Savannah barbecue restaurant says goodbye after more than 90 years
By BRITTINI RAY
Savannah Morning News
SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) – Denise and Kindall Valdes dined on their favorite southern dishes of fried chicken and world famous barbecue on Saturday afternoon. It’s a meal the couple has regularly eaten for more than 30 years.
But this lunch was special. It’s the last time they will get to enjoy their treasured dining hall.
“I love the fried chicken. It’s my favorite. It’s sad to see it go,” Kindall Valdes said.
Johnny Harris – the iconic restaurant on Victory Drive in Savannah – permanently closed Saturday night after more than 90 years of service. The atmosphere was bittersweet as restaurant employees scurried to welcome customers one last time.
Jordan Scarpitti, a cook who’s worked at Johnny Harris for a year, said she was emotional as she prepped the kitchen.
“It’s just sad,” she said. “We’re a real tight community. It’s depressing to know we’re not going to laugh with each other in the kitchen or see the same customers again. I mean some customers have been coming here for years.”
And the feeling was mutual on both sides.
Crowds lined up early for the lunch rush – not only to sample their most-loved dishes but also to reminisce about cherished memories at the restaurant. And the crowds only got bigger as the sun set and the night wore on to the eatery’s 10 p.m. close.
A lot of date nights took place at the Johnny Harris ballroom, Denise Valdes said.
“I remember when you had to dress up and the ballroom was decorated with lights,” she said. “You couldn’t just show up in jeans and a T-shirt. I remember my first time here I was in a party dress. It was always just family tradition to come to Johnny Harris. My grandmother would have the barbecue sauce and told us we could only have a little for fear it would run out.”
For Arlene Hendrix and her husband, Johnny Harris was more than a great date spot. It was part of the couple’s childhood.
“I’m a native Savannahian,” Hendrix said. “I went to Savannah High School. We dated here. We danced here – our school dances were held in the ballroom. It’s just sad. It’s a part of Savannah that we hate to see go.”
Johnny Harris opened his original barbecue shack in 1924 on the corner of Bee Road and Victory Drive. The business quickly grew and Harris took on a partner, Kermit “Red” Donaldson, who helped move the restaurant down the street in 1936 to its current location.
Harris died in 1942 and Red Donaldson took over. It passed down through Red Donaldson’s family after his death in 1969 until its final hours Saturday.
“Our family will always be forever grateful to all who have dined with us over the years and made their special memories at Johnny Harris,” said Phil Donaldson, Red Donaldson’s eldest of three children. “The outpouring of support from our many regular diners has helped all of us get through this difficult chapter of Johnny Harris.”
The restaurant features a circular main dining room ringed in tall, polished wood booths and a high, dark-colored ceiling from which cutouts of the moon and stars glow in the evening. In its heyday, a dance floor filled the middle of the room, welcoming returning soldiers and others to enjoy the sounds of the era’s best big bands. The walls in the hallways are covered with framed menus signed by such celebrities as Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis.
In September, restaurant president Norman Heidt announced the owners had entered into an agreement with a regional developer to explore opportunities for development on the property, which consists of 28 lots totaling 11 acres.
Heidt cited the building’s age and costly maintenance as one of the reasons the Donaldson family decided to raze the building and sell the property in a letter to the Chatham County-Savannah Metropolitan Planning Commission in January.
“The current building is old and has had multiple additions and modifications during various points in time,” he wrote. “While we have recently performed some cosmetic renovations the (reality) is the infrastructure simply is not built to continue operations without substantial investment.”
Opposition quickly rose via social media to save the restaurant from being demolished, and a number of longtime Savannahians began a petition to have the building designated as a Savannah landmark.
A NEW BEGINNING
Patrons said they were devastated to see the Savannah institution go – but they held hope for the Johnny Harris legacy. The restaurant’s popular in-house barbecue sauce will be sold online and at the restaurant’s neighboring gift shop.
And part of the restaurant’s management team plans to open a new spot on Waters Avenue, according to a recent article in Southern Living. The new restaurant is scheduled to open in August. The city of Savannah website shows that the owners have applied for permits at 6724 Waters Ave. for BowTie Barbecue Co.
And Johnny Harris lovers will have an opportunity next month to have a “piece of Savannah history.”
The restaurant will host an online auction from June 13-22 where Savannahians can buy restaurant furniture, fixtures, artwork/décor and memorabilia items. Interested auctioneers can also visit the restaurant on June 15, 18 and 21 to see the items in person.