They are coming to Savannah in all shapes and sizes these days: New restaurants, new bars, new hotels, sandwich shops, ice cream shops and biscuits. Restaurants, snack bars, Mediterranean, Italian and more. All of it, it seems, being squeezed into an already seemingly saturated downtown scene. Still, it continues to grow.
There may be a number of cranes along the Savannah River these days, but if you know where to look downtown, then you know more restaurants and bars are on the way, currently under construction. Sometimes, however, they sneak up on you.
That's what happened to me with this latest project set to open downtown in a few weeks. You'd never know it if you drove by, but work is underway at the corner of Oglethorpe and Montogomery streets downtown. The construction wouldn't catch your eye, because on that corner sits a Springhill Suites by Marriott hotel. The windows that face the corner are all covered in plastic, a translucent indicator that work is going on inside.
Thomas Ciszak is the man behind it all. He's a chef by trade, but not so long ago found himself developing restaurant concepts around the country for a hotel group. His latest project, Toasted Barrel, is the space here in Savannah.
"When I looked at the space," he says, "I thought it had tremendous potential. With the Civic Center across the street and the brand-new Cultural Arts Center as well, we knew this would be a great fit."
He spent over a year deliberating on the concept. What he has arrived at is a bourbon bar with casual snacks to include a full menu of grilled cheese sandwiches.
"The plan right now is to carry 30 to 40 different bourbons in a slightly elegant but inviting atmosphere on the corner," Ciszak says. "We are approved for outdoor seating on the sidewalks as well."
The menu, he tells me, will be almost exclusively grilled cheese sandwiches. There may be some other munchies like tater tots and a few salads, but the plan at Toasted Barrel is for perfectly toasted grilled cheese sandwiches to lead the way, all of them in a $10 price range. Some more, some less.
"We will offer a good variety," Ciszak says "But I have to say, I am most excited about the breads we will be getting from Auspicious Bakery here in Savannah. Once I tried it, I knew they had to be a part of this."
In addition to the 40-plus bourbons (the day we spoke he was leaving for Kentucky to secure a few more), you will obviously be able to find a lot of your favorite spirits. There will be local beers on tap and a few options for wine.
"I visited most of the bars in Savannah over the last year," he says. "I love Alley Cat Lounge and Artillery. They are doing a great job. We wanted something that would perhaps complement those types of places."
They describe the decor as "sophisticated Southern with a gritty dark urban flair."
For his part, Ciszak is overseeing the project and developing the menu. His background as a chef included several stops in the Northeast and an invite to the White House to participate in a program for children using vegetables harvested from the White House's garden.
He believes there will be nothing really complicated about the food at Toasted Barrel. There should be no reason why every grilled cheese isn't perfect.
Work continues right under our noses. Signage will eventually go up, but for now, it's just a shell of a space hiding out in a hotel that has been there for years.
Look for Toasted Barrel to roll out early October.
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