The End of a Savannah BBQ Legend—and a New Beginning, Too

May 24, 2016 | By | Comments (13)

Word came last week that the Southern barbecue world will soon be losing a classic. Johnny Harris Barbecue in Savannah, Georgia, which we profiled in our celebration of A Half Century of Barbecue  and for their rare offering of barbecued lamb, will be closing its doors this Saturday, May 28th, ending a run that spanned more than 90 years.

Johnny Harris started serving slow-cooked pork in 1924 in a combination barbecue joint and speakeasy on East Victory Drive. Business was so good that in 1936 he broke ground on a new all-brick restaurant and nightclub complete with an enormous 12-sided grand ballroom. It featured a domed ceiling rising 30 feet high above, painted to resemble the night sky and dotted with hundreds of twinkling lights so patrons could dance “beneath the stars” to live big band music.

Johnny Harris Grand Ballroom

The stars will twinkle above the Grand Ballroom at Johnny Harris for just a few more days

Johnny Harris died in 1942, and his restaurant was purchased by Kermit “Red” Donaldson, Harris’s right hand man, who ran it another quarter century. It then passed into the hands of Donaldson’s children and their families, who have operated the business ever since. The bandstand was shut down long ago and the dance floor covered by tables, but the restaurant continued to serve its beloved barbecued pork, barbecued lamb, and batterless fried chicken to succeeding generations of Savannah diners.

Johnny Harris Postcard

Postcard advertising Johnny Harris Restaurant

Earlier this year, the restaurant’s owners struck an agreement with ARS Ventures LLC, an Atlanta-based developer, to pursue retail development on the 11 acre site on which Johnny Harris Restaurant stands, and that includes demolishing the building that has housed the restaurant since 1936.

The senior Donaldson generation is now in their 80s, and the the original building, which had been added onto several times, has proven a stubborn challenge. “It was not built for modern day service,” says Corbin Parker, Red Donaldson’s great-grandson, who currently runs Johnny Harris’s sauce production. “That coupled with the maintenance—it’s been added onto for so many years and each layer added more and more upkeep.”

Johnny Harris Exterior 2

With multiple additions since 1936, the old brick building has a challenging layout and needs continuous upkeep

Johnny Harris fans who want a tangible piece of barbecue history will have a chance to get just that. Starting June 13th, the contents of the restaurant—including vintage fixtures, furniture, kitchen equipment, autographed menus, and artwork—will be sold via an online auction conducted by South Auction & Realty.

A portion of the proceeds will be donated to charity, and the bidding will likely be fierce for some of the restaurant’s famous cypress booths, which back when hard liquor was still illegal were enclosed by velvet curtains to conceal whatever patrons might be up to inside. Those booths—especially one in particular—were the beginnings of many a romance, Corbin Parker says. “So many people have been proposed to in booth 12, for some reason,” Parker says, “And so many customers tell us, we had our our first date in booth number 12.”

But the closing of Johnny Harris Restaurant doesn’t mean the end of the Donaldson family’s barbecue pursuits. The Johnny Harris Barbecue Sauce Company will continue bottling its popular line of sauces, including the original recipe formulated by Johnny Harris back in the 1920s. Corbin Parker and his parents, Julie Donaldson Lowenthal and B. J. Lowenthal, are also in the process of opening a new restaurant, and part of the management team from Johnny Harris will be joining them.

BowTie Barbecue Co. will be located in midtown Savannah on Waters Ave, and the offering will blend the old and the new. On the one hand, they’ll serve the same batterless fried chicken that has been a favorite at Johnny Harris since the very beginning. “We’ll still have lamb on the menu,” Parker says, “and we are also going to do a smoked lamb barbacoa with a chili paste rub.”

BowTie will tap into today’s farm-to-table and craft aesthetic, with 20 taps of craft beer, a sizable small batch whiskey selection, and a slate of barrel aged cocktails. “We’re working with Savannah River Farms out of Sylvania, Georgia,” Parker adds. “Using their pastured pork for spareribs as well as pork shoulder.”

Though initially they’ll be deploying some of the same Southern Pride cookers used at Johnny Harris, they’ll also be firing up a new 84-inch Lang offset smoker, which they’ll use initially to cook ribs and chicken wings and have an eye toward moving to for all their meats.

“Using what’s native, using what you’ve got—local Georgia pigs, local Georgia oak—all that’s really important to me,” Parker says. He and his family are targeting opening the doors at BowTie Barbecue in mid-August, keeping alive a barbecue legacy that dates all the way back to the Prohibition era.

COMMENTS

  1. Diane

    So sad my favorite place growing up will no longer be a part of my visits back to Savannah. It is irreplaceable. Will still buy the original sauce when I go to GA and continue my life-long quest to duplicate it. Savannah will never again resemble what I loved living there in the 50s and 60s.

    December 1, 2016 at 10:30 pm
  2. o c welch iii

    oh well. no surprise here.

    June 21, 2016 at 4:00 pm
  3. holden

    I guess they have failed to realize that the building is much more beloved than their food which has been very average for years. My family has continued to eat there, solely for the unique experience of dining in that wonderful ballroom. This is going to backfire and cause irreparable harm to the Victory Drive corridor.

    May 31, 2016 at 12:38 pm
  4. Kathleen

    They at least could have incorporated some of the old restaurant into the new one like Morning Call did in New Orleans. What a shame.

    May 27, 2016 at 1:29 pm
  5. Joanne Gunn

    I have so many memories of wonderful barbecue at Johnny Harris. My parents (Shorty and Helen Gunn) dined there for lunch and dinner so much. It was always a favorite. When I was in Savannah High in the 1960’s all of us headed to “Harris’s” after our annual proms.
    When I moved away, a trip back to Savannah always included a meal or two at Johnny Harris.
    I have book full of memories at the restaurant.

    May 27, 2016 at 1:15 pm
  6. Kathleen

    Just a PS, I’m glad to see how many other folks are disappointed with what’s happening to a beloved historic restaurant. If this was some other US city, I’d say” go figure”. But in historic Savannah?? What were they thinking?

    May 27, 2016 at 11:41 am
  7. Steve Vickery

    This article is puffery at its worst, a free ad for this new restaurant, which is being built at the expense of an irreplaceable landmark. Shame on Southern Living. The airbrushed, upscale South you market is a sham. To the reporter: next time, research before you regurgitate stuff like this.

    May 26, 2016 at 5:24 pm
  8. Hal

    Savannah Historial Society allowing this building to be demolished means they should never insist any building be preserved. This building is unique in its own right. It is about the structure, NOT the food.

    Do not put a restaurant there.

    Turn it into an events facility. A place to teach future generations how to ball room dance. A place for new wed couple to celebrate their beginning with family & friends. A place for old classmates the gather for their reunions. A place the really show off Savannah Historial values to visiting conventions.

    As for the restaurant and sauce, we had our last. We used go and buy cases to ship to family and friends. We celebrated many happy occasions there in the main diningroom and it was a shame when you were no longer required to dress well to eat in there.
    Birthdays, bridal luncheons, Anniversaries, first dates, prom dates, proposals,a nd best of all dancing to a live band, will all be destroyed with the building.

    May 26, 2016 at 4:01 pm
  9. drluvcatz

    Most of these farm to table places are fake. IT’s Sysco packaged meals. They say they use local farms but they do not want to pay the local farmers price. Ask your server to see the farms invoice. This place will be no different.

    May 26, 2016 at 3:55 pm
  10. Terri Davison

    No, I won’t patronize the new business nor will I ever again buy their sauce.

    Demolishing a unique and historic building so filled with the memories of thousands of Savannah families is disgraceful. There were many options that would save the building, but the owners took a burnt earth approach…they don’t want it but they don’t want anyone else to have it either.

    So they degrade Victory Drive with another silly strip mall…and giving it a fancy name doesn’t mean it’s anything more than a strip mall.

    Future generations are going to think the city was crazy to allow this. And they will be right.

    May 26, 2016 at 2:03 pm
  11. Helen P Grevemberg

    I agree – it’s hard to believe that the city that has perserved so many of it’s historic buildings – couldn’t find a way to perserve the unique building that meant so much to so many Savannahians. Also, I can’t imagine what the city planners are thinking about putting a shoppong center at that location on Victory Drive. It’s going to be a traffic nightmare.

    May 25, 2016 at 9:53 pm
  12. Linkdown: 5/25/16 | Barbecue Bros

    […] with Robert Moss’ latest entries for The Daily South: a writeup on The One True Barbecue and the end of a Savannah BBQ legend; here’s an excerpt from the first linked article on whole […]

    May 25, 2016 at 10:33 am
  13. Kathleen

    What a shame.It just seems very sad that in a city like Savannah they couldn’t even have preserved the historic main room of Johnny Harris, even within the new development.
    I personally thought they had the best fried chicken in Savannah.

    May 24, 2016 at 2:39 pm

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