ON THE steep path down Abercorn ramp, the cobblestones seem a little slicker, a little more strangely bulbous underfoot. There’s a certain kind of relief that hits once your feet land on the rough wooden steps to The Bayou Café: the harsh river wind sweeps over your face. Tugboats groan in the distance. Behind the worn glass door, beyond the bouncer, erupts a cacophony of dirty blues pouring out of a speaker that dangles from a noose of chain, uproarious laughter, and the aroma of deep-fried fresh catches, red beans, and rice. And beer. Lots of beer.
With seemingly ancient stone walls and original white pine ceilings, darkened from years of cigarette smoke, the place feels part pirate hideout, part deep Southern dive. In a way, it’s both.
It’s been likened to a nuclear reactor in which atoms bounce off one another in chaos. Some lovingly call it the “Mos Eisley Cantina of Savannah.” To others, it’s “The Last Outpost.”
Universally among employees, musicians, and regulars, it’s “home.”
Established by hard-gigging musician and former Roadhouse owner Jerry Zambito in 1991, The Bayou has withstood multiple fires, hurricanes, and lord knows what else, but the place just can’t quit. The landmark has its own mythology, surrounded by just-wild-enough-be-true stories and memories skewed by tequila shots and retrospect.
There’s the time actress Robin Wright allegedly jumped onstage for a spank from the musical talent. Or memories of Red, a fellow who’d fallen on hard times and taken up residence under The Bayou steps and helped out around the bar. And you don’t get much more Southern Gothic than the regular who lost his leg and stashed his prosthetic one behind the bar whenever he visited.
The Moody Blues, members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Molly Hatchet are said to have stopped in. The Black Crowes had an impromptu gig during a Southeast tour. Hell, Rolling Stone itself mentioned the place as a great spot to catch a show in their February 17, 2000 issue.
“There’s a lot of stuff you can’t print that happened at The Bayou,” chuckles blues-rocker Greg Williams, a Bayou regular for 20 years and counting.
“The Bayou lets you know right out the gate what it is,” explains musician Thomas Claxton.
So what is it?
A place with live music seven days a week, 365 days a year and unpretentious, delicious Cajun cooking, where international sailors buy shots for bachelorette parties, off-duty musicians toast off-duty bartenders, and businessmen in custom tailored suits have a laugh with fanny-packed Ohioans sipping white wine. Therein lies its strange magic.
“It’s always had a warm texture to it,” founder Zambito remarks. “People of all strides seem to have a hell of a good time.”
“The Bayou’s always been there for the tourist industry and the locals,” Claxton observes. “They’re good, solid people, hard workers who just want to come in and listen to some good tunes.”
There are only two days in the last 25 years that The Bayou hasn’t had live music: once, during Hurricane Floyd (the manager on duty slept in the bar as the city was evacuated), and last summer when Adam Sandler and crew shot a scene for The Do-Over right outside.
Any day of the week, one can see rock ‘n’ roll, blues, and acoustic singer-songwriters playing originals and classic hits. On the weekends, a solo performer, like Don Coyer or David Harbuck, plays for the dinner set, while bands like The Magic Rocks, Hitman Blues Band, or Georgia Fire Band rock until close as the liquor flows and patrons dance on the crowded floor.
For many musicians, like Claxton, who played his first paid gig at The Bayou, the place has been an integral part of their professional development.
“I walked in and introduced myself to Jerry—he didn’t tell me he was the owner,” Claxton recalls. “I asked if I could get a gig, and he looked at me and said, ‘You think you’re good enough?’ I said, ‘I hope so.’ He said, ‘Well, go get your stuff and show me what you got!’”
Fresh-out-of-high-school Claxton was taken aback—after all, it was just three in the afternoon.
“He said, ‘Why not?’” laughs Claxton. “‘If you’re ready, you better be able to show me right now!’”
Claxton earned a spot as a fill-in player that afternoon; two years later, he’d be in the regular entertainment rotation.
“I owe everything to my years at The Bayou,” he attests. “A lot of musicians played inside The Bayou that had a lot of experience and a lot of years on me. I took a lot of advice and got a lot of guidance from guys who had already been there, and I think that is a very important thing.”
“It’s kind of a cross-generational hub for musicians,” he notes. “All of us are at different stages of our playing, and we all end up there in the night. Now more than ever, people are coming together.”
Chief, a longtime Bayou fixture who passed just a few years ago, was a significant influence on his fellow musicians for at least 22 years.
“He had this big list he called his ‘Whine List,’” remembers Williams with a laugh. “People were asking for stuff like ‘Freebird,’ cliché songs. He said ‘I’ll play ‘em—for $25.’ He’d leave with three, four hundred in tips!”
Eric Culberson’s weekly open jam has played a large part in bringing in younger musicians. Every Wednesday, the stage is packed as guitarists, bassists, and drummers of all styles share the stage and network.
And with Bayou’s daily music schedule, local players have been able to put food on the table with a guitar and a voice.
“It’s one of the few places that has made it possible for me to make a living doing nothing more than playing music,” says Claxton.
With a quarter-century gone, Zambito is glad to reflect on The Bayou’s successes: his original plan of creating a haven for locals and River Street explorers hasn’t changed one bit.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” he laughs.
To honor their 25th year, the Bayou staff will host a weekend-long celebration with current and past Bayou faves onstage, generations of bartenders pouring drinks (some traveling from out of town for the occasion), and throwback pricing.
Regulars will certainly find their way home down that familiar windy path; Savannahians who have never been may find a new, true Savannah sanctuary.
Saturday, March 5
Sunday, March 6