A Taste Of History at Savannah’s The Grey Restaurant

There is a beautiful connection between a city and its restaurants, an ebb and flow of cultural influence between one and the other. The best type of food establishment acts as a reflection of a city’s values and aesthetics, it provides a secondary home and hearth for its inhabitants to indulge in good food and good conversation with their neighbours. It is a remarkably difficult symbiosis for any one place to achieve and many restauranteurs are happy to focus only on the food, the reviews, and the aesthetic as it pertains to a trend.

This was not the priority for John O. Morisano when he decided to pursue his long-time desire to open a restaurant.

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Opening a restaurant is no simple thing, but happily, John had three important ingredients already – a supportive wife, years of experience as an accomplished investor/businessmen and passion.

Research was key in developing the kind of feel John O. wanted for his authentic Savannah, Georgia spot and it began with finding the perfect location and the perfect chef to head up the kitchen.

The location of The Grey is the spine of this story and its namesake. John O. found the abandoned, dilapidated Jim Crow-era Greyhound bus terminal in downtown Savannah and knew he had found the setting for his culinary journey. The preservation of its historic components – from the art deco panelling to the divot in the floor in front of what used to be the ticket counter and is now the kitchen pass – was of the utmost importance during renovations and gave John O. the perfect setting for his true-to-Savannah restaurant. From then, it was on to the even more difficult task of finding the perfect chef.

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After countless interviews with chefs and restauranteurs, John found true inspiration in the form of acclaimed chef Gabrielle Hamilton’s autobiography Blood, Bones & Butter. He was so moved by her words that he was “…overcome by this overwhelming belief that she could help him” and so he reached out to her on the off chance that she would meet with him. She refused, but he persisted until finally he had a face to face meeting with her at her restaurant, Prune, in New York City. He immediately found a connection with her.

“What the fuck are you doing here?”

“I don’t know, I just felt like you could help me,” he tried to explain to her. “We had similar experiences growing up.”

“What? You went to juvie too?” she retorted, in the same voice he had come to know from her book.

“Maybe not that similar,” John laughed as he recounted the story to us over drinks so many months later. Nonetheless, the connection had been forged and Gabrielle became an instrumental part in forming the restaurant, not least of all because she suggested her sous chef Mashma Bailey as his potential partner.

John O. wanted not only to build a restaurant but also a ‘bridge to the community’, a place that wasn’t so much as restaurant but a meeting place for the entire community of Savannah. Bringing in a chef who was from the area was important to this mission, as was the immediate decision to have a woman at the helm. He didn’t want someone who could just cook, he wanted a partner that he could build this business with for the rest of his life.

As soon as Gabrielle introduced him to Mashma Bailey, it was done. After dozens of interviews, John O. had found The One.

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As if the gorgeous setting and history were not enough, John O. told us that the restaurant was “about delicious” and the multiple courses we voraciously devoured were exactly that. Chef Bailey’s menu changes with the seasons but everything on it, from the more traditionally southern items such as fried catfish to the seafood boudin and seared duck breast, pay delicious homage to the history of the building and the greater culture of Savannah itself while staying true to Chef Bailey’s idiosyncrasies as a chef. The staff are even taken on ‘field trips’ to their local purveyors to more deeply understand the mechanisms of their food production and their histories.

The harmony of The Grey – its ambiance, aesthetic and culinary cohesiveness – is evident even after a single meal at the restaurant and it all comes down to this connectedness between Chef Mashma Bailey in the back of house and John O. in the front. They collaborate on everything and that lasting partnership that seemed to idyllic and possibly unachievable in the beginning as blossomed and nurtured the kind of dining establishment that is a rare beauty not only in Savannah but on the entirety of the United States culinary map.

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The saying at The Grey is ‘let’s take care of each other’ and that warmth emanates from the beautifully restored doors of the historic building, mingles with the scent of paradoxically comforting and elegant southern cooking to create a unique siren’s song to the people of Savannah. If you are in the area, you must eat there, and, if you are not, it might just be worth the effort to get there just to experience The Grey.

Happily, John O. and Chef Bailey have plans to move forward together with other projects because, “it was too hard, not to do something like this again.”

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