February 07, 2013
Long ago, driving home from Florida, my wife and I drove through Savannah and fell in love with neighborhoods of old houses. This was the old South older than Atlanta, which was, after all, a "new" capital, established in order to draw settlers into the interior and away from the coastal plantations.
Savannah was where Georgia the newest of the 13 colonies began. There was history there, or what passes for history in America it's worth remembering that when Georgia was founded in 1733, there were cathedrals in Europe that were already a thousand years old.
So when my wife and I had a chance to take a four-day weekend, we drove down to Savannah. Our daughter and her husband had honeymooned there, and gave us several recommendations; but their strongest recommendation was for the historic downtown of the city itself.
Our goal was to do nothing, in an interesting way. I had no books to sign, no speeches to give; she had no classes to teach, no workmen to supervise.
We walked everywhere, though by the third day we started talking about taking pedicabs or carriages or taxis. There were places that had become a bit malled: Broughton Street is becoming like Georgetown in DC, or Third Street in Santa Monica: Standard mall stores have moved in and taken over.
But there are many other streets, full of shops and galleries. City Market is meant to be a low-rent space for shops and artists' studios, and while much of the art is only barely better than awful, enough of the artists have skill and vision that walking through the whole complex is worthwhile.
The Riverfront is an interesting walk; the west end of it is decayed, which means that some buildings are shuttered, but some really interesting niche shops thrive because the rents are low.
In fact, that's the paradox of retail: Uniqueness and variety thrive in failing or just-coming-back neighborhoods, where landlords are grateful to have tenants at all; rents stay low, so small-volume shops can stay in business.
But when a cluster of such shops attracts a crowd of shoppers grateful to find stores that are different from the ordinary mall selection, the big stores start offering much higher rents to the landlords. The landlords follow the economic incentives, and drop the low-rent tenants.
Where once there were three strange and delightful shops, now there's one overfamiliar mall store. And now there's no particular reason to come to that shopping district anymore, since you can find all the same stuff in a mall at home.
It's not quite the same with restaurants no matter what the rents are, you can only fill the space with a certain number of tables. Fast-food places only survive because they turn over customers so quickly; their low prices are compensated for by volume.
As soon as a space becomes a sit-down restaurant, big chains have no advantage over one-of-a-kind restaurants except familiarity. You know what you'll find at an Outback or a P.F. Chang's and it'll be good.
But my wife and I love finding restaurants that are both original and good. Now, because we were in Savannah, we had to have one supper at Olde Pink House, despite the absurd "olde," a historic building with a tradition as a solid upscale restaurant.
The food lived up to expectations, though I wish our waiter had remembered that we didn't come to chat with him. We meant to share each other's company while he merely brought us food.
Naturally, though, we were most excited about the restaurants we found for ourselves. On our first day there, we stopped at a nice-looking Mexican restaurant called Cilantro's on Bay Street, just for a snack. Chips and salsa. A guacamole.
Well, the guacamole was superb, and our waitress was delightful she was from one of the southernmost states of Mexico and very proud of the way Cilantro's reflected her traditions. Add to that some wonderful Maya-glyph-inspired food art on the walls, and we had to come back for dinner.
When we did, we were well rewarded. Everything we had was excellent; it was not quite at the gourmet level of La Serenata in Los Angeles, but what is? Cilantro's was certainly as good as the best Mexican restaurants we've found in the East.
The artist who did the wonderful work on the walls, Claudio Rodriguez, does not show his work online not yet, anyway. (There is a charmingly humorous artist named Claudio Rodriguez Valdes, whose work is well worth looking at; but he did not do the art my wife and I so enjoyed at Cilantro's.)
Much as we enjoyed Cilantro's, though, the jewel of Savannah's restaurants is an innovative marvel called A.Lure at 309 West Congress St. Zagat doesn't list them yet, which is a shame, because with Olde Pink House rated 24, A.Lure would deserve a 30.
Zagat ratings tend to inflate outside the major metro areas; a Los Angeles 20 can be a 25 in places like Savannah; but the reverse often happens, with "provincial" diners undervaluing restaurants that would get superb ratings among more sophisticated diners who are used to a better selection.
Greensboro has no Zagat ratings, but we do have a restaurant history. Truly brilliant places like 223 South Elm close, while other, more ordinary restaurants do a booming business and get weirdly enthusiastic reviews, often of the "I can't believe I got so much food for the price" variety.
Our experience is that if you try, you can usually find delicious, high-quality food in surprisingly small cities. Greensboro has at least five, even after losing a few to attrition; some of our favorite restaurants have been in places like Des Moines and, yes, Savannah.
A.Lure is that restaurant. It was such a dining experience that even if we were spending the night in Atlanta, Charleston or Jacksonville we would seriously consider driving to Savannah for one more dinner at A.Lure.
Best homemade potato chips anywhere and the competition for this is fierce. (In Greensboro, try the hot chips at Mediterraneo. Excellent, but ...)
Sweet potato chowder. Strawberry and goat cheese salad. Perfect salmon. Ambitious menu of astonishing combinations.
And the best hamburger I've had in my life. Yes, at a gourmet restaurant I actually ordered the burger. Wagyu beef, perfectly cooked (I asked for well done because I hate blood in my meat, and I wasn't punished for it it was moist and delicious).
And once you're there, stay for dessert. The goat cheese souffle was brilliant. Really. You think it won't work, and then it does. (Check out the menu at http://AlureSavannah.com
That's the pain and the joy of finding great one-of-a-kind restaurants. We rejoiced when P.F. Chang's opened a restaurant in Greensboro, because it's the best of the chains. But we're also glad that in all the world, there is only one A.Lure.
Yes, it means we can't go there very often but we have Leblon and 1618 Seafood and Green Valley Grill and Mark's and M.J.'s and Gnam Gnam and Positano and Fuji Sushi and Cafe Pasta and Mediterraneo here in Greensboro, so we're not suffering....continued on page 2