I first met James Levens a few years ago. He was the chef at a spot long since closed on MLK Jr. Blvd called Spare time. Great food, maybe bad timing. A couple of years perhaps ahead of the curve in Savannah with their food offerings and the craft cocktails. James, a Savannah guy, Johnson High grad had paid a hand full of dues at all kinds of places including a few in New York City’s Gramercy Tavern. He came back, he told me at the time, for a lot of reasons. Not the least of which was the fact that Savannah’s food scene was beginning to show some signs of growth. So he stayed around for a while.
James bounced around as chefs sometimes do. He’d pop up here or there. Even did a few pop up dinners here and there. I often referred to him as the most talented chef in Savannah without a regular gig. As an Executive Chef, that is.
About 2 years ago he put together another sold out pop-up dinner at The Collins Quarter. That was the first time I asked him why he didn’t have his own place yet. Of course, there are generally a half-million answers to that question that more times than not tend to circle back around to an inability to raise a half-million dollars. I figured really that it was only a matter of time before he ended up in his own space. Now that time has come.
The Diplomat Luncheonette is that space and it is a few paperwork items away from becoming a reality on Drayton Street. Three doors down from The Original Pinkie Masters at Drayton and Harris Streets.
“Matt (Garapolo-co-owner at Pinkie Masters) and I had talked about doing something a few years ago.” James tells me. “We got serious about something last year, but it just didn’t work out.”
James says Matt brought the issue back up a few months ago. Bounced the idea of something small right there next door to The Original. The discussions got a little more serious and he figured this was his next move. “It was too good of an opportunity.” he says. Also admitting that being a co-owner of something here in Savannah was something he’d been chasing for a while.
“There’s nothing fancy about it. It’s counter service. No waiters or waitresses.” He says. “Right now we’ve got 4-5 sandwiches. Some salads.” Sounds small, huh? “We’ve got 4 seats.”
The effort is going into the product. James has been at Smith Brothers Butcher Shop the last year and change baking his own breads and making some great sandwiches. He’ll be baking fresh focaccia and a “Dutch Crunch” which he describes as a sourdough with a crunchy exterior. Was the experience at Smith Brothers his motivation to do something similar at The Diplomat?
“Not at all.” he says through a laugh. “The space is just so small, we can’t do much else in there.”
“We are going to make everything in house. Sauces. Roasted vegetable plates, salads. All of it grab and go.” James tells me. “You can walk around the corner and eat in Lafayette Square or any of the other squares in the neighborhood.”
Beyond the few sandwiches, he’s hoping to roll out some weekend specials. “Maybe we’ll do a Mexican themed weekend. Then an Asian weekend. I don’t know. We are going to mix it up.” There aren’t many details on what kind of sandwiches they are going to offer. Right now, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that there will be another option for a quick lunch South of Liberty Street downtown. As it stands, there aren’t too many.
It should be stated very clearly that The Diplomat Luncheonette is going to be just that. The plan right now is to open from 11am until 6pm. However, because they believe there is a built in clientele next door at The Original, they are likely to have a 10pm until 2am shift. For the time being, they will be closed between 6pm and 10pm. “We’ll just have to see how it goes at first.” he says. Makes all the sense in the world.
The timetable on their opening is a moving target. A lot of their infrastructure is in place. He says they are pretty much “ready to go.” Once a few details get ironed out with the city, they could be up and running very quickly. Of course, the city is involved. That probably means it could a day or it could take slightly more than a day. Keep tabs on them via Facebook for now. And, of course, we’ll keep you posted.
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