Updated: Sun, 02/24/2013 - 13:20

CITY TALK: Things are hopping at Joe's Crab Shack

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When a friend and I arrived for dinner last Tuesday at the new Joe’s Crab Shack on River Street, the joint was hopping.

Literally.

As we sat down, the volume of the music spiked and many of the young servers, all clad in tie-dye T-shirts, started disco dancing.

The scene was repeated about an hour later, with a number of patrons now in the mood to dance. It wasn’t as much fun as learning The Hustle in seventh grade gym class, but the brief comic interludes enlivened the already bustling atmosphere.

Surprisingly, there were only a couple of empty tables in the spacious restaurant when we got there about 8 p.m. That’s fairly unusual for a Tuesday night in Savannah.

Joe’s Crab Shack may be an early hit with visitors, but it appeared well over half the crowd was local.

I don’t dine down there very often, but I can’t remember the last time I saw so many local diners gathered in one River Street restaurant.

We split an appetizer sampler ($12.49) and the Arctic Bay Steampot ($32.99). That was more than enough food for two healthy appetites.

Among the appetizers, I especially liked the crab dip and the spicy crab and jalapeno balls. The fried calamari wasn’t as good as many other spots around town.

The pot was a mixture of crab, shrimp, lobster, sausage, potatoes and corn.

Sound familiar?

Sure, the ingredients were steamed, but the dish sure tasted like a Lowcountry boil to me, though Joe’s doesn’t use that phrase anywhere.

The crab and shrimp were the best items in the pot, while the lobster was a touch overcooked and not very flavorful.

With over 130 locations, about 287,000 fans on Facebook and a well-honed marketing campaign, Joe’s Crab Shack presents the entire meal as a kind of performance. In addition to the occasional dancing, our server tied bibs on us, and my sangria was served in a take-home Mason jar.

Sure, I quickly removed the bib and inadvertently left the Mason jar on the table when we left, but it’s clear that Joe’s is selling an entire experience.

In addition to the large dining room and long bar inside, Joe’s has 18 sizeable picnic tables on a covered porch overlooking the Savannah River. It’s a glorious spot that could be used pretty much year-round with the addition of a couple of heaters.

Joe’s Crab Shack is at 504 E. River St., across from the historic Olde Harbour Inn.

The restaurant, which took over the spot vacated by Moran Towing, occupies a large, solid brick building that seems an appropriate shell for the airy, casual interior and a good fit for the architectural character of River Street generally.

 

And the problem of getting to River Street

The menu at Joe’s Crab Shack seems likely to be a draw for local visitors, but River Street restaurants would certainly see more Savannah residents if it were easier to park.

Most of my trips to River Street are via bicycle, which I lock somewhere at the Bay Street level.

But it was misty last Tuesday, and my dinner date doesn’t have a bike. So we drove.

Thinking there would be parking available on River Street, we bumped our way down one of the ramps.

The first lot we passed had a number of empty spots, but I assumed that we could get even closer.

Sure enough, there were plenty of spots in the lot closest to Joe’s, but there was also a $5 fee.

Like most other Savannahians, I don’t pay for parking when I know there are free spaces nearby, so we kept driving. We eventually parked near Emmett Park.

Before 2002, when two-way traffic was still permitted on River Street, I could have just turned around and gone back to the first parking lot. No sweat.

Or I could have just snagged a curbside spot, but on-street parking was banned on River Street years ago, too.

Now, it’s worth saying that there are times when it makes sense to restrict traffic on River Street. On busy days during high tourist season, we might even want to ban cars entirely unless they’re serving people with special needs, making deliveries or ensuring public safety.

But on a damp Tuesday night in February, the traffic limitations and on-street parking ban result in a great deal of unused capacity, create unnecessary hassles for visitors and generally discourage local patronage.

 

City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net and http://www.billdawers.com. Send mail to 10 East 32nd St., Savannah, GA 31401.

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