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Loran Smith Columnist

Published Saturday, March 10, 2012

The many lures of Savannah

SAVANNAH – Revisiting old haunts is a reminder that once you have spent time here, you are likely to agree that one can't get too much of Savannah -- its laid back living universally popular and alluring as more than 11 million visitors frequent this port city annually with more than half of them spending at least one night.

Tourists seem to enjoy Savannah year round -- even in the heat of the sometimes-very-hot summers which are as traditional in Savannah as moss on the oaks.

There is nothing like a late afternoon social at the rooftop deck of the Bohemian Hotel. Watch the sun set while the big cargo ships slide by either seeking anchor at the Savannah ports or heading out to sea. There is something majestic about this scene. The big ships and their dominating presence, water and the sun merging in the background, make for a scene that touches the romantic corner of your heart.

Coastal living has an ambience which causes the emotions to stir. There's plenty of history here, beginning with General James Edward Oglethorpe who got Savannah going by having the good sense to make peace with Tomochichi, the Creek Indian chief. Savannah's past makes historians swoon. Savannah doesn't get in a hurry but there are plenty of traffic jams -- owing to the countless squares in the middle of thoroughfares and endless one way streets which is part of Savannah's charm.

The traditional restaurants seem to flourish, a reminder if you want a meal at Lady and Sons, the establishment of Paula Deen and Jamie and Bobby, you can expect to wait in line.

Savannah has always offered something old and often there is something new such as a restaurant called Café Florie at Barnard and 34th streets. The cinder block construction with assorted paint combinations with eight tables inside, four chairs at a counter and one table out front remind you not to hurry your meal. There are white linen table cloths which heighten your appreciation for the address when you move inside.

Theo Smith and his cousin Latoya Rivers, a graduate of the University of Georgia (business degree) named the restaurant in honor of their grandmothers Florence and Lurie, which is how they came up with "Café Florie."

Theo, who has spent time in Europe where he paid close attention to what was going on in the kitchens and cafés on the continent, studied at a culinary school near Quebec, but is influenced by the soul food heritage of his relatives. He gives you second effort when preparing your food which is served on bamboo placemats -- a nice touch.

Theo and Latoya's business relationship began when he tasted her sweet potato pound cake.

"We need to sell this," he exclaimed.

Today, they sell 30 different kinds of seasonal pound cakes in and about Savannah. Theo serves French fries in a cone with his own brand of mayonnaise, "the way they do it in Belgium." Everybody seemed to be keen on Theo's green tea and citrus. "He is unbelievably creative," praised Karen Jackson, who waited our table.

Theo's shrimp and grits where tasty and savvy which reminded me of this vignette I bumped into years ago.

It was the coastal black families who gave us shrimp and grits and who cook shrimp and grits without peer. To begin with, it was a matter of economics. Without a lot of resources, they made do. They began with catching shrimp from the sea which cost nothing. Then they took the most inexpensive dish there is -- grits from coarsely ground corn, and out of necessity, made one of the best meals imaginable. I have eaten shrimp and grits in a lot of celebrated addresses, but none better than at places like Café Florie. Coastal cooking. Home cooking. Nothing better.

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