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Savannah: Then & Now

by Tracey Teo

On a recent trip to Savannah, Georgia, I found myself in a bit of a pickle, and not the deep-fried kind. I’ve come to love my travels through the South.  I was on a getaway with my sister, Wendy, who wanted to experience all things old Savannah. Meanwhile, I was looking forward to lively, new Savannah. 

One of the best things about the “Hostess City of the South” is that its history is well-preserved, but it’s not stuck in a time warp.

Wendy didn’t want to miss out on wandering aimlessly through the historic district. But I didn’t want to get so caught up in admiring those iconic squares, shaded by canopies of Spanish moss, that we left without checking out all the novel attractions. 

 In the end, we made a deal. For every place we went that represented Savannah’s past, we would visit a place that represented its future.

Cocktails: Hipster Cool vs. Old School

Savannah’s rich drinking culture spans everything from sticky local dives with delightfully kitsch decor to high-end cocktail bars adorned with velvet banquettes. But, these days, rooftop bars are the pinnacle of trendy drinking establishments. 

The Electric Moon Skytop Lounge atop the new, 419-room JW Marriott Hotel offers sweeping views of the Savannah River, which makes it a popular spot for an aperitif or a nightcap. 

I sipped an Electric Moon Lemonade, a fruity concoction of Absolut Citron and Blue Curacao, as barges passed beneath the Talmadge Memorial Bridge in the waning sunlight. Just as a blissful mellowness was taking root in my brain, Wendy insisted on checking out the action on the other side of the bar.

Moon Deck provided by the Plant Riverside District

We shot down a “hidden” slide and landed on the moon—the Moon Deck, that is. An out-of-this-world adult playground, the Marriott’s Moon Deck has nostalgic games, such as cornhole and ping-pong, but for me, the most fun was rocking in circles in a crazy, roly-poly chair that was almost more carnival ride than seating.  

Riverside District

It’s all part of the new Plant Riverside District, a $375 million mixed-use entertainment district that opened in July 2020. The 4.5-acre project, developed by Savannah native Richard Kessler of the Kessler Collection, revitalized a dilapidated portion of the riverfront once home to the coal-fired Savannah Electric Power Plant, a.k.a. Riverside Station.

The district is anchored by the Marriott. Topped by a pair of neon smokestacks, it’s a nod to the district’s history as a power plant. Guests can stay in one of three buildings: the Power Plant, the Three Muses or the Atlantic. 

That 135-foot chrome dinosaur you see in the lobby is not the prehistoric version of the proverbial pink elephant or a hallucination brought on by overindulging at the Electric Moon or the African-themed Baobab Lounge, another popular hotel bar.

No, that dino really is hovering above. 

Why? It’s part of a natural science exhibition that tells the story of where power and energy are sourced. Not that fuel really comes from dinosaurs, but it’s a fun element, especially for kids.

The space is more like a museum than hotel lobby, showcasing fossils, large geodes and tusks from the extinct wooly mammoth.

The district is as electrifying now as it was a century ago—but in a different way. 

400 W. River St., Savannah. www.plantriverside.com

The American Prohibition Museum

It’s hard to believe there was ever a time when it was hard to get a drink in Savannah. But even this fun-loving coastal city succumbed to nationwide Prohibition (1920-1933)—except when it didn’t. 

“Once during Prohibition, I was forced to live for days on nothing but food and water.” The quote attributed to comedian W.C. Fields is painted on a wall of the American Prohibition Museum, perfectly capturing the zeitgeist of the roaring ‘20s. 

The museum is small but big on information.

The Temperance Movement exhibit shines a light on organized efforts to promote abstinence from alcohol. A timeline traces the movement’s influence from 1850, the year the American Temperance Society reached its peak membership, through 1933 when the 18th amendment that prohibited the manufacture, sale and transportation of alcohol was repealed. 

In between, there’s much about Carry Nation, arguably the crusade’s most radical member, who vandalized saloons with her notorious hatchet in the early 1900s. In view are hatchet-shaped lapel pins worn by her supporters.

NASCAR racing is rooted in Prohibition-era bootlegging, when moonshine runners had to “soup-up” ordinary-looking cars to outrun federal agents. Check out the 1936 Ford V8.

Stop by Congress Street Up, the museum speakeasy, to sample forgotten classic cocktails. The rum-based Mary Pickford is an homage to the lovely silent film star that was the bee’s knees back in the day. 

209 W. Saint Julian St., Savannah. www.americanprohibitionmuseum.com

Dining: Trendy vs. Classic

Sea scallops from The Common Thread by Tracey Teo

The Common Thread restaurant opened in February in the Krouskoff House, a historic Queen Anne-style gem, but the seasonal menu is contemporary and innovative.

I cut into meaty sea scallops served on a bed of fresh butter beans, a pleasing rice alternative. Stirring a dollop of lemon espuma (foam) into the beans gave them a citrusy zing that perfectly complemented the seafood. 

Brandon Carter, co-executive chef with John Benhase, says the restaurant’s cooking philosophy is “ingredient-driven cuisine rooted in process and technique.”

A dry-aged steak is a mainstay, but flavorful and creative vegetarian options abound. 

The dish of the moment is Japanese-inspired eggplant steak served with miso duxelles (a mushroom preparation) and finished with pomegranate molasses.

“It sounds pretty strange, but it’s one of the best bites of food I’ve ever had,” says Carter. 

Even non-vegetarian diners find it surprisingly tasty. 

This is the place to put aside any preconceived notions about food and open your mind and palate to new flavors. 

122 E. 37th St., Savannah. www.commonthreadsavannah.com

The Olde Pink House

The Olde Pink House courtesy of Visit Savannah

The Olde Pink House in the heart of the historic district is more of a venerable dining institution than a restaurant. Generations of Savannahians have celebrated life’s milestones here, from birthdays and anniversaries to proposals. 

The moment you walk through the door of this regal, Colonial-era mansion, you will recognize it as a place to make your mother proud by practicing your best table manners. Gilded mirrors, graceful chandeliers and inviting fireplaces provide an old-world charm.  

Executive Chef Vincent Burns isn’t trying to impress you with his creativity, but with his skill at turning out classic, upscale Southern cuisine. The menu is straightforward, so no need to discreetly Google unfamiliar fare under the table. 

Start with blackened oysters on the half-shell, then consider an entrée of crispy flounder with apricot sauce or almond-crusted tilapia from the seafood-centric menu.

Pursuing the selection of sides may take a while. Fried green tomatoes are a delicious Southern staple but so are collard greens with ham. 

A stellar wine list ensures the perfect pairing to each course.

This is not the time to skip dessert. Save room for the famous praline basket, a crunchy candy nest filled with vanilla ice cream and fruit. 

23 Abercorn St., Savannah. www.theoldepinkhouserestaurant.com

Accommodations: Victorian Charm vs. Contemporary Sophistication

Mansion at Forsythe Park

My sister and I stayed at the Mansion at Forsythe Park. A luxury, 126-room boutique hotel that, like the JW Marriott, is part of the Kessler Collection. Unlike the JW Marriott, this is no sprawling property where you could get lost looking for your room.  

The imposing 19th-century structure features turrets and other delightful architectural details. But the interior is a fun, eclectic mix of décor that in no way feels like a stuffy Victorian parlor. 

Guest rooms at the Marriott feature industrial-chic décor with exposed brick and a mostly neutral color palette. 

At the Mansion, rooms are fitted with colorful drapery, plush velvet furniture and cool vintage touches, like candelabras and chandeliers. Each room is unique, so guests get a new experience with each stay.

Peruse the captivating artwork exhibited in the Grand Bohemian Gallery on the first floor, then check out a curated collection of more than 100 stylish women’s hats in the lobby.

As Wendy and I wrapped up our time in one of my favorite Southern cities, we congratulated ourselves on successfully executing our new/old Savannah itinerary with minimal sibling bickering and agreed that a return trip is in our future.

700 Drayton St., Savannah. www.kesslercollection.com/mansion

To see a different side of the “Hostess City,” US Ghost Adventures Savannah tours some of the town’s most haunted locations, including the Owens-Thomas House, the Juliette Gordon Low House and Colonial Park Cemetery. During your tour, you’ll hear tales of hauntings and well-documented history. US Ghost Adventures also offers virtual tours, a self-guided mobile app and an Alexa voice app, ideal for social distancing

Featured image provided by the Plant Riverside District.

Tracey Teo is a freelance travel journalist who has written about Southern culture and food for 15 years. She contributes to a number of newspapers and magazines, including The Atlanta Journal-ConstitutionThe Dallas Morning NewsThe Star TribuneKentucky Living and AAA Southern Traveler. A Kentucky native, she currently lives in southern Indiana. Read her past contributions to Deep South here.

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  • Marc Head / November 25, 2021

    Thanks for visiting our beautiful city and pointing out not only old, but new. Please correct your spelling of Forsyth Park so that your review is accurate! And come back for a follow-up visit anytime! From the heart of the historic district, http://www.liveoakshouse.com