The marquee of the old Avon Theater has been neglected for so long, it's a delightful surprise to see it light up Broughton Street, all its letters intact.
The theater next to the Marshall House has housed several restaurants in the past decade, none of which utilized the grand art deco sign with any real finesse. But now that the owners of R.O.S.E. Public House have taken over, Savannahians can expect careful attention to this historic spot, inside and out.
Though new to the Hostess City, Rex Osborn and Sue Else (their initials spell out R.O.S.E) understand that the way to our hearts is as much through aesthetics as it is our stomachs. The pair has shined up this once cluttered spot to reveal the building's stone walls while repurposing old details like beveled glass and notched wood. The jazz paintings of A.J. Siedel overlook cozy banquettes, and the result is a romantic, unpretentious ambience.
Based on the concept of a traditional "gastropub," R.O.S.E Public House offers upscale fare in a relaxed environment, a place to linger over a ribeye and a few cocktails without having to bother with high heels or a tie.
"It's several notches up from pub food, but there's nothing uptight here," assures Osborn.
"We don't care if you wear your flipflops," laughs Else. "We want people to feel comfortable."
Originally from Iowa, Osborn is the veteran of several successful restaurants in the Midwest. Else is the former director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence in Washington, D.C. and has worked with multiple rape crisis and women's organizations; she has appeared countless times as a resident expert on Dr. Phil. The couple scouted Savannah to escape D.C.'s hectic pace and realized there was a niche to fill in the downtown restaurant scene.
They found a willing partner in Executive Chef Michael Rafferty, a Chicago native who recently served under the world's youngest Master Chef, Jason Koppinger, at a four-diamond resort near Boise, Idaho. Tired of "living out in the middle of nowhere," Rafferty had been circling between Savannah and Charleston when Osborn snapped him up. Together they've created an eclectic menu to please most any palate, equally balanced with standards and surprises:
Standout starters are the Piggy Backs ($12), horseradish-stuffed shrimp wrapped in bacon served with sweet chili sauce, and the Crab-Stuffed Jalapenos ($8), a dazzle of flavors involving Panko-breaded peppers, goat cheese and local blue crabs.
Lunch offers a selection of meal-sized salads and specialty sandwiches, and Osborn often brings in his Iowa roots to the specials board with the stupendous-looking pork tenderloin, a golden-baked slab draping outside of a toasted bun.
"It's a Midwest thing," he says with a grin.
As for entrées, Rafferty puts an elegant twist on the Braised Short Ribs in red wine (with applewood smoked bacon and horseradish mashed potato, $22). The Asian-influenced Cedar Roasted Salmon ($21) — with hints of miso, ginger and sesame — comes with nutty purple sticky rice and a sizzling mushroom-asparagus mix straight from the wok.
Any gastropub worth its salt has to have a Shrimp and Grits dish, and Rafferty shows he's right at home in the South with his perfectly-prepared yellow grits, smothered in local crustaceans steeped in white wine and tomato butter ($18.) He shows vegetarians equal love with the colorful Vegetable Napolean, a rainbow of roasted Portobello, red pepper, grilled eggplant and zucchini and fontina cheese ($18), and the popular Mushroom Torta ($18), served with a brandy cream sauce worth that reportedly has had even non- vegheads licking the plate.
Dessert includes cheesecake from Lulu's Chocolate Bar as well as a R.O.S.E. original, the Pretzel-Bottomed Brownie, as sweet and salty as it is sinful. The bar menu is a nod to old school cocktails like Pink Squirrels, Sidecars and the requisite Dirty Martini, though the adventurous will appreciate new takes on tradition, like the Ghost Julep.
Both big fans of live music (look for the Rolling Stones tongue hidden in the R.O.S.E. logo), Osborn and Else have styled R.O.S.E. as a place to eat, drink and tap your toes. The aforementioned marquee lauds live music on the weekends, a mellow jazz combo or some kickin' blues, and a Saturday afternoon jam session is in the works.
There are plans to convert the long-shuttered upstairs area into a banquet room and Osborn describes a glorious vision to turn the balcony above the marquee into private party space (destined to be one of the most coveted spots in town come St. Patrick's Day.)
But mostly when they talk about their plans for R.O.S.E., Osborn and Else talk about community. Already members of most every business and downtown civic organization, the couple see themselves and their restaurant as part of Savannah, one haven among many along the downtown corridor.
"It's important to us be involved, to help others," says Else, who doesn't discount going back into the local non-profit sector should the opportunity arise.
"We're striving to be a local destination, a place for the neighborhood as much as for tourists," adds Osborn.
"We want people to feel like family."