Bank Street Cafe Makes a Comeback
Sep 24, 2014 10:57AM, Published by A Kitchen Drawer Writer , Categories: Food+Drink
“I’m thinking about getting the trout,” my friend Sam commented as we perused the dinner menu of the recently reopened Bank Street Café. “How is it?” he asked our server.
“It’s delicious,” she replied in a sweet Southern drawl. “And it comes with the best cheese grits…”
I was considering their other offerings—such as the portabella fettuccini, wild mushroom ravioli with truffle oil, and smoked turkey leg—but at the mention of grits, particularly the kind covered in cheese, my ears perked up. “Did you say the trout comes with cheese grits?”
“Yes ma’am. These grits will have you addicted for life.”
We would have been foolish to ignore that kind of a recommendation, so after we both ordered the trout, Sam and I sat in giddy anticipation of the meal.
“I’ve never been here before,” he said while peering over the balcony. We were seated on the second story, overlooking the main floor below.
“I haven’t either,” I said. “I really like it so far, though.” It was around 6 p.m. on a weeknight, and the tables were slowly starting to fill with customers. No area, however, was quite as crowded as the bar. This came as no surprise considering Bank Street’s beer selection. They have fifteen beers on tap from breweries across the United States and a significant selection of bottled beer as well.
As the sun set, a server came over to light the candles on each table, giving Bank Street a more intimate feel, though the lively bustle of the patrons continued to infuse the space with an energetic air. “This seems like the new after-work hangout,” I commented as I observed the place. Bank Street Café is located in the heart of downtown Griffin on South Hill Street, just a short walk and an even shorter drive from most offices in the area. The space that the café now occupies began as the Savings Bank building. Opened on October 9, 1890, Savings Bank first conducted business on West Solomon Street before moving to the building on South Hill Street in 1902. In a 1962 article about the bank, the Griffin Daily News declared this location to be “what was then considered a modern banking house.” The name of Savings Bank was officially changed to Commercial and Savings Bank on January 21, 1928, and according to Griffin historian Wally Brown, it was the only local bank that did not fail during the Great Depression. Renovations and improvements were made to the building to meet the needs of increasing business until the bank moved into the space next door in October of 1935.
As for the stone-front building that Bank Street Café now occupies, it became the home to several different businesses over the years, such as Searcy and Company and The Kiddie Shop. In the 1990s, however, Arthur Willis, the current landlord of the property, reinvented the building from an office space, and the first incarnation of Bank Street Café was established. The building has been either a restaurant or a bar ever since.
In the 1990s, John Wynne purchased Bank Street from his friends Kevin and Linda Lokey, with the help of Jim Ogletree of United Bank. John and his wife Julie aimed to create a place that was eclectic and cutting edge for Griffin. The “Southern gourmet” dinner menu included items such as shrimp and grits, portabella burgers, and jambalaya, while lunch offerings were packed with daily specials, homemade soups, and build-your-own sandwiches. Julie said, “We feel that we left a mark on the city, a trend for downtown…We had some of the best live music in the Southeast, like Larry Keel and Kevin Kenny. [Bank Street] was also the setting for one of Shannon Lake’s first murals in Griffin.”
The café’s space became Hollywood Hills in the early 2000s, but the Bank Street legacy was not quickly forgotten. David Fountain, manager of the current Bank Street Café, said he and owner Tracy Wallace “had always talked about how much we loved the building and how we’d love to see Bank Street happen again.” Fountain, who had previously managed Slices Pizzeria for Wallace, recounted how Wallace approached him in September of 2011 and let him know that he was purchasing the building. Fountain and Wallace then “embarked on the daunting task of remodeling,” tearing down the existing interior and recreating Bank Street completely.
Fountain said that he envisioned a place that was “clean and easy and had great food, great drinks, and great service.” With some help from his sister Kristen Fountain Davis, Fountain personally did the design work. “Tracy really let me do what I wanted…it’s been a great learning experience and he has been a great mentor,” he said. After demolition of the interior, Fountain realized that he wanted to focus on the beauty of the building—from the 19th-century marble he found to the original hardwood in the back area—and he allowed the architecture to dictate the design. Natural materials were also used to give “texture” and “feeling” to the rest of the space. As for the food, offerings from the previous Bank Street menu make an appearance, along with original items courtesy of Ben Price. During the day, Bank Street offers sandwiches, salads, and soups and a discounted early bird menu starting at 5 p.m. “We are focusing on quality ingredients. We use as much stuff as we can from Georgia and are looking to expand to using primarily local ingredients,” said Fountain. The current Bank Street also hearkens back to its previous incarnations by featuring jazz music every Thursday night with local band The Regal Brothers as well as music on the weekends by the likes of Mike Williamson, Ben Ratliff, and Matt McDaniel.
“It’s crazy to think that the building has been around for 110 years or so,” commented Fountain. He said that they found records of people trading horses and buggies for $50 and heard stories about a “ghost in the back hall from a bank robbery and murder,” though he has yet to find any records of the event. “But it’s fun to scare our waitresses,” he added.
The waitress that served my trout and grits didn’t seem too spooked, however, when she brought the meal to the table. “How is everything?” she asked when she returned to refill our drinks.
“Delicious,” Sam replied. The waitress then looked at me, but I couldn’t speak. I was too busy spooning food into my mouth. I was certainly haunted by the time I left Bank Street—haunted by how delectable the food was. As I write this, the flavor of those cheese grits still lingers in my mind.