For sure, it is a great time to live in Savannah and to be hungry.
There is no denying the great strides made by the collective whole of Savannah’s culinary community in the last few years. Since we moved to town in 2015, the restaurant openings have been too many to list, though it is important to note how many of these relatively new places quickly ascended to the upper ranks in terms of both overall quality and sustained popularity.
That being true, improvement in all things should know no bounds. As a coach, I always tried to instill in my players that success should only make them want to work harder and to warn them that complacency was often their stiffest opponent.
To wit, even as the food train here is full of gravy and so many other wonderful comestibles, it remains a wise exercise to consider what is missing or how eating out in Savannah can be even better. In my relatively short time here, I have become well aware of how it cuts against the cultural grain to challenge folks, but I am steadfast in the maxim that depending on where you sit, you will find that honesty is both my best and worst quality.
Call this my Christmas in July Wish List, if you will. Even if some of these musings come across as keyboard-in-cheek, I trust that I will not be alone with my inclinations.
In 2018, Savannah eclipsed the $3 billion mark in annual visitor spending, the vast majority transacted in hotels and restaurants. The vertebrae of this financial corpus is the server, the dishwasher, the line cook, the counter agent, the housekeeper, the valet — tens of thousands of folks whose daily wages are made along every branch of the hospitality trade, the hub of which is north of Victory Drive.
These individuals give oxygen to the city’s economic lifeblood, yet they have to feed the solar meters hour after hour. They Uber into the Historic District to work their shifts if only to lessen the sting of shelling out two bucks an hour for parking their own cars.
If the city truly understands that its restaurant infrastructure crumbles without an abundant workforce, it will acknowledge that paying for hourly parking is a real and bitter hardship for this hourly-paid workforce. Create an annual parking pass available to hospitality employees for a nominal fee. Dedicate untapped real estate to the construction of a garage allocated to baristas and bussers. I know full well that I am not the first to suggest such a parking initiative, but until the city acts, the klaxon needs to sound continuously.
A Sunday bagel
There are exactly two places in town that house-bake bagels, Big Bon Bodega and Midtown Deli & Bagel Shop. Both are closed on Sundays. Every so often, this gentile wants a fresh bagel on a Sunday morning, and I imagine that plenty of Jewish Savannahians — who are in temple on Saturdays — hanker for lox and a schmear on a toasted sesame seed on the not Shabbat.
Be open on Sunday mornings. In addition to the residents who do not go to church (gasp!), weekends year-round find Savannah filled with folks from Decatur, Denver, Dublin, and Dubai who need breakfast and lunch on a Sunday. Perhaps the most hilarious example of this closed-on-Sunday’s myopia is Maple Street Biscuits, the relatively new chain that opened on Broughton Street late in 2017 but is shuttered on Sundays.
The broader contention is that every establishment north of Victory should be open on Sunday’s. We have been told that there is no longer a tourist season in Savannah, so the restaurant trade should adapt to feed the hungry masses for the entirety of their weekend stays, which always happens to include a Sunday. I have heard the arguments about church and the kvetching about staffing. Enough. Figure it out. Be open on Sunday’s before noon — and make more money.
Though apocryphally credited to President Lincoln, there is no doubting the aphorism that “you can’t please all of the people all of the time,” particularly when it comes to food and dining out in the self-obsessed Age of Social Media. That is not to say that restaurateurs and chefs should abandon the noble goal, but inevitable mistakes, coupled with either bad luck, bad service, or bad taste, will lead to customer dissatisfaction. That and some people are just born complainers.
To all of the owners and general managers of local restaurants: own the gaffes, accept the criticisms, and most importantly, do not fire back on Yelp. Do not write a snotty or defensive reply on TripAdvisor. Do not make excuses, namely that “it was busy” or “staff didn’t come in.” Take the high road by way of an apology and an offer of a complimentary drink or dessert to Mr. and Mrs. Smith if they give your place another shot.
Ostensibly, you have already lost that one angry customer. Your petulant online reaction is only going to lose you additional potential customers, including this guy, when the anonymous web surfers digest your spite and spleen. The best people acknowledge their flaws and strive to correct them. The same goes for the best restaurants and the folks who run them.
Funny: the map shows that Savannah is surrounded by water, yet there are few places in the city to buy fresh, locally harvested fish for non-outrageous prices. It is nice that Charlie Russo’s has remained in business with such a loyal clientele, but I cannot afford to pay double what Whole Foods wants for a snapper fillet. Yeah, pricier than Whole Foods. Seafood markets here are, more or less, for takeout styro trays of steamed shrimp, fried whiting, and deviled crab. Maybe you pick up some mussels, a couple pounds of Georgia shrimp, or a dozen blue crabs to cook at home, but good luck finding cleaned-up bluefish, tripletail, or flounder fillets.
Though it does not have an actual counter, Ambos Seafoods, tucked in the Midtown neighborhood, nicely sells to walk-in retail customers and will prepare an order of whatever fresh catch they have. Otherwise, Russo’s is the only proper fishmonger north of Derenne. Jackie’s Seafood Market and Southside Seafood Market serve that end of town, relatively speaking, and a dozen-plus mom-and-pop shrimpers are scattered from Tybee to Port Wentworth. When I want a pound of fillets-of-whatever, maybe I will land a keeper at Lucky’s, Whole Foods, or one of the big box grocers, but it should not be this difficult or this expensive in a city on the Atlantic to buy clean fillets o’ fish.
Leopold’s, part duex
There it sits, the original home of Leopold’s on the corner of Gwinnett and Habersham, sadly and silently waiting to serve a new generation of local customers. Sigh.
Until our blessed ice cream institution renovates and reopens that location to the sweet delight of everyone who lives here, especially those of us south of Forsyth Park, I do wish that the heads under the paper hats would rework the logistics of the Broughton Street scoope shoppe. I reckon my wife and I patronize Leopold’s more than most Savannahians, but if the queue stretches either to the lamppost outside Sekka bike shop or to the Trustees Theatre marquee, we abort the happy mission: The wait will be more than a half-hour. On a 95-degree summer afternoon, 50-odd folks melt in line. It is nice that employees bring out water and menus, but nothing else is done to provide shade or, more importantly, to speed up the wait.
It does not have to be this way. The iconic location, albeit quaint and old timey, is a logistical calamity due to the simple fact that people are not able to see the actual ice cream before being asked to order. Unfortunately, Leopold’s is designed so that the super-friendly counter staff jam into that front corner, ready and eager to serve, but the weary and sweaty customers have seen, at best, only eight flavors — the acquire taste (a.k.a. yicky) eight in that first cold case.
Ice cream is, at first, a visual treat. Folks want and need to see Honey Almond & Cream and Peanut Butter Chippy. They want and need samples of flavors based on what is seen in a tub, not what is printed on a menu. Ancillary issues stem therefrom, all of which conflate the queue needlessly.
Obviously, Leopold's is printing money. It is a Savannah institution and tradition that offers a superb product. In many ways, it does not have to change because the literal world is already forming a lengthy line at its delicious door. Still, I cannot help but wish that Leopold's would assess the logistics of its physical space to the end of decreasing wait time, thereby encouraging more frequent local customer visits and improving the overall experience for everyone.
Habersham Village, meh
When we bought our little house in the East 40s, we were so excited to have Habersham Village a five-minute bike ride away. Four years later, the only place we frequent is the Rite Aid because the restaurants in that cute and convenient plaza top out at mediocre. Other than the smoked chicken made in-house at the Red & White, food in Habersham Village, extending to and including Yia Yia’s Kitchen, is convenient far more than it is good. The restaurants here are not bad, per se; they just are not special restaurants that are worth seeking out.
From Baldwin Park to Lamara Heights and 10 neighborhoods in between, Habersham Village is a retail nexus and a comfortable default come dinner time, which means that its restaurants really do not have to try to bring in diners: location, location, location. These places stay busy — just try to get a table at Bella’s on a Saturday night — courtesy of a loyal, localized clientele that does not want to drive north of Victory, even if it means eating a worse neighborhood meal. Habersham Village restaurants are going to make bank on alcohol and low-overhead Sysco-nomics — and we will keep heading in the other direction.
Last, but most importantly
A Trader Joe’s. Enough already. I am taking this on as my personal crazy crusade. You can thank me after you buy your first bottle of Three-Buck Chuck here in Savannah.
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.