There are dozens of reasons that a restaurant does not make it, though only a handful are out of the control of an owner, restaurateur, general manager, or chef.
Fine places fail. Poor places prosper in spite of themselves.
In the five-plus years that we have lived in Savannah, plenty of eateries have shuttered up for good, but until a few months ago, no proprietor or patron could have ever imagined that ‘worldwide contagion’ would be the cause for closure.
In this column, I would like to pay my sincere respects to four Savannah restaurants that, effectively, have been COVID casualties.
All four restaurants were fundamentally different, as were their respective reasons for closing, so almost by design, I hope to highlight how this plight has impacted all manner of eating establishment.
On Aug. 7, Bier Haus’s chef-owner Marshall Urstadt lost a month-long battle with the coronavirus. Three weeks later, the very understandable but equally disheartening decision was made not to continue operations at the über-authentic Belgian-Bavarian tavern.
We did not dine there until about two years ago now, and it took just that first meal to make me kick myself for being so late to this Oktoberfest, so to speak.
And I do not even drink beer.
All but hidden from the world in the interior elbow of the little plaza at Oglethorpe and Price, Bier Haus perfectly fit the part and made diners and drinkers feel like they were in a cozy little corner of Europe, a warm and woody bar bedecked with breweries’ flags and shelves of signature stanges, pokals, tankards, and boots.
The chalkboard featured the homemade wursts-of-the-day, and the schnitzel was crisply exceptional, especially with the mushroom gravy served on the side for dipping frites. Most often, I ordered ‘double spätzle’, and my wife had the superb sauerbraten the last time we went.
If you never ate at Bier Haus, you truly missed out, and if you loved it like we did, you are grieving the passing of Marshall Urstadt as we are. He and his staff created something special, indeed, and always took such great care of us, like I was visiting my own German uncles and aunts for the night.
May they all be healthy and find happiness in this difficult time.
My very first ‘Dine Savannah’ article heralded the grand opening of Brewed, the cost coffee and beer bar at the corner of Habersham and 34th Streets. What partners Douglas Galloway and Amy Livingood created, a soccer-centric casual sit-and-sip, was unique to the city and seemed a keen idea.
During the summer of 2019, Brewed closed for a two-month stretch before reopening in August with a streamlined sandwich menu and much the same beer-on-tap beverage program.
I rode my bike up to Brewed a handful of times to watch a Saturday-morning soccer match and to be around other Prem diehards. Again, I did not partake of the brews themselves but enjoyed a tea and a pimento cheese sandwich or an Auspicious pastry while sitting along the wide-open bank of windows that made the small space big and bright.
One weekend night, after dinner at Cotton & Rye, my wife and I walked across the street to check out the happy hubbub that was spilling out of Brewed. Between sets of live music, walk-up neighbors and SCAD students with European and South American accents chatted cheerfully over adult bevvies. All seemed right on this little corner of the world.
When Brewed closed again, Livingood contacted me to talk about the personal and straightforward wherefores, which I take full responsibility for failing to acknowledge in an October article that announced the bar’s reopening.
On her own this time, she re-imagined the concept and opened Mira Mira Coffee in early April. A month later, Livingood emailed me and let me know that neither her landlord nor the government were "helping [her] make it through."
"We applied for everything," she wrote, "tried curbside and pivoting to to-go and growlers. We tried to adapt and negotiate and applied for assistance."
Due to our own self-imposed quarantine, which we happily heeded from mid-March through mid-August, I never did visit Mira Mira. All the same, I feel bad for Livingood, a local small-business owner who did her best and then some and deserved better.
Though alliteratively identical to Mira Mira, Mellow Mushroom, a 200-location multi-state chain, is on quite the opposite end of the economic spectrum of eateries; nevertheless, the loss of Savannah’s outpost on Liberty Street rather removes a keystone from a downtown restaurant row.
Early on in the pandemic, Mellow remained open with online ordering for curbside pick-up and take-out, but on Oct. 1, the ‘temporarily closed’ sign became permanent with an official social media post.
There for 21 years, the hippy-dippy pizza joint provided family-friendly familiarity to both vacationers and locals, a properly laid-back spot for reliable pies, salads, and wings.
Not that any of the other restaurants along Liberty are family unfriendly, but Mellow was a more accessible walk-in for all ages and all appetites after a morning spent touring the squares. Not better food than The Public, Hitch, or Proof & Provision but dependable and cheap, something all sightseeing settings need to offer.
Probably six times a year, we biked downtown to ‘play tourist’, locking up and strolling a couple hours away before grabbing a sidewalk table and splitting a Caesar salad and medium White Rabbit.
We did not like that it was smoker friendly at those outdoor tables, but those who smoked did and were happy to have a place for a beer and a butt. It was the perfect place to park your pooch under a table while you ate and dropped crust crumbs for him, the steady flow of traffic beneath the live oaks painting a pristine Savannah scene.
In the wake of this year-long crisis, the loss of specialized locally owned restaurants like Bier Haus and Mira Mira might be shrugged off by some as "predictable," considering all of our shared health concerns and economic realities; a mid-sized chain like Mellow Mushroom packing up is another inauspicious sign altogether.
Our last meal at Atlantic was our best, which is saying something.
Last November, the sleek and sociable Victory Drive bistro celebrated its third anniversary. In January, Jason and Jennifer Restivo and partner Ida Rush George proved that they were not resting on their well-deserved laurels and routinely packed restaurant by restructuring their culinary leadership team.
The ‘neighborhood eatery’ always lived up to this appellation and, from the first, felt almost too good for where it was. That January supper my wife and I enjoyed was above-and-beyond all of the excellent estimable experiences we had enjoyed at Atlantic. What had been dependable and delicious, more often than not, was elevated without any pretense or shift in ethos.
If I am being totally honest, after many meals, I silently wished that each item on the menu was two to four dollars cheaper or that portions were more ample by a third. The food was thoughtful and tasty; I just wanted more of it.
That minor consideration aside, my wife and I loved sitting on the front patio as evening descended on Victory, the whir of rush-hour much more soothing than it would have been had we been anyplace else.
This closure is a distinct loss on Savannah’s dining landscape, but I thank the Restivos and their team for constant kindness and contemplative cookery that helped to elevate our collective expectations.
As I brainstormed this column, I thought that I would close each section with my own two cents on what should go in these now vacant properties, but the more consideration I gave to each only led me back to what was now lost and gone forever (Guster album reference, that): a Euro bistro featuring German specialties, a reputable chain pizza place that is affordable and good for kiddos, and a classy-casual farm-to-table eatery.
Even before Brewed and then Mira Mira opened in that corner property on Habersham, I had hoped that it would be a gelateria, affording all of us proper homemade ice cream someplace south of Leopold’s.
For now, I will continue to be thankful for what we have - and maybe go out to eat properly before the end of 2021.