Is North Beach Grill Tybee’s line in the sand?

AROUND these parts, conversations about North and South tend to revolve around the Mason-Dixon Line. Or if you’re a Game of Thrones fan, Castle Black and King's Landing.

On Tybee Island, however, the polarity is microgeographical. The south end of this 2-mile island has historically been where the action is, a buzzing roundabout that hosts easy access to the water and most of the parking, where fisherfolk wrestle stingrays in front of the pier and tourists cruise the bikini shops and alcoholic slushie machines.

By contrast, accessing the north end means meandering past 200 year oaks and rickety family properties, opening up to a quieter slice of beach where on most days the fastest movement comes from the curling surf break. There’s more family feel, less sexy pirate vibe, though you’re probably going to see a naked baby tushie frolicking in the waves. Only things to do back here besides basking with the gulls at the edge of the continent are to climb the 178 steps of the Lighthouse and grab a bite or a beer at North Beach Grill.

Tucked between the remains of two concrete fortifications built during the Spanish American War, the North Beach Grill has served the beach weary for almost 25 years on its rambling decks, painted in shades of turquoise, cantaloupe and banana. Genius gourmet George Spriggs took over the city-owned property when it was just a one-room concession stand, forswearing the typical seashore fare for an electric, eclectic menu of Caribbean comfort food: Fried plaintains, spicy jerk pork, red beans and rice, fat slices of coconut cake, bottles of Red Stripe chilling in a bucket.

The regulars here are unfailingly friendly and always a tad sunburnt, the kind of crowd who’d rather risk a little melanoma down the line if it means spending the most precious hours of today in the sunshine. They are fiercely protective of their northern outlaw oasis, one of the last holdouts of old school Tybee as the island slowly succumbs to four-story pastel condos and triple-seat golf carts.

“This is where the traffic isn’t,” harumphs Abby Burke, a bronzed doyenne whose family has lived on Tybee for “about a million years.” She grew up playing volleyball with the lifeguards and hosting crab races when this end was nothing but a beach shack in a dusty parking lot, unspoiled by crowds until “someone like you came around and put it in the paper.”

I’d like to think I haven’t been here quite long enough to ruin things yet, but there’s no doubt the north end’s popularity and NBG’s success could contribute to its demise. Instead of the usual automatic renewal for the restaurant's lease, a state law enacted in 2013 has obligated the City of Tybee to put the lease out for bid. A three-member committee of city staff spent the summer vetting the options via a Request for Proposal (RFP) matrix that has yielded a more formidable contender: A partnership of other Tybee businessfolk who already own several food and drink establishments on the south end.

That’s roused the usually amiable North Beach constituency into an angry uproar.

“This place is an institution, it has its own culture,” says Russ Neely, who waited tables here for 17 years before opening his own umbrella-and-chairs rental business about 300 feet away. “How do you even measure that?”

Well, the committee used a point system based on six criteria—including the proposed amount of rent to the city, which doesn’t seem fair since the existing long-term tenants have no other point of reference other than what they’re currently paying. The specifics aren’t available in the report, but NBG fell 66 points short of the RFP’s optimum bid, and some are calling foul on the legality of the process.

For sure what the rubric doesn’t take into account is the reason why the property is so lucrative in the first place. Over the years Big George and business partner Kathryn Williams have poured their own blood, sweat and dollars into what has become a foodie hotspot and an internationally known live music venue. That has surely helped allow the City of Tybee to reap ridiculous amounts of money from the packed parking lot, which to its credit recently used some of that cash to build some very fancy public bathrooms.

Yet whatever monthly rent is collected on the grill is chump change compared to what the city collects in just a few hours from its draconian parking policies (8am-8pm, 365 days a year, don’t you forget it!) Bottom lines are bottom lines, but it just doesn’t seem fair that the north end could lose its most venerated clubhouse for a little bit more revenue.

“George took a box that nobody else wanted, built it up, and now the city wants to give all that hard work away,” fumes Russ, who with his wild read beard is a dead ringer for Game of Thrones’ Tormund Giantsbane in a trucker hat, and just as loyal.

Wielding the many-pronged sword of social media, he rallied around 300 of the 2100 members of the North Beach Grill Family Community Facebook page to head down to the city council meeting Thursday night to let elected officials know what they think about the RFP decision. Apparently the noisy outcry and the thought of that many salty North Beachers in the Public Works Building led the council to take the topic off the agenda.(No word if the voodoo doll and lizard sacrifice discovered in front of the police department the next morning was related, but...)

“We got a lot of feedback this week and decided to take a step back to make sure we’re doing everything we need to do,” said councilwoman Wanda Doyle, who added that a decision will be made in the next few weeks. “We may not make everyone happy, but we will make the best possible decision for Tybee.”

I ended up at the Tybee meeting anyway, which was a slight bummer since apparently the real civic excitement that evening was in town at the MPC’s last minute gathering for input about the future development at Wicklow Farms.

By the time the usual variance requests and possible solutions to spring break chaos were done, the sun was already brushing its last rosy rays of the day on the lighthouse. So I headed over to North Beach Grill, where some of the postponed protestors sat around the slate-topped tiki bar welcoming another peaceful, easy evening.

“I was ready for drama!” lamented Tybee resident and artist Becca Cook, sporting a homemade “Keep the NBG O.G.” tank top. “Instead, I get to hang here and drink a beer, so that’s not terrible.”

Over the calypso tinkle of Melvin Dean’s steel drums, the discussion danced around what would happen if the north lost this battle, its funky corner usurped by the south’s busy commerce Ultimately, however, both ends of this little community must unite in the war against overdevelopment, oversaturation and climate change.

That it might so easily give up a piece of its history draws a proverbial line in the sand between the Tybee Island that wants desperately to preserve its brackish roots and the inevitable change that’s gonna come.

Can it have its coconut cake by the ocean and eat it, too?


About The Author

Jessica Leigh Lebos

Community Editor Jessica Leigh Lebos has been writing about interesting people, vexing issues and anything involving free food for more than 20 years. She introduces herself at cocktail parties as southern by marriage.
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