Hold the Hype

 

The staff is loyal, the dining room appropriately worn and the food is a concoction of family recipes and Southern classics. It doesn’t matter if you’re a tourist, a longtime local or Daryl Hannah sucking down shakes; at Clary’s Café pretension is left at the door and everyone gets a healthy heap of home cookin’.

The lull between breakfast and lunch, waitress Tina Brown stands behind the old soda fountain counter at Clary’s Café, cutting giant lemons. Chef Brian Malone emerges from the kitchen with a dinner plate heaped with fresh julienned vegetables, scoops of shrimp and chicken salads, and three signature crab cakes. This combination is not on the menu. Tina takes the plate, slides it under an industrial roll of plastic wrap, seals it tightly and sets it aside. “This is for Miss V,” she explains, referring to a mysterious regular.

Miss V? One look around this 103-year-old establishment and its homey, cluttered, slightly dumpy interior, and you just know there are people with stories here. But Tina refuses to divulge juicy bits about either her customers or her employer of nine years.

“I plead the Fifth,” she insists, shifting her weight from one foot to another. “They would sue me.”

Based on the hoots and hollers from the cashier and the “remember the time” provocations from fellow servers—slurping Cokes and sweet tea as they finish their side work—Tina’s probably right. After all, Clary’s was one place author John Berendt hung out to study characters for “The Book,” like the fly-toting potential- water-poisoning inventor Luther Driggers, who ordered and paid for two breakfasts a day, whether he ate them or not.

“I told the girls to put him at a place for six!” former owner Michael Faber guffaws.

Faber, who bought Clary’s in 1994 and knew Driggers, explains that the movie version of Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil had Luther sitting at the Clary’s counter, but “he actually sat at a table where the jukebox sits now.”

Besides Luther’s two-top and a dining room expansion, not much else has changed in the 12 years since the onset of Midnight’s mega- hype. The coffee pots still hang cheerily from the shelf like Disney characters ready to percolate into song, the eye-popping menu is virtually unchanged, magnets with moderately risqué sayings remain plastered on appliances. The staff hasn’t seen much turnover. The black-and-white tile floor looks old.

The reason: the folks at Clary’s just aren’t that impressed by fame. They are wrapped up in restaurant life—customers, food, work friends, the Clary’s character—and Hollywood types just blend in with the local color. “Well, Daryl Hannah came in here and drank five milkshakes,” recalls Chef Malone. “And that actor that’s always getting in trouble [Robert Downey Jr.] came in on parole, with two policemen.” Tina’s first customer: “Adam West.” You know, Batman. “He ordered oatmeal.”

Of course, Clary’s has benefited financially from the work of Berendt and, later, director Clint Eastwood. “I bought Clary’s the week Midnight was published. Nobody knew about the book; I had no idea!” says Faber, a restaurateur originally from Chicago. “A guy from Random House came to sell me books.”

Faber reluctantly bought two boxes; he eventually sold 12,000. And some 150,000 Clary’s Bird Girl T-shirts have been rung up at the register. The tourist clientele ballooned, and Faber opened a second Clary’s on Habersham Street, “so the locals could eat.

“Forget the book,” says Faber. “People come to Clary’s for the food and the service. These latkes here on the menu—made from scratch, my mother’s recipe.”

Clary’s current owner, Jan Wilson, was Faber’s original cashier. She says Faber’s forte is food, and he developed the menu during his world travels.

“He brought us the salmon platter,” the East Tennessee native announces proudly, with a soft voice and kind, interested blue eyes. “Salami and eggs.” Faber also insisted on sauces from scratch, Jewish- style reubens, omelets made with warm apples and cheddar, and custard- filled dark chocolate éclairs as wide as magnolias in late May.

Faber returns the compliment: “Jan built the staff. Half of them are still working here.”

Indeed, the most touching aspect of Clary’s is its family atmosphere. It’s a close-knit bunch. “Most people have been with me eight and nine years,” says Miss Jan (aka The Great J.W.), whose management philosophy is to “treat my employees the way I want to be treated. I consider Clary’s my second home.”

She admits not everyone can work here. “You need to be outgoing. If you’re too quiet, these girls will eat you alive.” She’s talking about Tina, Linda, Angi, Maggie and others, several of whom admittedly suffer from hot flashes. “No matter how crazy it gets, they know their jobs.”

It’s morning. The breakfast rush is mind-boggling. An employee is singing soprano. Clary’s two small dining rooms, outside tables and counter are packed with hungry locals and tourists, old people with walkers and kids with bibs. Michael Jackson’s 1970s hit “I’ll Be There” plays on the jukebox. The conversation noise level is approaching code orange. Tina leans on a table, cracking a joke, catching her breath. Through the kitchen window, Chef Brian and assistant chef Dennis Pinckney face a blitzkrieg of orders—up to 400 on a stellar day. Tattooed Stacy runs a steady relay from window to tables, balancing plates heaped with perfectly cooked pancakes, eggs, sausage, eggs benedict, homemade biscuits and gravy.

Stacy is Tina’s daughter. Her son works here part-time, too. “Jeffrey’s on shakes,” says Tina. That means he also whips up malts, egg crèmes, and phosphates on the professional blender.

The employee comments are flying: “What’chu want, honey?”…“You go boy”…”I can’t believe this!”…“Toast, where?” All this jawing and counter-leaning and tea-gulping, everything but a whap with the wet towel: it’s a corporate nightmare. But the team functions as smoothly as a ballet, with one person sliding a chair here and another catching a falling fork over there: a pas de deux of people and plates. The jukebox keeps rhythm— Billie Holiday, Ray Charles, classic hits of the ’70s—with the employees feeding it dollar bills day in and out. “I put $25 a week in that thing,” says Billy Marden, a “sort-of manager.”

The Clary’s relationships go way back. “We used to come here as teenagers,” says waitress Maggie Kernstein, class of ‘74. “Drink Cokes and stuff. It was a pharmacy then.”

Says Tina, “Ollie [the manager] is like my sister, and this one’s like my son.”

Wearing a white apron and black do-rag, resident rapper Big “P” sidles up to Tina. Back from an Atlanta production gig, “P” has worked here three years. “Everybody’s cool, we get along,” he says. “If I need a day off, I ask Boss Lady . . . I come back and there’s open arms.”

That’s a good thing. “P,” whose real name is Jean Pierre, 25, now has a baby to diaper and feed. He’ll do “a little of everything” at Clary’s until his production company, Studio 220, starts pulling in the big bread.

“I tell him Clary’s is a job and music is your career,” says The Great J.W. “I’m not into gangsta, but I’ve listened to Jean Pierre’s CDs and they’re good.”

Between orders, waitress/writer Angi Gauldin flips opens her ticket book. Taped inside is a quote: “It is far better to be a galley slave in Turkey than a freelance writer in America. -Karl Marx.” At night, Angi is revising her screenplay, originally inspired by Clary’s. She worked here 10 years ago, left town, and has been back a year. She gets a kick out of Clary’s; it’s great material.

According to Angi: “Every town has a place like this—a diner. It hearkens back to Norman Rockwell’s day. People like consistency.” And the occasional belly laugh. Her favorite story: “Tina comes through with a huge tray loaded with coffees, milks and orange juice—and drops it. She cusses and walks away. The bus boy comes out, looks at the mess—and leaves!” The customers, she recalls, were awe-struck and amused.

Angi says the Midnight madness has waned, receding into the past. But the customers haven’t.

“You know the question people ask me now?” says Angi. “They say, ‘Where’s the garden?’ And I say, ‘It’s a metaphor for Savannah, this place— good and evil.’ I tell them, ‘You’re here.’”

Clary’s Café has two locations. The one at 404 Abercorn St., is open daily for breakfast and lunch; 912.233.0402. The 4330 Habersham St. restaurant is also open daily for dinner;