Dining With a Twist

- by

Neighborhood restaurants take it outside

Summer 2020 meant missing out on many of the normal things we once took for granted: going to a party, seeing a live concert or enjoying a meal together inside a restaurant. But that might not have to be the last word for fall.

Dining outside in Savannah during COVID-19
Illustrations by Maggie Blank French

As autumn ushers in cooler temperatures and diminished humidity, local restaurants’ outdoor dining options are more enticing than ever. Look to Starland District, midtown and downtown, where outdoor dining satisfies every craving for food — and safe socialization.

Outdoor Dining in Savannah’s Historic District

Outdoor dining (and drinking) has long been a hallmark of the Historic District, pandemic or not: Belford’s Seafood and Steaks in City Market features a large outside deck, covered in shade and perfect for people-watching.

Cha Bella and Kayak Kafé are also appealing for those who want to sit outside and have a cold drink, while maintaining distance from other diners.

Dining outside in Savannah during COVID-19
Downtown, Midtown and Starland Yard all feature outdoor dining

And The Collins Quarter, revered for its prime real estate at Bull Street and Oglethorpe Avenue, now includes an even more sought-after outdoor locale: Forsyth Park.

The Collins Quarter owner Anthony Debreceny says even though things slowed down, the business has made strides by shifting to outdoor dining.

“You’re always paying for last week’s invoices with this week’s money,” Debreceny says, “but we are back to our numbers that we were doing about three months after we opened in 2014.”

At the outset of the pandemic, The Collins Quarter began working with the city to add additional seating outside by utilizing parking spaces in front of the restaurant.

Known as the Parklet Pilot Program — a trend that’s taken off all over the country — this initiative temporarily suspends regulations to allow outdoor business expansion into areas normally reserved for vehicles.

“We were able to put 24 seats outside in a pocket that we developed, and we are currently working with the city to have this as a permanent structure,” Debreceny says.

Despite innovative shifts and continual customers, Debreceny admits his staff, like so many others in the hospitality industry, is “struggling to bring our daily lives in line with the new norm.” But amid Savannah’s beautiful fall weather and enchanting scenery, it’s a new norm that looks promising.

Dining outside in Savannah during COVID-19
Starland Yard

Outdoor Dining in Savannah’s Starland District

Starland Yard, with its large outdoor courtyard and dining options like Loki Israeli Food Truck, Pizzeria Vittoria, the Yard Bar and local brewery Two Tides right next door, is the centerpiece of the Starland District. I

t was also “conceived and constructed with a vision of large groups of people gathering,” says general manager Ava Pandiani. Fortunately, the business model just as easily accommodates social distancing.

In mid-March, Starland Yard cut down most of its operation, limiting business to include takeout from Pizzeria Vittoria and turning the entire yard into a drive-thru. As staff debated Starland’s reopening, Pandiani says her team considered every precaution.

“We took away about half of our seating, including all bar stools, and we even went so far as to have bartenders take orders at tables to keep guests from crowding around the bar,” Pandiani recalls.

Starland Yard also designates someone on each shift to constantly sanitize surfaces, and when it gets busy, the park assigns seating to keep people at designated tables when needed.

“Almost every night, I have a guest come up to me and thank us for our diligence, or remark upon how comfortable they feel dining in the park. It’s the highest compliment, in my opinion, for anyone operating a food and beverage business currently,” she says.

Although Starland Yard’s layout allows for easy outdoor dining, Pandiani says she’s noticed heartwarming examples of creativity throughout Savannah, such as neighboring businesses letting restaurants use their entrance space for additional dining.

“It says a lot about the community willing to help others out right now,” she says.

Outdoor Dining in Savannah’s Midtown

In Midtown, Bella’s Italian Café and Hirano’s Japanese Restaurant have long been situated right next door to one another — now, they’re sharing an outdoor dining space that extends the neighborly feel.

Appropriately, The 5 Spot Neighborhood Kitchen and Bar is also part of this friendly stretch.

Midtown’s Habersham Shopping Center is bustling with mom-and-pop stores, boutiques and homegrown eateries catering to the local crowd. To keep business flowing while keeping customers and staff safe, Bar . Food and Coffee . Deli set up more exterior seating to provide safe dining options.

Owner Paula Letcher says though sales are about half of what they were this time last year, the restaurant has found new ways to keep patrons coming back for more, and has even found opportunities for growth.

“From the menu to the staffing to the seating arrangements — all of this changed,” Letcher says, gesturing to the revamped space, which now stretches out onto Habersham Street. “[Co-owner] Johnny [Baker] and I are a bit crazy, so we decided to take over Marco’s Pizza next to Bar . Food and expand into that space as well.”

Letcher acknowledges the challenge of keeping customers safe while providing the same great service they’ve come to expect (outdoor tents, which offer shade and accommodate more traffic, have been a boon).

Still, she thanks her customers for rolling with the changes and returning each week to keep the restaurant moving forward. Her advice for diners who might have been away for a while? “Be nice and be understanding,” she says. “And shop locally.”