Customer service quick hit: Ben’s Neighborhood Grill & Tap

Had a crazy busy work week, so please forgive the short post. I think it still has some impact and a good lesson for businesses. And if you're in Savannah, a good burger, too.

There are a lot of high-energy, high-impact posts coming.

I first heard about Ben's about six months before I moved to Savannah. We had plans to move here, had visited a couple of times, and were still formulating a plan.

We were keeping up with things we might enjoy through media, tourism websites, organizations and also things like the Brew/Drink/Run podcast, where I first heard about Ben's when owner Nick Lambros made an appearance on the show.

It slipped my mind for a while when we moved here, but then we moved close to the restaurant, and so we make an effort to go at least monthly.

The first time was when we were scouting the neighborhood. We had a good burger and a reasonable experience.

The next time we went was just a couple of weeks before we were moving, when a hurricane tore through town. When we came back, we went there for lunch on our way into town. It was the middle of the afternoon, so the place wasn't real busy.

Nick came over and introduced himself and welcomed us to the neighborhood. (Aside: Why does Nick own's Ben's? Because it's Ben Franklin on the door — entrepreneur, beer enthusiast and all around awesome guy.)

A little while ago, I decided to treat myself to a delicious burger after a run in the rain. It was right about noon when I got there, and the place was crowded. I pulled up a stool at the bar, greeted Bob (not her real name, but that's what we call her), asked for a beer and a burger, and noticed a couple of guys at the end of the bar from a distributor with new beers to offer Nick to start carrying.

Even in a packed restaurant, Nick came out from helping at the grill to make time for them, even if the time was brief. He was friendly, patient and polite, even though there was one empty table in his restaurant.

Before he made that time for them, he stopped at the bar, shook my hand and said it was good to see me again.

That's the reason why he sees me again (and again).

Lesson for a business: You're never too busy thanks for spending your money here instead of somewhere else.

Lesson for a customer: You're special. Take your business where it's appreciated.

Lesson for a hungry person: Go get yourself a grass-fed burger and a beer at Ben's. If you're going to spend $20 on lunch somewhere, that's the sort of place to do it.

Dining Savannah: Alligator Soul

Today, the 14th of February, marks the seventh anniversary of my first date with my lovely wife.

Valentine's Day. That should be easy enough to remember, right?

This year, we decided to celebrate at a Savannah institution, Alligator Soul. They had a New Orleans-inspired menu for Valentine's Day.

Let's start right off with this is a place that knows how to treat diners. They took our coats, sat us 15 minutes ahead of our reservation and brought us a little take-home gift with our names on the sticker.

Our server, Robert, knew both the food and drink menus.

I started with a Sazerac, my go-to cocktail when I'm at anew place. Not my favorite version in town, but it paired really nicely with the carving board we picked as a starter. [Robert also recommend a cocktail for the Mrs., which she enjoyed, but there's a story with it.]

We were treated to an amuse-bouche of cajun beans with dried chorizo, and here's where that cocktail story comes in. The cocktail itself was lemon and cherry and a booze or two, and milady tried it immediately after the very lively amuse-bouche. She said it didn't taste like anything, and she handed it over. I took a sip of water and tasted it, and told her she was out of her mind.

Lesson: Cleanse your palate. After doing that, she was quite happy 🙂

The carving board came with a bleu, a cheddar, and something Robert called "gruyere-style." All three cheeses were from Georgia, as were the meats — bone marrow (a first for both of us), some rich, creamy pork belly and an added alligator sausage. Mustard, balsamic, grapes, pear, honey and three kinds of bread (toast, lavash and papadam) accompanied the meat and cheese.

The Mrs. had a perfectly prepared bacon-wrapped filet (medium-rare), while I opted for the game bird special, a medium-rare squab. I was undecided between the squab and the duck, but I'm glad Robert recommended the squab, because, frankly, I can go to my local grocery store, turn on my oven and roast a duck. Squab is probably not going to be on very many menus I see in my life.

As we dove into dinner, Robert found milady a riesling (she's a white-wine drinker, despite the steak) that she was happy with, and I tried what they call a gentleman's flight — a rye, sour-mash and bourbon whiskey sampler.

For dessert, the Mrs. opted for a chocolate parfait with amaretto creme, served in a champagne flute, while I went for the banana beignets, served warm over vanilla ice cream.

We were in a small room with several other couples, and we all got to talking, which, in my experience, is fairly uncommon at a restaurant of this caliber. Among other things, we discussed where everyone was from, eating something like squab, and my pants.

If you can fit it in your budget ($45 was a reasonable gratuity for our meal), I'd highly recommend a visit while you're in town.

My wife got me the best #pants ever ❤😀👍

A photo posted by Josh Shear (@joshuanshear) on

17hundred90 and Segway of Savannah: Our experiences

Happy second wedding second anniversary to my lady love! A little explanation: We got married in a small private ceremony on July 24, 2014, then had a big ol' family wedding on July 26 of that year. So, celebrating two years of marriage, and this happens to be the date of our second wedding.

So. We got a recommendation for the 17hundred90, a beautiful little haunted inn and restaurant with a bar attached.

We made reservations but showed up 15 minutes early and were seated immediately anyway. The dining room is like stepping back in time. A piano player sits in the corner playing everything from Pachelbel to Disney themes. The dining room is small, and the carpet and low ceiling keeps the sound in check. It really is a lovely room with great atmosphere.

We shared a house salad with a house-made raspberry vinaigrette (creamy and delicious) and an appetizer of bacon-wrapped scallops, seared in butter. The scallops were amazing.

We each opted for a blackened New York strip steak with a bleu cheese sauce (medium rare), served with mashed potatoes and green beans. Everything was excellent. I paired with a Malbec; J— with a white zin.

The restaurant comped us dessert for our anniversary — we opted to share a "chocolate bomb," essentially a chocolate tort — and a cup of coffee.

If we'd paid for the dessert, dinner would have come in just under $125, including four glasses of wine. Definitely reasonable for such a nice place. I'd highly recommend it.

***

We'd been talking about doing a Segway tour for over a year now, and J— surprised me with one. It was a lot of fun. It started with a quick lesson in how to actually work a Segway — pretty easy if you balance well or ride a bike often. And then off we went onto the streets of downtown.

Now, I don't know about the place you live, but it's easy to play tourist in the town we live in. The city itself has about 100,000 residents. We get something on the order of 12-17 million tourists a year.

We take a lot of different tours — trolleys, walking, museums, houses of worship. We hear a lot of the same stories, but this was fun. It was only us on the tour, so we got to trade stories with Bill, our guide.

We stopped at famous houses and squares and got to hear stories, and experience the city at a pace we don't often take time for, particularly without a destination in mind.

Again, something else we'd highly recommend.

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

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.

2015-06-18 20.08.02-1

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?

What we’re drinking: Savannah Craft Brew Races

Here are some of my faves from the festival at Savannah's Craft Brew Race last week (see ratings and brief thoughts on Untappd).

Service Brewing Compass Rose and Old Guard Biere de Garde. Service Brewing is a veteran-owned Savannah brewery. Compass Rose is a tasty IPA that I could just stick my nose in forever. It has a nice floral aroma, and drinks easily. Keith does it more justice, and has the benefit of comparing it to last year's release. Bierre de Garde is one of their R&D beers, made with some locally produced honey. It's a nice sipper, a little heavier on account of the honey, but not too sweet.

Bonus: The new run of Old Guard hit the shelves in just the past couple of days.

Coastal Empire Southern Delight Praline Amber. Coastal is another Savannah brewery. Southern Delight Praline Amber is a seasonal beer with a decidedly local flair — pralines being a Savannah treat. This is a nice, light amber that isn't weighed down by the sweetness, which comes through well. I definitely recommend this one if you can get it.

Terrapin Liquid Bliss. I don't care what you think of darker beers, Liquid Bliss from Atlanta's Terrapin is simply delicious. It's a chocolate peanut butter porter. It's really well-balanced, with a not-too-sweet dark chocolate taste and a hint of peanut butter. You might even forget you're drinking a beer. Terrapin is spreading up the East Coast; they're now available as far north as New Jersey, so y'all might be able to find some soon in New York.

Sour Plum Saison by Orpheus Brewing. Orpheus is another Atlanta brewery. They do a sour series, including a fig sour, which is a fall seasonal. The plum sour might be an occasional or a research release for them, but I'm hoping to be able to find it. It was really interesting. I do enjoy some sour beers, and the plum is such a different twist, in general, for a beer that I think this is worth a shot.

Heavy Seas Beer Loose Cannon. Heavy Seas is a Maryland Brewery, and Loose Cannon is its flagship beer, a citrusy IPA that tastes mainly of grapefruit up front with a pine finish that will be familiar to IPA fans. I would love a session version of this, but still, after a run on a hot day, the citrus is refreshing even at 7.25% ABV.

What are you drinking?

Date night Savannah: The Olde Pink House and 22 Square

One thing I'm finding in Savannah is one of those things that's nice to see in a business community: businesses in the same industry recommending each other. Without variety, an industry dies down. Without competition, an individual business can get lazy.

In a big tourist town (12 million visitors a year, and they don't allow cruise ships to dock here), there will never be a shortage of restaurants. But that doesn't mean they can't strive to be the best.

My conversation with Chef Brandon Whitestone of The Olde Pink House started with me saying we had a great night that included a dessert stop and him recommending another bar.

I went on to say thanks, and that my wife and I would have to give his restaurant a try, too; he responded as if it almost hadn't occurred to him to recommend himself.

Nice.

We got our reservations in (even two weeks out, a Monday, a 7 p.m. seating request had to be pushed out to 7:15, so if you're planning on a trip, call early), and spent way too long staring at the menu over those two weeks. We made sure we read the bad reviews on Yelp so we knew what to watch out for (mostly the complaints were about cold food and long prep times; not only did we not experience either, but the latter isn't something we were worried about — if you're looking to not wait for your food, either pick a fast food place or pick a destination not in the deep south).

So, Monday night, off to The Olde Pink House we went.

We managed to get parking nearby; Miss Kimberly and Chef Brandon both made sure to introduce themselves. We were seated in what was the master bedroom of the original house, next to a window overlooking Reynolds Square. The window still had some of the original panes in it (you can tell because old panes had a higher lead content, creating the appearance of waves in the glass).

Now, it was need-a-flash-on-your-camera-dark in there and people were enjoying their vacations and Valentine's Day celebrations, so we didn't take pictures of our food; we'll have to let the words do it.

Jenny started with a semi-sweet riesling; I ordered a Sazerac cocktail (Herbsaint is essentially absinthe, so that's what's typically used, if you're looking cross-eyed at the recipe). Both were delivered promptly and cold.

We shared three appetizers. First, a charcuterie that included a fantastic mustard that must have been house-made and a local camembert-style cheese, along with some Berkshire meat and tasty accoutrements. After that, we had artichoke fritters; these were artichoke hearts stuffed with goat cheese and lightly batter-fried, done with a spicy sauce. Then, jalapeño poppers, stuffed with some very creamy mac & cheese. All were delicious.

For dinner, Jenny had sea scallops and shrimp tossed over fettuccine with a cream sauce, and asked them to toss in some spinach. I had their house specialty, scored flounder, which is a whole fish (sans head), scored into little medallions, then cooked and topped with a spicy apricot glaze. It was delicious. To eat it, you pop up the medallions, chew, swallow, repeat, then flip the fish and do it again on the other side. They claim to be the first to serve it in this style, though it's a popular method for cooking flounder in other locales as well.

While we dined, a maitre d' came by a couple of times, as did our server. We felt well-attended-to and well-fed, and will most certainly be back.

We then walked five blocks to the Andaz Hotel (which Chef Brandon mentioned in his first tweet to me), for coffee and dessert. The hotel restaurant, 22 Square, offers a much different environment from Olde Pink House, very contemporary, with modern art on the walls and some exposed brick. The cocktail list looked interesting, but we were at a nice finishing-up point.

Jenny had ice cream and berries. It was a raspberry base with some Italian wedding cookies mixed in, made by Leopold's specifically for the restaurant and only available there. I had a dark and stormy chocolate cake, which, as the name implies, is derived from the rum-and-ginger ale cocktail. The cake tasted like a chocolate gingerbread, and the rum was pleasantly infused in the icing. It came with a scoop of very creamy vanilla ice cream, which I can only imagine must have come from Leopold's as well.

I think next time we try 22 Square, it will be for pre-dinner cocktails, and we'll sit at the bar. While the food was delicious and I love what they're doing with local food, the contemporary atmosphere was a little overwhelming to me with the bright colors and the art and the more open space allowing sound to travel a little more. But we'll definitely be back to Olde Pink House at some point.

Where to next, Savannah?

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 a video from the show "Ghost Adventures."

You're next 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.

Some favorite places right now

I haven't done one of these in a while. In fact, my circumstances were different last time I did. Right now, my circumstances are such that the only place I really have to go is the grocery store. Since I work from home, I only leave the house if I want to go somewhere or see someone.

So these are the places I'm going.

Freedom of Espresso, Fayetteville. This is the closest locally owned coffee shop to me, and I consider myself lucky, because it's comfortable, usually not busy the times I'm there (1pm or so weekdays), and has some gorgeous ornamental windows. It's also next door to a walking path, so if it's nice out and I'm not sitting there writing (oh yeah! free wifi!) or reading, I can take my coffee for a stroll.

Tavern at the Ridge. This is the venue we'll be married at in July. Previously a nondescript clubhouse at the Skyridge golf course, my fiance Jenny's cousins bought it, placed it adjacent to a great non-profit for veterans, stripped the clubhouse and rebuilt it as a cozy cabin-style restaurant with amazing food, a nice beer selection, craft bourbons and a very pretty nine-hole golf course. They're open somewhat limited hours until it warms up (Wednesday through Saturday from 4pm until dinner's over), but you should definitely give it a try.

World of Beer. I know, this is surprising. It's a chain, and it's in a mall. But they have an extensive beer list of about 50 taps and 500 bottles — including some of our local microbreweries, both on tap and in bottles — and the staff are really knowledgeable about the products, which is amazing considering the amount of product (and the fact that they can only try so much at a time). Last time we were there, we even let a staffer in on a bottle she'd been hearing a lot about. The food is pretty good, but be prepared to order a lot of it, because portion sizes are, shall we say, a little inadequate if you're someone like me (that is, someone who eats a ton).

What places do you love that I need to try?

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

2013-02-28 12.07.02
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.