Lowcountry Reclaimed: A Culinary Awakening in Savannah, Georgia

The Florence

Decades after Elizabeth Terry opened her breakout fine-dining establishment, new chefs have taken up the local-first mantel, redefining the port city’s local cuisine with stunning results.

At the U-shaped Gate 2 counter, bartender Cody Henson poured a glass of Xinomavro rosé from Macedonia to accompany a plate of pickled Harris Neck oysters with lardo and cracklins. The Grey’s dapper founder Johno Morisano, next to me in a vinyl swivel seat, pointed to a demure window on the second floor of this former Art Deco bus terminal, located on Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard in downtown Savannah. “That used to be the ladies powder room,” he said. “And at the way back was the colored waiting room.”

Savannah has come a long way since 1938, when this tasteful restaurant, helmed by chef Mashama Bailey, was a segregated Greyhound station. Historically, the port city has been overshadowed by Charleston and New Orleans, with their celebrated culinary traditions and larger-than-life food personalities. (Paula Deen is Savannah’s only resident, albeit somewhat dubious, celebrity chef.) As with many post-bellum Southern capitals, dining outside the home tended to church suppers and cafeterias. Or country clubs, and these were off limits to African Americans, unless they were wearing a waiter’s uniform. (Segregated lunch counters and water fountains were abolished in 1963.) The food at most Savannah establishments was intentionally homey. In 1943, Sema Wilkes opened her Dining Room, serving boardinghouse-style meals heavy on fried chicken and meatloaf. Juanita Dixon carried the soul food torch at her 12-seat luncheonette through the 1990s, and Paula Deen’s Lady & Sons, opened in 1996, perpetuated the Southern comfort food buffet with yet more fried chicken and peach cobbler.

The first Savannah chef to notably jump off this greasy gravy train was Elizabeth Terry, who opened Elizabeth on 37th (105 E. 37th St.; 912-236-5547; elizabethon37th.net) in 1981. Terry encouraged local purveyors and placed an emphasis on fresh ingredients, which sounds like standard procedure now, but wasn’t the case back when butter beans were cooked in a pound of butter and the best grits available came in a cardboard box with a Quaker elder logo. Many of the recipes Terry developed were based on earlier culinary documents in the collection at the Georgia Historical Society; but she also reached beyond regional roots for inspiration.

When I first dined there, in the late 1980s, Terry’s fine-dining cooking seemed so worldly for the time and place. Dishes like flounder stuffed with crab, chilled cinnamon spiced shrimp, and oyster tarts with leeks and country ham were far more complex in flavor and presentation than the Lowcountry basics prepared by my own Southern mother and grandmother. Nothing else in Savannah compared.

But, nothing, absolutely nothing, happens fast in Savannah, which clings to its past like Spanish moss to humidity: Locals call the place “Slowvannah.” Perhaps that’s why it took more than 30 years for others chefs to pick up Terry’s butane torch and start cooking the kind of cuisine Bailey now calls “Port City Southern.” Nor is it coincidence that many of these re-interpreters of the regional culinary canon are out-of-towners, either. (Terry, long since retired, is originally from the Midwest; Kelly Yambor, who hails from Michigan, presently runs the restaurant.)

Emily Andrews

The arrival of Bailey, who like her business partner Morisano, relocated from New York to take charge in the kitchen at The Grey (109 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.; 912-662-5999; thegreyrestaurant.com) when it opened in late 2014, reflects a larger trend unfolding around the U.S., where smaller cities like Asheville, Minneapolis, and Portland are luring urban pioneers in search of a burgeoning food or art scene, as well as livability and charm. And Savannah is definitely not short on charm. “Savannah is an old Southern town but SCAD brings funky, young energy,” Bailey said, as she delivered a plate of ash-roasted sweet potatoes smothered with molasses and benne seed, referring to the city’s visionary College of Art and Design. “The art world here is huge, there’s a beach 20 minutes away, and concerts in Forsyth Park. New York has diversity and energy and movement, but it’s here too, on a smaller, livable scale.”

Before landing in Savannah, Bailey studied at the Institute of Culinary Education, traveled in France, and worked four years at Prune on Manhattan’s Lower East Side for her mentor Gabrielle Hamilton. But she has Georgia roots, too. Her grandmother is from Waynesboro, near Augusta, and she attended grammar school in Savannah for a time. “I want to be careful about this,” she cautioned, regarding her heritage. “Because while my grandmother is from Georgia, I grew up in the Bronx and Queens, where we ate the food, but it was Southern at a remove. It didn’t taste the same as down here.”

Bailey’s country pasta with shrimp and house-cured bottarga arrived at the table next. It was a perfect expression of her varied culinary background as well as her knack for elevating unappreciated ingredients—a technique for which her former employer (Hamilton) is also adept. “Mullet was on the menu forever,” explained Morisano, as we shared the fish’s salty pressed caviar. “We had to work hard to convince locals, because most people here considered it trash fish. But Mashama was quietly preserving the roe for this dish. It was her plan all along.” Dense buckwheat biscuits served with roasted bone marrow is another brainchild spawned from a road trip home from a dinner in Charleston. “Biscuits and bones,” said Morisano. “What a great pairing.” And when Bailey wondered if they’d be ribbed for jumping on the bone trend, he advised her to “own it.”

Quentin Bacon

But Bailey is not the only incomer to contribute to Savannah’s culinary evolution, fuelled by a demographic attracted to the coastal lifestyle and eager for exciting, modern flavors. (Organic grocers, mixologist cocktail dens, and Australian-style cold brew coffee bars have arrived on Savannah’s historic squares.) James Beard award-winning chef Sean Brock, who hops between kitchens in Charleston and Nashville, recently announced that his next Husk restaurant will be located here. (His cookbook Heritage honors both old and new South traditions.) Top Chef judge Hugh Acheson, author of A New Turn in the South, owns The Florence (1 W. Victory Dr., #B; 912-234-5522; theflorencesavannah.com). When Acheson first announced he was coming to town in 2014, Savannah was over the moon, expecting the same folksy menu at Five & Ten, his breakout restaurant in Athens. What they got was Italian. But not your typical red sauce Italian, either. Instead, Acheson wanted to import the Italian appreciation for artisan-produced ingredients and the daily rituals surrounding them and give them a Lowcountry twist: Sicilian stew with Georgia coast seafood, country ham broth bathing whole egg yolk ravioli.

The next day, I visited The Florence. In a converted ice factory on a revitalized section of Victory Drive, executive chef Kyle Jacovino insisted that I sample a Neapolitan-style pizza with house-made ‘nudja salami. Originally from Pittsburgh, Jacovino worked at Five & Ten before he traveled to Italy for four months, absorbing pasta-making in Puglia and interning with pizzaiolos in Naples. He also apprenticed with the Valdiserri family, who taught Mario Batali a thing or two about cooking, in their small restaurant outside Bologna. “You’ve got to try these Calabrian chiles,” he said, pulling a puffy slice away from the blistered pie. Jacovino is mildly obsessed with these peppers, which appear on pizzas, pork cannelloni, a salumi platter, squid ink pasta paired with shrimp and…guess what? Bottarga. The Southern-Italian connection started to make sense to me. Apart from dopio zero pizza flour and the stray imported chile, Acheson and Jacovino try to source Southern grown and locally harvested ingredients for their trattoria with a drawl.

Jacovino’s gutsy Border Springs lamb heart was paired with wild ramps and a savory buckwheat cake, and another pizza came topped with scarlet frills mustard greens. It was nothing my mother might have imagined but I’m sure she would have enjoyed it.

Courtesy The Wyld
Courtesy The Wyld

The Lowcountry is famous for its seafood, and right off the port of Savannah, the shrimping fleet bobs on the incoming tide. By cocktail hour, I landed on the deck at The Wyld (2740 Livingston Ave.; 912-692-1219; thewylddockbar.com), which overlooks one of the tidal marshes on the city’s outer limits, drinking chilled glasses of Fleur from Carneros with owner Brad Syfan. We both admitted to an unrepentant love of oaky chardonnay, although the cocktail list included inventive renditions on classics, like a bacon-infused rye Old Fashioned with maple bitters. An Atlanta transplant, Syfan has partnered with chef Tony Seichrist to open this laidback bar and grill at a former marina; they originally met while working at Federico Castellucci’s Iberian Pig in Decatur and their menu reflects an earnest cultivation of small Georgia producers like Canewater Farm for flint grits and collard greens, as well as local watermen who supply the seasonal shrimp, flounder, and crab.

“We took a risk with this location,” said Syfan, as we watched a well-dressed couple tie their boat to the restaurant’s dock and clamber up the ramp to the hostess station. “It’s not in the center of town, but then you get this view. And once we raise enough scratch, we’ll open year round.” (The Wyld closes during late winter.) Seichrist, who was away fishing, also worked for Acheson at Five & Ten. Their bar is a homegrown effort, lacking a big fish investor, and aspects of the informal menu (fish tacos, a beefed-up burger) reflect a beachy vibe. But Seichrist also makes his own quail-and-rabbit sausage. The sides include Mexican street-style roasted corn smothered with brown sugar aioli. Horseradish tartar spices up the fish-and-grits. And the skillet okra, sliced lengthwise, was seared until crunchy then dashed with sea salt. For someone who grew up refusing to eat her grandmother’s boiled-until-slimy version, this simple preparation was a revelation.

For my last meal in town, I returned to The Grey, where Bailey’s crew serves lunch in the bus terminal’s original diner, now a gleaming bar with tufted banquettes. The menu is simpler than the main dining room, mostly sandwiches and a few fancy snacks, but the day’s blue plate special—actually served on a blue plate—was a fried chicken thigh, paired with smoky baked beans and lightly dressed coleslaw. How could I resist? While new flavors and pairings are transforming the Savannah dining scene, there’s obviously still a soft spot for traditions rooted deep in the red Georgia clay, even here at The Grey. Still, it wasn’t Mrs. Wilkes’ chicken or Paula Deen’s chicken. The thigh that landed on my plate belonged to a free-range hen, dredged in a scrambled egg and then tossed in breadcrumbs before hitting the low-fat canola oil. Thankfully, birds of a feather don’t always have to flock together.