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How Savannah Became One of the South’s Most Exciting Dining Destinations

The "Hostess City of the South" lives up to its nickname.

Pork Shank Emily Dorio

From the rooftop patio of Bar Julian, cargo ships, some the length of the Empire State Building, slowly chug their way along the Savannah River, where from the looks of things, they’ll be staying for the long haul.

Arguably one of the Savannah’s hippest, if not most scenic locales to be seen sipping on Georgia juleps these days, Bar Julian is proving that cargo isn’t the only thing calling on the port city’s shores these days.

Twelve stories below, on the contemporary ground floor of the recently opened Thompson Savannah, Fleeting’s, with its modern take on seasonally inspired Southern cooking, is just one of many eateries ushering the new wave of Southern fine dining right now.

“I think the renaissance or the new fascination with Southern food has been going on for the last decade, but I think what might be happening and something I’ve been a proponent of is this embrace of different cultures that’s being infused into Southern cuisine,” executive chef Rob Newton said.

An Arkansas native, Newton’s spin on traditional Southern classics like his crowd-pleasing biscuits duck confit and salt and pepper shrimp congee made with Carolina Gold red rice, draws entirely from the bounty of seasonally sourced ingredients found along Georgia’s waterways and early morning trips to the local farmer’s market. It was only recently, and after some deliberation, that he decided to add grits peppered with chestnuts and pickled habanadas to the mix.

Swordfish coconut curry and yellowfin tuna with palm fruit leche de tigre at Common Thread

Swordfish coconut curry and yellowfin tuna with palm fruit leche de tigre at Common Thread  Eastwoods Media

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“It’s very near to me to cook in this region. The seasons here are different than what I’m accustomed to, but the seasonality and the variances in seasonality is something you don’t get in other places and so to do a menu like that in a restaurant called Fleeting, and to capture those micro-moments in the seasons, it’s exciting.”

Set in a former 19th century Victorian, the vibe at Common Thread couldn’t be more different in look and feel than Fleeting. Here, cozy candlelit corners and deeps cuts of A Tribe Called Quest serve as romantic backdrop to tuck into dishes like ponzu gelée oysters, chicken shawarma and wahoo ceviche.

“It’s a really fun and exciting time in Savannah, and in the Lowcountry in general,” executive chef Brandon Carter told Robb Report. “I think we have some of the best food in the country in this part of the world right now, access to great ingredients and phenomenal fresh seafood and I think we’re about to see something happening in Savannah that is akin to what we’ve been seeing in Charleston.”

For Carter—who cut his teeth as executive chef at the Inn at Palmetto Bluff (now Montage Palmetto Bluff) and the Ritz Carlton Naples—it used to be anything but easy to make a farm-to-table restaurant gain traction in the region, as he found out when he first opened Farm in nearby Bluffton back in 2016.

“Farm was tough in the beginning. There really wasn’t anything like it in the area yet,” Carter said. “It’s less expensive for me to buy products that are produced in other countries and then shipped here, but we stayed true to our mission and we built this Farm family that is ride or die.”

the grey foie gras and grits

The Grey’s foie gras and grits.  Chia Chong

One could argue that the groundwork for places like Fleeting and Common Ground has been years in the making. Just like it seems you can’t discuss popular Southern food cities without bringing up Charleston, you also can’t explore Savannah’s food scene without talking about Mashama Bailey and Johno Morisano at the Grey.

The Grey opened in a deserted 1938 Greyhound Bus Terminal in 2014 and accolades have poured in since. Bailey serves what she calls Port City Southern food—a cuisine that’s rooted in Southern ingredients but not closed off from the world that has passed through this old coastal town. It’s a model of Southern cooking that embraces global influences which has gained purchase here. Bailey’s dishes like foie and grits, sizzling smoky pig and smashed potatoes with brewer’s yeast have kept diners coming time and again over the years. The Grey’s arrival—along with Cotton & Rye opening not long after—helped establish Savannah’s culinary scene, and it only continues to grow.

“We are beginning to see more restaurateurs and chefs taking chances on Savannah,” co-founder and managing partner of Grey Spaces Morisano told Robb Report. “For a long time, the food scene was a bit static but that’s not the case anymore.”

The scene now extends beyond the city’s historic district. The Starland District—part of a revitalization project by two graduates Savannah College of Art and Design— is not only home to a budding contingent of artists and entrepreneurs, but Starland Yards offers a rotating roster of some of the city’s most beloved food trucks and local favorites like Pizzeria Vittoria.

“I think the South has really been on fire from a food and culture perspective and you have to give a lot of that ode to Charleston and chef’s like Sean Brock (Husk) and Mike Lata (Fig) who really started putting this region on the map,” chef Kyle Jacovino of Pizzeria Vittoria said.

An early adopter of Savannah’s Starland District, Jacovino, a disciple of the slow food movement, is also in the process of opening Lucía, a neighborhood pasta concept that he hopes to unveil this spring or summer.

Turning out Pizzeria Vittoria, a finished pizza with accoutrements

Andrew Thomas Lee

One of the most hotly anticipated restaurant openings also slated for later this year is Andrew Brochu’s Brochu’s Family Tradition in the Starland District.  Brochu said his aim is to deconstruct the concept of fine dining by serving five star food in an approachable setting.

“In order to have a one-Michelin-star meal that blows your mind, I started thinking, do you need nice lights and a beautiful design, or can you find a space and can you still cook at the same level without so much overhead, and I kept coming to the same answer of: yes.”

In 2018, Brochu, who came up as a chef working in Michelin-starred restaurants and ran the kitchen at Roister for Alinea Group, was in the process of opening a similar concept for his restaurant in Chicago. But, when the project fell through and Covid-19 reared its ugly head, Brochu said he and his wife, Sophie, took a step back to reevaluate.

“For once we took a step back and said, ‘You know what, let’s see what happens.’”

Brochu said that step eventually led them moving down to Savannah where he and wife have family, and after finding the right space for their reimagined high-end casual restaurant concept in Starland District, the stars all started to align.

“I just want it to be a place that you can go, where you can come in a get a fried chicken sandwich and you can sit at the bar and you can hang out and have a good time, or if you want to come in and really do it up, you can order all the seafood you want and make it a high-brow meal if you like,” Brochu said. “There’s this groundwork that’s being laid for a phenomenal food scene here, and we’re just happy that we can come in and contribute to that and hopefully be a positive influence on what’s gonna happen in the years to come.”

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