I first met James Levens a few years ago. He was the chef at a spot long since closed on MLK Jr. Blvd called Sparetime. Great food, maybe bad timing. A couple of years perhaps ahead of the curve in Savannah with its food offerings and the craft cocktails.
James, a Savannah guy and Johnson High grad, had paid a handful of dues at all kinds of places, including a few in New York City's Gramercy Tavern. He came back, he told me at the time, for a lot of reasons. Not the least of which was the fact that Savannah's food scene was beginning to show some signs of growth. So he stayed around for a while.
James bounced around as chefs sometimes do. He'd pop up here or there. Even did a few pop-up dinners here and there. I often referred to him as the most talented chef in Savannah without a regular gig. As an executive chef, that is.
About two years ago he put together another sold-out pop-up dinner at The Collins Quarter. That was the first time I asked him why he didn't have his own place yet. Of course, there are generally a half-million answers to that question which, more times than not, tend to circle back around to an inability to raise a half-million dollars. I figured it was only a matter of time before he ended up in his own space. Well, that time has come.
The Diplomat Luncheonette is that space and it is a few paperwork items away from becoming a reality on Drayton Street, three doors down from The Original Pinkie Masters at Drayton and Harris streets.
"Matt [Garappolo, co-owner at Pinkie Masters] and I had talked about doing something a few years ago," James tells me. "We got serious about something last year, but it just didn't work out."
James says Matt brought the issue back up a few months ago. Bounced the idea of something small right there. The discussions got a little more serious and he figured this was his next move.
"It was too good of an opportunity," he says, while also admitting that being a co-owner of something here in Savannah was something he'd been chasing for a while.
"There's nothing fancy about it. It's counter service. No waiters or waitresses. Right now we've got four to five sandwiches. Some salads."
Sounds small, huh? "We've got four seats."
The effort is going into the product. James has been at Smith Brothers Butcher Shop the last year and change baking his own breads and making some great sandwiches. He'll be baking fresh focaccia and a "Dutch Crunch," which he describes as a sourdough with a crunchy exterior. Was the experience at Smith Brothers his motivation to do something similar at The Diplomat?
"Not at all." he says through a laugh. "The space is just so small, we can't do much else in there."
"We are going to make everything in-house. Sauces, roasted vegetable plates, salads. All of it grab and go," James tells me. "You can walk around the corner and eat in Lafayette Square or any of the other squares in the neighborhood."
Beyond the few sandwiches, he's hoping to roll out some weekend specials.
"Maybe we'll do a Mexican-themed weekend. Then an Asian weekend. I don't know. We are going to mix it up."
Beyond that, there aren't many details on what kind of sandwiches they are going to offer. Right now, it doesn't matter. What does matter is that there will be another option for a quick lunch south of Liberty Street downtown. As it stands, there aren't too many.
It should be stated very clearly that The Diplomat Luncheonette is going to be just that. The plan right now is to open from 11 a.m. until 6 p.m. However, because they believe there is a built-in clientele next door at The Original, they are likely to have a 10 p.m. until 2 a.m. shift. For the time being, they will be closed between 6-10 p.m.
"We'll just have to see how it goes at first," he says. Makes all the sense in the world.
The timetable on their opening is a moving target. A lot of their infrastructure is in place. He says they are pretty much "ready to go." Once a few details get ironed out with the city, they could be up and running very quickly. Of course, the city is involved. That probably means it could be a day or it could take slightly more than a day. Keep tabs on them via Facebook for now. And, of course, we'll keep you posted.
See you on TV,
THE DIPLOMAT LUNCHEONETTE
Address: Coming soon to 314 Drayton St.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday; 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday-Saturday (opening date TBA)
Labor Day Weekend already? My goodness. Of course that means we are about to get crazy busy around here. Or you can cross the river and get your craft beer groove on at the Trade Center. Go to savannahcraftbrewfest.com.
Beer not your thing? Bacon Fest is this weekend on River Street. There will be live music all weekend and even a Waterfront Kidz Zone.
Last call for early bird ticket prices for Savannah Food & Wine Festival. Prices go up Sept. 1, which will be on you by the time you read this sentence. Go to savannahfoodandwinefest.com.
Season premiere of "Eat It and Like It with Jesse Blanco" is coming Sept. 24 on WSAV-TV. Set your DVR! We're planning a whole lot of fun!