SAVANNAH’S food and culture scene has been developing recently, and in the right way.
Savannah’s economy has been largely based on tourism and SCAD, and those markets seems to only grow larger and larger each year. Which leaves us locals wondering why we only have a portion of small businesses created with them in mind.
That being said, I have noticed over the last 12 months, a boom in local business dedicated to the people who live in this city past the tourist season and SCAD semesters. The culture of our city comes from those people who actually live here, and those who are dedicated to providing Savannah with a local community of individuals who want to see our city grow.
We locals have to take some form of responsibility for what businesses stay and which ones go because it all depends on where we spend our hard earned dollars.
So, despite at moments feeling disgruntled living in a city whose agenda seems sometime to be skewed towards the older demographic, I have a lot of hope for the days to come. Food is at the epicenter of culture, over the last year we have seen an injection of said culture, riding in on the coattails of some familiar and some new restaurant groups.
One of those establishments I’m most excited about being a cornerstone in my neighborhood is The Cotton and Rye. I got a chance to catch up with Kimberly Whitestone, the restaurant’s GM and beverage manager. She took some time away from her busy schedule to touch upon how their first year went, and how they feel contribute to the growing community and culture of Savannah.
With their team coming from Miami, the three partners all worked together in the city with the James Beard Award winning chef, Allen Susser. Working alongside each other with an award-winning chef gave them all a direct look into a few elements that make a successful restaurant.
Wanting to begin their own chapter, while attempting to avoid a city saturated with restaurants and bars, they decided after falling in love with our city, that Savannah was the place. But they went about it the right way, and instead of setting up in the heart of downtown, where they were guaranteed the tourist market immediately, they decided to move towards the Starland District where the locals have been creating a new hub for themselves.
In my opinion, one of the best decisions they made. “We really enjoy being with the locals,” Kimberly says. “Knowing our customers and establishing connections is part of who we are.”
Catering to the locals is how this establishment has continued to grow and develop their own identity which is part of the reason why as they move into their second year, they have become a place tourist plan to travel outside of downtown for.
“In the beginning there was about a 90/10 split between locals and tourists, but as time passed, we became more important to those tourists who are looking to see what makes Savannah, Savannah,” Kimberly says. “Now, we have about a 60/40 split between locals and tourists.”
And it seems as if a lot of their success could be contributed towards their attention to detail behind their walls. If you want to make an impression on the locals in town, you must actually have something we call integrity. This quality is what is lacking in most restaurants downtown, and could be contributed towards the heavy influx of tourism in that area.
Tourism, although can be great for a city’s economy and upward development, does something to the culture of a city that can be extremely detrimental for the locals who live here year round. So when I stumble upon restaurants like the Cotton & Rye, and I have the privilege to engage with some of the owners and see how hands on they all are in maintaining the integrity of their restaurant, it leaves me hopeful for the future of food in our city.
And you can’t just be a culinary beacon of light in a city hungry for its new identity, without having delicious food to build a foundation upon. The Cotton & Rye does a great job at sourcing the freshest ingredients from around the U.S., and because of that, each dish that comes of out of that kitchen is elevated in flavor.
Specifically in their interpretation of our city’s most popular dish; shrimp and grits. Canewater grits cooked to perfection with local shrimp, white wine, roma tomatoes, and house made bacon. Yes, you read that correctly, house made bacon. Served in a plate-sized cast iron pan. Definitely the best rendition of this dish I have tasted yet, no joke.
Tossed salad with a bacon sorghum dressing, adorned with grapes, blue cheese, pecans, and cornbread croutons. Keep in mind, I was given one of their seasonal cocktails which consisted of watermelon juice, mint syrup, and rum, as I continued to feast on their amazing bread in between courses.
We chose the fried chicken thigh as our main; it came with mac and cheese and a spicy honey to dip or drizzle. I couldn’t finish. I could feel the bread expanding in my stomach.
Then we were offered dessert, and once my eyes locked onto what they call their “Candy Bar” I couldn’t walk away from this experience without knowing how it tasted; and I was not disappointed. Their housemade version of a Twix bar, with caramel in between shortbread, covered with chocolate served on a pillow of whipped cream. I honestly didn’t think I was going to make it, but once I did, I couldn’t have been more pleased.
This is honestly the place all locals, like myself, have been waiting for. We needed a low key place away from the madness, where we could have a nice dinner with our significant other. Or a lunch with the family or friends. We as locals are always trying to avoid the tourist traps, which is why we have to support the places that are the change we seek. Places that source locally, have been grown locally, and are driven to be a hub for the locals, are the spots we should be spending our money.
It is our job as locals to seek out and support those who support us. Cotton & Rye are another restaurant we can add to that list. And as they approach the beginning of their second year, I believe they are beginning to really feel their place as a staple in our community. Let’s keep stirring that pot, people.