A LITTLE over a week ago, the earth beneath Savannah seemed to shake a bit for many of us as word spread that the landmark Skidaway Road "meat-and-three" eatery known as Larry’s Restaurant had quietly gone out of business.
While this dispiriting development did not come as a complete surprise to many who’d longingly eyed the empty parking lot of the unpretentious brick and concrete-block building for the past few months (Larry’s had been temporarily closed since this past March 26 due to operational impediments caused by the pandemic), the reality of its permanent closure is yet another body blow to this city’s storied quirkiness and charm.
In some ways, the loss of this old-school, by-the-numbers example of homespun country cooking and Southern diner culture mirrors the crushing feeling of regret and “de-volution” brought about by the 2005 conversion of downtown Savannah’s historic Drayton Tower Apartments from a 188-unit fortress of shabby-yet-funky, affordable efficiency rental housing that skewed toward Bohemians, ne’er do-wells and fixed-income elderly residents into a cost-prohibitive, 88-condo enclave of wealthy swells and upscale hipsters.
In the grand scheme of area eateries, Larry’s was a bedrock of relatively inexpensive consistency, and, in many respects, a living, breathing example of the best kind of neighborhood restaurant: one that creates its own neighborhood.
To be sure, plenty of the people who dined there regularly or semi-regularly for breakfast or lunch (they closed at 3 p.m.) lived fairly close to its rather bleak and slightly industrial-feeling address at 3000 Skidaway Road, just a few blocks west of Victory Drive.
But plenty of others drove miles out of their way for their much-needed fix of shredded hashbrowns, country ham, French toast, fried eggs, coffee and other favorites which one could certainly make at home but rarely wishes to.
And then there were those who swore by their homestyle, stick-to-your-ribs lunch specials, replete with sweet cornbread muffins and even sweeter iced tea.
Those who knew it was one of the only places for miles around that served not one, but three different varieties of cooked greens every day (collards, mustards and turnips) – “and one of them went out with almost every meal at lunchtime,” says longtime owner and operator Larry Corey with a chuckle.
Larry’s was the kind of place where they shut down for a few weeks several years ago for “remodeling” –which many of us assumed actually meant “modernizing the quite dated décor”– only to learn upon returning to the newly completed space that (it appeared at least) they had merely installed a brand-new piece of the exact same choice of carpet which had graced the floor for decades, and replaced the slightly dingy acoustic ceiling tiles with new –and thus cleaner– duplicates.
In other words, at Larry’s Restaurant, everything new was old again. And that’s a refreshingly comforting attitude that’s increasingly hard to find these days when it comes to the restaurant biz.
For decades, Larry Corey (yes, there really was, and still is, a “Larry”) could often be found perched on a tall swiveling chair at the checkout counter, greeting folks as they entered and ringing them up and making change as they left. Corey says that providing meals to people in that way was, quite literally, in his blood.
“I grew up in it,” he says by phone a few days after the public announcement of the closure.
“My father had several restaurants, so I was washing dishes and bussing tables and all that as a kid. A lot of our customers basically raised me from the time I was five years old. Across the street where the Firestone Tires and the Dairy Queen are now used to be Tom’s Drive-In. My father owned that. It had the radio station in the restaurant and the car-hops who’d come out and deliver your order to your vehicle. Kids would cruise in, get a milkshake and a burger and cruise on out.”
In fact, the iconic, Holiday Inn-esque sign which bears the name of Corey’s restaurant is simply a retooled version of the same one which advertised his dad’s Drive-In back in the day.
“That sign was there before my dad, even,” he explains. “It had to be from the 1950s. When he moved across the street to what has been our location, they tore his buildings down, but he kept the sign.”
Still, despite his background in food service, that was adamantly not a career choice Corey was interested in pursuing.
“I swore I’d never go back into the restaurant business,” he reminisces. “I was an accountant for a living. I’d moved to Atlanta and eventually came back here and worked for the shipyard. My father had been out of the business for about five years. During that time he’d leased the space out to a total of five different people.
“First, a Swedish guy had it, and then four different Chinese groups were in there. And none of them could make a go of it! Carey Hilliard’s actually went in there for about five months after they’d had a fire during remodeling (and needed a temporary location). So, when my father had gotten the property back under his control, I started thinking maybe I’d give it a shot. He said he’d work with me for six months just to see what I thought of the whole thing. We wound up working together for 19 years. (Laughs) When he had the place initially, it was called Tom’s and when I opened up it became Larry’s.”
Corey opened his place on August 21, 1981, and ran it until 2017, at which point he finally decided it might be time to give up the somewhat relentless schedule required to run a successful family-style eatery.
“I asked my daughter and son-in-law if they might be interested in taking it over,” he explains. “She’d been in and around it forever, working there on Saturdays when she was growing up. They enjoyed it and did a really good job with it.”
Corey is adamant the restaurant was on firm footing and had a bright future ahead of it, were it not for the financial hardships caused by the current health crisis.
“To be honest, this year had been great for them. January, February and the first half of March they were just tearing it up. But the truth is they have two small children and they just can’t afford to be involved with COVID.
“I think they were gonna try and reopen back near the first of July, because some of the restrictions on restaurants were coming off then. But those restrictions returned and that pushed them to the first of August. Then that became the first of September, and nothing was really changing in terms of the virus (infection rates) continuing to go up, so they had to make this decision (to close for good).”
I made the point to Corey that I assumed a place like Larry’s was hit especially hard by this pandemic because the appeal of his place was rooted as much in people gathering together and sharing a unique, and in some ways “vintage” dining experience as it was the food itself. He agreed.
“We always had a strong to-go business, but we’re just not set up for that full-time. Whether or not they could have made a living at it, I just don’t know. I am grateful it was not up to me to decide what to do in that situation, because the hardest part of all this was thinking of all the wonderful people who worked for us. I would still go in there and work on Saturdays just to see everybody and help out. But the whole business that was there, they did it all. It was all them.”
Another aspect of Larry’s core clientele that made reopening more difficult than at most other restaurants was the fact that a great number of their regular visitors were senior citizens.
To many elderly patrons, it became something of a home away from home for them where they could enjoy the kind of traditional meals they grew up on but simply did not have the energy or wherewithal to cook for themselves any more.
It was not uncommon to see large groups of retirees getting together there to eat and boisterously hang out (often for hours at a time), most any morning of the week. But their age bracket unfortunately placed these loyal customers squarely in the most obvious high-risk group for COVID-19.
“There were several groups like that,” offers Corey. “The ladies would come in groups, but not every week. We had folks who’d retired from AT&T and other big companies, and church groups. They’d worked alongside each other every day for decades, but when they retired, they’d gone their separate ways. However, they knew they could show up on a set day each month and see some number of their old friends and co-workers there. And they did that for years and years.”
He credits the combination of the style of their menu, along with the extremely welcoming nature of his crew with creating an atmosphere that earned and maintained such repeat business.
“Truthfully, we were an old-fashioned meat and vegetables kind of a place, and I believe we were pretty much it around here for that sort of experience. We just had good people, that’s all I can tell you. It didn’t matter if they were a cook, a waitress or waiter or whatever. Folks got used to seeing the same faces in the kitchen all the time, you know, cooking their breakfast just the way they liked it. The customers would stop and shoot the bull with the cooks and ask about their families, you know. One of our dishwashers would often step out there and greet the regulars, ask about their kids, say a prayer for them...”
Those who dined at Larry’s will recall the large number of folks in the construction, demolition and real estate development trades who seemed ever-present at breakfast and lunch.
One would routinely see groups of men in dusty jeans and work boots dining with suit-and-tied wheeler-dealer types wearing polarized sunglasses on cords around their neck, deliberating loudly via cell phone with subcontractors over the minutiae of tile size or grout color.
Corey says he understood the appeal of his place to day laborers and their supervisors.
“People knew they could get a good meal at a reasonable price and get it quickly. Let’s put it this way: I’m sure there has been a lot of money exchanged, deals made and contracts negotiated in that restaurant over the years.”
Corey estimates that 70 percent of his customers ate there at least once a week, and amazingly, a great number of them ate there every single day they were open.
“We had a wonderful clientele,” he gushes. “They knew about us, we knew about them and over the years relationships were established. Sometimes, if we didn’t see somebody for a week or so, we’d find their number from someone who knew them well and call them up just to make sure they weren’t sick or in trouble. That’s how we operated. I guess it was more of a big extended family than a business, is what I’m trying to say. Our customers were good to us.”
And, given the longevity with which some of his employees stuck with their jobs, he was good to his workers.
“We didn’t have a big turnover at all,” he avows. “We were blessed in having great people. Two waitresses and one cook were all with me for 36 years, and another lady washed dishes for probably 25 years. I truly don’t think anybody in the restaurant business around here is gonna beat that.”
As Corey looks back on more than three decades running a beloved local institution –and then seeing it subsequently run well by the next generation of his family– he is clearly touched by the specific and memorable place that Larry’s Restaurant occupies in the hearts and minds of the local populace. But perhaps even more so, he seems struck by how much he and his relatives have themselves been touched by their staff and clientele.
“We watched a lot of families grow up, and then their families had kids and they started bringing them in. So, I guess that’s three whole generations we’ve watched,” he muses, slightly in awe.
When I mention to him that one of things that endeared his place to me over the years was the sheer diversity of his customers — meaning that it seemed to be a true microcosm of Savannah, which cut across lines of race, age, gender, faith, worldview and prosperity, he enthusiastically concurs.
“Oh yeah. You know, people are just people. Whoever they are, no matter who they were, hopefully we always treated everyone the right way. I always felt like we did. I have been to many funerals over the years, because our customers were special to us. It may sound corny to some folks to hear it put like that, but that’s just the way it is.”
Corey says that while he is aware there has been much public speculation over the fate of his property (which lies in the midst of no small amount of commercial redevelopment), he has no plans to sell it in the foreseeable future.
He is, however, actively hoping to lease it to a qualified tenant, and notes that while the building is currently configured as a restaurant, he feels it could serve a wide variety of purposes and is open to any and all inquiries and ideas.
As our conversation comes to a close, I ask him what if there is anything he’d like to say to all the folks who have enjoyed and felt at home in his restaurant for so long.
“Yeah,” he replies. “I just want to thank them for supporting us all those years and being a part of our family. And I want to thank the people who worked at Larry’s Restaurant for caring about the business and their customers. I just want to thank everybody for caring about us and loving us the whole time.”
So, is there any one thing in particular that Corey missed most once he officially got out of the restaurant game?
“I missed the people: my customers and the people I worked with. In fact, I just had lunch with eight of them today.”
Of course, I ask where they chose to eat.
“I won’t tell you,” he says with an audible smile. “I’m not advertising for nobody! (Laughs)”
And is there any one thing in particular that Corey won’t miss at all about that experience?
“4:30 in the morning! I don’t miss getting up at 4:30 in the morning for anything in the whole world. Nowadays, if I get up that early it’s to go hunting or fishing. Not for working.”