During the summer of 2013, just six months after an intriguing new restaurant popped up in downtown Statesboro on the corner of South Main and West Vine Streets, I ventured inside to discover a restaurant that would become the backbone of our community, and so much more. It would become my go-to place for a special night out on the town, where I would ring in the New Year and the place where I would celebrate my birthday lunch with 15 of my co-workers. It would become the restaurant I would proudly share with out-of-town guests, it was my Happy Hour bar of choice–and the only place in town where I could order the Glorious Gin and Tonic with a fresh slice of lime or experience a Hunter Cattle Company hamburger, prepared with the utmost respect for the integrity of the ingredients. The hand-cut Parmesan truffle fries were unmatched, as was the cornmeal encrusted red snapper over Freeman’s Mill grits, the fried green tomatoes and their undeniably famous chocolate chip cookies. There, was a restaurant that would expand the ‘Boro’s culinary boundaries, introducing plates with king crab piled high atop crusty French bread and pan seared redfish over dirty rice with garlic green beans and crawfish cream sauce. There, the food would always be the main event. Always local. Always inspired.
I, along with hundreds of other food lovers from past United States President Jimmy Carter and other dignitaries to celebrity chefs and townspeople, would come to know this place as an experience where every meal was memorable, a place that breathed new life into a community and introduced a world of gastronomic excellence and quality to a food scene in desperate need of passion. It would be there in that restaurant where I would make two new friends—the Alabi-Isamas, restaurant owner Seni and his wife Janetta, a couple who acknowledges their customers as guests and welcomes everyone who steps foot through their doors as if reuniting with the prodigal son.
Then one August morning, just five months before the restaurant would celebrate two years in business, the unthinkable happened.
Statesboro’s food scene has suffered an immense loss, as South & Vine Public House (SVPH) caught fire on the night of Tuesday, August 26. The fire may have taken our beloved corner hangout, but one thing the smoke and soot can’t snuff out is Seni’s desire to reopen, his unquenchable thirst to provide this small town with the finest food and beverage available and a humble culinary intuition few possess.
In my one-on-one exclusive interview, I sat down with Seni to learn how the SVPH family is doing since tragedy struck, how the community has reacted to the news and what the future holds for SVPH.
Me: First off, how are you doing?
Seni: I’m a heck of a lot better now than I was last week this time.
Me: What were you doing when you learned there was a fire?
Seni: I was actually sitting at home on the couch about to watch “Hard Knocks,” the Atlanta Falcons thing on HBO. I got a call from Jimmy at Chops and he was telling me that the place was smoking and was on fire. I got Janetta out of bed and we ran out and probably did 100 miles an hour down Fair Rd. We got there and I see all this smoke. I wasn’t in good shape. As soon as I saw that, I knew it was bad.
Me: Describe the scene.
Seni: The fire department was amazing. I’d never actually seen firemen in action, up close and personal. It was something. They can’t talk with you because they’re trying to put out a fire, and I’m running around trying to figure out what’s happening, what’s going on and they really couldn’t give me much information at the time. I was just standing in the street freaking out. The smoke was one thing but the fire eventually had worked its way out of the roof. That’s when I was useless. There were probably 30 to 40 foot flames coming out of the building. They got it under control and before the night was over, I walked through the restaurant with them. It was just devastation. It’s pretty much all gone. All the equipment, all the stuff we worked on for years. It took me a very long time to get the place open, and everything in there was done by us. Every time I look around, every time I go in with all the fire inspectors, it’s just bad. Everywhere you look, you see something that means something to you. We had some very specialized pieces of equipment, some really cool bottles of liquor. All that stuff is gone.
Me: How has the community reacted to the news?
Seni: It’s been unbelievable in every sense. Everyone has been very supportive. Al Chapman, he’s a good friend of mine at Gnat’s Landing. He was there first thing in the morning just to see what he could do. I wasn’t very much good to anybody at that point. We had to find a way to secure the building and board it up so that people couldn’t easily enter. All my tools and stuff are in the building and I had no idea how I was going to get any of this done. Al is there and he says, “Man, don’t worry about it. I’ve got a guy that can take care of that.” He made a call and in 30 minutes, there was a guy there taking care of it. That was just Al helping wherever he could. He said, “Listen if your people need something, let me know.” He’s been true to that. He’s picked up two of my guys. Mellow Mushroom has also given a couple of my employees jobs. Joe Lanier at Loco’s reached out immediately. He didn’t know the extent of the damage but wanted to know if maybe we needed to store some of our food in their coolers. Southern Growlers’ Brad David reached out immediately. Everybody all over town – Heath Robinson at 40 East, Jimmy and Walt at Chops, I mean everybody has offered to help any way they can – not to mention our guests and our regulars, the community at large, our extended family. I’ve gotten messages from all over the country. I can’t say enough about this community and the South and Vine family. It’s not just us and the employees, but when I say our family, I’m talking about our guests that have also been devastated by this. South and Vine is very important to a lot of people. It’s one of those places you become a regular, and the staff knows what you eat, they know what you drink. They know where you want to sit. It’s a pretty neat place.
Me: Do you have plans to reopen?
Seni: I know we have to come back in some capacity. I’m obligated to. There’s no way I could just leave the community high and dry. What we do is very specialized and the people that enjoy it, they don’t have a lot of options. Honestly, that was the genesis of South and Vine – the lack of options. I would go out to eat with friends, and my wife and I would always feel like there’s got to be something better. People have to want more. After a while, I got tired of saying it and instead of just complaining about it, I decided to put my hat in the ring and see what I could pull off. I’m not a trained chef or anything like that, but I’ve been cooking my whole life, and I know what I think tastes good, and I know what I want to eat. I figured maybe other people would enjoy the same things, and that’s really how the idea of South and Vine came about. It seemed like the right move, because a lot of people in town, in the region and all over have enjoyed many of the things we do there, like changing specials constantly, making everything we possibly can from scratch in-house and bringing in a really neat selection of libations. Our beer, wine and liquor selection is pretty eclectic, and there’s a wide variety of things. As good as it was, there’s still a ton more that I want to bring in and execute. This week, I was supposed to get a 23-year-old single barrel bourbon, which is not something you see hardly anywhere. Statesboro shouldn’t have to take a back seat just because we’re a smaller town. I think we can do just fine right here.
Me: What do you need from the community?
Seni (with a chuckle): Whenever the time comes for us to reopen, come eat. I also just want to say thank you to the community. Thank you for the immense support you’ve shown and continue to show.
In response to the overwhelming amount of support Seni has received on the South & Vine Public House Facebook page, he writes “Thank you so much for your kind words. We will do our best to make sure this community and our wonderful guests get to enjoy all they’ve become accustomed to once again. We love you all and can’t wait to see your beautiful faces!”
Remembering the good times at South & Vine Public House…may they live on forever.
New to Some Kinda Good?
Thanks for stopping by! If you like this post, you may also be interested to read about a few of the other local restaurants and bakeries I’ve reviewed. As the Statesboro Herald food columnist and a Georgia Southern University alumna, the ‘Boro is a second home to me. Be sure to like Some Kinda Good on Facebook, or follow me on Twitter to keep up with all my latest, local food discoveries.