It was hard not to choke on the sawdust. It was everywhere. As was the activity. Ten to twenty workers in hard hats with a purpose. No question. It’s almost as if there is a deadline on the horizon. “We’d like to be open by St. Patrick’s Day”, he said.
Of course he would.
There’s not a restaurant owner in this city that hasn’t used those words to me. In fact, I would argue it is the most common phrase in Savannah right after “Sweet or Unsweetened.” I mean, seriously, it could be April 1st or February 25th and the answer is always the same. The doors need to be open for Savannah’s most lucrative holiday. It’s no different at Sorry Charlie’s on Ellis Square.
Savannaians all know the façade. Facing Ellis Square from the East. If you are old enough, you remember when people actually ate and drank in there. Back in the day when the restaurant faced that institutional green of an eye sore parking garage. Once upon a time, the Deen family had their eye on it, with BBQ in mind. “We looked at it”, Jamie tells me. “But at the time it was just too much for me and Bobby to handle”, he says. There is no question it was a major project. Those of us that walked by saw cracks in the foundation. We saw it on the news. No one would touch the building. It was an eyesore really. All of that is gone now and what is about to become of the space should make anyone smile from ear to ear. Same name, same neon sign hanging on the side of the building, but a new attitude about seafood and a new attitude about Savannah’s culinary future.
“It took all of three years to get through the process”, says Harley Krinskey, one of the owners of the project. He’s part of a group that owns Congress Street Social Club up the road, so he knows the area well. “It was worse than we thought, but we tackled it head on and are looking forward to being a bright spot on the square.”
One can only imagine what it took to bring that building “back to life”. There was structural damage. There were concerns about the foundation. The bank had to be happy with the findings and the plans for repair. It was a tedious process over thirty-six or so months, but this group is most excited about the fact that it is done. As well as what will be going on inside once they open.
What they are building is a seafood spot that Savannah hasn’t seen yet. But the plan is to answer the most asked question by tourists in the city. “Where do we go for seafood?” “I’m downtown every day, all day and I get asked all the time. It’s a hard question to answer”, says Krinskey. I’ve been asked that question a few thousand times myself. We have some excellent seafood selections in Savannah, no question. But a signature seafood restaurant? That’s missing and that’s the plan for Sorry Charlie’s.
“We want to give it more of an authentic feel”, he says. “Oysters and seafood done right, staying away from a lot of the fried aspect.” When I asked the two chefs involved in the process if they were shooting for something like Ford Frye’s The Optimist in Atlanta, or Charleston’s The Ordinary, which are among the best seafood spots in the South, I got a “yes” and a “no.” Something higher end than you will typically get in a heavy tourist area, yes. As fine dining as those places can be? No. “I think Pearl Dive in Washington D.C. is a better comparison.” A quick “Google” of that spot reveals something slightly more casual than the previous two mentions, but I wouldn’t expect chicken finger baskets and fried shrimp at Sorry Charlie’s. Not the target demo. At all.
Dean Neff is the chef that was brought on to oversee the kitchen. The story there is interesting if you can follow this tangled web. A few years back, Neff ran the show at Hugh Acheson’s very popular 5&10 in Athens. While at 5&10, he met and worked with another chef, Cameron Cheney. Neff moved on to North Carolina, Cheney came to Savannah. Neff was hired as a consultant to oversee the Sorry Charlie’s project. When he found out his former co-worker Cheney was also in Savannah, they connected the dots and brought him on board. Incidentally, the chef that replaced Neff at 5&10 was Kyle Jacovino. Kyle is now running the show at The Florence on Victory Drive in Savannah. Clear as mud right? Of course it is. At the end of the day, it’s Neff’s menu that has been developed. Cheney will be the man on the ground in Savannah adding his own touches.
The plan is to source as much as they can locally. Of course everyone says that, but the hope is to honor the area’s seafood history. The raw brick inside will stay that way to give it that “Savannah” feel. “It’s the oldest row of commercial buildings in Georgia. Built in 1817”, says Krinskey. “The construction inside is amazing. It was a fun project to take apart and reconstruct.” A historic feel with forward thinking seafood. Certainly not the only place in town doing that, but the first to fill a big void in a long empty space downtown.
Within three to five years, they are hoping to grow into the 2nd and 3rd floors. Event space, catering space. It’s all part of the big picture plan. “Eventually we’d like a rooftop bar overlooking Ellis Square”, Krinskey tells me. That’ll be a while. In the meantime, the plan is to be running in some capacity by St. Patrick’s Day. Limited menu. Then blow the doors off after that. We’ll certainly keep you posted.
See you on TV.