Will Savannah move to the forefront of the South’s restaurant scene?

People get mad when I say anything remotely critical about Savannah’s restaurant scene, which is pretty funny since I’ve probably written positively about more new restaurants here than anyone else over the last 15 years.

The Savannah metro area population is much smaller than the population of New Orleans or Charleston, but that’s not the only thing that has somewhat constrained Savannah’s dining scene. Savannah had and still has an inferiority complex, so did that somehow translate into low expectations of restaurants on the part of patrons and of patrons on the part of restaurants? Have we simply lacked a workforce pipeline for quality servers and cooks? Have we pitched too much to the middle of the pack in terms of taste — both to locals and to tourists?

Elizabeth on 37th has been at the forefront of the Savannah dining scene in the South for decades, but why didn’t Elizabeth have more rivals earlier on?

Anyway, I’m rambling, but I could go on and on with questions like those.

The good news is that all this has been changing in recent years with a series of positive food trends — trends that I’ve been covering for over a decade in my Savannah Morning News columns.

And now I’ll make a bold prediction: by 2025, the national reputation of Savannah’s restaurant scene will rival Charleston’s.

Check out this wonderful piece in the NYT yesterday by Jeff Gordinier: At the Grey in Savannah, History Takes Another Turn. The piece is in some respects a profile of Chef Mashama Bailey, but the article also reflects the broader trends toward redefining Southern cooking by embracing its more traditional roots and the farm-to-table/sea-to-table movements. From the article:

Ms. Bailey, 41, was born in the Bronx and raised largely in Queens. For almost four years she was known as a calm and constant presence in the kitchen at Prune, Gabrielle Hamilton’s restaurant in the East Village.

Ms. Hamilton’s cooking there is like a succulent collision of tradition and autobiography: Prune reflects her own very personal viewpoint on French country fare. It helps to look at Ms. Bailey’s culinary approach at the Grey in a similar way. She is tapping into the traditions and ingredients of the South, yes, but she’s interpreting the concept of Southern cuisine through the filter of her own experience and training. She’s making what she likes to eat.

And consider Three New Restaurants Change the Game in Savannah by Bill Addison in Eater last month. It begins:

In my nine combined years as a critic in Atlanta, one of the toughest questions I fielded from readers was: “Where should I eat in Savannah?” Ah, Savannah. Georgia’s oldest city, founded in 1733 just inland from the marshy coast, is a place of otherworldly, out-of-time beauty. Statuesque oaks line the streets, frocked with Spanish moss dangling in rows that resemble fringes on a gray leather jacket. The historic district houses twenty-two squares and centuries-old churches in Greek Revival and Gothic styles. Savannah ranks among the most memorable towns in America for strolling.

For dining, though? Not so much. Before my latest trip last month, when I saw and tasted signs of true culinary transformation for the first time in the two decades I’ve been visiting the city, I would pass along a handful of rote Savannah restaurant suggestions that barely shifted over the years.

Addison details his experiences at The Grey, The Florence, and The Wyld Dock Bar (which I haven’t even tried yet). If Eater were running a piece next month, they might include Cotton & Rye, a great new entry on the local scene that I’ll be writing about soon in a City Talk column.

By the way, it’s also worth noting that of the eight restaurants mentioned in Addison’s piece, five of them are between 35th Street and Victory Drive between Habersham and Whitaker (i.e., well outside of the city’s most touristy areas): The Florence, Narobia’s Grits & Gravy, Green Truck Pub, Back in the Day Bakery, and Elizabeth on 37th.

I’ve heard some complaints about the three spots profiled by Eater, and I don’t doubt that some have legitimately had bad experiences. These new restaurants still have to compete for the city’s apparently small list of top-notch servers and kitchen workers, and every restaurant struggles at times. But I’ve also heard complaints that simply seem off base and indicate that the patron had no idea where he was going, like the friend who expected predictable Americanized-Italian pasta and marinara dishes at The Florence. I could go on and on about misplaced expectations.

Of course, none of the resurgence in traditional southern cooking would be possible without farmers like those who show up every Saturday at the Forsyth Farmers’ Market.

And check back here in 10 years, and we can decide if I was right that Savannah’s dining scene will truly be a rival of Charleston’s.