I love my new home of Jacksonville. I love its rivers, its coastline, its bridges, its skyline, and its schizophrenic identity crisis. However, there are occasions when I do travel outside of my beloved Duuuuuvaaaal. And when I do, I eat. This is the first in a series of what I call “Day Trip” Restaurant Reviews; quick reviews of restaurants within a short-ish drive from Home Sweet Jax. For my first installment in this series, my dining partner and I travelled to Savannah, GA, my old hometown, and an easy 2-hour drive straight up I-95 North.
Savannah exudes traditional southern charm and is known for its beautiful downtown squares, its Spanish moss draped oak trees lining the streets, and of course the late, great Lady Chamblis. It’s also starting to become a bit of a player in the foodie scene, recently ranked #12 on Zagat’s Hottest Food Cities of 2016.
Since most of my family still lives in Savannah, I try to make as many trips as I can. However, I usually don’t eat out due to the greatness of my grandmother’s authentic Filipino cooking. And she’s always cooking. I’ll literally walk in the door, and the first thing she’ll say is, “Oh hi! Come, eat!” But on this weekend trip, I had to break her heart and tell her I wasn’t eating dinner with the rest of the family for the weekend. I was on a mission; a mission to bring you great restaurant recommendations in my old stomping grounds.
8 Gateway Blvd
Savannah, GA 31419
Open daily 4p – 10p
One type of dish Savannah is known for is its Lowcountry Boil. The Shellhouse Restaurant does that one thing, and does it well, serving some of the best crab legs, shrimp, oysters, and crawfish in the city. My dining partner kept things simple and ordered a pound of crab legs while I ordered the crab leg and crawfish combo. The combo is one full pound of steamed crab legs and one full pound of boiled crawfish. It’s also served with two sides. I chose smoked sausage and potato salad. It is a mighty heap of food, so make sure you wear your stretchy pants. The crab legs came out fresh and hot. They crack open with a satisfying crunch and the meat gives way easily. But best of all, they show zero signs of being water logged and flimsy like the ones you may find at an all-you-can-eat buffet where the crab legs might have been sitting in a hotel pan of lukewarm water for hours. The crawfish are equally as delicious. Everything is dusted with Old Bay seasoning, and to me, tastes like home. This placed is packed on a daily basis. If you don’t want to wait around for an hour or so for a table, get there early.
Vinnie Van Go Go’s
317 W Bryan St
Savannah, GA 31401
Mon – Thur 4p – 11:30p
Fri – Sat 12p – 12a
Sun 12p – 11:30p
Vinnie’s is practically an institution in Savannah. It’s been around for over 25 years and you won’t find a better NY-style foldable pizza slice anywhere in The Coastal Empire. It was a favorite spot of mine growing up. It’s located a few blocks from historic River Street in an area called City Market. I like to compare City Market to the downtown shopping area of St Augustine with its little shops and tourist-y stores, but with less flooding when it rains. Vinnie’s is a small space and it serves a small menu. No specialty pizzas here. Toppings are a la carte with a basic cheese pizza starting at about $12 and toppings at about $1.50 to $2 per topping. Pizzas can be ordered whole or by the slice. They also serve calzones and salads. My favorite pizza is a simple cheese pizza. Vinnie’s pizza is fantastic. The sauce is fresh and the cheese has a wonderful little saltiness and has a nice stretch to it like you see in pizza commercials. The crust is a nice combination of crispiness and toothsome chew. The little burnt spots on the bottom add a nice bitterness to the overall taste. Bottom line, if you want the best pizza in town and can tolerate trying to find a place to park in downtown Savannah, Vinnie’s is the place to go. Oh, almost forgot. . .bring cash, because Vinnie’s doesn’t take plastic.
109 Martin Luther King Jr Blvd
Savannah, GA 31401
Lunch served Tues – Sat 11:30a – 2p
Dinner served Sun, Tues – Thur 5:30p – 10p
I tend to eat at high-end places rarely. I have a mortgage and car payment. But this was a special occasion. The Grey has only been opened since 2015, but has already racked up accolades nationwide with a James Beard nomination for Best New Restaurant and Restaurant Design in 2015. I’ve read the press releases and rave reviews so I was excited to eat here. The Grey occupies a space that used to be a 1930’s art deco designed Greyhound bus station. For first time restaurateur John Morisano, and executive chef Mashama Bailey, it was important to retain the design history behind this abandoned space. The Grey kept the original floor plan and the walls of the bus station and designed the restaurant around those things. In the front, the bus station used to have a 24-hour diner. The Grey transformed this into the “Diner Bar” serving drinks, lunch, and an abbreviated dinner menu. Walking past the diner bar, you’ll see the kitchen to the right, which used to be the ticket counter. Inside the main dining room, nods to the old bus station are still there with gate numbers painted above the 3 large windows on the right side of the dining room. The Grey has so embraced its art deco heritage, the Chrysler Building is jealous. It’s a beautiful space designed with purpose and preservation.
As I said, I rarely go to high-end restaurants, but since this was a special occasion, we went all out. We ordered a charcuterie board, an appetizer, and an entrée. For the charcuterie you can choose any combination of 3 meats and 3 cheeses. We chose classic prosciutto and lissome cheese. Joining the party were slices of wheat bread, spicy mustard, honey, watermelon cubes, and cornichons. The lissome cheese is a soft cheese; kind of a cross between havarti and taleggio; buttery, a little acidic, and tangy. It paired nicely with the prosciutto and when combined together on a slice of bread with smear of the spicy mustard; fantastic. The watermelon added a nice diversion to the salty meat and tangy cheese combination. Also, I never dipped watermelon in honey before, but from now on, a drizzle of honey will go on every slice of watermelon I eat. After the charcuterie, the server brought out an amuse bouche of 3 flaky biscuits about the size of a quarter laid in a tiny dipping dish of spiced blackberry jam. Perfect little bites to get the appetite going had the charcuterie not already got the engines revving.
For our appetizer we ordered the octopus. It’s seasoned with harissa, grilled, and beautifully plated; served in a lima bean puree with pickled onions and celery. It was grilled perfectly. The texture was firm, but not tough. It cut easily, almost steak-like in quality. There was a nice chew to it. I don’t eat harissa much, so it took me by surprise with its heat, but after about 3 or 4 bites, my palate adjusted.
For our entree, my dining partner and I decided to share the Ribeye for Two. It’s a 28-day aged bone-in ribeye, grilled to your liking, and served simply with compound butter. It’s sold at market price by the ounce with a 20-ounce minimum all the way up to 40-ounces or so. On this day, it was $2.60/ounce. For the two of us, we ordered a 25-ounce portion. Here’s where it got tricky. My dining partner and I like our steaks cooked on complete opposite sides of the spectrum. I love my steaks cooked as God intended, just this side of mid-rare. My dining partner likes hers medium well to well, which would be a crime against humanity ordering a gorgeous steak like this medium well. So we compromised and ordered medium. The steak actually came out to be the best of both worlds. This steak had to be a good inch and a half thick, so the outer portions came out to a perfect medium temp, while some spots closer to the bone came out to be more on the mid-rare, almost like a medium mid-rare, if there’s such a thing. We both were able to enjoy the steak at just about the temp we both liked. And it tasted fantastic. This was probably the beefiest tasting steak I’ve ever put in my mouth. It was seasoned simply with salt, pepper, and the compound butter. It was so tender; I didn’t need a steak knife. It melted on my tongue like butter and filled my mouth with juicy, steak-y goodness. As I ate it, I felt the noise of the world around me slowly mute itself as I closed my eyes, slowly chewed, and enjoyed what must have been an exceptionally raised cow.
Like any high-end restaurant, sides come a la carte. For our side, we chose the Smashed New Potatoes. The potatoes are served with brewer’s yeast, sour cream, and scallions. The potatoes were cooked whole, and then smashed. The result is a tender, fluffy potato with a nice crispy skin. It was a great contrast in textures.
At the end of the meal, we were given another amuse bouche for dessert. A Popsicle made from pureed peaches and lemon juice. It was served in a small cup, similar to the ones attached to the top of a bottle of NyQuil. It was a refreshing end to the meal and sort of changed my mind about ordering dessert. Might want to rethink that menu decision.
The Grey was easily the highlight of my trip and I recommend everyone go at least once. If you plan to go, make reservations as they are consistently booked every night.
I came to Savannah to eat and eat I did. It’s great to revisit old familiars like Vinnie Van Go Go’s and The Shellhouse as well as discover new favorites such as The Grey. Next time you’re in Savannah, whether for a day or for the weekend, and your belly starts to rumble, check out these 3 establishments. Eat your fill and leave your thoughts in the comments section.