In a city full of pretty women, she is arguably the prettiest. She kind of sits off to the side, minding her own business, waiting for people to come and talk to her. You won’t find her standing up at the front of the room waving. Rarely, anyway. She stays closer to the back. She’s friendly, beautiful and charming to anyone who comes up to talk to her, but she-like anyone else-has fought through some flaws. As a result, some people stay away. Perception then becomes reality. The next thing you know, the room misses out on how great she can be. When was the last time you walked through The Mansion on Forsyth Park? You are not alone. As beautiful as the property is, the draw isn’t obvious.
If you talk to anyone who remembers when The Mansion opened in April of 2005, they’ll all tell you it was absolutely the next big thing. Driving down Drayton Street, the locals remember asking themselves ‘now how are they going to make a hotel look like that house on the corner?’ The house was an old funeral home that had closed. The challenge was to make the brand new hotel look like it had been there since 1888, like the house. You just have to know there were some challenges. After all, the hotel sits inside Savannah’s Landmark Historic District. On it’s Southernmost edge, but inside nonetheless. Since then, you’d talk about The Mansion to anyone who remembers the beginning 8 years ago and there weren’t too many locals who had a whole lot of nice things to say. Yes, the property was absolutely, spectacularly gorgeous, as all Kessler Properties are, but there was always something missing. Some say the menu was a bit over the top for 2005 Savannah, others will tell you the service was lacking in one spot or another. She was the prettiest girl in town at the time, but she was a bit standoffish. As a result, the locals have stayed away. At least in the kind of numbers that were hoped for when 700 Drayton Restaurant opened. There have been management changes and there have been menu overhauls. For whatever reason, 700 Drayton hasn’t been able to break through on Savannah’s restaurant scene. Has it been the first place you’ve recommended to someone who asks where they should go eat? Probably not, but that should change. The pretty girl is in the middle of a makeover she knows she has to have if you are going approach her for a chat.
Joe Kelley is the General Manager at The Mansion on Forsyth Park. He’s been on the job since June of 2012. His resume includes stops in Aruba, Beaver Creek, Colorado and Santa Fe. Chatting over coffee he shares the fact that knows the property has had a fair share of challenges. “It’s not just in here” he says, referring to the décor inside 700 Drayton Restaurant, “But the things you don’t see as well have needed to be addressed.” He talks about a leaky roof, he talks about windows that aren’t sealed properly, he talks about a ton of money that the Kessler Family is investing in making The Mansion perfect. “But we have to fix the infrastructure, before we can move to the inside.” he says. The general public, however, doesn’t want to hear that. They want great food, at a great price with great service if they are going to get dolled up to visit “The Mansion.” He is well aware of that. “We also want to make it more inviting for the lunch crowd.” Mr. Kelley says. It’s easy to see how that could be an issue. While the interior of the restaurant was beautifully done, it doesn’t exactly scream ‘quick lunch during a day of sightseeing.’ or ‘good spot for a quick business lunch.’ That is all part of the plan to change the mood going forward. “There will be some changes.” he says. “We want to re-design the entry coming in. Change the furniture. Not as bulky. Lighten it up a little bit. We want to be more approachable.”
Of course, being approachable is only part of the equation. If the food doesn’t measure up, then all bets are off. Chef Geir Kilen comes to Savannah from Atlanta where he was the Executive Chef of the Commerce Club. He just launched a new menu and will be making adjustments heading into the Fall. The Blue Cheese Crusted Filet with Balsamic Braised Onions and Blue Cheese Grits is one of the best I’ve had in Savannah. That’s not all. I’ve visited 700 Drayton a couple of times the last few months and they are doing a very nice job with their food. Some traditional dishes like Fried Green Tomatoes and Crab Cakes. Other dishes not as traditional like the New Zealand Venison Loin. The cocktails are creative and tasty upstairs at Casimir’s Lounge (my vote for prettiest bar in town). “We are learning a little more about the people in Savannah and what they like.” Chef tells me. His menu is evolving as such. The locals in this city can be a tough nut to crack. You may get a couple of chances to impress, but after a while you are going to have to work harder to earn another look. With that in mind, Mr. Kelley has increased his presence in the community to a higher level than many of his predecessors that I can recall.
Still, shaking a few hands and placing a few ads can only do so much to change public perception. Not only of The Mansion on Forsyth Park as a whole, but the inside of 700 Drayton Restaurant as well. The property is beautiful, their wedding business and banquets are booming. They still operate the café across the street in Forsyth Park and are looking to enhance that experience as well. The menu is wonderful, the focus on training the staff, I’m told, is constant. “We are constantly doing culture training, for the Kessler culture.” Mr. Kelley says. They’ve hired a Public Relations firm to help them deliver the message that The Mansion on Forsyth Park belongs in the conversation with some of the finer properties in the region. They are already known for Chef Darin Sehnert’s Cooking School on property, which is consistently among Trip Advisors top activities in Savannah. The message is spreading, but ultimately, they’ll need to back it up and Joe Kelley knows this. “We’re here to stay.” he says. “My wife and I have purchased a home here and we are in this for the long term.”
So why isn’t she among the first to be asked to dance? Should she be? Or is she the same person we’ve known since April of 2005? Time will ultimately prove that, but you should definitely ask.