Like most Savannah transplants, chef Todd Harris came to the Hostess City by serendipity. Despite never having been to Savannah, he felt a spontaneous and strong draw to an opportunity at downtown restaurant the Fitzroy (9 Drayton Street). He fell in love the same way with the Fitzroy’s former mixologist Sarah Ray, who now dehydrates Spam and other oddities as cocktail garnishes behind the bar of Harris’s new restaurant, the Garage at Victory North (2605 Whitaker Street).
In a city delightfully filled with Southern fare of the styrofoam-plate-and-a-scornful-stare variety, Harris is adding a needed ripple of sophistication to the Savannah dining scene. After designing menus for award-winning hotels (like Fleeting at the Thompson Hotel) and working in Michelin-starred Acadia and GreenRiver in Chicago, Garage is Harris’s first venture under his name.
In the kitchen, Harris blends the technical and the soulful, channeling a fine French cooking background with memories of watching his grandfather run a barbecue restaurant in Columbus, Ohio. It’s that restaurant that compelled Harris to be a chef. “I loved the food, the aroma and the whole experience of just being there — the sense of community and belonging. People talking, laughing and just happy,” he says. These inspirations shine through in dishes like the fried pork chop adorned with braised watermelon, scotch bonnet peppers, and savory collards, and the pan-roasted catfish with rice middlins and chanterelle mushrooms in a bath of beurre noisette.
But those inspirations also play out in every other aspect of the restaurant. With just six tables and a buzzy bar where many Midtowners over-imbibe and overshare, Harris can command every aspect of the ambiance. The music that plays, the waitstaff, and the aromas that emanate make for a complete and convivial hour — or four.
Like the garage of a childhood friend with a “cool mom,” the Garage at Victory North beckons everyone to loiter beyond what is socially acceptable. It’s also one of just a handful of Black-owned restaurants in Savannah – and the only spot in the city where visitors can get a strip steak (grass-fed, side of thin-cut, fried-caper-covered frites) at 1 a.m.
Behind the bar, Spam-master Ray recalls her past life studying laboratory science, alchemizing the unexpected (prosciutto-and-melon pot liquor) into cocktails. For a less innovative bartender, messing with classic cocktails is a fast track toward contempt, but Ray knows how to add surprises that don’t offend integrity. Instead of olive brine or pickle brine, she uses pot liquor from the collards Harris cooks up to add dimension to her dirty martini. The result is a salty, briny beverage, aptly named the Savory Sipper.
“Staff Meal Monday” at the Garage, a favorite among Savannah’s service industry, is a three-course, family-style meal inspired by the staff’s formative food memories. Themes can be nebulous (‘70s TV dinner night), classic (Italian night), or specific (pierogi night) – and wine pairings, cocktails, and playlists round-out the events.
For the TV dinner-themed evening, Ray took a twist on three classic cocktails, serving them as heaps of Jell-O and allowing patrons the unique experience of being able to spoon-eat their drink of choice. Flavors included Corpse Revivers, Blue Hawaiians, and a margarita garnished with peppers that sold out soon after opening.
Harris and Ray met maitre d’ Matt Goodman while working together at Fleeting. The three, united in their desire to see the Savannah dining scene evolve and senses of humor, quickly became friends. When Harris prepared to make the move to the Garage and choose the restaurant’s manager, the decision to bring Goodman along was a no-brainer.
Goodman’s attention to detail in the dining room spans from remembering everyone’s name to dispensing doctoral-level food knowledge. “The worst part about creating your favorite restaurant is you’ll never actually be able to dine in it,” he says.
What’s rare is that the team at the Garage can laugh together and put a magnifying glass on the minutiae of service and flavor. And customers feel it.