How does an ambitious restaurant achieve true greatness? Chefs spend a lifetime obsessing over this distinction. Cooking must go beyond sound technique and polite enjoyment, striking something deeper than the chords of satiation and contentment. Service should surpass expectations of basic hospitality, and brim with magnanimity and delight. The overall experience, from the kitchen to the table, demands transcendence from the merely enjoyable — or even thrilling — to a moment that is nearly spiritual.
Everything that it takes to realize this enormous feat — a coherent vision, a distaste for complacency, and singular leadership — Mashama Bailey accomplishes at the Grey in Savannah, Georgia. With nearly 2,000 meals under my belt for Eater, I can’t think of another restaurant that has fulfilled its promise so richly.
At a time when Southern cuisine has soaked up the limelight for at least the last 15 years, the restaurant synthesizes much of what’s relevant about this moment in American dining: an amalgamation of global and regional flavors; a big-city chef making a seismic impact in a smaller town; and an acute awareness of, and reckoning with, complex racial, economic, and cultural histories.
The Grey doesn’t trade in tasting-menu extravaganzas or modernist shenanigans. It’s an unabashed stunner of a space, staffed with kind-hearted souls. Beyond all that, the cooking bursts with such... humanity. All the logistics fall into place on the plate, but the food — curried roast chicken, melting leeks with country ham and curls of grassy tomme, lamb shoulder braised with Senegalese spices — speaks to love of the region and devotion to the craft.
When the restaurant opened in the final weeks of 2014, it arrived with the kind of fairytale narrative that the national media finds irresistible: John O. Morisano, a New York venture capitalist, moved to Savannah part-time, where he purchased a striking former Greyhound bus depot that had long sat vacant; it operated until 1964, straight through the Jim Crow era. Waiting areas and restrooms were segregated. Morisano intended to exorcise the building’s past by transforming it into a spellbinding restaurant. Through the chef and author Gabrielle Hamilton, he was introduced to Bailey, a sous chef at Hamilton's East Village institution Prune.
At first, Bailey, who was born in the Bronx and mostly raised in Queens, but with roots in south Georgia, was skeptical. “Things like this don’t happen to people I know,” she remembers thinking then. She traveled down to Savannah to take in the city and the in-progress restaurant. A nearby building awakened some memories. She’d spent large swaths of her childhood in the area, from ages five to 10. Her parents didn’t wed until after they’d had their third child; Bailey was old enough to remember them marrying at the Chatham County Courthouse right across the street from the Grey. She took it as a sign and said yes to the project.
Journalists swarmed and swooned. I hustled down, too, within six months of the Grey’s debut, agog at the room. Morisano spent several million dollars unearthing its 1938 grandeur, originally built in an Art Deco spinoff style called Streamline Moderne, notable for its slinky curves, horizontal lines, and bold triangles and quadrilaterals that keep the eyes traveling around the room.
Morisano restored the front bar, previously a diner, and dyed the leather booths a shade of muted blue to match the old Greyhound logo. The dining room had transformed into a literal midcentury vision: dappled flooring, the color of rose quartz, restored to a gleam; a center-stage, horseshoe-shaped bar; chandeliers that mimic ascending Champagne bubbles. Numbers painted on the walls corresponded to gate stations where buses had once lined up.
Much of the food impressed me. Early on, Bailey described her menu as “port city Southern food,” referencing the city’s founding in 1733 and the many culinary influences that came through via its harbors, like the Georgia staple Country Captain, a roasted chicken dish with a curried tomato sauce. I recall particularly enjoying the smoked greens I’d ordered on the side of it. The experience was certainly gratifying, but I could tell Bailey was still searching for something more in her cuisine.
Two and a half years later, I return to Savannah for several meals at the Grey. Some local friends have joined me for dinner. They ate at the Grey early in its run and liked it just fine but hadn’t been back since. “When did it get so great?” they ask.
It’s true. Clear references to African flavors now enrich her evening menu: A handsome jumble of charred vegetables highlights West African crops, like okra, sweet potatoes, and peanuts. Kanni, a Senegalese sauce of chiles and tomatoes, gently raises the heat on braised lamb shoulder. Harissa zaps grilled octopus (and twangy pickled celery adds its own extra nip). A murmur of ginger wafts over striped bass perched atop a scallion pancake. Her menu staples have also come into sharper focus. The curried sauce somehow clings more fiercely to the chicken on her Country Captain; the spices add more intricate harmonies. There are dishes that bring me closer to South Georgia: salt-preserved grouper over toast, herbed rice and peas, a riff on carbonara that ensnares hunks of aged pork belly in its twirled noodles.
What changed in the last couple of years? “I knew when I got here that I was still really in New York — that I didn’t know where I was cooking,” she told me. To root herself, she turned to the books of Edna Lewis, the gifted cook who grew up in Virginia as the granddaughter of emancipated slaves. Lewis, a favorite chef of Chez Panisse’s Alice Waters, cooked in Manhattan in the ’50s and wrote about seasonality in the ’70s and ’80s, long before the topic became exhaustingly ubiquitous.
Bailey had discovered Lewis while writing a paper in culinary school and then forgot her work as she disappeared into her job cooking on the line at Prune. Over the last year, she reconnected to Lewis, especially through In Pursuit of Flavor, a chronicle of the Southern culinary calendar that veers from fresh green peas with Vidalia onions to peach cobbler to crown roast with glazed apples. Bailey and her team reach for the book often. “I want to cook quail or greens: What does she say?” Bailey said. “The weather turns to fall. What was she preparing?”
In fact, the influence is so resonant that Bailey reorganized her entire menu around In Pursuit’s chapters as a sort of tribute: pantry, water, dirt, pasture. It allowed her to break out of the rigid geometry of appetizers, entrees, and desserts and to think more fluidly about the local bounty. She especially loves the dishes she creates for the “pantry” section: The grouper she preserves in salt for two weeks, its flavor and texture mellowing, that she serves over toast; a vegetable broth she makes for a seemingly simple preparation of rice and peas that infuses layers of aromatics.
We all look for inspiration in our lives; few of us channel it as effectively as Bailey has. The Grey’s achievements now match its stratospheric ambitions, and that warrants celebration. The fare — with its nuanced wielding of spices, its adoration of vegetables, and its telltale bacon smokiness that rattles through so many dishes like a train whistling in the distance — all hearken not only to a place, but also to a person. This is reclamation cuisine. Bailey has found her home, and the Grey’s enthralling story has actualized into a triumphant reality.
This story is part of Eater's special package on America’s Essential Restaurants.
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