Remember the "Happy Days" episode in which Ralph Malph runs over Fonzie’s motorcycle? As America’s icon of Casanova cool laments over the pile of pieces and parts, Mr. C. casually says, "Fonzie, it’s just a motorcycle."


The Fonz raises his head from the wreckage and replies, "Just a motorcycle?"


At the end of an impassioned soliloquy about what his "bike" has meant to him, he turns to Tom Bosley’s character and asks, "Just a motorcycle, Mr. C? And I suppose your mother was just a mother."


Like Howard Cunningham, anyone who dares to refer to the comprehensive complex that is Plant Riverside District as "just a new hotel" just does not get it.


What Richard Kessler and his eponymous design and development enterprise have realized is so much more than the JW Marriott luxury lodgings housed in the entirely renovated 1912 power plant and its newly constructed sister structures.


This is a visionary world within our city, a cleverly curated hospitality theme park, what Samuel Taylor Coleridge would have called a "stately pleasure-dome" replete with restaurants and all manner of recreation.


You can see it for yourselves come the end of the month, when the $375-million project will officially open to the public on July 29.


A MAN WITH A PLAN


Kessler is not just a hotelier.


He is the contemporary incarnation of Conrad Hilton, John Jacob Astor, James Smithson, and Walt Disney - with a dash of Willy Wonka sprinkled on top - and what Kessler so clearly wanted to create at Plant Riverside was a composite amusement compound, a place that feeds every appetite, where visitors can spend a night, eat a meal, drink a cocktail, relax on the riverfront, and even learn.


The official name of the totally transformed half-mile stretch along West River Street is a "JW Marriott hotel, a Kessler Collection property located at Plant Riverside District," an apt mouthful to accompany a dozen-plus new eateries that are sure to satisfy any craving, alongside an accommodations troika, a hands-on museum, a retail-reinforced promenade, an indoor ballroom, and an outdoor concert ground.


Consider it Savannah’s riverfront Epcot, a destination where hotel guests, tourist passersby, and locals alike can feast on flavors from all over the region and all around the world.


And you thought this was just another hotel.


Plant Riverside is the third Kessler Collection property in Savannah, joining the Mansion on Forsyth Park and The Bohemian Hotel, and the luxury hotel brand is currently in the process of completing the group’s twelfth signature place to stay-and-play, the Grand Bohemian Lodge in Greenville, S.C.


The veteran of fifty years in the hospitality trade said that, of all of the Kessler Collection properties, Plant Riverside has been the "most complex and most difficult" project, one that encompassed rehabilitation and renovation of yesteryear structures, construction of the riverwalk and brand-new buildings, and everything in between.


Eight years in the making and now this close to the first opening, Kessler smiled and said, "I’m speechless," as crews scurried every which way to punch out last-month touches last week.


The JW Marriott hotel itself is housed in three distinct buildings, each with its own design theme: the Power Plant revolves around energy and it origins; the Three Muses are inspired by beauty; and Atlantic, which has a 2021 completion date, is an architectural homage to water and will house the Live Nation Powerhouse Live music venue and a 500-space parking deck, River Street’s ‘first significant public parking resource’.


Kessler may well be most excited about the museum within the Power Plant’s concourse, a commodious hall filled with fossils, dinosaur bones, and 450-million-year-old gigantic geodes, every piece interactive and informative.


High overhead looms an animatronic chrome Amphicoelias fragillimus, a dinosaur nearly three times bigger than a Brontosaurus and more titanic than the Titanosaur. When guests check in and wander among the exhibits, a system of pulleys and wires will move the steely skeleton.


"This is a power plant," Kessler said, explaining the geological motif, "so it’s all about where the energy comes from. There’s education for kids, education for adults, and it gives us a chance to do the whole natural science museum, which Savannah does not have."


A few feet away, at the terminus of its namesake boulevard, Martin Luther King Jr. Park will provide the tiered lawn seating for the Plant Riverside Amphitheater, right in front of a Bellagio-styled fountain, complete with timed music-and-light shows. A block down the riverwalk, grassy Montgomery Park can be tented for special occasions, and kid-friendly areas include a splash fountain with shady seating for families and a mini-archeological dig site where dino bones can be unburied by little Louis Leakeys.


As we watched another freighter glide downriver, followed by a barge, Kessler added, "This is the best of Savannah right here. It doesn’t get any better than this."


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Video credit to William Austin Smith


FOOD WITH A VIEW


Director of Food and Beverage Gonzague Muchery and Vice President of Food and Beverage John Coleman bring a combined sixty-some years of high-end hospitality experience with them and, with Executive Chef Kyle Lipetzky, Director of Catering Anna Livingston, and their teams, have developed a culinary course that is beyond broad.


"With every concept that we do," said Coleman, "we have a preview where we listen to the music, we look at the uniforms, and we talk through all of the details so that it’s not just about the food. It’s about the concept. We want to get it right."


Along the river, the brand new brick-and-tabby boardwalk will be home to four open-air eateries. In adjacent pavilions, each with ‘casual bar seating’ for about 45 patrons, District Smokehouse will serve ‘slow-smoked delicacies seasoned to perfection’, including a 14-hour slow-roasted pulled pork and a signature Brunswick Stew, while District Seafood will feature battered, buttered, baked, or fried fish favorites.


"It’s designed for fast service and great food," Kessler said. "We’re bringing the coast and the seafood right into this garden so you can sit outside and eat in the breeze."


A few steps southeastward, Riverside Sushi and Riverside Biergarten will share another verdant outdoor space, the former offering ‘fresh high-quality sushi rolls alongside stunning views of the river’ and the latter creating an ‘entertaining and energetic Bavarian experience’ with oompah music, authentic German pretzels and wurst, and a ‘vast array of beer’.


Even a ninety-degree day will be no match for the cool air coming off of the water and the shade provided by the pavilions and the palm trees. If the cuisine comes even close in quality to the singular setting, this will quickly add a handful of spots to the top of the city’s ‘best outdoor dining’ list.


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Video credit to William Austin Smith


Inside the Power Plant building are three rez-de-chaussée restaurants with river views and another that gives onto River Street. In Generator Hall, Turbine Cafe + Market has seating both inside and out on the patio and is open all day for fresh-baked treats, specialty smoothies, baristaed bevvies, and Lowcountry classics like the Turbine Benedict and Georgia Shrimp and Grits.


On the other side of the Grand Bohemian Gallery, the clean and open Graffito is a modern pizza kitchen that seats almost a hundred diners, outfitted with two Italian brick ovens, a Euro-hip bar, and a wall of windows that bring the boardwalk and the river inside.


Right next door, Stone & Webster has a later opening date and has designs on becoming Savannah’s premier chophouse, lovingly bearing the names of the building’s original architects in its snugly chic emerald-and-brass interior. Guests can even enjoy an intimate edible experience inside an original smokestack, totally refurbished with two levels of lighting and lined with a circular banquette.


Though each dining venue is unique in terms of cuisine and decor, all have their own head chefs and dedicated kitchens, and most bear design elements common throughout Plant Riverside, like under-lit agate counter tops and other geological bits and bobs.


Perhaps the most exceptional eating option will be the Baobab Lounge, whose distinctive decor achieves an inviting African ambiance for craft cocktails and authentic small plates the likes of which may not be found outside of America’s largest cities. Sit and sip at a tiger-eye bar among more museum piece artwork, namely two crocodiles that are Kessler’s own trophies from his own adventures in Africa.


In the first Three Muses buildings, the Savannah Tequila Co. should be open in August, a proper cantina with a full-service tequila bar that ‘combines traditional and modern takes on Mexican cuisine’.


A massive state-of-the-art Starbucks effectively ends the riverfront restaurant row, its façade constructed with recycled brick salvaged from the original power plant.


"We recycled over 600,000 bricks," Kessler proudly said, just one example of the ingenuity and intentional nods to the past that are alive in the entire property.


Two of the retail kiosks will take care of dessert for you: Savannah Square Pops and Sweet Charlie’s for cold-surfaced hand-rolled ice cream and frozen yogurt. Also, Byrd’s will have a cookie outpost in the retail run along River Street.


If what you crave is a view from the top, take the express elevator up to Electric Moon Skytop Lounge + Moon Deck on the Power Plant’s rooftop, a ‘high-energy vibrant lounge’ that will pair a "youthful beverage program" with world street food flavors.


Being a hair’s breadth from fifty, I think that I head up to Myrtle & Rose. What Kessler calls a "soft, loungy garden bar" rests on the rooftop between the two easternmost Three Muses buildings, a more tranquil spot for shareable bites and the same amazing view.


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Video credit to William Austin Smith


"I always wanted to do my own theme park," Kessler said with a boyish grin, "and this is a high-end entertainment theme park with great food, big variety, and live music on the stage three, four, five times a week."


"There’s nothing like this development on either coast," he added.


For Coleridge, Kubla Khan’s Xanadu was an opium-induced dream. For Richard Kessler, his colleagues, and the masses, Plant Riverside District is moments away from reality.


After our shared pandemic perseverance, I will bet you a canister of sanitary wipes that I am not the only one who wants to sit along the river, munching on a German pretzel and watching the ships slide by.


Soon enough.