2021 South’s Greatest Restauranteurs
Behind every divine burger, every fish prepared to perfection, every plate of perfectly balanced flavors, is a team of people who make magic happen. South pulls back the curtain on our readers’ favorite dining establishments to reveal the men and women behind it all.
1. Robyn and Michele Quattlebaum / Driftaway Cafe
For Robyn and Michele Quattlebaum, it’s their love for a room full of happy diners and the opportunity to share their brand of Southern hospitality that drives them. The Quattlebaums define hospitality as: “The friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors and strangers alike,” and if you have ever stopped by the Driftaway Cafe, you have experienced this first hand. When asked when he knew the restaurant business was going to be his life’s work, Robyn said, “When I realized I could put a smile on anyone’s face with a good meal and a cold drink.” Sometimes, it is just as simple as that. And of course, while Robyn and Michele run the ship with decades of industry experience, Robyn humbly insists, “I absolutely would not be where I am without my dedicated team of hard workers here at Driftaway. I work as hard for them as they do for me.”
Robyn Quattlelbaum said:
Why Savannah: Because Savannah is a great town! I was very fortunate to be raised here.
Favorite dish: That’s a hard one to answer, I live for food! Anything seafood.
2. Dhruv Khanna / Perry Lane Hotel
Dhruv Khanna first arrived in Savannah via the Perry Lane Hotel, realizing a childhood dream of following in his family’s footsteps working in the hospitality industry.
“The location, the team, the glamour, and the unique traits are all attractive qualities to me,” Khanna described as the draw of the Perry Lane. “Savannah feels as though it is becoming a melting pot of a variety of cultures wrapped into one; this allows for many opportunities. The food and beverage industry is continuing to evolve and becoming more and more prevalent within our city,” he continued. “Building relationships, residing in the midst of controlled chaos, guiding a team to success, exploring creativity and innovation, and the pure excitement that comes from improving guest relations, are all aspects that I find to be extremely fulfilling.”
In his roles as director of food and beverage at one of Savannah’s most prestigious hotels, Khanna’s role became that much more challenging over the course of the last year and a half. “Even in the darkest of moments [during the pandemic], our team remained positive, having faith that the fog would eventually lift. The experience bonded us further and we emerged as a stronger community,” said Khanna.
Dhruv Khanna said:
Favorite Dish: The Croque Madame found on the Emporium brunch menu. Having spent time in Europe, this was one of my favorite breakfast items and has continued to be a staple for me.
Secrets to success: Perseverance, drive, and commitment.
Perry Lane Hotel, A Luxury Collection Hotel
3. Erica Davis / Erica Davis Lowcountry
Erica Davis runs her business on the premise of creating food that represents the culture and ingredients of the Lowcountry. Erica Davis Lowcountry is known for preparing palate-pleasing treasures from the sea, and delicious barbecue plates — quintessential Lowcountry staples. For Davis, breaking into the restaurant business was a gradual process. “We started in 2002 with catering and have evolved since,” she said. Her secret to building success in one of the toughest industries is “perseverance, getting customer feedback, and testing new ideas.” As an owner of a restaurant that has stood the trials of time by producing consistent, honest and local flavors, Erica Davis Lowcountry survived the test of recent years, explaining, “Our catering experience helped us adapt to the rapidly changing business environment [during the pandemic].” As a leader in the local culinary scene with serious local pride, Davis shares this advice for Savannah diners: “Don’t go to the large corporate-owned restaurants where the menus are all the same.”
Erica Davis said:
Why Savannah: Is there anywhere else? We are from Savannah.
Favorite Dish: The pan-seared red fish.
Erica Davis Lowcountry
4. Two Cracked Eggs Cafe / Chris Emerick
They say breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and Two Cracked Eggs’ owner Chris Emerick doesn’t take that responsibility lightly. “It’s heartwarming when someone tells me this was the best breakfast they ever had, or they felt so welcomed when they dined with us, or when they send a card or note to let us know how much they enjoyed their meal,” said Emerick. “That’s what makes it all worthwhile for me and reminds me of why I am in this business and love this work so much!” It is precisely this mentality that has made Two Cracked Eggs a breakfast staple in Savannah for years.
Having lived and worked in Richmond Hill and the Greater Savannah area since he was 16, Emerick feels blessed to be a part of such a rich culinary community. Like others, the past year has been hard on Two Cracked Eggs, but Emerick resorted to “thinking outside the box” to get through. By donating meals to healthcare workers, supporting his staff, and standing strong with his neighbors, Emerick was able to pull his team through challenging times.
Chris Emerick said:
Favorite dish: I love our crab cake benedict. The crab is wild caught from the Gulf of Mexico and is served on our famous homemade biscuits. On the side, I love our Adluh stone ground grits from Akin, S.C., and our very unique clothesline bacon.
Advice: I want to encourage readers to never give up on their dreams. Although life can throw you some twists and turns, you must keep your focus on God and he will catapult you into levels of success that you could never achieve on your own.
Two Cracked Eggs Cafe
5. Brian and Julie Curry / Jazz’d Tapas Bar
Jazz’d Tapas Bar opened 18 years ago and is a testament to the Currys’ hard work and love for what they do.
As Brian Curry tells it, in 2002 he sold his former creation, Orleans Brick Oven, and joined the “small plates revolution” with the concept for Jazz’d Tapas Bar. After acquiring the space for Jazz’d, Curry said they tried to do as much of the construction as they could without contracting. His wife Julie would join him every evening after work, sometimes until three or four in the morning. “She thought I was trying to kill her,” Curry laughed. After nine long months, Jazz’d was born.
Today, Jazz’d continues to top the “best-of” lists for Savannah dining. “We know that without the people that work for us, we wouldn’t be where we are.” Curry was candid about the trials of the past year. “It’s been terrible,” he said. “I’ve got a core staff and some of them have been with me for up to thirteen years. There’s loyalty and family, but COVID-19 brought on a big change [to the industry].” With Brian and Julie at the helm, Jazz’d has pulled through as an example of perseverance.
Brian Curry said:
Favorite dish: The martini-marinated tenderloin tips — it has been on the menu since day one.
What South readers should know: “I love Michael Brooks. He and I have a very long history, and now I consider him a brother. He’s amazing and the magazine is amazing.”
Jazz’d Tapas Bar
6. Don McGraw / Telfair Capital (CoCo’s Tybee)
“I love owning restaurants because every day brings a different challenge and skill set. I also love interacting with our staff family and getting to know them.”
Don McGraw has taken the Savannah area restaurant scene by storm. After moving to Tybee Island with his wife, Stephanie, in 2020, McGraw saw opportunity all around him. As the owner of CoCo’s Sunset Grille, Captain Mike’s Dolphin Adventure Tours and the iconic Agnes Marie shrimp boat (with more acquisitions in the works), it’s safe to say McGraw has settled in and built not only the beginnings of an empire, but a family as well.
McGraw identified the biggest turning point to achieving success in his businesses as acquiring shrimp boats. “To be able to watch the boats come in and know that our customers are getting their shrimp from our nets is a true ‘sea to table’ experience,” said McGraw. He added, “That’s what it’s all about: seeing our customers’ excitement from the time they see the boats to enjoying fresh shrimp by the pound or in our Lowcountry boil.”
Telfair Capital in partnership with N.Y. based Bruderman Brothers, has big plans in the near future. “We hope to duplicate that experience down on River Street and in other beautiful locations around the Coastal Empire.”
Don McGraw said:
Favorite dish: I really love fresh seafood — especially oysters. It is the reason we bought where we did.
Why Savannah: My wife and I [and Melvin the dog] moved to Tybee in 2020. We wanted to leave N.Y./Houston for a place that we felt was safer to live and raise a family in. We also love the ocean and really enjoy living at the beach.
CoCo’s Sunset Grille
Tybee Island, GA
7. Nate and Melinda Shaffer / Wiley’s BBQ
Long-time South readers know the familiar faces that are Nate and Melinda Shaffer. There’s a reason why South – and other publications – frequently cover the legendary Wiley’s Championship BBQ. When Nate Shaffer took the reins of Wiley McCrary’s famous BBQ joint, he thought, “What the heck did I just do?” These years later, the Shaffers are doing just fine serving up swine. Particularly in the last year, Shaffer credits his “very loyal core” team and family as being the restaurant’s backbone in a perilous time for the industry.
In addition to reliable staff and family, Shaffer reflected on his fiercely devoted patrons. “Our loyal customers (local and visitors) are the key to our success. We try to learn a little about each of our customers every time we interact with them,” said Shaffer. “We have the opportunity to experience many different cultures from around the world that make their way to our restaurant.” Wiley’s Championship BBQ has been running at its storefront on U.S. Hwy 80 since 2008, and under the Shaffers’ guidance, continues to be the home of “fine swine dining.”
Nate Shaffer said:
Favorite dish: The Sampler and our Redneck Nachos.
Advice: During the past year, restaurants have had many obstacles. Be patient and understanding – and ask if something doesn’t seem right or if your experience isn’t wonderful. We try to achieve perfection, but we are not perfect. Love, listen and learn.
Wiley’s Championship BBQ
8. Zach Shultz / Cotton & Rye
For Zach Shultz, owner of Cotton & Rye, being involved in the restaurant business has always been his dream. “My mom actually still has one of my kindergarten projects from Savannah Country Day School that asked what I wanted to be when I grew up,” explained Shultz, “and my answer was a chef or restaurant owner.” He started his culinary career at 13, working at several local Savannah restaurants leading up to the time he left for college. From there, he gained experience working at James Beard award-winning restaurants before returning home to open Cotton & Rye, his “dream come true.”
It’s one thing to have a dream as a child, but Shultz has carried that passion with him his whole life. “I love the excitement of the many different responsibilities that come with owning and managing a restaurant,” said Shultz. “I am constantly getting to do what I love: creating and cooking incredible food, with my staff who I love, for the town of Savannah that I love.” The evidence of his dedication is in the incredible food Cotton & Rye serves every night. Moreover, Shultz absolutely insists, “Cotton & Rye would not be the amazing place it is without our incredible team!”
Zach Shultz said:
Restaurant advice for Savannah visitors: You will not be disappointed! We have so many incredible restaurants to choose from. Make sure to bring a big appetite and stretchy pants!
Favorite dish: Everything! It really depends on what mood I’m in. If I want elevated comfort food, our cheeseburger and hand cut fries or fried chicken thighs with spicy honey and mac-and-cheese never disappoints! If I want seafood, our market fish with Savannah red rice and house made tasso ham is ridiculously good. Our wings, shrimp & grits… I told you everything!
Cotton & Rye