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Cuisine: Back from the ashes
McDonough’s attempts to reopen in time for St. Patrick’s Day

“I was devastated,” he recalls. “I thought the entire building would go.”

On Aug. 4, 2007, just shy of 3 a.m., Billy Lee’s phone rings, awakening him from a dead sleep. He must have hoped it was only a nightmare. But the third of three phone-calls within two minutes confirmed it was no such thing.

His historic building, originally built in 1850,, home of McDonough’s (a restaurant and lounge) and Billy’s Place (a fine dining restaurant), was engulfed in flames.

“They didn’t think they were going to be able to save the building,” Lee remembers.

Ignited by a cigarette in the office/lounge on the second floor adjacent to Billy’s Place, the fire tore through the second floor apartment, the entire third floor (Billy Lee’s living quarters and guest apartments), and down through the original side of McDonough’s, taking out the bar and kitchen.

Billy’s Place and the other side of McDonough’s were not compromised, managing to escape with only smoke damage due to firewall suspension and the historic brick wall dividing the two sides of McDonough’s.

Driving on Drayton heading downtown, you can’t help but look to the broken building on your left hope for progress or some sign of reemergence. It was a landmark in Savannah.

Billy Lee wanted to open “a place for everyone.” That doesn’t sound like much, but it’s no easy task. And he managed to do it.

Savannah is a pretty diverse city, from the born and raised locals, to the military, to the artists and SCAD students. But most birds tend to stay in their flock when it comes to nightlife, because that’s where they feel the most comfortable.

But Billy Lee’s building was different. Between McDonough’s and Billy’s Place, it was one big pot of Savannah stew. All the ingredients standing quite alone in taste, but when mixed together, it simply worked perfectly.

A typical night there I walk in and there’s a couple of natives on the original side of McDonough’s. I walk through to the second side, which he opened about ten years ago (formally a pool room before bringing in the karaoke system) where I find a table full of SCAD students and a table of infantry guys.

The karaoke MC starts the music up and sings a few numbers to warm up the crowd. Less than an hour later, the locals next door mingle towards the music and find a table to watch the entertainment when they hear a near perfect performance of “Proud Mary” by one of the regular vocalists.

Another 30 minutes later, a SCAD architect student, an Army sergeant, and a maybe one of Billy Lee’s friends from grade school are on the stage together singing “Tiny Dancer.” They met maybe ten minutes ago.

Now here are a few couples wandering in, wearing dresses and suits, who just finished an evening of fine dining and live blues/piano entertainment upstairs in Billy’s Place, Billy’s most recent addition in 2006 as an upscale option.

So in answer to the question everyone has been asking since August 4: When will McDonough’s and Billy’s Place reopen? After a six-month standstill waiting for the building permit to start the process, they have been in full force for the past month, working hard to have both establishments open and serving for St. Patrick’s Day.

But the construction we’ve been persistently stalking is more than just reconstruction. “Renovation” describes it more appropriately, as Billy has made some major changes.

Would you believe me if I told you the “best burger” from the downstairs menu and the Filet Mignon from the fine dining menu upstairs were both prepared in McDonough’s original kitchen? They managed to operate out of one small kitchen, and they did it quite well. It’s amazing.

But with the fire comes an opportunity to make life a little easier. What used to be the apartment and office on the second floor is now becoming a full-service kitchen for Billy’s Place. Although the new kitchen will probably not be ready for St. Patrick’s Day, Billy may do things the old way, until it’s ready to go. Based on his history of success, that shouldn’t be a problem.

McDonough’s is at 21 E. McDonough St., 233-6136.