The voice on the other end of the phone piqued my curiosity:
"Hi, this is Paul England. I'm corporate chef for Wet Willie's."
"Chef" and "Wet Willie's" are words I never expected to hear in the same sentence - let alone "corporate chef." Corporate chefs are the final arbiters of consistency, menu and style for restaurant groups.
And Wet Willie's has one? Heck, I didn't know Wet Willie's had food.
The River Street landmark has a solid reputation as being the ultimate cool-down station - its frozen drinks offer an array of flavors and a pleasant buzz when souped up with alcohol.
Honestly, my focus at Wet Willie's has been the myriad of drink flavors - not the menu. This I had to see.
England has nearly a decade as a corporate chef for a multi-unit, diverse concept Chicago-based restaurant company. When the chance came to live in Savannah, he ditched his parka and moved south.
Wet Willie's co-founder and president Bill Dickinson is a Ph.D. psychologist. He knows nuts when he sees it. He also recognizes opportunity. From the River Street store, which opened two decades ago with a crock pot and a microwave oven, the company has grown to 14, soon to be 15, locations on the east coast.
"In the beginning, we didn't call much attention to the food," Dickinson explained. "It was inconsistent - now we're working on consistency that matches our reputation for customer service."
Consistency is England's challenge. Wet Willie's kitchens range from San Diego to Louisville Ky., from Memphis to the Carolinas to Miami Beach.
"And all the kitchens are different," England explained. "They are very small spaces though - which presents a real challenge when placing equipment."
Enough talk. What about the food? It exceeded my expectations.
Simple things like Ranch dressing and balsamic dressing are made in-house - the Ranch dressing with fresh buttermilk. Big, plump wings come in a hearty portion.
The fully baked wings - no frying - are tossed in an interesting herbed tequila sauce that's proprietary to Wet Willie's.
Pina Colada shrimp are plump, skewered and crispy with coconut spiked breading. When combined with Wet Willie's unique pineapple cole slaw it's a refreshing and flavorful meal that's richly textured but not too filling.
And then there's "Cheeseburger on a Stick." This trio of hamburger sliders comes dressed with a thick slice of American cheese, a tangy pickle and features reduced-fat ground beef that's been hand-patted for your order.
If the devil is in the details, then England has his hands full chasing demons from location to location. That he's based in Savannah suggests that our local Wet Willie's may have the strongest menu yet.
I spied a massive chopped salad with grilled chicken that I'll go back to try, and ooey-gooey cheese-laden nachos looked equally interesting.
This is solid bar food, with enough imagination and attention to detail to make it worth visiting time and again.
There's a lot of scratch preparation going on here - a far cry from fast casual restaurants that make do with a menu solely comprising commercial frozen foods.
101 E. River St./233-5650
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