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New year, new Soho
Iconic café reveals sparkling updates and familiar favorites
Comfortable and consistent: "We really tried to keep the idea and put it in our own style," general manager Tess Riter says.

Soho South Café, 12 W. Liberty, (912) 233-1633

Add it to the list of First World Problems, but when Soho South Café closed its doors this fall, there was much chagrin among the ladies who lunch.

It may not rank up there with global hunger or the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, but the loss of one of Savannah's loveliest midday meal spots was a real issue. Where else can a person linger amongst fabulous art over a grilled three-cheese sandwich and bowl of that delectable tomato bisque?

Fortunately for the deprived, the closure was temporary. After 17 years at the corner of Liberty and Whitaker, former owners Bill and Bonnie Retsas had relinquished the reigns of their restaurant to Daniel Reed Hospitality, the group behind ultra-hip hangouts Local11Ten and Public. The new proprietors shuttered the space under a shroud of secrecy and recently revealed their revamped version of Soho South Café in December.

From the looks of the crowded hostess station on a Wednesday afternoon, the ladies who lunch are delighted to be back.

"What people liked about the old place is that it was so comfortable and consistent," says general manager Tess Riter.

"We really tried to keep the idea and put in our own style."

That doesn't mean there aren't some sweeping aesthetic changes. Gone are the kitchsy indoor umbrellas and cluttered bookcases that evoked a day at your grandmother's beach house. Ditto for the mannequin suspended from the ceiling. Creative director Robby Perkins, the design prodigy behind the sleek modern redesign of Local11Ten's Perch rooftop bar, clearly tailored the update around the raw potential of this former historic gas station.

Now glowing with natural light, the space is embraced by exposed trusses and distressed brick walls, sparingly decorated with reclaimed window frames and a selection of sweeping canvasses by local artist Alexandro Santana. Roll-up garage doors give a chic industrial vibe, balanced by feminine touches of woven baskets and dried flowers.

The effect is in keeping with the Retsas' original theme of New York City bohemia-meets-Southern hospitality. Grandma's quirky collection of mismatched tables and chairs remain, though they're now dappled with sunlight coming through a series of square skylights (were those really there all along?!) The dining room feels at once fresh and familiar, overseen by the dashing presence of a giant subway clock.

"People tell us how glad they are that we kept the clock. It's actually new," laughs Riter. "But it's a pretty great compliment that the design seems so seamless."

Also minimally interrupted is the menu. Executive chef Brandy Williamson has made a few minor changes but has thankfully remained loyal to the original offerings of casual, Southern-inspired cuisine peppered with signature delicious quirks: There are those who travel thousands of miles just for the Andalusian Rice & Chicken Salad, featuring a mountain of organic chicken flavored with tomato-pesto mayo, roasted peppers, green peas and raisins. The sweet-and-savory Monte Cristo — loaded with ham, turkey, bacon and topped with powdered sugar and strawberry sauce — continues to be the stuff of legend. Forever popular is the aforementioned Soho Combo, a perfectly grilled cheese and a bowl of tomato bisque soup.

If those in your party are hankering for more than quiches, salads and sweets, heartier appetites will find satisfaction in the grass-fed burger and the club croissant. Most lunch entrees run around ten bucks and include a side, though you'll pay an extra $1.50 for a cup of that famous soup. Soho's Sunday brunch, served 11a.m.-2 p.m., remains a Savannah institution.

Perhaps the most dramatic change to this favorite lunch spot is the addition of dinner. Open Thursday-Saturdays for now, the offerings include bistro-style steak, grilled pork loin, a traditional Lowcountry boil and lunch menu favorites. Entrées are in the pricier range but still reasonable at $11-$24, and the Grilled Head-On North Carolina River Trout just might develop its own devoted following.

Also new is a full-service bar up front. Attentive mixologists serve up a mouth-watering array of original libations, including the Vicious Circle (rye whiskey, vermouth, pineapple juice and peach bitters) and the dangerously delicious Savannah Mint Julep (a concoction of fresh muddled mint leaves, rye, cognac and peach liqueur.)

Best of all, the once-verboten parking lot on the side of the building is now open for customers. It's a privately-supervised, pay-at-the-ticket-machine type of deal, and take heed: Just because it's not owned by the city doesn't mean you won't get towed.

Reservations are taken for dinner and Sunday brunch, but on weekdays tables are first come, first serve. You may have to lounge at the bar while you wait, but don't fret: The ladies who lunch are a friendly bunch.