I have to give thanks to Daniel Kim, who is a friend of a friend, and who used to live in Savannah, for giving me some good tips as to some of the better places to eat in Savannah while we were there. I always have a hankering for barbecue and Daniel highly recommended Johnny Harris for their ribs. Considering he was spot on with many of his other suggestions (and his suggestions coincided with other's suggestions), we took an evening to go to dinner at Johnny Harris.
The original Johnny Harris barbecue restaurant dates back to 1924 when a local Savannah man, Johnny Harris, opened what amounted to be a roadside shack on what was the outskirts of town at that time. Three years later, Harris was joined in business by Kermit "Red" Richardson. While Harris concentrated on the barbecue and making the sauce, Richardson was the cashier, dishwasher, janitor and part-time cook.
Business at Johnny Harris quickly grew and the old shack was soon to be too small. In the mid-30's, Harris and Richardson moved into their present day location on E. Victory Dr. (see map). Over the years, the restaurant has expanded with larger seating areas, a larger kitchen, plus a sauce production facility with a warehouse that ships over 800 cases of Johnny Harris barbecue sauce a month.
Johnny Harris died in 1942 and Richardson continued the business as a part-owner and manager. Red Richardson ended up buying out Johnny Harris' part of the business from his family in the mid-50's. Richardson died in 1969, but his wife continued to run the place with the help of their son, Phil, and their son-in-law, Norman Hecht. Hecht developed Johnny Harris' catering business which has the capability to serve up to 10,000 people at a function.
Today, Phil Richardson's daughter, Julie, and her husband, B.J., run the day-to-day operation at Johnny Harris. The restaurant is the oldest continuous restaurant in Savannah. That's saying a lot considering the age of the city (around 275 years).
It was after 8 p.m. when we made our way down to Johnny Harris. Being the middle of the week, there wasn't a lot of cars in the parking lot. We were seated in a booth in the large, somewhat circular dining room that featured a very high ceiling that went up to a point in the center. Hanging from the apex was a huge ceiling light. We were given menus by our waitress, Kim, a very personable and pleasant young lady who had a great sense of humor.
This booth was sort of isolated in that it was truly a booth. It was like sitting in a little room where the only opening was the way in and out of the booth. There was a window that looked outside. One the wall under the window was a little button with a weathered sign that said "Service" beside it. It looked like it had been pushed by a multitude of barbecue stained fingers over the years. Cindy said, "Oh, it's an old service button. I used to see these at old places back home years ago." I was sort of incredulous, so when Kim came back with our drinks I asked her what the button was for. She said, "Oh, well, that's to let me know that you all want somethin'!" I asked if it still worked (it looked like it may have been put in back in the 30's), and she said, "Well, sho' 'nuff! You all need anythin' at all, jus' push the button!" We immediately liked her.
Cindy said, "See? You thought I was kidding you!"
I just can't grasp the concept of having a button to call for service. Kim said that the more important customers were seated in booths years ago. She said, "So, you folks are all impo'tant tonight!"
Ribs are the most popular item at Johnny Harris, followed by their chicken - which you can get either fried or barbecued. They also feature fish and seafood on the menu - of which you can either broiled or battered and fried. There were a number of different types of steaks and chops featured on the menu, as well. And the appetizers included fried green tomatoes, fried mushrooms and fried asparagus. Jeez, it's a large wonder why people in the south aren't all 400 pounds!
I wanted barbecue, as did Cindy. They had a special that night - 1/2 slab of baby back ribs for $8.50. She also got some cornbread and macaroni and cheese as her sides. I wanted to try a couple different things so I got the combination 1/2 slab of baby back ribs/chopped pork butt. I also got mac and cheese and got some Savannah red rice, which is basically rice with some veggies chopped up and added.
The only barbecue sauce on the table was the Original Johnny Harris sauce. I poured a little out of the bottle onto my side plate and took a little nip. It was a true southern, mustard-vinegary blend, not sweet at all. I'm not overly keen on this type of barbecue sauce, but it's very big in the south - especially the Carolinas. It had the same deep red color that you find with other types of barbecue sauce. But it was more runny than thick. Here's Cindy in her capacity of a spokeswoman model for Johnny Harris' barbecue sauce.
Our food came out and I was given a generous portion of chopped pork butt and a smaller-sized half-rack of baby backs topped with a healthy ladle full of Johnny Harris barbecue sauce. The mac and cheese along with the Savannah red rice came in small bowls sitting on a plate. And in true Southern barbecue style, we each got slices of toasted white bread.
Now, the barbecue was good. Not outstanding, in my book, but still very good. I guess I'm used to the hickory smoked variety of barbecue with a more smokey, sweet tasting sauce. While it was a different taste to me, I can see why some people who were raised on this stuff keep coming back for it.
For dessert, we tried a piece of their Key Lime Pie. While it was nowhere near as good as what we had at Paula Deen's two restaurants the previous evenings, it was still good.
Before we left, we took a look around some of the corridors of the restaurant to see the pictures and autographs on menus of famous people who have eaten at Johnny Harris over the years. I was especially intrigued to see a number of autographs and pictures of old time Southeastern Conference football coaches who have dined in the restaurant. Oh, there were a number of celebrities who had autographed pictures or menus. But there just seemed to be an inordinate amount of former SEC football coaches featured on the wall at Johnny Harris.
When we were leaving, I looked at a case and found that they also had a hickory smoked barbecue sauce at Johnny Harris. I wondered if I could have had my choice with the hickory smoked sauce. I contemplated buying a bottle to try, but then decided against it.
After we got back from Savannah, I e-mailed Daniel Kim and thanked him for his suggestions of restaurants to visit in Savannah. I told him that while we ate at a number of great restaurants while on vacation, I would have to say the worst meal we had was at Johnny Harris. And I have to clarify that because the barbecue was very good at Johnny Harris, it's just that I'm not overly found of that heavy mustard-vinegar type of sauce. It's just that we ate at some outstanding restaurants during our stay in and around Savannah.
But Johnny Harris is truly an institution in Savannah and if you are going to spend some time in the area, you really should give it a try. The service was great, the food was good and we thought the prices were pretty reasonable. You should go if nothing more for the historical aspect of the restaurant and to experience old-style Southern barbecue.