ago), I was asked if I'd ever eaten fried chicken on a plantation. Bless their hearts.
It doesn't, however, take me long to drive the conversation to some of the eats I enjoy the most around here. Yes, of course, there is fried chicken, ice cream and the seafood, but that really just scratches the surface on what this city has to offer food-wise.
One of my favorites I mention more than time and again in my travels is Savannah's favorite spot for French cuisine. Believe it or not, Circa 1875 is celebrating 10 years on Whitaker Street near Broughton. It is owned and operated by a couple of guys who aren't anything close to French but can tell you a little bit about what Savannah's food scene used to look like.
Donald Luowicki and Jeffery Downey are a couple of Michigan guys who moved to Savannah after a 20-year stint in Fort Lauderdale. They considered Charleston, but ultimately decided to set up shop here.
"Savannah overall was nicer to Yankees," says Donald. "No one wanted to hire us. They all told us we were overqualified and too old."
45 South hired Jeffery. Donald took a job down the street. The plan was to open their own spot at some point.
"We saw this space. It was the old Irish Times," Donald says of the gastropub side of their space. "But the landlord wouldn't show it to us."
After some persistence, they were able to lease it. Things went well. In 2010, that landlord told them they'd need to buy the space or lose it.
"We both worked behind the bar for weeks, saved every dime and were able to put it together and buy it," Jeffery says.
Half a decade later, a full 10 years after they convinced that landlord to lease to them, they've carved out their little niche in Savannah. "Unpretentious French cuisine" is what they call it. That's probably the best description. I have always found Circa 1875 to be one of the most inviting spaces in the city, whether it be for a drink or for dinner. Truthfully, the staff makes it so.
"We probably have about 140 years of experience on our staff. Most people (employees) come to us because of our reputation," Donald says.
One of the more amusing parts of their story is the fact that they had no idea it would be a French restaurant.
"We didn't know what we wanted to do," Jeffery says. "We just became obsessed with French food."
They hired David Landrigan as executive chef and went to work.
Over the years, I've heard many stories about Jeffery and Donald's travels to France to "research" French cuisine. They come back, talk to David about what they experienced and he tinkers with a few things. Sometimes, I'm told, recreating exactly what the guys had eaten in France. Spend enough time chatting with them and you realize that serving great food as authentically as possible is not only their jobs, but also an obsession.
Not lost in all of that attention to detail and hard work is their realization that they've established themselves as something of a culinary pillar in this community. The locals all know about Circa 1875. The tourists are more than likely to be referred to The Olde Pink House or Vic's on the River, and more recently, to The Grey or Cotton & Rye. Nothing wrong with any of that, but Circa keeps chugging along.
The online review websites regularly have them in their Top 10. "One of them has us as No. 1 in Savannah for fine dining," Donald says, "And we aren't even fine dining."
Hey, they'll take it. But they also know they have this community to thank for that success. You can't make it in Savannah without a loyal following of locals. Clearly they have it. So much so that they are working on and are about to open their second restaurant. La Scala will be Savannah's newest Italian restaurant on Abercorn and 37th streets. Look for that this summer. And yes, they already spent three weeks with chef David and his girlfriend in Italy. All in the name of research. Tough gig, huh?
Meanwhile, to celebrate their 10 years and to thank the community for its support over that decade, they are having a week-long celebration. Beginning March 20, they'll have a crepe station set up in their bar area with savory or dessert crepes made to order. Chef David made them for the Secret Savannah Speakeasy event at last year's Savannah Food & Wine Festival and they were outstanding. From March 23-26, they are going to have a "Fruits de Mer" station up front. A seafood extravaganza at a reasonable price. Champagne and cocktails. It's a celebration and they'd like the community to come and enjoy with them.
I don't make a habit of promoting special events in this space. But 10 years of Circa 1875 is very much worth toasting with Donald, Jeffery, David and the rest of the staff. They all understand they haven't been able to do it alone. Ask them if they've ever had second thoughts about setting up shop here and there is zero hesitation.
"This is one of the most beautiful cities in America," Donald says. "Savannah has been very good to us."
See? They like to brag about it, too.
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Address: 48 Whitaker St.
Hours: 6-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 6-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday; closed Sunday
Info: circa1875.com, 912-443-1875
Looking to avoid the crowds downtown? Join us March 11 for the Public Tasting at the Hilton Head Wine and Food Festival. Hundreds of wines to taste, plus food and a great scene at Harbortown. Go to hiltonheadwineandfood.com for details.
Big-time celebrity sighting at Rancho Alegre, Savannah's Cuban restaurant. Norman Reedus of "The Walking Dead" and comedian Dave Chappelle stopped in for cocktails and some food.
Southern Kicks BBQ is a food trailer in a parking lot on Wilmington Island at Islands Sports Bar & Grill. Good barbecue if you are in the neighborhood, but only open Saturdays for now. For St. Patrick's Day, he'll be there all weekend long.
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