Though Savannah certainly has a plethora of reliable restaurants, the paucity of those within spitting distance of water is a head-scratcher.
That must be just one of the reasons the faithful who have flooded through the doors at Desposito’s have waited two hours for a table since the Southern seafood shack reopened on August 28.
On the first day of October, there might not have been a better seat in the city than at one of the high tops on its brand-new patio, a steady cool breeze blowing in from Wilmington River. A full month under its brand-new proverbial belt, weekend lunch service had begun the day before, and by noon, the only vacant seats under the pavilion were at the peninsular bar.
Managing Partner Michelle Smith wore the smile of a restaurateur who is now on the other side of a stem-to-stern resurrection that began in earnest three years ago.
“It’s been a long road,” she said with a laugh. In the past week, she finally felt comfortable enough to sit down and talk to friends who had come in to drink and dine.
“I’m not running constantly,” said the first-time owner whose fingerprints are all over the new Desposito’s. “We’ve finally gotten in our groove.”
Loyal patrons who knew the antecedent iteration of the eatery will say that not much had changed much over forty years. Those who have not recently made that hard left on the other side of Thunderbolt Bridge and driven down Macceo Drive are in for a spectacular surprise.
LOVINGLY REVIVING A LOCAL LEGACY
The history of this Isle of Armstrong landmark has been well-written heretofore by many who have chronicled its origins as a market run by the Walton family before it was bought in 1968 by the eponym, Carlo Esposito.
That same year, he put his name on the side of the building and met Walton Boone, who took over after Esposito passed away in 1982, running the riverside bar for the next three-plus decades with son David Boone. When his mother passed away in 2020, Boone put the building on the market, ready to pass the restaurant’s legacy and name to a new owner.
That October, Smith expressed her interest and then spent a couple months with Boone, diving into his recipes, many of which are “staples” that had to be on the revived menu, and into Desposito’s past. Other knowing nods to yesteryear now include The Daily Desposito, a newsprint placemat featuring articles on the establishment’s history and while-you-wait games, similar to the back issues of the Savannah Morning News that were once used as ‘tablecloths’.
While restoring Desposito’s marks her first restaurant ownership, Smith has opened eateries in the role of general manager and has been in the hospitality trade since she was twelve. In her own hometown of Ludowici, her parents owned The Greasy Spoon, opened during Smith’s teen years, and before that, she washed dishes and ran food at Debbie’s Diner, just a few blocks down East Cypress Street. Prior to this venture, she worked for Leopold’s and helped initiate its ice cream cart catering program.
In what has been a wholesale sea change, perhaps the most amusing difference is that the ‘old’ Desposito’s boasted a crew of two: David Boone and one server. Smith has a staff of 59, and based on the early deluge of diners, every one of them is going to be needed.
“They’re awesome,” she said of her front of house, cooks, servers, and barkeeps. “I could not be more thankful for the staff that I have.”
“If you read any of our reviews, it will continue to show, over and over and over, that we have great customer service,” she proudly added.
Full disclosure: I was only ever in the Boones’ Desposito’s twice, so all I really recall are dingy green walls and a dark, low ceiling. Oh, and a Ms. Pac-Man machine.
If those faded images sound familiar, wait until you walk into the fish-camp Narnia that Smith has earnestly designed. Blue-and-white hand-painted tiles guide your steps into a high-ceilinged front bar space and carry into the cozy main dining room and slope-roofed side shed.
Long navy subway tiles run up to a chair rail height, topped by crisp white walls. Here and there, reclaimed walnut wood boards run in vertical strips to remind you that you are in a historic seafood house, and blue plaid booths pick up the coastal color scheme.
As is often the case, what was to be a renovation quickly turned into a full-on restoration.
“Literally, six boards were left,” Smith said with a chuckle. “The building structure is original, but none of the wood is original.”
Tear-down started in 2021, but no new structure was started until the summer of 2022, followed by new everything inside and out, seen and unseen. The new build fits onto the footprint of the former restaurant, but all interior walls, ceilings, dividers, and doorways are brand-new.
On the whole, the interior space is configured differently than what you might remember, and the exterior dining area is a superb addition. All told, Desposito’s now seats nearly 130, including more than fifty under the gable-roofed riverview pavilion. Equipped with fast fans for now, electric heaters for the ‘winter’ months, and automatic awning windows, this is the fanciest informal fish house bar any of us could imagine.
“It took a lot of time and energy putting in a new septic system and new drainfield,” Smith said of the necessary improvements that came to a quarter-million dollars before any actual demolition and renovation had begun. “The price point that we had planned for more than tripled.”
She continued, “I’m glad we did them,” acknowledging that those upgrades made possible the expansion of the patio.
Along with the bright and airy atmosphere, Smith designed this Desposito’s down to the last detail. Every table in the restaurant has a drop hole in the middle for crab legs, oyster shells, shrimp peels, you name it, and the bus bucket can be slid out for easy clean-up, Smith’s own genius design that “makes the table-turn so much quicker, too.”
FOLLOWING BOONES’ BLUEPRINT
In creating a carte that befits the new everything, Smith has paid homage to David Boone’s recipes while the much-traveled Roberto Leoci marks his return to Savannah as Desposito’s head chef.
“Staples” like Boone’s deviled crabs ($23.95) lead the list of a half-dozen entrée baskets that includes boiled shrimp and Alaskan snow crab and Low Country Boil, slightly changed from Boone’s recipe by using a “little bit more flavorful” Conecuh Sausage (Evergreen, AL).
“We had a lot of requests for the pasta salad ($3.95) and his shrimp salad,” Smith said, though the latter is only going to be on offer during the summer season.
Desposito devotees will be heartened to hear that Dave’s Sauce, invented by Boone himself way back when, is on every table. Diners who like to dip their boiled shrimp in it were asking about this “tangier” Carolina barbecue concoction as soon as they walked through the new doors.
“Of course, he’s brought his Italian flair to the menu,” Smith said of Leoci’s culinary influence, noting the shrimp scampi ($17.95), the lobster mac n’ cheese ($17.95), and the “phenomenal” lobster ravioli ($15.95), a shareable app that is flash-fried and served with house-made marinara.
“We have one thing that’s from my childhood, too,” she continued. “It’s chicken egg rolls ($6.95 for four), and it’s probably become one of our top-selling items.”
Shredded chicken with a mix of cheddar and Monterey jack is tucked into a wonton, wrapped, fried, and served with Cajun ranch and salsa. What could stand more chicken and less cheese, the dish is one her mother used to make and is a “comfort food” on an ample but approachable menu that will leave diners spoiled for choice.
The smoked fish dip ($9.95) is creamy and light, not at all stodgy and not too smoky, and pairs perfectly with the house-cut-and-fried Old Bay chips. Treat yourself right by breaking open the hush puppies ($7.95) so that you can spread the honey butter on both halves.
The prices are better than fair, and the portions are plentiful. Those egg rolls are huge and have to be shared by four people.
Overseeing the bar program is Shannon Nelson, who moved down from Chicago to be “the mastermind of all the drinks,” per Smith. “Everything on the cocktail list is her,” including inventive flights of bloody marys and rum and the Thunderbolt Spritz starring Grey Goose pear and yuzu simple syrup.
Smith recognizes that opening now will mean weathering the season’s change but is confident that the clientele will balance out.
“For us, we will have a busy summer season for locals who go out on their boats,” she reasoned, but when those of us from the islands or Ardsley or Avondale or nearby Thunderbolt think that it is ‘too cold’ to eat outside, tourists will fill those seats.
Crisp and brightly appointed like Erica Davis Lowcountry, this new Desposito’s will play the part of Tubby’s fancier east-side-of-the-river cousin, offering a less expansive menu for about the same prices.
Splitting shells on the price differences between the three Southern seafood-centric eateries is not worth it. Each of us will have our favorite, and we are lucky to have all three within the same square mile.
“It’s been great, honestly,” Smith said of the past month. “The locals have really showed up, and it’s been steady.”
Steady as Desposito’s goes. Full speed ahead.
Desposito’s Seafood (3501 Macceo Drive, Thunderbolt) is open for dinner Monday through Thursday (4 p.m. to 9 p.m.) and Friday to Sunday for lunch (11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.) and dinner (4 p.m. to 11 p.m.).