Designer Jerome Elder brings island chic to Savannah dining
“People know Trinidadians for two reasons: Carnival and food,” says designer Jerome Elder. “My culture is about togetherness and community. If there’s an opportunity to engage with others, that’s what I live for.”
Through his full-concept design studio focused on food and beverage establishments, Elder is bringing the same flavor to Savannah, his home for the past decade. Though his namesake design firm is just a year old, there’s a page in his portfolio for every palate.
Elder compares the diversity and scope of his projects to callaloo, the Trinidadian national dish. Just like that stew with its endless variations, Savannah’s nascent restaurant scene offers a little bit of everything, he says.
His first foray into full-concept design was the nostalgic-meets-contemporary Little Duck Diner in a former Moe’s Southwest Grill on Congress Street. He collaborated with owners Sean and Ele Tran on everything from the branding to the menu, pushing himself beyond his architecture background.
Elder knows a bit about trying new things. He moved to Savannah at 19 to pursue studies at Savannah College of Art and Design in architecture and design for sustainability. Since then, Savannahians have become an extension of his family, he says.
Elder’s concepts always start with a conversation. Everyone — from front of house to back of house — gets a seat at the table. Many of his projects highlight open kitchens and inviting features that blend the outdoors with the indoors. In hand-rolled sushi spot Coco & Moss, once a novelty T-shirt shop, four new windows open up views onto Ellis Square, and suspended pendant lights mimic fireflies at night in the tropics. In Flock to the Wok, around the corner on Barnard Street, guests enjoy dim sum in a giant birdcage crafted by Forsyth Metalworks. Downstairs in the basement Peacock Lounge, formerly a “pile of bricks,” Elder drew inspiration from Japanese whiskey bars of the 1920s and ’30s as well as the regal bird the cocktail bar is named for. A gilded ceiling meets a double-sided fireplace, while a tea-infused cocktail menu carries the theme of Asian influences.
At Big Bon Bodega at the edge of Starland, the counter curves like the building’s Art Deco façade. Oversized, unfinished pegboard lines the walls — a versatile choice for displaying bagel shop and market wares that also reminds Elder of Caribbean markets.
Big Bon Bodega owner Kay Heritage says Elder was an ideal collaborator. As a fellow Savannah transplant, he instantly connected with the Big Bon vision to create a welcoming atmosphere that goes beyond wood-fired bagels — a place where the new kid in town might feel at home.
“I’m from South Korea and Jerome’s from Trinidad, and having a different cultural background influences our approach to food,” she says. “We asked, ‘What if we use okra but cook it with a new method? What if we create a cream cheese with kimchi? Or a bagel sandwich with Korean BBQ pork?’ We want to invite our friends and family into the kitchen.”
Just like for the restaurateurs he works with, Elder rarely stops moving. But he makes sure part of the job description includes time to “lime” — Trinidadian slang for hanging out and shooting the breeze — in his offices above The Paris Market or over a meal with clients and collaborators.
If touring Elder’s slate of new eateries this spring leaves locals in need of a better fitness regimen, Savannah is in luck: his next project, in the Thomas Square district, is a 24-hour, 5,000-square-foot, old school boxing-inspired gym.