Q: I’m going to Savannah soon. Is there anywhere new to check out?
A: It all depends on when you were last there, but on a recent trip to Savannah, I visited three places that I would bring up if our neighbors to the south wanted to talk swap:
Bagels will never displace biscuits around these parts, but the region’s bakers are suddenly treating the traditionally Northern genre with remarkable seriousness. Famously, Katie Button of Curate last year opened Button & Co. Bagels in Asheville, and the James Beard Foundation’s newly named Best Chef Southeast, Mashama Bailey, is serving them at The Grey Market in Savannah (more on that momentarily.)
And closer to home, Renzo recently added wood-fired bagels to its weekly schedule. After a centuries-long bagel drought, though, we’re still in a “more the merrier” phase, especially when one of the more is Big Bon Bodega, 2011 Bull St.
Despite the name, Big Bon doesn’t resemble any kind of convenience store. The two-month-old bakery is a spare and modern-looking space, surrounded by plenty of plate glass: Its most significant fixture is Marri Forni oven, responsible for the five different bagel varieties attractively stacked in wire mesh baskets behind the front counter (six if you count the “yum yum twist,” a rainbow-hued variety for eaters who consider sweetness compatible with bagels.)
In homage to their Korean ancestry, owners Kay and Anna Heritage offer kimchi cream cheese and walnut butter to pair with Luke Smith’s bagels; the sandwich menu includes pork bulgogi. But the country that comes to mind at Big Bon is Canada, where a dip in boiling honey before baking is a Montreal norm. At Big Bon, the honey comes from South Carolina.
Still, even New York partisans should be able to appreciate the chewy interiors and seductively darkened crust of Big Bon’s bagels. The touch of honey doesn’t override the satisfying maltiness (although for those who disagree, there’s kimchi cream cheese.)
Bagels are just one of many items sold at six-month-old The Grey Market, which I completely misunderstood in advance of arriving at 100 Jefferson St. Somehow I had it in my mind that the market was popping up in The Grey’s bar by day: Maybe it was the name overlap that threw me.
In any case, I was wrong. The Grey Market is a standalone diner that, according to its website, combines a “love for New York City bodegas … with the history and convenience of the Southern lunch counter.” What is it around here with the bodegas?
To The Grey Market’s credit, it probably could qualify as a quasi-bodega by virtue of selling needed supplies, albeit of the highest caliber: Its shelves are stocked with wine, Savannah-roasted coffee and housemade pickles. The retail portion of the venue also deals in things nobody needs but shoppers might have trouble resisting, such as The Grey Market flasks and “T-shirts from places and friends and supporters we love,” including the ever fantastic Wo Hop in New York City’s Chinatown.
As for the menu, it includes egg plates, burgers, rotisserie chicken and a complete lineup of cocktails. As the bagels suggest, it isn’t regionally specific — there are sandwich shout-outs to Miami, New Orleans and Birmingham — but the shrimp on my excellent po’ boy lived up to Savannah standards.
Still, the coolest thing about The Grey Market is the setting: Bailey and The Grey’s owner Johno Morisano are becoming practiced at re-imagining spaces from the past as emblematic of the present’s highest values. I can’t wait to see which mid-century aesthetic they salvage next, although I can’t imagine how they’ll find the time: When I was at The Grey Market, one week after the James Beard Foundation awards, Bailey was on the floor refilling water glasses.
Later that night, she was at Alley Cat Lounge, celebrating her win. I only know that because when a friend and I swung by the basement bar for a cocktail, we were driven off by a sign on the door saying the venue was closed for a private party. Social media later revealed who was throwing it.
Knowing The Grey’s team chose Alley Cat for its festivities should be endorsement enough for travelers wondering where to drink.
But there’s so much more to recommend it, including the menu, which is formatted like an alt-weekly, complete with mini essays, horoscopes and book reviews (or the cocktail bar equivalent, meaning drink descriptions and bartender bios drawn from the newly published "Drinking Like Ladies: 75 Modern Cocktails From the World’s Leading Female Bartenders"). I guarantee you’ll finish your first drink before you get tired of reading the 24-page Alley Cat Rag.
Alley Cat Lounge opened at 207 W. Broughton St. in November 2016, so most of the “new” has probably worn off by this point. Impressively, though, it hasn’t been replaced by cockiness: When the bartender approached me, he asked if I wanted to look at a menu or if I knew what I wanted, which was a pleasant change of pace from high-end cocktail bars that immediately assume their house talent deserves more respect than a guest’s preferences.
Personally, what I like most is a balanced drink. And there’s no doubt that Alley Cat can make one. Here’s to Savannah!