Sunday, November 22, 2009

Carey Hilliard's Restaurant: Savannah, GA

In post-modern times, two extremes seem to exist in retail: single location small businesses or huge national chains, so it is always fun to be able to cover a local or regional chain since so few exist today.  That is how Carey Hilliard's caught my attention.  Carey Hilliard's is not a restaurant that is known to those of us in the northern part of Georgia or much of anywhere else, but this seems to be a staple of Savannah.  It was also previously located in Charleston, SC as well.  Up here, there is much to choose from ranging from succulent and expensive down to tasty, reasonable local joints offering a unique taste: several of which have gone national such as Moe's Southwest Grill.  Carey Hilliard's, however, seems to have remained a local fare and a bit more old-fashioned.  Its founder of the same name died in 1982, but the restaurant has remained successful for over 25 years since. [1]

It should be noted that Carey Hilliards is definitely a family style restaurant, featuring an odd combination of two Deep South specialties: seafood and barbeque.  It is modestly priced, but is also not for the health-conscious as most of their food is fried.  All in all, it is basically a few notches above Shoney's, but with a more local flavor.  It has since left Charleston, but the restaurant not only lingers in Savannah, but also a new location was recently opened in Statesboro.  The second is likely there to serve primarily the families of college students and crowds of football fans that come to Georgia Southern University: a relatively strong market for inexpensive family-style restaurants.

The story of Carey Hilliard's is that it opened in 1960, and it has since expanded to about 8 locations.  The location pictured here is likely one of the first, if not the original.  The Statesboro location opened this year as one of the newest locations.  Historically, Carey Hilliard's was quite popular and highly rated, though some of the latest reviews and Charleston closings suggest the chain unfortunately may be struggling.  I thought about trying it on my last visit, but did not.  Because of that, I have no opinion at this point: I just liked the sign and style of the place.  Nevertheless, I would be more than glad to expand this thread about the place once I find out a little more about it.

I really cannot vouch if this place actually has good food, but it is nice to see that a few popular local restaurant chains continue to operate such as this one.  If it is a good place to eat, places like this give a unique taste and identity to a city that helps to draw more people to visit.  While the buzz these days is largely around Paula Deen's restaurant, I wanted to focus on a low key local classic that came long before Ms. Deen put Savannah cuisine squarely on the national map.



  1. I've eaten's not too great, in my opinion. (But I do louve Ms. Paula's place

  2. There's a lot that can be said for Carey Hilliard's...both good and bad. But, for some history first.

    The first CH was located on Skidaway Road, about 1/2-mile south of Victory Drive. When the restaurant opened, his area was the new commercial area in town, with KMart, as well as Victory Drive SC, and Crossroads SC just down the road. At some point prior to 1973, a second location opened near the intersection of Waters Avenue and Victory Drive. This was not in a major commercial area, but it was near a large hospital, and was surrounded by 1950-style subdivisions, so it was a win-win situation on both ends.

    With the growth along Abercorn Street south of the city, CH opened a third restaurant around 1978. This was also in what was then a residential area surrounding a six-lane road that went to Armstrong State College and on to pretty much nothing else for 40 miles. The neighborhood around this restaurant has changed much more than the first two, as Abercorn Street now is pretty much highly commercialized for the entire six miles between the two malls.

    In the early eighties, CH opened on Highway 80 in Garden City. Garden City is an industrial area just west of Savannah, and stays crowded because of the large amount of blue-collar workers concentrated in that area.

    The last two buildings were designed almost the same; at least you recognized the building as "another Carey Hilliard's." It was about this same time that their advertised location also in Charleston [2], and Oak Ridge, TN, of all places.

    This may have been the beginnings of a planned large-scale expansion, but somewhere during this, I remember a plane crash in which one or more of the Hilliard family was killed, and that may have put a hold on any further plans.

    The restaurants - especially the two oldest -are somewhat like going back about 30 years, and much of the food hasn't changed. The fried chicken is outstanding, and Savannah folks like CH's fried seafood. There is better seafood in Savannah, but for the price, it's excellent. The onion rings are crave-worthy...especially when you only get them once a year.

    On the other hand...there's the barbecue. I was raised in Florida, and to me, good bbq is the Florida style of Sonny's; beef is preferably to pork. Savannah bbq is very closely related to that yellow stuff in South Carolina, and they would never think of barbecuing a cow. Maybe CH's barbecue is the way it is because it's all they have to work with.

    There were also two other restaurants in Savannah from 1965-1985 that had identical menus to CH. One was Bill Hilliard's, with a location about a mile from the original; the other was Mr. B's Hickory House, on Waters Avenue. Same menu, same food, but not exactly the same.

  3. I forgot to mention that the Carey Hilliard's pictured with the sign is the Abercorn Street location. It's the only one in Savannah which is on a multi-lane divided highway.

  4. Never ate there, but obviously it's loved by the locals. It's good to see a local operation thrive in this day and age of multi-national chains. While many may say the food is not the greatest, my guess is there is enough balance of value and taste with menu that no chain would duplicate. Savannah does seem to be a city that supports the locals.

  5. If what I recall from one of the older CH menus has accurately stuck with me:

    The first CH opened in 1960 on Skidaway Rd. in an old location what was implied to be an A&W (The menu said "former national root beer stand" and made reference to "orange and brown stripes").

    The next one was 1971 just north of the intersection of Waters and Montgomery Cross Road. The one adjacent to the hospitals is actually a Barne's. I call it a "poor mans' Carey Hilliard's" - it had a number of locations, even in Rincon, but has since shrunk back to just Waters Ave.

    CH #3 is the one pictured - Abercorn Street, next to Sav'h Toyota. It came online in 1976.

    The two Garden City stores (out US-80 and the other going out Ga. 21) were late '70s/early '80s. Pooler opened in about 2004. Near Home Depot and Wally World at Godley Station. Notable in that it doesn't have an old-style neon sign, just backlit.

    I've eaten at all Savannah stores except for the original.

    My take on Carey Hilliards': their hush puppies are the best I've ever had. Their iced tea is legendary. Love the fried scallops and the (recently-added) fish bites.
    Not too crazy about their chicken tenders - too gristley and darkish. French fries are old-school big and crinkle-cut.

    Service and quality, much sad to say, has appeared to go downhill in most recent years. Maybe CH is having some problems. Hush puppies have gotten smaller, I've noticed.

    Agreed that it's a good "local eatery" for Savannah without getting in line for two weeks at Lady & Sons. For good and bad, I enjoy eating there sometimes and would hate for it to be here.

    PS - I wonder what happened to the neon signs at the Charleston locations after they closed? If they're in storage, perhaps they could be coaxed into putting one at Pooler and the other in the new Statesboro unit?


  6. That should read "For good and bad, I enjoy eating there sometimes and would hate for it NOT to be here."

  7. A real Savannah instituition! Their menu is very diverse, distinctly Southern and very reasonably priced. I, like most Savannahians grew up eating at this restaurant and love it!

  8. The 1982 plane crash killed Carey Hilliard and his wife along with two other persons.

    Barnes on Waters Ave. was(is) owned by Bill Hilliard, brother of Carey, made the best fried chicken. I had an office on 66th street and frequented Barnes on a weekly basis for about 10 years.

    Carey Hilliard's was a great place during my time in Savannah (1970s and 80s)to have dinner.

  9. I love Carey Hilliards. My grandmom lives in and my family is from, Isle of hope(southside of savannah) and every time we visited growing up until now, we eat at carey hilliards. I like the waters avenue best as I am told it was my first restaurant trip as a baby, 4 weeks old in 1974. Also love the skidaway location and no, neither has changed one bit in my 39 years of memories but I like it that way. I'm not a fan of change for change sake.


  10. Found them online

  11. Referring to the comment that Barnes Restaurant on Waters Avenue was/is owned by Bill Hilliard. Barnes Restaurant was never owned by a Hilliard. It began as a take-out chicken shack on the southeast corner of Waters and 68th with a few booths for the limited inside dining in the mid-1970s by Mr. Nesbert Barnes (who passed away a few years ago). In the early 80s, business had grown to the point where he built a full-service restaurant across 68th Street (but still on Waters Avenue) with the old place being torn down to build the practice of Dr. Melvyn Haysman (allergy doc). It is true that after a time of having several locations including a take-out only barbecue place downtown on Whitaker Street, they have been the single location for several years now. However, they do have a large catering business. Today the sons of Mr. Barnes, Hugh and Alan, own Barnes Restaurant and Barnes Catering.

    Bill Hilliard owned Bill Hilliard's Restaurant on Victory Drive in Thunderbolt and was already in business there when Carey Hilliard opened his first restaurant in 1960. After Bill Hilliard passed away in the early 1980s, Carey bought that restaurant from his heirs and remade it into "Bill's" but it wasn't the same place and closed down after just a few years. A



  14. They are a very generous, self made, legendary small restaurant chain in Savannah, GA that gives employees bonus awards at yearly marks culminating in custom rolex watches at 40 year mark and new vehicles at 45 years (3rd one is in line this year)...