A year ago today, The Fat Radish opened its second location right here in Savannah.


Nothing like celebrating a first anniversary with a reopening. More on that in another column this week.


Just ten blocks east, St. Neo’s, the rez-de-chaussée brasserie in The Drayton Hotel, is set to ‘grand-open’ for the second time in seven months. More on that in another column this week.


While one column is not fit to chronicle the separate stories of these two exceptional restaurants and their respective efforts during the closures caused by COVID-19, the similarities abound, not the least of which is the recent expedition of re-opening so soon after a grand opening.


Since the property at the corner of East Congress Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard was radiantly restored, The Fat Radish became a fast favorite for downtown diners, a bright white beacon that may well anchor a retail revitalization in the stretch between The Grey and highly anticipated Plant Riverside District.


The same can be written about St. Neo’s and the super-handsome restoration of the historic American Trust and Bank Building at the corner of Drayton and East Bay Streets, creating in The Drayton Hotel a destination that blends bits of Manhattan, Charleston, and London and is sure to elevate expectations.


Even the two owner-proprietors - Natalie Freihon (The Fat Radish) and Raghav Sapra (The Drayton Hotel/St. Neo’s) - are both Big Apple-based because of other restaurant and real estate concerns, which gave them the somber advantage of seeing the crisis play out first-hand across the hospitality landscape of the country’s initial pandemic hotbed.


Suffice to say, these two special Savannah establishments are in great begloved hands, and the best news for hungry patrons, not to mention so many employees, is that both are back to business as of last week.


SO MUCH FOR ST. PAT’S


After The Drayton Hotel and St. Neo’s greeted its first guests this past November, Raghav Sapra said that those first four months were “great.”


“We opened in the holiday season,” the posh property’s owner-proprietor recalled. “And we were very grateful for what we created, especially from the perspective of continu[ing] to see a lot of familiar faces.”


“It was the neighborhood that was coming,” he added. “And they were coming regularly, two times a week, every Sunday for brunch. Fortunately, we’ve been able to make some great relationships in six months.”


This approach was always his intention: to make St. Neo’s a neighborhood restaurant that gained favor and grew business by word-of-mouth.


“It was working,” Sapra said in a phone interview last Wednesday, as he described the entire property, hotel and restaurant, being “geared up” to enjoy not only the St. Patrick’s Day boom but also its first spring months in business only to see the financial fireworks fizzle.


“We were full in the restaurant and on our reservation books,” he said soberly. “A lot of groups and a lot of events in the hotel as well.”


Shutting down on the Friday prior to Savannah’s St. Patrick’s Day festivities, Sapra thinks that his venue was the first in the local market to close due to COVID-19, a direct result of his being in the epicenter of the American outbreak.


“I was living in New York,” he explained. “So I knew the intensity and the impact that it was going to have on tourism and hospitality, so we were very quick to make the business decision.”


“Once the Mayor [Johnson] made the decision to cancel,” Sapra recalled. “We closed that Friday.”


A NEO START


The Drayton is among the last local hotels to reopen, welcoming back guests as of Monday, June 1. The following day, the new food program was begun in St. Neo’s “to ease back into our routine,” Sapra said, and last weekend, the coffee bar was back to brewing.


Positive to the core, Sapra focused on the good, if that word can be used in the wake of a global pandemic, that came out of a multi-week closure of a comprehensive hospitality concern.


“It gave us an opportunity to reflect on what we did great, what we learned from, how people were enjoying our restaurant, and everyone was trying to find creative ways to bring their teams back,” he explained.


Even without anyone walking through the doors, continuing to share the “ethos of St. Neo’s” was his team’s focus: being a neighborhood destination that brings friends and family together in a social setting over outstanding food and drink. The task then became how to share that with patrons under these new circumstances.


“That led us to think about a new takeout menu and delivery model,” Sapra said. “Which, for a restaurant like ours, was never our intention, but it has actually become something that we hope to sustain.”


Much like The Fat Radish, the first element revolves around family-style options, comfort food that can be eaten wherever St. Neo’s diners feel comfortable right now, even if that means not sitting in the actual restaurant.


“We decided to make it a lot more approachable in terms of pricing,” he added. “It’s all about comfort food. It’s all going to be in a price point from $25 to $29, and you’re full.”


Along with high-quality fare and service, what remains is St. Neo’s celebration of Southern culinary traditions and Lowcountry style, devised and dished up by Executive Chef Chris Meenan and his crew.


“Chris is phenomenal at understanding how to do this,” Sapra said, heralding the fried chicken that Meenan created for the Family Meals and that has “blown away” takeaway diners, served with collard greens, grits, biscuits, and a citrus-pecan pie. The bird is brined overnight in buttermilk, garlic, and rosemary and confit-cooked in duck fat before being deep-fried and dusted with togarashi and seaweed for a crispy umami fusion chicken.


St. Neo’s is featuring its bevy of bar beverages for pick-up, and times being what they are, some might find its in-house six-week barrel-aged Manhattan, which can be purchased by the liter bottle, the perfect antidote.


For the first few weeks, a modified menu will be available for takeaway or dining in on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and last Saturday, a smaller seasonal menu was unveiled, one that will be updated week-by-week, while takeaway items that prove popular are likely to remain on the carte; these offerings will be offered for dinner service onsite from Thursday through Saturday (5 p.m. to 9 p.m.).


“Our team is phenomenal at it,” Sapra said, commending Meenan and his team for their resourcefulness. “Being able to pick up the pieces and manage a kitchen, run a kitchen to the standard that we know without as many people.”


“As people are more comfortable coming back to restaurants,” he added. “We’ll start to add lunch back and add Monday and Sunday back,” corresponding to business.


If you are not yet ready to eat amongst others, order ‘takeout’ and ride the elevator up to a picnic in The Penthouse that affords what is arguably the best view in the entire city. Sapra expects that a “slightly varied menu that is more comfortable for the outside seating” will soon be introduced in that singular space.


“That’s the fortunate element of being a hotel: we have a lot of space,” he reasoned. “Where people can enjoy and still have service but feel comfortable in distancing.” In the cozily elegant dining rooms, no tables have been removed to ‘restrict’ capacity; instead, plants and flowers have been used to separate space naturally.


TECH TOOLS OF THE TRADE


Sapra was plainly pleased with St. Neo’s new takeout program and said that the tools of technology have been “really adaptive in find[ing] approaches to help restaurants,” allowing his kitchen to be certain of demand.


“It [has] really accelerated restaurants to be able to get back quicker and more efficiently and offer services that were difficult to do this way years ago,” he said.


St. Neo’s is using Explore Tock, an online ordering platform that allows guests to pre-order and pay for a meal days in advance, just like making a dinner reservation.


And offering takeaway service is inextricably linked to the people who prepare the food. Like those at most hotels and restaurants, employees at The Drayton Hotel were furloughed, but Sapra said that they are now “taking steps to bring as many people back as possible.”


“The more we can do on takeout, the quicker we can bring our teams back,” he said, highlighting the work of Director of Restaurants and Bars Jake Brooks, Managing Director Nitin Khanna, Pastry Chef Brittany Iannarelli, and Chef Meenan.


Sapra was quick to add that he would be remiss not to mention everyone who has played a pivotal role in the establishment’s efforts to resume business.


“Everyone was phenomenal in helping navigate the uncertainty and being very nimble in getting us back.”


DRIVING DISTANCE


Again drawing on his familiarity with New York City and its current hospitality landscape, Sapra expressed an optimistic conjecture that his Southern hometown will be able to recover over the summer months.


“That’s what makes Savannah so special,” he said, citing the city’s “built-in demand” as a great driving destination for people all along the east coast and hoping that helps the tourism industry here rebound perhaps more quickly than it will in America’s major markets.


“We believe that’s happening now,” he added. “The past few weeks, you see people with cabin fever, they’re coming to Savannah, and the city [is] busy. That’s what people are doing. They’re taking those weekend getaways. People are driving from an average of 550 miles away.”


Maybe a few more will make the drive just to go to St. Neo’s for some fried chicken and an aged Manhattan, savored under a starry sky on The Penthouse deck.


I am the first to admit the redundancy of these last few ‘Dine Savannah’ columns that have highlighted the recent re-openings of several Savannah restaurants. Heck, there are only a handful of appropriate synonyms simply for the word ‘reopening’.


Redundant though they may be, these all are tales of trial and triumph, individual glimmers of hope in tough times that deserve to be bright lights widely witnessed and soundly celebrated. After all, one restaurant’s reopening resounds far further than my growling stomach. A line cook dons an apron. A dishwasher polishes plates. A hostess greets a guest. People receive paychecks.


Step by sanitized step, Savannah gets back to what She does best, and I, for one, could not be happier about repeating myself over the coming weeks.