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