Let’s be honest: Mid-century Southern bus terminals have an image problem. Handsome rounded corners, blue Vitrolux and stainless steel add up to an architectural style that’s seared in the national consciousness as the locus of Jim Crow laws. Greyhound’s segregated waiting areas were a familiar symbol of racial hatred long before Freedom Riders traveled through the region, seated in black-white pairs.
So it’s thrilling to see how a savvy restaurant team has reclaimed and transformed Savannah’s former Greyhound station. Overtaking a space once associated with hardship, The Grey is a vibrant, celebratory gathering place that’s indicative of where the South stands today.
With a zillion little stunning details, Parts and Labor Design, which this year received a James Beard Award nomination for the project, has managed to convey sensitivity to the past and optimism about the future. For good measure, designers Andrew Cohen and Jeremy Levitt even knocked out a section of the roof to make way for a massive skylight. To architects, all that clear glass says something about hope. Everyone else can look toward the kitchen, helmed by chef Mashama Bailey, an African-American woman.
Bailey’s cooking is very much in keeping with the room’s vibe: The food is super trendy from the carrot tops down, but made fun by witty touches, such as the rock-hard frozen chilly bear riff that’s presented as a palate cleanser after supper. On my single visit, everyone appeared to be having a great time. After decades of being occupied by restless passengers, anxious to leave on a bus late in coming, the building on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard (another unforeseeable change when the station opened in 1938) is now nightly crowded with customers who linger over tart gimlets and bottles of French wine.
Before reaching the dining room, patrons pass a glass-doored bar that functioned as the terminal’s diner during its Greyhound days. It takes a certain degree of willpower not to claim a brown leather stool at the undulating counter. The warmly lit room looks as though it was torn from Edward Hopper’s sketchbook. But if you have a reservation or good luck, proceed to the heart of the restaurant, with a horseshoe bar at its center.
Do you remember the first time you set foot in The Ordinary? There’s something uniquely breathtaking about encountering beauty in a space that lumbered along for years as the backdrop to humdrumness. If you’re in Savannah and not terribly hungry, it’s still worth coming here to get your fill of curved booths; tubular light fixtures and linear Art Deco flourishes that put you in the mood to buy a Studebaker and a pack of Chesterfields.
Unlike the interiors, Bailey’s cuisine is remarkably nonspecific. It’s Mediterranean, mostly, but not exclusively: Beef liver with gravy seems to have more to do with the building’s past than anything happening in Europe. And Bailey told The Savannah Morning News that seafood boudin landed on the menu because she meandered through Louisiana on her relocation trip from New York City, where she worked at Gabrielle Hamilton’s Prune.
If the dishes are whimsical, the menu is surprisingly orderly for the small plates era. In continental fashion, guests are prompted to choose an opening course; an intermediary grain-based dish; and an entree. There’s a selection of oysters for diners who plan on extending the cocktail portion of the evening, and side dishes ostensibly sized for the table.
Whether that’s an accurate descriptor may turn on how many people you think it takes to eat a roasted sweet potato, shrunk away from its charred jacket. Split and brushed with enough sorghum butter to form shiny little puddles of processed Southern cane, the potato is lovely, but not large: My casually proficient server didn’t flinch when I ordered it along with five other dishes. With the exception of a pork shank that looks like it belongs on the cover of a Paleo Diet cookbook (but is worth getting just for the accompanying cornbread), The Grey’s plates are designed for promiscuous ordering.
That works out well, since there’s much here you’ll want to order. My meal started with a dish of pan-roasted squid that could very nearly pass for Greek, save for the crunchy crescents of celery that usually run with tuna salad and other denizens of the ladies luncheon table. But the tangled tentacles and rings of slightly undercooked flesh are classically completed by gargantuan butter beans and a dash of za’atar.
The standard warm-up snack at The Grey is curried chickpeas, cooked until they shed their shells, but there’s also bread from the estimable Back in the Day Bakery available. You may need a slice to properly finish off the slender knob-topped carrots, piled in a syrupy sauce with an umber harissa glow. The carrots are too rigid, and the wheels of sunchoke taste flat and papery, but it’s certainly a dish of the moment. I just wish the kitchen heaped on real labneh, instead of whipped cream cheese.
Perhaps the most familiar second course choices is the so-called “country pasta,” which is really just cacio e pepe with smoky hunks of pork belly. Personally, I consider Parmesan and cracked black pepper a brilliant combination no matter how many times it’s repeated, but there’s more to this dish than that: The noodles are perfectly short of al dente, and the cascade of cheese isn’t dumbed down with oil or cream. Leave it to a restaurant in a retired bus terminal to find a way for a commoner to shine.
Speaking of folksy, can we speak of the roasted quail? Rarely does plating strike me as suggestive, but I’d bet that bird has made diners blush: Positioned breast side up, with its legs sticking straight out, the quail wears two plump white grapes where its bikini top would go. Not sure if it counts as sexting, but I’ve sent its picture to friends, because hilarity is a rarity in high-end restaurants. The kicker is the dish tastes great: The surrounding bits of hominy, hovering in a country ham broth, are fantastic.
For dessert, I had a slice of brown sugar pie, not too far removed from the pecan pies and chess pies that bus passengers undoubtedly tucked away in their boxed lunches and travel satchels. This pie, though, was hugely improved by candied orange and citrus zest to temper the filling’s sweetness. Perhaps history is moving in the right direction.