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Hostess City

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Hostess City
Photo by Andrew Sherman

A Classic Cocktail Party
Behind the Doors of an Old Savannah Mansion

The first thing any newcomer to Savannah learns about this historic port city is that it changes slowly. From the architecture of its historic downtown, to the elegantly shabby (some might say retro) way that locals tend to dress, this city often prefers tradition to trends.

Nowhere is this trait more apparent than in the way Savannah entertains.

Behind the stately facades of the old homes that proudly line these streets, private entertaining in Savannah is intimate and unfashionably formal. An invitation to a private party, whether it is cocktails after work or a full sit-down dinner, is a promise that you will eat well, drink much, and have a wonderful time.

Photo by Andrew Sherman
Photo by Andrew Sherman

But with it comes an expectation that you will dress up and behave yourself.

When I moved here thirty years ago, a seasoned hostess asked if I owned a tuxedo. Having grown up in the Carolina hill country in the laid-back, barely dressed seventies, I of course did not, and said so.

“Don’t worry,” she replied calmly, with a nod and a pat on my cheek, “you will.”

Not long afterwards, I was invited to an after-work cocktail party just like the one you see on these pages—as a matter of fact, in this very house.

“Casual,” my host had said, and since the summer heat and humidity were at their peak, I shed my necktie and jacket on the way from the office. My host met me at the door with raised brow and tongue firmly planted in cheek.

“Let us know if you’re going any further,” he quipped, “and we’ll sell tickets.”

I was the only man in bared shirt-sleeves. The point was taken: the rest of America may have lowered its standards, but Savannah had not—and would not—no matter how hot and sticky the air might be. I have not been to a party without a jacket since.

Many Savannahians would rather serve something they’ve made a thousand times and know to be good, well-prepared, and in ample quantities, than knock themselves out over a showy display of cutting-edge dainties. In other words, you’re likely to see the same big silver punch bowl that you’ve seen a hundred times, mounded up with perfectly poached, just-caught local shrimp accompanied by a bowl of homemade cocktail sauce. And, frankly, that’s a deeply reassuring thing.

At the bar, no Savannah host would dream of limiting guests to a choice of red or white wine, or one or two trendy cocktails. We might occasionally offer a themed drink, but that’s in addition to, not instead of, an open and well-stocked bar.

To give you a taste of a classic, Old Savannah party, let’s return to the place where I first experienced one. Now the home of my original host’s great-nephew, Michael Owens, co-founder of the Savannah Wine and Food Festival, this grand house has been beautifully restored. But the parties under its elegant ceilings have not changed a jot since I first learned not to show up without a jacket.

Thank goodness.

Savannah’s Cocktail Party Menu

Starters

Savannah Crab Salad
Blue Cheese Chez Owens
Savannah Pickled (Marinated) Shrimp

Entrée

Roast Lamb with Bourbon and Mint

Champagne Cocktail

Maharaja’s Burra Peg

Mentioned in this post:
Andrew Sherman