Brits on Bay

A new chapter for Churchill’s 

Twenty-three years after British ex-pat Andy Holmes gave Savannah a proper pub, chef Max Robbins and business partner Gareth Tootell are working their magic on the Bay Street watering hole, unveiling a new menu of scratch-made favorites with Continental flair. On a recent weekend, we sat for a chat with Robbins and ordered every single thing he mentions in the following interview, plus Tootell’s favorite, a crispy chicken tikka masala sandwich. Needless to say, we’re already plotting our return.

Photo courtesy Andy Holmes

 ON FULL-CIRCLE MOMENTS:

Gareth moved here 10 years ago and worked at Churchill’s with Andy, the current owner of more than 20 years, who’s a family friend of his. He went on to build his experience at other fine dining establishments across the country, and when Andy decided to retire, it seemed like a natural fit to come back to Savannah. At the time, Gareth and I were running the Penrose Room at The Broadmoor hotel, the only five-star restaurant in Colorado. We didn’t love the hotel atmosphere, so we were looking for a standalone restaurant, and when he told me about this opportunity I just latched onto it. 

ON THE PAST:

Churchill’s was basically a dive bar that served food. Gareth and I met at the French Laundry, and I also worked at Per Se, Le Bernardin, The Modern (at MoMA). Taking the standards and discipline of those restaurants and applying them to this setting, which is an upscale casual bar and dining room — that’s what we’re trying to achieve.

ON THE PRESENT:

It’s a unique situation. This year we’re consultants. We’re making decisions, and Andy’s backing us up. I had no idea how Savannah worked. It was an uphill battle I wasn’t necessarily expecting, considering we wanted to improve everything. We don’t want to give the impression that we’re getting rid of a mainstay or uprooting an institution. After three months, just by sheer goodwill, we’re starting to see that people are coming here for us and for what we’re trying to do. 

ON THE FUTURE:

From the start, we understood the impact of Bay Street for the rest of the city, but at the same time we need to be a part of the community in order to survive — not just catering to tourists. A big part of how I like to cook is ingredient-driven, and I’m still letting people know we’re interested in supporting local farmers, cheese-makers, things like that. It comes down to me getting out of the kitchen and getting out a bit more.  

ON THE MENU:

I don’t want to say we’re a Southern restaurant. I’m from New Jersey, Gareth is from England, and the existing owners are from England, so it’s modern British and American cuisine. We’ve got a pimento cheese and collard green grilled cheese that people love, and a hickory-smoked half chicken with roasted potatoes and gravy, and a vindaloo lamb shank braised for 48 hours and served with house-made naan and basmati rice. One of my favorites is a Berkshire pork chop on the bone served with collards and braised bacon. As far as bar snacks, we’ve got pimento cheese croquettes, a reuben egg roll that’s been selling well, house-made pork rinds with peach butter, 48-hour braised short rib pasties. Everything is made in-house.

ON BRITISH CHARM:

Gareth and his family took me and two of our sous chefs to England for a pub tour before we got started at Churchill’s. We probably went to 25 pubs in a few days, and there’s such a huge range — there are pubs where you go for a pint and pubs where you go for a nice dinner or a date night. We’re trying to elevate the perception here, but luckily we’ve got a charming British guy with a nice accent to make the transition easier.

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