Do Savannnah

Eat It and Like It: Many elements play into closure of The Florence

  • Chef Hugh Acheson
  • The Florence (Savannah Morning News file photo)
 

Eat It and Like It: Many elements play into closure of The Florence

20 Jun 2017

Quite unfortunate.

Just about three years ago, it was considered the biggest thing to happen to Savannah’s restaurant scene since Paula Deen put the city on the national map. Now, Hugh Acheson’s The Florence will end its run on Victory Drive in the heart of the city on Sunday. The news was made official last week via Acheson’s Facebook page.

A lot of locals will tell you they aren’t surprised. Another group in this city will tell you they are devastated. The truth as to why exactly this restaurant couldn’t survive Savannah likely lies somewhere in between.

I’m not in the business of pointing fingers. Especially when it comes to what people like to eat. You like what you like, I like what I like. Sometimes we agree, other times we do not. Frankly, I knew The Florence was in trouble a long time ago and there was really nothing we could do about it.

I’m regularly asked what my favorite restaurant is. I find the question incredibly unfair because it’s impossible to compare, for example, a meal at The Grey with a meal at Betty Bombers or Lili’s on Wilmington Island. You can’t.

Still, for a long time, my response to that question was a short list and The Florence was always on it. Inevitably, I’d get wide-eyed looks or crinkled noses. “Really?” As if I am going to lie about that question. Too many people plain and simply didn’t get what executive chef Kyle Jacovino was doing with his menu. Especially in the numbers they needed to keep such a large space. That’s incredibly unfortunate. I believe Kyle is one of the top talents in town.

The pressure to be perfect at The Florence existed before they even opened their doors. James Beard Award-winning chef Acheson had become a popular fixture on Bravo’s “Top Chef.” If you enjoyed the consumption of that particular type of cooking/food show, then Hugh was a household name. When word leaked around Savannah that a “celebrity chef” was bringing an Italian restaurant to Savannah, the excitement was palpable.

The problem? The expectation was very different than what ultimately went into an old converted ice warehouse at the intersection of Whitaker and Victory during the summer of 2014. Sadly, that disconnect began almost immediately.

Certainly not everyone, but a lot of people in this town heard “celebrity chef” and “Italian” and automatically assumed they’d soon be able to enjoy the best chicken parmagiana they ever had. Early on, I heard “it’s not real Italian” around town, which is absurd. I heard others say, “Who does he think he is? It’s just not that good.” As if Acheson’s status as a leading chef in the South — and America for that matter — made him any better or more important than the other chefs down the street. Not at all.

Acheson wanted to open a neighborhood-friendly spot with Italian-influenced food where you could spend a little or spend a lot but still get the freshest ingredients around. You could pop in for a beer and a pizza upstairs or hang around for a little bit more downstairs.

I know service was an issue at times. That, however, is a Savannah problem, not a “The Florence” problem. I’m not a restaurant owner, but I thought they’d have trouble finding people in this city to execute the kind of dishes they were accustomed to in Athens or Midtown Atlanta. Savannah has come along culinarily in three years, but we are still lagging far behind when it comes to keeping the kind of talent around (both in the back and the front of the house) that can make a spot like The Florence work.

That’s not to say the Acheson group is without fault in its ultimate demise here in Savannah. For a long time, some of us who enjoyed their food (which for the record, I did every single time I ate there) wished they’d adjust the menus to make them a little more accessible to the masses. No, we weren’t looking for fettucini alfredo add chicken for $12.95, but dishes like lamb heart scare people away. I know that was an early incarnation of the menu, but it left a lasting impression in the community. A lot of those people never returned.

“They lacked a bear” is how one Savannah restaurant owner put it to me.

“Listen, the food over there was some of the best in Savannah. But if something went wrong with a meal, there was no identifiable face to absorb the blows,” he said. Translation: Acheson brought his most important people down from Athens or Atlanta. If a big-named customer in this town (because we do have them) walks out unhappy and nothing is done about it, that sting will resonate across the city. And it did. Many times.

The problem I have with that, personally, is that pretty quickly a lot of the “dining crowd” in Savannah turned on The Florence. I heard chirps from people outwardly rooting for it to fail. Ridiculous, frankly, and an indicator of the significant lack of culinary maturity we see on occasion in this city, whether it be price points, cuisine or otherwise.

To be fair, the space was too industrial for this town. The first time I walked in there I felt like I was in an old converted warehouse in Atlanta. Which I loved. The problem was, I was in an old converted warehouse in Savannah. The space is large. There was next to no color on the walls. A lot of people found it sterile with decor unbecoming a celebrity chef.

Ultimately, I believe The Florence was ahead of its time in Savannah. A smidge too far out in front of a culinary movement in this city. They were part of the beginning but they were too rigid in their offerings to grow, and frankly educate, the palates in this town. At its heart, this is a fried chicken and shrimp town. From my seat, a blessing and a curse.

“I didn’t sour on Savannah at all,” Acheson told me. “It’s a beautiful city growing in a really good way. It is going in the right direction.

“Maybe it was too big. Maybe it was the wrong block,” he added. “The financial part of the equation just didn’t work.”

Everyone wants the best food around, but very few like to pay for it. I actually heard someone served a pizza at The Florence one night complain that it was too small and they’d have been better off at Mellow Mushroom. Very sad, but a window into the heart of this community.

Way too often in Savannah people complain about the price of a great meal. Any restaurant owner will tell you their margins are microscopic, but still people want more for less and when they don’t get it? They walk away angry. Hey, I’d love to drive a brand-new BMW SUV right now, yet I cannot. Does that mean I’m going to spend all of my time complaining about how overpriced they are? Of course not.

Will this lack of success affect Savannah’s growth as a food destination? I don’t think so. Not at all. Other restaurants are doing just fine around town and the ones yet to arrive, like Sean Brock’s Husk, likely will as well.

Meanwhile, Acheson hints he isn’t giving up on Savannah. Time will tell. It’s just a shame The Florence won’t be a part of it.

See you on TV,

Jesse

QUICK BITES

Savannah’s Buds & Burgers Week begins June 23. A great way to try some great burgers without breaking the bank. Each restaurant will offer one of their signature burgers for $8. Promotion runs through July 2. Find out more at dining.savannahnow.com.

Update on Rise Biscuits and Donuts on Broughton Street near Bull: The North Carolina-based chain is announcing this week they will open July 1. More at risebiscuitsdonuts.com.

I’ve enjoyed a couple of great meals and cocktails at Edgar’s Proof & Provisions inside of the newly remodeled DeSoto Hotel on Liberty Street. The pork belly with candied fennel and rosemary mac ‘n’ cheese is out in front of the pack there so far.

Have any info you’d like to share? Email me at tips@eatitandlikeit.com or tag us anywhere you’d like: #eatitSAV

Sections: 
Top