Date night Savannah: Bar Food, CO, river, Bohemian and Leopold’s

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We set out for a networking event last week, and found it was canceled. Woo! A reason to go out and try new places!

2015-06-18 18.00.06We'd been meaning to get to Bar Food for a while, but it's in a part of town we don't go to a lot, but it was right around the corner from our canceled event, so we went, had a beer and a snack. They have a solid selection of craft brews and the other usuals. I had a Two Boots, while Jenny had a cider. We shared a cheese board, which came with some toast, four cheeses, local honey, some pickles and strawberries. Great way to start the evening. The menu looked really good; the crowd was interesting — it's a contemporary, kind of hipster place, but the crowd leaned not exactly biker, but not exactly not biker.

We then headed downtown to another place that was on my list, CO, which recently opened in Savannah after having restaurants in Charleston and Myrtle Beach. Our server, Grace, soft-sold us some cucumber mojitos, which were light and refreshing on a 103-degree day. We had summer rolls and gyoza (pork dumplings) as appetizers — both delicious — and Jenny ordered some pad thai while I had a tiger roll, which their menu describes as "shrimp, surimi salad, cucumber, yamagobo, avocado, unagi sauce, spicy aioli." We were both very pleased with the meals, and with the overall atmosphere. We sat at the sushi bar, but there's also a bar in the front, some booths in the back, a couple of high tops and some long tables should you decide you might want to meet a couple of people. The electronic dance music was quiet and suited the space well. We'll be back, though we're worried this will become a hot spot and we won't be able to get a seat next time.

A photo posted by Josh Shear (@joshuanshear) on

Left, from top: Pork gyoza, cucumber mojito, summer roll. Right, from top: Pad thai with chicken and shrimp, tiger roll

With quite full bellies, we wandered on down to the river to sit for a bit. If you're ever wondering why we might have moved here, it's because we can park, walk and have this view about 330 nights a year.

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We finally decided after almost an hour to get up and visit a bar we'd gone to once and found it too crowded (at 10:00 on a Friday night). Rocks on the Roof at the Bohemian Hotel. The rooftop is open on two sides, one overlooking the Savannah River, and one overlooking the crowds on Bay Street and Founders Walk. We sat on the river side on a sofa and sipped a gin and tonic, and met a recently engaged couple. The electronic dance music seemed a little loud out of place for a space that's reminiscent of more of a jazz cocktail lounge, but it's still a cool spot.

Cute, happy and on a rooftop. #visitsavannah #savannah #datenight

A photo posted by Josh Shear (@joshuanshear) on

2015-06-18 21.47.03-1Our last stop for the night was, of course, at Leopold's. If you're new to the area or just visiting and the line out the door has turned you off, don't sweat it. The bend in the line at the curb is about a seven-minute wait, the ice cream is homemade and the soda fountain is basically the same as it was in 1930-whatever. I love the butter pecan ice cream, but pictured here is a dish of chocolate chewies and cream and a hot fudge sundae, which are both also delicious. They even have seasonal flavors; the Japanese cherry blossom is light and creamy and wonderful.

And apparently they also make good soups and such, but for now, we're happy working our way through the ice cream menu.

Where should we go next, Savannah?

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Gribble House


Six-year-old Thelma says hello to us at Gribble House.

In 1909, a triple ax murder took place at the downtown Savannah home of Eliza Gribble. The crime was never really solved. Just before she died, one of the victims said her husband, JC Hunter, did it, and he was tried and convicted, but then had his death sentence commuted to life in prison and he was later pardoned.

It seems Hunter walked with a cane and was in his 60s. You'd think one of the three victims could have gotten away.

The house was torn down at some point in the 1940s or '50s to make room for a warehouse, which still stands on that spot and is used for things like parking and charging Segways for tours.

And at night, the building opens for the Gribble House paranormal experience. It's no ordinary ghost tour.

First, you sit in a welcome room, where your guide for the night plays you some of the recordings made during some visits, and then you see this video from the show "Ghost Adventures."

And then you're invested with a flashlight, an AM transmitter, which apparently ghosts can manipulate, a K-II meter, an infrared thermometer and another sensor that lights up "when a presence is nearby" and "can be manipulated by a presence blinking the lights" — I'm putting that in quotes, because, well, I don't know what the actual science is and I don't know what this device was originally created for.

The guide brings you around to the places you're likely to find a presence, and lets you explore for an hour or so. Our K-II meters didn't do much of anything, but the other device lit up quite a few times, and we got some interesting audio out of the transmitter (hear a snippet at the top of the post).

Overall, it was fun. If you're in town, go enjoy the experience. And then you can walk down the street to Lulu's Chocolate Bar, where you can get something to eat or drink, like, say, a piece of pecan pie with some homemade caramel pecan ice cream.

Why [I] won’t be returning to Empire Brewing Co.

Update 4/7/13 — It's clear to me that I've gotten my point across with this post and my emails to the restaurant; I think I've had a healthy enough exchange with Empire, and that they've done enough to try to do right by me. As I mentioned in the original post, I think the restaurant does a lot of good for our local economy and environment, sourcing locally and being locally owned; I don't feel that leaving details of my negative experience up is really warranted. That's not to say I'll necessarily go back to Empire, but if you've had positive experiences there, by all means, you should continue to return.

So I've taken down the content of the post, but I'm going to leave the headline up and continue to allow comments.

Tasting Charleston: Boulevard Diner

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Shrimp and cheesy grits and fried pickle spears at Boulevard Diner.

Despite the fact that it's the last Tasting Charleston spot I'm writing about, Boulevard Diner was our first restaurant stop in Charleston. We stopped after a windy walk at Shem Creek, where we saw shrimp boats and pluff mud and piles of oysters sitting under the raised walkways.

The sweet tea was perfect, the fried pickles are always going to be an acquired taste (one I'm not likely to acquire, though I will admit to consuming them), but oh my, the shrimp and grits.

This is one of those places that is primarily an eatery for locals, including people who were clearly there on their lunch breaks, where the servers are friendly and the portions are ample.

I just can't tell you, though, how creamy and delicious those grits were. When you eat food and you suddenly feel like you're sitting in front of a fire drinking sherry and eating chocolate lava cake, even though it's clearly lunch, you know you got the right meal.

Like Black Bean Co., I wouldn't make Boulevard Diner a destination stop, but if you're in the area and looking for a place to go, you could do a whole lot worse.

Tasting Charleston: Black Bean Co.

While on the way to Folly Beach – because if it's semi-warm enough to walk on sand during the winter months, you do – we got hungry and, in an effort to umm, push through some of the fried southern cuisine we'd been eating, we stopped at the Black Bean Co., a local chain.

I ate a really tasty wrap with chicken, almonds, oranges, rice noodles, greens, goat cheese and a citrus vinaigrette, along with a side of couscous.

The food was good and light (much needed, the way we'd been eating), and was tasty. It wouldn't be worth mentioning, though, if I didn't say something about the ceiling fans, which are a series of a half dozen kayak paddles rotating on a pulley driven by a single motor at one end of the building.

It's clearly a restaurant that cares about the environment and the people it serves. I wouldn't call it a destination restaurant (don't go to Charleston and make it your one meal in town), but if you need a light lunch, go for it!

[Photo credit]

Tasting Charleston: Hyman’s Seafood


Photo from Hyman's Seafood

Hyman's Seafood is one of those tourist places that locals eat, sort of like Dinosaur Bar-B-Que in Syracuse. It's always busy, the hush puppies are amazing, and there's always an owner or manager around to come chat.

The gentleman that came to chat us up was an older fellow in a wide-brimmed hat, which he tipped at the ladies, and when he asked about business, he asked only of the men what we did. That's Old South; felt a lot different than we're used to up north, especially in a busy restaurant.

The restaurant is famous for its flounder, which some complain is bony because it's a whole flounder. There's a video on the restaurant's home page explaining how to eat it without worrying about bones. Pretty awesome.

By the time we got to Hyman's, I needed a break from fried foods (other than their hush puppies, of course &ndash they serve a basket for the table before your meal, much like Italian restaurants serve bread). I ate jerk shrimp with some mac & cheese, and tried am amber from Palmetto, a Charleston brewery that's been brewing since 1850.

The food was delicious, the atmosphere outstanding, and the beer was a nice, full-bodied ale that wasn't overly hoppy.

You'll also get a sticker as you're preparing to leave; they hand out between eight and twenty gift certificates a day at the Old Market to people seen wearing the stickers.

If you're in town, make it a stop (you were probably going to anyway).

Tasting Charleston: Waffle House

OK, so Waffle House is a national chain; in fact, if you're so inclined, it'll take you less than two hours from Syracuse to get to the one in Clark's Summit, Pa. But Waffle House is uniquely southern, and I'm not sure I'd visit one north of the Mason-Dixon line – you can give people a recipe and train them all you want, but if you're making food that's not in your vernacular, you can't make it right.

If you need proof, go to your local northern U.S. Cracker Barrel and get some grits. You'll come away with the feeling that they're just like watery oatmeal, but made of corn.

I spent the summer of 1997 as co-director of music at a camp in Cleveland, Ga., about an hour's ride north of Atlanta on the Georgia 400. It's where Babyland General Hospital is, the place where Cabbage Patch Kids are born.

We were allowed off camp for a couple hours each night, and the only two places in town to go were a smoky little townie bar and a Waffle House. And so for two months, nearly every night you could find me at the Waffle House with a double order of hash browns scattered, smothered and double-covered (that's scattered over the grill, instead of in a crispy pile, smothered with grilled onions, and covered with cheese), along with a glass of sweet tea.

And so when I found myself in Charleston, I had to return to Waffle House. And it was every bit as wonderful as I remembered: classic diner, waitresses who can retain a patient, southern hospitality while still moving at Sunday-morning diner speed no matter the day or time. And the hash browns are every bit as delicious as I remembered.

Tasting Charleston: Martha Lou’s Kitchen

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Fried chicken, green beans, mac & cheese and rice & chitlins at Martha Lou's Kitchen, Charleston, SC.

Let's start with what Martha Lou's Kitchen is not.

Martha Lou's is not a place you drive by and say, "I've gotta try that someday." It's an airbrushed pink trailer on a rocky lot in a neighborhood you'd drive through with both eyes open. It's not a place you bring a big party. Four of you can cram into a booth if there's one available, but a dozen of you would likely create a standing-room-only environment. It's not a place you go if you're in a hurry. They pre-cook the sides and keep them warm, but if you walk in and sit down, you get waited on in the order in which you arrived, and they cook the food one table at a time. And it's not a place you talk back. The customer is only right when the customer's right, and Martha Lou Gadsden and her daughter Debra are pros – if they think you ordered sweet tea, you ordered sweet tea, not unsweet. And if they're not sure, they'll ask, because they're not interested in wasting the energy.

Now, here are some that Martha Lou's Kitchen is.

Martha Lou's is a place you either read about or were brought. And where you're welcomed as if you're home, and you're remembered, and appreciated and you leave happy, and certainly not hungry.

My parents were in the former group (they read about Martha Lou's). They went and had the best fried chicken they've ever eaten. My mother was starting a new job in a new town and asked if she could take a photo of a poster that had a prayer for today – something about making the most of today, because it's your choice and you can make it or waste it – and Debra just took it off the wall and gave it to her. And four months later, when they walked in for the second time, Debra made sure they got they same booth they sat at the previous time.

And so it was when we walked in a little after 11:00 on a Thursday morning, Debra hugged everybody and shoved us into a booth and took our drink orders and danced her way back to the kitchen, where she told someone who had walked in that she'd be happy to help him after she cooked for the two parties that had walked in ahead of him.

Martha Lou came in at some point near noon, and the place was already full, and she brought out our food on foam trays and then we all swapped trays because we had the right meat but the wrong sides. And we stopped talking because we were too busy eating, and then we stopped eating because our trays were empty, and then we sat in silence absorbing the experience.

Now you've read about Martha Lou's, so go if you're in town.

» More reviews of Martha Lou's at Roadfood

Go to Hullar’s

I corrected a wrong on my eat local resume last weekend by going to Hullar's.

This place has been around since the early 19th century, and it still has a neighborhood pub atmosphere.

We started by walking in, putting our names on the list and flopping down at the bar for beers next to someone we knew. Always a good sign.

It's the sort of bar that brings out the older adults; while there were some families dining, we were easily the youngest people at the bar by close to 30 years. The bartender, Neil, seemed scattered at first, but I didn't see anyone wait more than two minutes for a drink, and when tables were called, Neil was quick with a check to settle up a bar tab.

The waiter did one of the things I didn't mention in my giving great service post that I should have: He knew his products. Specifically, when he came to ask if we were ready to order, I first asked, "This is our first time here. What have we been missing?" And he had an answer for me. We'd already decided on our dinner, but there's probably going to be a lunch in our future in which we try some of his suggestions.

The food is better than passable (I won't call it amazing, but it was definitely good), the portions generous (those of you who have seen me eat will be surprised to hear I'll have an entire second meal out of it), and the cost very reasonable (drinks, appetizer and dinner for about $50).

Absolutely worth a visit. They also have an adjoining coffee shop I'll have to hit up for breakfast some day.

Know your customers: 2 very different dining experiences

Last weekend, I visited my parents in Springfield, Mass., to help get some stuff out of the house (they're moving to South Carolina, where the snowblower will be useless, the seafood and taxes cheaper, and the retirement easier).

We went out to eat twice, and had two very different experiences. The food, in both cases, was excellent – above expectation and worth the price.

I'll tell you first about Ixtapa #5. This is a taco truck parked in the parking lot of a grocery store in a heavily Latino community.

Their English is as broken as my Spanish. They serve tacos, quesadillas and Mexican sodas. Maybe they'd do a burrito. They put tongue (pictured), chicken or beef on your tortilla of choice. Bam, the end.

They're quick, the food is cheap, they don't chat a lot unless they know the customer's family (which is common in a close community like that one), and it's one of the most genuine dining experiences I've had (even though I was standing in a grocery store parking lot).

Next, I want to talk about Felix's Family Restaurant. This is an Italian restaurant that stands in what used to be a pizzeria. They overhauled it after a kitchen fire moved the pizza place a mile away. It should be noted that the building shares a parking lot with Felix's Auto Body.

We went to catch up with some old friends (and by old friends, I mean we've know the family for 30ish years). It was evident from the hugs and the animated talking that we were catching up and kind of caught up in ourselves.

Some wandering musicians began playing (accordion and guitar), and they were loud. They serenaded tables near and far with Italian songs – I get this; it's authentic and it adds to a dining experience.

We did our best to ignore the musicians – we made it obvious by not looking at them, not offering applause and certainly not participating when they stood over several members of our party and played in their ears.

And then they tried to engage us.

Let me make this clear. We weren't there to see a concert. If we'd been a table in the corner entirely ignoring a musician we (and other people) had paid to see and talking across the table at the top of our lungs so we could be heard, we'd be giant assholes.

But the musicians were ambiance, and we didn't want it. And they insisted. It took every hint short of asking if they'd just go play across the room to get them to let us enjoy our food.

The server was an entirely different story. She left one pitcher of water for 9 adults and wasn't attentive to it.

When she showed up with eight salad plates, she apologized, noting that she probably stole it – a cute joke, except that she then spent the next several minutes regaling us with stories of stolen restaurant cutlery, rather than, say, getting us another plate.

It took us 15 minutes to get a shaker of red pepper at one point during the meal.

One of our party let her know she was allergic to tomatoes. When she asked that her dinner be altered to avoid tomatoes, the server brought a dinner that appeared to have something tomato red on it. After insisting there were no tomatoes, we learned it was marinara sauce. Which, if you worked in an Italian restaurant, you'd be required to know has a tomato base, no? And while the dish was replaced with something tomato-free, we didn't get an apology from management, nor did we get a discounted dinner.

Overall, we were at the restaurant slightly over two hours, without any unnecessary chatter; it just took that long to do dinner.

It was one of the worst customer service experiences I've ever had, and I had it in a place that stood to charge us in the area of $200 for our purchase.

Recommendations: Taco truck yes, Felix's no.