Savannah's Historical Culinary Hub: Ellis Square

Savannah's Historical Culinary Hub: Ellis Square

One of the original city squares in Savannah, Ellis Square has long been a bustling hub of activity, commerce, and culture. From its early days as a public market to its modern incarnation as a cultural and culinary hotspot, Ellis Square's history is rich with stories of resilience, rebirth, and remarkable flavors.

This blog takes you on a journey through the culinary evolution of Ellis Square, highlighting its early history, the businesses that thrived there, and the vibrant restaurant scene that defines it today.

Early History of Ellis Square

Located in Decker Ward, Ellis Square was the second square laid out in James Oglethorpe’s city plan in 1733 and quickly became a focal point for Savannah’s burgeoning community. Named after Henry Ellis, the second Royal Governor of Georgia, the square was initially a public space where locals gathered for social and commercial activities.

By 1755, Ellis Square was well known as the City Market, where vendors sold fresh produce, meats, and other goods. The market served as the economic heart of Savannah, drawing in farmers, fishermen, and craftsmen from the surrounding areas. This vibrant marketplace played a crucial role in the city's growth, establishing Ellis Square as a central hub for commerce and trade.

Ellis Square and the Slave Trade

Ellis Square, like many central marketplaces in southern port cities, played a significant role in the North American slave trade. During the 18th and early 19th centuries, it was one of the locations where enslaved Africans were bought and sold. The square's bustling marketplace, where culinary goods were traded, also became a grim venue for human auctions.

The history of Ellis Square is thus deeply intertwined with this painful chapter in American history, serving as a stark reminder of the atrocities of slavery and the enduring impact it has had on the fabric of the nation. Today, efforts to remember and honor those who suffered are essential in acknowledging the full scope of the square’s historical significance.

Fires and Rebuilding

Savannah's history is punctuated by several devastating fires, and Ellis Square was no exception. The most notable of these occurred in 1796 and again in 1820, both of which caused extensive damage to the area. These fires necessitated significant rebuilding efforts, leading to the construction of more durable, fire-resistant structures.

The 1820 fire, in particular, led to a major reconstruction effort that reshaped Ellis Square. The city invested in brick and stone buildings to replace the wooden structures that had been lost, marking the beginning of a new architectural era for the square. These new buildings housed a variety of businesses, including hotels, shops, and eateries, setting the stage for the square’s culinary evolution.

Businesses Through the Ages

As Savannah grew, so did the variety of businesses in Ellis Square. The late 19th into the mid-20th centuries saw the square bustling with activity, with establishments ranging from general stores and apothecaries to bakeries and cafes. The diversity of businesses reflected the growing population and the increasing demand for a variety of goods and services.

One notable establishment from this period was the Mathews Seafood Market which open in the 1940s. Frank C. Mathews purchased a portion of the Gibbons Range, built in the early 19th century by Thomas Gibbons, to house his business. In 1947, Mathews commissioned a local sign-maker to build a neon fish sign for his establishment. The sign quickly became a local landmark and the Historic Savannah Foundation designated it a historic artifact. 


Modern Culinary Scene

Today, Ellis Square stands as a testament to Savannah's ability to blend history with modernity. The square was replaced with an above-ground parking garage from the mid-1950s until 2006 when the historical square was thankfully restore. The neon fish sign still proudly adorns the façade of what is now Sorry Charlie’s Oyster Bar as a reminder of the heritage of the area and its ties to local business. The Gibbons Range building alone housed several restaurants.

Among the notable dining establishments in the Gibbons Range today are:

1. The Lady & Sons: Helmed by celebrity chef Paula Deen, this well-known eatery offers a quintessential Southern dining experience. Known for its hearty, comfort food and warm hospitality, The Lady & Sons has become a beloved fixture in Savannah’s culinary landscape.

2. Sorry Charlie's Oyster Bar: Known for its fresh oysters, succulent seafood dishes, and lively atmosphere, this charming eatery captures the essence of coastal dining. Sorry Charlie's has expanded to include their casual seafood restaurant downstairs, an upstair themed tiki bar (The Bamboo Room), and a rooftop bar offering stunning views of the historic district. Sorry Charlie's provides an unforgettable experience whether you're savoring a casual meal or enjoying evening cocktails.

3. Madame Butterfly: Madame Butterfly is a distinctive restaurant offering a unique dining experience that blends traditional Asian cuisine with contemporary culinary innovation. This elegant eatery is renowned for its beautifully crafted sushi, flavorful ramen, and an array of delectable small plates. Whether you're seeking a memorable night out or a special venue for celebrations, Madame Butterfly promises a culinary journey that delights the senses and captures the essence of Asian gastronomy in the heart of Savannah.

4. Chicken Box: This to-go spot offers a menu that delights with crispy, flavorful chicken, savory biscuits, and classic fixings like coleslaw and mac 'n' cheese. Known for its friendly service and hearty portions, Chicken Box provides a welcoming atmosphere perfect for a quick lunch or a relaxed dinner. Whether you're a local craving a taste of home or a visitor exploring Savannah's culinary landscape, Chicken Box serves up a satisfying, soul-soothing dining experience.

And those are just the restaurants in one building! Other restaurants on Ellis Square include Little Duck Diner, Coco & Moss, Goose Feathers Cafe, B&D Burgers, YATAI Ramen, 22SQ and coming soon-- Wexford's Pub.

Ellis Square’s transformation from a colonial marketplace to a modern culinary destination mirrors Savannah’s broader evolution. The square’s rich history, marked by resilience and reinvention, continues to shape its identity, making it a beloved landmark where the past and present deliciously intertwine. Whether you’re a history buff, a foodie, or simply a curious traveler, Ellis Square offers a unique glimpse into the heart and soul of Savannah’s vibrant community.

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