Down home cookin?

Savannah is supposedly the ‘Hostess City of the South,” right? The South is known for its down-home country cookin’, right? So, explain to me why there are not more than a handful of restaurants in the area that specialize in Southern-style cuisine?

For close to four years now, Sweet Potatoes restaurant has been trying to fill that need by filling the stomachs of those who visit with all the collard greens, fried catfish, peach cobbler and other assorted southern delicacies they can handle.

Apparently, they can handle a lot. This July, owners Steve and Nancy Magulias finally did something which, according to Steve, has been long overdue: They expanded the restaurant.

“I don’t like to make my customers wait,” says Magulias of the expansion. “Before, we could only seat 50. Now, we can seat 75. It was definitely necessary.”

What is it about Sweet Potatoes that has so many people waiting for a table at this late hour? According to Magulias, it’s a combination of great food and a relaxed atmosphere.

“Sweet Potatoes is all about comfort food,” says Magulias. “I decided on the menu based on the types of foods that I remember from my childhood. I wanted it to be kind of like the ‘mom and pop’ restaurants that you had when I was growing up, but with a twist.”

Don’t get me wrong - all the classics are here: Barbecued chicken, potato salad, the before-mentioned catfish and collards, as well as a host of other Southern staples. At Sweet Potatoes, however, the barbecued chicken has a peach glaze, the collards are served up with a hint of lemon, and the potato salad is made with…yep, you guessed it: sweet potatoes.

Magulias has a deep love for the food, but he has a greater love for the people who help make and serve it. “I try to be a father-figure to the people who work here,” he says. “I push them to do their best, and give them more responsibility if they are ready. Responsibility breeds maturity.”

Head chef and general manager Chris Blankinship is a testament to that fatherly influence. Three and a half years ago, he started working for Magulias at his other restaurant, Toucan Café, as a sous chef of limited experience. Blankinship displayed a real passion for the business and for cooking, so Magulias gave him the opportunity to prove himself.

“Steve is like a mentor to me,” Blankinship says. ” I’m definitely not looking to go anywhere else.”

Daytime manager Sherry Spencer had a similar experience. She started out at Toucan as a hostess, and began picking up a few extra nights at Sweet Potatoes. Within a year, she was promoted to her current position.

“Steve wanted someone in the position who would really care for the customers, and I do,” says Spencer.

She tells me about a gentleman who comes in almost every day for lunch before going to visit his wife at her nursing home. He returns after the visit for some coffee (on the house) and camaraderie. On Saturdays, if she’s feeling up to it, he brings his wife in to eat with him.

Later, as I go to leave, I see a man sitting by himself at a booth, sipping coffee. All of the staff bids him hello as they pass, some stopping to chat before resuming their duties. He is the man Spencer spoke of: Mr. Alfred Vaughn.

I am introduced, and we speak at length of many things, including Sweet Potatoes. “Why here?” I ask.

“The good food and the hospitality.” he says. “This is truly a ‘get-away’ for me. I can come here and relax and forget about things for a while.”

After a pause, he smiles and says thoughtfully, “They make me feel special when I come here.”

I guess food and ambiance aren’t the only things that keep people coming back.

Sweet Potatoes is located at 6825 Waters Avenue (Corner of Waters and Eisenhower). Hours are 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday thru Saturday. Closed Sunday. Reservations are accepted for parties of five or more. For daily specials or reservations, call 325-3434.

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