As the last few decades have seen the glorification of Charleston along every possible measure of culture and tourism, Savannah has quietly endured and rather accepted being Jan Brady.
For the eighth straight year, Condé Nast readers voted Chucktown their favorite small city in the U.S., and Travel + Leisure did the same for the sixth year running, including 2018’s title as No. 1 City in the World. Southern Living’s 2019 poll had the Hostess City as runner-up to Charleston. Again.
Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.
Even so, that culinary shadow cast on Savannah from the northeast might be fading, evidenced in part by The Fat Radish, the second location of a New York City brand which opened for dinner service on June 11 in Savannah, not in Charleston.
Like its Lower East Side namesake, The Fat Radish will serve simple plates that feature veggies “at the forefront.” Lest the name give you the wrong impression, this is not a vegan or even a vegetarian restaurant. It is meatier than Fox & Fig and fancier by quite some distance and a few dollar bills. The dinner menu is an omnivore’s delight with grilled bavette steak, pastrami-brined chicken schnitzel, grilled red snapper, and even a bacon cheeseburger, but on each dish, creative leaves or legumes or tubers play the starring roles, all of which are locally sourced.
“Accidentally vegetarian” is what owner Natalie Freihon calls the concept, proudly adding, “Every single piece of produce is from a local farm.” Ground beef from Tennessee and seasonally harvested oysters might be the furthest afield items that will be served here.
Almost incredibly, a thousand-foot stretch along MLK Jr. Boulevard is now home to a duo of Manhattan scion’s in The Grey and The Fat Radish. Southern outposts of Le Bernardin and Katz’s Deli might not be on the way, but these two plush places are not too shabby for downtown Savannah’s transitional western boundary, an area of the city that Freihon was drawn to thanks to her Big Apple roots and sensibility.
“We’re very happy to be across the street from The Grey,” Freihorn said with a genuine smile. “This is a hospitality enclave,” she added, referring to The Fat Radish’s Savannah locale, one that is going to grow even more because of her special restaurant.
As has been the case with their hip MLK neighbor, the challenge for The Fat Radish may be convincing locals that this is not simply another New York restaurant.
Freihon has spent her twenty-year career in hospitality in New York City, opening restaurants and running multi-unit spaces as director of operations, and used this experience as a “paid education” because she eventually wanted to own her own hospitality company.
Ben Towill and Phil Winser originally opened The Fat Radish in 2010 and then opened a handful of other restaurants before Towill moved to Charleston five years ago, where he now owns Basic Kitchen. By 2017, Freihon had the chance to leave the operations roles that she had been in for so long to break out on her own and was introduced to Winser. Soon after, she bought the majority share of the TFR brand. Radishes were rolling.
“I saw a real opportunity with The Fat Radish because the brand identity was so strong,” she said as staff readied for Monday’s Preview Party, “and the ethos of the company I respected a lot and felt very aligned to.” Remaining partners, she and Winser made plans to use the unique brand to realize her passion of helping to develop stronger sustainability of people who work in hospitality in a smaller market, a desperately needed initiative for Savannah.
“I feel that, right now, we have a real opportunity to use our businesses for a much greater good, instead of just opening restaurant upon restaurant,” Freihon explained. “So, Phil and I started work on how we were going to grow The Fat Radish, specifically.”
The partners did a pop-up at Towill’s Charleston restaurant, and soon afterward, he asked TFR Management to operate it full stop, which commenced in July of 2018.
A few years prior, Ben and Kate Towill (Basic Projects) had bought the former Ampersand property on the corner of MLK and West Congress and were renovating and redeveloping the upper floors to become The Windrose Apartment Hotel, which welcomed its first guests earlier this year. Freihon, already running Basic Kitchen up in Charleston, was ready to open The Fat Radish in the ground floor space here in Savannah.
Staying in The Fat Radish-Basic Projects family, the Towills rebuilt the restaurant, and Kate Towill designed and outfitted its dining room and bar to look like Savannah.
Freihon never wanted this namesake to be a replication of the original because each one is driven by the locality and needs to reflect the community. The corner building’s north and west-facing windows keep the interior light and fresh as do the broad pale oak floorboards. With potted palms, wicker seating, and matching wicker-shaded wall arm lamps, the interior is a Southern sunroom, flecked with polished brass fixtures against a backdrop of tea green walls. Two long leather banquettes and several two-tops create a veritable Savannah brasserie, a place for drinks with friends at the marble bar or a date-night dinner.
The Fat Radish concept was inspired by British roots (vegetable pun intended), but features dishes that have been played up in their modern interpretations of traditional English fare. The menu offers a delicious Scotch egg wrapped in homemade pork sausage, and the grilled cheese, with aged cheddar and Branston pickle spread, is a nudge-nudge wink-wink at the workman’s lunch pail cheese-and-pickle sarnie. Even banoffee pie headlines the few current dessert offerings.
A recent research trip to the Cotswolds reminded Freihon that their Anglo-farm-to-table praxis remains valid. “All of the pubs are just getting stuff from the farm out back. [We’re] still inspired by that kind of eating where we just want fresh things that are not fussed over.”
The eponymous Fat Radish Plate is a macrobiotic inspired melange of braised, sautéed, and pickled vegetables served atop steamed adzuki beans and brown rice and will always be on the menu, its individual components changing with the season.
Though still British with many culinary nods, The Fat Radish’s Savannah menu also features several Coastal Empire notes: fried oysters; benne seeds on a braised carrot dish with whipped local goat cheese; an arugula salad with grilled early summer peaches, burrata, and cured ham; Charleston gold rice; and Leopold’s ice cream.
By the end of June, Freihon plans that the restaurants hours will expand to include lunch and weekend brunch, and those menus will largely derive from dinner items, retaining many of the salads and turning the chicken schnitzel, for example, into a sandwich.
Executive Chef Nick Wilber, who helped open the original The Fat Radish and most recently was running Basic Kitchen in Charleston with Freihon, said that his favorite aspect of heading up this kitchen and helping to open another TFR has been meeting the farmers and making connections with the local farming community, as well as being on the receiving end in an area with multiple growing seasons of amazing produce that is always available.
“If you have a relationship with somebody, you treat the product better, which ultimately comes out to benefit the guests,” Wilber said.
The decor and the ingredients are decidedly Savannahian, but Freihon was quick to affirm that this is not a Southern restaurant that will risk doing its own versions of shrimp and grits or fried chicken because her restaurant knows and is proud of its culinary DNA.
As for choosing the usual bridesmaid over the presumptive bride, Freihon said, “I just fell in love with Savannah. I felt such a romantic connection to Savannah because of the people, because of the diversity, and because it reminds me much more of the Lower East Side.”
Before the end of 2019, a third The Fat Radish will be open in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, which will keep Freihon a frequent flier between JFK and SAV. Until she and her team decide to branch their TRF brand to CHS proper, the only The Fat Radish not in Manhattan is right here.
In Savannah. Eat your artichoke hearts out, Charleston.
Someday, Neil and his wife will be living in a tiny town in the south of France, eating, doing crosswords, and playing Scrabble. For now, when he is not grading papers, baking bread, or watching EPL soccer, he builds furniture and writes.