DESPOSITO'S: Making the very old new again

EAT IT AND LIKE IT | Presented weekly by SAVANNAH TECHNICAL COLLEGE

Artist's rendering of the new Desposito's.

When you set yourself up to build-or restore-something in a city as old as Savannah, the chances are pretty good that you will run into road blocks.

Some of those obstacles are easier to overcome than others, but the bottom line is you will always be challenged. It is just the nature of the beast in such a historic locale. Something about blessings and curses, right?

click to enlarge Artist's rendering of the new Desposito's.
Artist's rendering of the new Desposito's.

I remember a little over a decade ago when I was beginning a renovation on my own home, which was built in 1890. Once you start the work, any experienced contractor will tell you “there ain’t no tellin’” what you are going to find inside of these walls. You just have to be prepared to do the work.

It would be easy to point a finger and say such shenanigans are a downtown Savannah problem. But they are most certainly not.

That’s the ongoing story right now at Desposito’s Seafood in Thunderbolt. A legendary restaurant and watering hole that will return to business later this year. 

For all of the shiny new pennies that pop up quarterly in Savannah these days, this one will be the most anticipated. If you look at it from a purely local point of view, of course.

For those who aren’t familiar with Desposito’s, for decades it was a Savannah institution. Long before social media came to existence and made everything accessible and available, Desposito’s was packing them in down there underneath the Thunderbolt bridge just off of Highway 80.

On Sundays, it was race day. As in NASCAR. 

The bar was full of patrons watching the race on what I’m sure was a tiny television with rabbit ears. There may or may not have been a wager or two going on.

Desposito’s sponsored local racers too. Some of the memorabilia hung on the walls for years. Some of it has been set aside and will return to display.

The same goes for the circa early 70s beer bottles. They found a ton of them underground during the planning stages for the rebuild. They’ll be cleaned up and put out as well.

The menu was tiny. Steamed shrimp, deviled crab, some sandwiches, chips. There was nothing over the top. It was truly a low maintenance, no frills joint. That’s what everyone loved about it. They were famous for not offering tartar sauce.

A couple of years ago, it was sold. It was sold by the man who practically grew up in Desposito’s tiny kitchen. His mother ran the place. Eventually he ran the kitchen. He knows the history. He witnessed the attraction. We told his story here last year.

The young lady now running the show is Michelle Cooley. She also knows this history and wanted to restore it. The original plan was to clean it up, bring it up to modern standards here and there and bring back Savannah’s long-lost friend.

Then they started peeling away the layers. The blemishes began to show on this nearly 100 year old building. The damage not visible to the naked eye needed to be repaired.

“We had no choice really but to address it head-on.” she says, referring to the amount of restoration that needed to be done before there could be any real talk of expansion.

New septic tanks are being installed. Handicapped accessible restrooms needed to be added. The plumbing was a mess.

“We couldn’t flush a toilet without it affecting water pressure over here in the kitchen.” Michelle says.

The renovations currently underway at Desposito’s are far more thorough than anyone involved in this project could have anticipated. The kitchen is getting new ventilation and will be almost 4 times the size of what it was. Although, that’s not saying a lot. The former kitchen looked like my kitchen in my college apartment. Still, this new one is huge. It had to be to handle the volume they are expecting.

There is an outdoor deck being built. It will be covered. There will be a 25 seat bar that will dominate that outdoor space. The Thunderbolt boat ramp about 200 feet away. Full menu available there, of course. Parking lots are being added and expanded as well.

Back inside there will be a waiting area for seating. Next to that and near the front door, a take-out window. Just outside of that will be several picnic tables for anyone looking for a quick hit and run seafood lunch or dinner.

The new Desposito’s is going to be large. Capacity will hover around double what it was.

Thunderbolt has approved a huge neon sign that will face the bridge. I’d been told 6 foot high letters. DESPOSITO’S

You’ll know it when you see it.

Unfortunately for some of the purists, the new Desposito’s won’t too closely resemble the old one. At least not once you get inside. That has been a sticking point that Michelle has been reminded of regularly on social media.

“No one wants any of it to be different.” she says. “We are trying really hard to keep as much of this in place as we can.”

It’s obvious in speaking to her that she cares about the balance between what this was and what this will eventually be. She is also aware that there is no pleasing everyone. Especially on social media.

They’ve shopped practically every seafood spot in Chatham County for a feel on pricing and portions. I’ve had enough conversations with Michelle to know there’s almost an obsession with providing value. I can’t say for certain, but I really doubt you will find a $25 fried shrimp platter with a couple of hush puppies and a slice of lemon. Tourists will snap that up, but that isn’t the goal here.

Speaking of food, the menu is being developed as we speak. Some of the original back-in-the day recipes will remain, but there will be more. Much more. 

Michelle tells me they’ve discussed local shrimp with as many people as they can to this point. You can expect to see soups made from scratch as well as salads.

Outside there will be live music and an area to for kids to run around or play cornhole while you are waiting for a table, although they haven’t figured out where they are going to put that yet.

The atmosphere described to me will be something along the lines of Hilton Head Island’s Skull Creek Boathouse. 

Paula Deen’s Whitemarsh Island restaurant comes to mind, maybe Tybee Island’s Crab Shack.

I can’t speak to spaces for boats in the Summer, but I suspect this new Desposito’s is very quickly going to become a destination in this town.

Making the very old new again.

Look for them to open late Summer.

About The Author

Jesse Blanco

One of the most recognizable personalities in the Savannah/Hilton Head Island television market, Jesse Blanco is sometimes called "Savannah's Anthony Bourdain." His 'Eat It and Like It' show has become a major regional brand in the foodie world.
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