WHILE SAVANNAH is a tourist town, the food scene has been increasingly catering to locals. Neighborhood bars and restaurants are residents’ best-kept secret, a place where they are guaranteed a seat among familiar faces.
Since February 2009, Bar • Food at Habersham Village has been a constant for Midtown dwellers. Chef and co-owner John H. Baker III boasts, “We are a neighborhood place, we are not a tourist destination.”
Given its many years of service, this local hotspot was ready for a refresh, a reawakening if you will. “It was time. Most restaurants do a renovation every five years, but we stretched it to eight,” Baker reports.
This joint has been fully renovated from floor to ceiling, furnished with a new menu and extensive wine and cocktail list. Everything, from flooring and lighting to local abstract paintings and bar shelving, will make Bar • Food’s faithful following gawk at its transformation.
Although this swanky spot maintains its charismatic “railroad car shape” and local charm, its original French Asian menu has been converted to “trendy gourmet” fare.
The “Americanized” menu features fresh locally sourced ingredients and modern eats, some of which can be shared. For those that have a hankering for French Asian, rest assured, Baker kept some favorites from the old menu.
Chef Baker has served 37 years in the food industry. His passion for cooking began unexpectedly in the 8th grade, when he attended the Boys of Christ School, which was a working preparatory school in Arden, North Carolina. While there, Baker chose to work in the kitchen, feeding more than 100 students daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
“Big pots don’t scare me. When I say ‘big pots’, I mean crowds,” he says. After spending 8th to 12th grade serving in this kitchen, Baker not only developed a strong work ethic but also discovered his niche.
Following an unsuccessful year at Georgia Southern, Baker ended up working as a dishwasher, realizing that he needed a change. Years later, he moved to New Orleans and worked at a country club where he learned Creole cuisine.
This experience enhanced his kitchen prowess and desire to cook. While there, Baker also worked as a private caterer with a former friend from Savannah.
Soon Baker began to miss the water in Savannah, ultimately deciding to come back and buy a riverboat that was “as ugly as sin.” The vessel may have been hideous, but he served “really good food” for nine years on that boat.
In 2001, Baker opened Queeny’s To Go-Go, where Blowin’ Smoke is currently located, and sold it five years later.
Then in 2009, Baker partnered with his former contractor, Paula Letcher, and established Bar • Food, named ironically, of course. Later in 2013, the two business partners opened Coffee • Deli, which resides a few doors down from Bar • Food at Habersham Village.
Now that Bar • Food has been renovated, I had the opportunity to break bread with Baker and Tammy Ray, publicist, indulging in brunch staples from the new and improved menu.
Before we dug in, I designed my own Bloody Mary from their new build-your-own Bloody Mary Bar. First, I was given a glass of ice, with a rim of celery salt, filled with vodka. There were three different juice choices: tomato, clamato and zing zang.
Goodies like worcestershire sauce, hot sauce, olives, celery, pickled okra, pepperoncini, and horseradish can be added to customize your drink just the way you like it.
The highlight of the meal was the Biscuit Board for Two or as Letcher coined it, “The Country Ass Biscuit Board.” Four golden scratch-made biscuits were served on a wooden butcher board that was garnished with savory and sweet accouterments.
This Southern twist on a charcuterie board playfully highlighted local ingredients, as well as house made sauces, butters and meats. The tender biscuits, made with pig-fat, were served with homemade sausage, ham and bacon.
Baker made me laugh as he chanted, “Pig is my friend. Pig, pig and pig.”
For those with a sweet tooth, the strawberry cognac sauce and local honey paired well with the biscuits. The spiced grape jelly, with cayenne chili, offered slight heat that will “get you going in the morning.”
The honey herbed butter was creamy and sweet while the garlic herb butter had a strong and satisfying dill flavor. The Red Eye gravy is an acquired taste, as it is bacon fat and coffee incorporated together.
Lastly, the Sausage Gravy pays homage to Baker’s mother’s chipped beef gravy. Baker makes his creamy sage flavored gravy in a black iron skillet because “it makes a damn difference.” This was certainly a fun sharable brunch item.
After that, we all dove into the decadent Crab Cake Benedict. Two hearty crab cakes were served on English muffins and a bed of bright green seaweed salad.
This salad offered a crunchy texture and unique oceanic flavor. The cakes were topped with a perfectly poached egg and of course, rich and buttery hollandaise sauce.
Lastly, for those that prefer a lighter meal, we shared the Waffle Bowl Parfait. Like any traditional parfait, vanilla yogurt was served with fresh succulent berries and baked granola. But they were innovatively served in two house-made waffle bowls, designed by a waffle iron.
Bar • Food plans on celebrating its Grand Re-opening on January 21, 10 am-2 pm, where patrons can enjoy food from the new menu in the recently renovated space. cs