Northern soul food delivered in Detroit style downtown

Nestled snugly on the second floor of a brick building at the corner of Times Square in downtown Detroit, SavannahBlue is described as a contemporary northern soul food restaurant that offers an intimate gathering space with a big-city vibe.

The signage directing patrons to SavannahBlue is subtle and easy to miss if you aren’t paying attention. Yet, that may have been part of the owners’ plan when envisioning this upscale restaurant that has attracted the city’s most prominent players — from Mayor Mike Duggan, to the business elite for networking meetings, to everyday residents from across the region.

“When the owners looked at this building, they liked that it overlooked the People Mover,” said General Manager Thor Jones. “But what they loved even more is that it’s pretty tucked away.

“It’s like a hidden gem with this big-city feel,” he adds. “But intimate enough to provide a personal experience where everyone feels like family.”

Warm Vibes and Blue Hues

The entryway of SavannahBlue is dimly-lit with a staircase leading to the main dining room. The warmth and friendliness often associated with the South begins immediately as a host opens the door for each guest and offers a gentle, “Good evening, welcome to SavannahBlue.”

Opened in February 2016, the origin of the ‘Blue’ in the restaurant’s name is easy to identify. The walls are painted black with midnight blue uplighting in the dimly-lit lounge. The bar is a lighter shade of cobalt blue with a dark marble top. Glass vases in shades of indigo and sky blue sit among bottles of Prosecco and Sauvignon Blanc.

“There was already a lot of blue in this space before we opened,” says Jones.

So where exactly did “Savannah” come from?

Savannah is the daughter of Roger Yopp and Tanya Heidelberg-Yopp, two of the four co-owners of SavannahBlue. Ron Scott and John Simpson are also part owners.

Jones vividly remembers the day he met Roger and Tanya.

“I was bartending at a private party for a friend of theirs,” he recalls. “They sat me down about a month or two later and asked if I wanted to be a part of it. They shared their vision for SavannahBlue… They’re all childhood friends, all Detroit natives. And they wanted to open a restaurant that shared their identity.”

Jones, a native of Atlanta with years of experience in the restaurant industry, was eager to lead a black-owned establishment in the city. His personal background and undeniable southern charm — coupled with his professional résumé — were the perfect mix for SavannahBlue.

Two restaurants Jones gleaned the most insight from — and that he attributes the atmosphere of SavannahBlue to — were J. Alexander’s and Andiamo.

“When you think of those restaurants, they are the middle of the road between fine dining and casual dining. You get an upscale dining experience without having to spend a fortune,” Jones says. “That’s the feel we were going for with SavannahBlue.”

Mission accomplished.

Pick Your Vibe

If you’re looking for a luxurious, sexy vibe or comfortable dining room seating, SavannahBlue has it covered. A large black-and-white houndstooth sofa sits in the center of the lounge with coordinated yellow-and-black suede accent chairs to match the sofa’s throw pillows — offering more of the comfy feel.

Just a few feet away are gray snakeskin bar stools sitting adjacent to a long, communal wooden table topped with votive candles — the perfect setting for a group of girlfriends enjoying cocktails.

The main dining room offers a range of seating options — from a family sized table for 10 to a quaint window table for two with a perfect view of the People Mover.

Original artwork is thoughtfully situated on the walls. Most of the installations were created by local artists, primarily Brian Day.

One of the most distinct pieces showcases a woman with a curly afro, sitting on a bench downtown with the Renaissance Center in the backdrop. Wearing dark sunglasses, arms draped across the bench, she looks cool, calm and confident without a worry in the world.

“That’s the exact vibe we want people to have when they come to SavannahBlue,” Jones points out.

A Gathering Space for Generations

The crowd of patrons enjoying dinner at SavannahBlue shows that people of all ages and backgrounds flock to this downtown eatery to enjoy its signature soulfood dishes.   

Four older gentlemen order their favorite items on the menu. Catfish fritters and jumbo crab cakes with cabbage salad and smoked pepper remoulade are the appetizers of choice. Their entrees include SavannahBlue’s signature shrimp and parmesan grits topped with Cajun sautéed shrimp and andouille mushroom gravy; two orders of braised oxtail with cheddar risotto and crispy root seasonal vegetables; and one order of the “SavannahBlue Fried Chicken,” featuring three strips of buttermilk-battered boneless chicken breasts, collard greens and candied yams with maple-pecan sauce.

They all order their own side of macaroni and cheese — obviously a crowd favorite — baked to perfection by Executive Chef Chris McClendon, a graduate of Schoolcraft College’s culinary program under well-known director Chef Shawn Loving.

Each elder at the table also shares two distinct features — speckled gray hair and jovial smiles that seem like permanent fixtures near their plump cheeks.

They joke about “whose wife’s macaroni can top SavannahBlue’s?”

No one’s, they laugh. But they all promise to keep it a secret.

Nearby, a group of young women — perhaps in their early 30s — fill a table of six with at least two toddlers in tow. They share stories of motherhood and work/life balance while cuddling their youngest guests.

In the living room area, a younger couple dressed in cocktail attire sits on the sofa, enjoying wine and appetizers, as they gaze into each other’s eyes like it’s their first date. The bar stools are filled with patrons of all ages, engaging in conversations with the bartenders while eyeing the flat screens above the libations.

Bartending at its Best

Dana Williams, a Detroit resident, is a self-proclaimed regular at SavannahBlue. As manager of public affairs with DTE Energy, she frequently checks out new restaurants in the downtown area for business meetings and to stay abreast of the city’s new eateries.

Williams tries a new restaurant at least twice per week, once for lunch and once for dinner. So how does SavannahBlue compare to others?

Although she loves the menu offerings — the collard greens with smoked turkey are her favorite — Williams admits what she loves most about SavannahBlue are the bartenders.

“The city can always use a twist on soul food fare, and SavannahBlue definitely does that,” she shares. “But honestly, the bartenders are the best part. They make you want to stay.”

The bartenders at SavannahBlue are all women — very strong women with great background stories who understand how to engage customers, according to Lee Campbell, assistant manager.

“Our bartending staff is pretty eclectic. They understand the industry. They understand what it means to give great service and receive great service,” Campbell says. “They’re a tough group of girls that you feel like you’ve known forever after just one conversation. Some people come here simply to talk to the bartenders. They love these ladies.”

Adding to his praise of the four master cocktail mixers, Campbell says, “they roll out craft drinks better than any bar downtown.”

“A lot of downtown bars don’t focus on craft cocktails. The drinks that we’re doing are out of the ordinary,” he adds. “They take a few more extra steps and a few more extra ingredients. So, that means a few more minutes for great conversations.”

Williams’s favorite cocktail is the Old Fashioned made with Rittenhouse Rye whiskey, raw sugar, Angostura bitters and orange zest. Another crowd favorite is the Productive Procrastination, made with Tito’s vodka, lemon juice, raspberry and lime soda.

Here for the Long Haul

The diverse crowd — in terms of age, ethnicity and culture — confirms SavannahBlue is a gathering space for anyone who can appreciate soul food.

Fridays tend to attract the youngest crowd. On Saturdays, people are usually coming from outside of Detroit to visit, or coming in after sports games. During the week, SavannahBlue attracts the business crowd and “everyday regulars,” Jones says.

“One of my favorite things about working here is we see everyone,” Jones adds. “From the mayor, to star athletes, to employees coming from work, it’s a nice mix.”

With restaurants coming and going in Detroit, SavannahBlue may have the secret southern spice to achieve longevity.

“We’re going to do what we do, as best as we can, to ensure SavannahBlue is here to stay,” Jones says. “We want people to enjoy the southern hospitality just as much as they love the food. With so many people moving into the city, we want to build those relationships and become a Detroit staple.”