WITH THE RECENT opening of a Starbucks at the corner of Skidaway Road and Victory Drive, Eastsiders looking for a gathering place with a local flavor have yet another option to add to a growing list of choices.
Yes, you read that right. A corporate coffee joint described as having a local flavor.
Although the familiar Starbucks branding indicators are in plain sight all through the café, the 1950’s-era building is a gem of Savannah architecture that’s been woefully underused and under-appreciated in the past several decades.
The building was designed by a team comprising Savannah architects Helfrich & Grantham and property developer David Morrison, according to Morrison’s daughter, Lisa Van Dusen, co-owner and manager of Crossroads Shopping Center.
“It’s been in the family and in business since 1953,” says Van Dusen. “It’s based on a Frank Lloyd Wright design my father saw” at the Lloyd-designed Auld Brass Plantation in South Carolina. Building materials include Savannah grey brick and redwood exterior beams.
The building is on an outparcel of the larger shopping center. Van Dusen reports that the corner building predates the rest of the development, and was constructed on the former site of “an old English cottage,” that was the home of Our House Restaurant.
Our House, owned by Jim Casey and Herb Traub, was a drive-in hamburger place, “which was a new concept at that time” says Van Dusen. Although she recalls that the current building was constructed for continued use as Our House, Traub’s brother Steve Traub believes that Our House never operated in the “new” building.
Herb Traub, who died in March, owned four restaurants with Casey. Each establishment enjoyed a loyal following with Savannah diners. In addition to Our House, the pair owned the Harvest House on Highway 17, the Triple X Drive In on Victory Drive across from Grayson Stadium, and The Pirate’s House, which gained national acclaim after Herb Traub assumed sole ownership.
The Helfrich/Grantham/Morrison designed-building was used as a branch of a local bank for many years but then stood in a state of well-tended vacancy for decades, until an independent coffee house opened there in the early 2000’s. The sole remnant of that enterprise is a large map of the coast of Georgia on the western interior wall, a touch of local emphasis rarely seen in chain business outlets.
Starbucks isn’t lacking in thriving nearby dining establishments. Several well-established, locally owned operations dot Skidaway Road, ranging in longevity from barely a year old to generations in the making.
Just a few blocks north of Victory Drive, Cosentino’s Italian Restaurant seems to draw consistent crowds. This rendition of Cosentino’s appeared on the Eastside last year, a few months after a shake up at their former downtown location. In its new venue, Cosentino’s has continued their reputation for flavorful dishes, hearty portions, and wallet-friendly pricing, with the welcome addition of cheerful, efficient, and profanity-free service.
A block or so to the south of Cosentino’s on Skidaway, the express side of Matt Cohen and Scott Gordon’s New South Café is a regular stop for a tasty, creative spin on meat-plus-two-sides southern classics, served on white tablecloths and ceramic plates with the speed usually reserved for drive-through, paper bag meals.
In the Crossroads Shopping Center, my favorite seat in The Breakfast Place is at the counter in front of the grill. From this spot I can watch manager and spatula-flipper Van Lin as he tosses omelettes and burgers, calls out table orders, and supervises the rest of the line and the wait staff. Many are his family members. Lin’s sister, Huong Tseng, is the owner.
The Breakfast Place clientele is a microcosm of the city, where tattooed artists, uniformed repair workers, retired couples and the occasional well-dressed alderwoman are all regulars of this former site of the Mai Wai Chinese restaurant.
Down Skidaway Road, longtime Eastside anchor Larry’s Restaurant offers stellar people-watching opportunities along with the daily meat and three menu choices. I miss running into one of Savannah’s best people to watch, the late Judge Frank Cheatham, who lunched at Larry’s every week with several of his friends. Larry himself is omnipresent at the cash register, in the spot once occupied by his father Tom--back when it was called “Tom’s Restaurant.”
Crossroad’s Shopping Center’s Van Dusen confirms that newcomer Starbucks has signed a long lease by commercial standards. No, that national coffee conglomerate will never be mistaken for local, but they are opening the doors on a building that’s been closed up for far too long.