Sitting at one of the outside tables at Finch & Fifth on a recent sunny afternoon, owner Faulkner Warlick can still remember when Surrey Center was nothing more than a dirt lot in the Summerville neighborhood.
“I grew up here. My family’s house was over on McDowell Street and that is two blocks away,” Warlick said as several customers greeted him as they entered his restaurant. “I remember this shopping center when it was all dirt up here. There was a grocery store located where Talbots is. A lot has changed since then.”
When Warlick opened Finch & Fifth back in 2013, his goal was to create a true “neighborhood place” in Surrey Center that would offer unique craft cocktails, artisanal cheeses and elevated southern classic dishes.
Over the past three years, Finch & Fifth has become known throughout The Hill area as a popular place to bump into friends and neighbors while enjoying a great meal in a laid-back environment, he said.
“Neighborhood is still a word that resonates with most people,” Warlick said. “As a result, I think that’s part of the attraction at Finch & Fifth. It being a neighborhood place makes it immensely attractive. I also believe our local market has matured over the years. People appreciate what we do. We provide people with better food at a fair price surrounded by good company.”
With the addition of several new restaurants over the past five years, such as Abel Brown Southern Kitchen & Oyster Bar, Oliviana Bar Italiano & Pizzeria and Finch & Fifth, along with Surrey Center’s long-time favorites like French Market Grille, TakoSushi and Calvert’s Restaurant, Warlick says he rarely leaves the Summerville area to dine out.
“I think there is some very creative competition going on between these restaurants in the Hill area,” Warlick said. “There is a good palette of colors and flavors going on right over here in this area.”
For Warlick, there is no other neighborhood in Augusta that offers such a wide variety of quality restaurants to select from within just a few blocks of each other.
“I think it’s very good that it is happening here in Summerville because it hasn’t happened over in Columbia County. They are not there yet,” Warlick said. “And to be honest, I never go downtown to eat. It is just so much more convenient to come here for a great meal. And, let’s face it, most of us like convenience. Convenience is the key word for us in the F&B business.”
While prepping for his dinner service, Abel Brown’s owner and chef Todd Schafer said the reason he is dedicated to the Summerville area is easy: He is rooted in the neighborhood.
“I live here. My kids go to school here. I grew up right down the street,” Schafer said. “This is my home and, of course, I had a restaurant in this same building for a long time before I opened Abel Brown.”
After working at some of the top restaurants in the country such as Ciboulette in Atlanta, Provence in Washington, D.C., and Pinot Blanc in Napa Valley, Schafer returned to his hometown of Augusta and opened Bistro 491 in Surrey Center in 1999.
For almost 15 years, this French restaurant quickly revolutionized formal dining in the Augusta area because of its stellar wine selection, impeccable staff and farm-to-table seasonal menus.
But then Schafer shocked all of Augusta in 2014 when he decided to close Bistro 491 in order to make way for his new concept restaurant at the same Surrey Center location.
Later that year, Schafer opened Abel Brown, an oyster bar and coastal restaurant named after a sea shanty about a sailor trying to sleep with a maiden.
Abel Brown has quickly become a local favorite and a restaurant respected for its culinary flair.
Since many locals already knew his reputation from Bistro 491, Schafer said the Summerville neighborhood was immediately supportive of Abel Brown’s atmosphere and menu.
In fact, Schafer said his location in Surrey Center has a very unique feel that would be difficult to recreate somewhere else.
“I think the proximity to Augusta National has something to do with it,” Schafer said. “And, historically, this has always been a really nice area. If you know the local history, in the 1820s, they had a huge malaria outbreak and all the people who could afford to built these houses up here and that’s why it’s called Summerville because they always spent summers up here. I don’t know if the mosquitos weren’t as bad up here or what, but that’s what they did. So this area is much older and it’s been around for quite a while.”
Even though Schafer has a great attachment to Surrey Center, that doesn’t mean he isn’t willing to look for additional opportunities elsewhere in the Summerville area.
In fact, Schafer is considering possibly opening another restaurant along Kings Way, but he hasn’t committed to anything quite yet.
“It is very early in the process,” Schafer said, laughing. “I don’t even have any finalized set of plans yet, but, yes, we are working on something. But only if it’s the right opportunity for me. That’s very important. Otherwise, I’ll pass.”
However, one local chef and restaurant owner who is moving full steam ahead on a new concept is John Beck.
Beck, owner of the extremely popular Sheehan’s Irish Pub on Central Avenue, is preparing to open a new restaurant called Beck’s at 2111 Kings Way.
While Beck was not able to comment on a timeline for the grand opening of his restaurant, there has been major buzz surrounding this new addition to Kings Way since he started a Beck’s Facebook page back in July.
“I would love to talk about it, but I can’t just yet,” Beck said. “But we’ll be able to talk about it very soon.”
Beck has already provided a few hints on the new restaurant’s Facebook page.
Back in September he posted, “Heat lamps in at food station. Hanging some art. Oysters sure will taste good in the presence of Ellis and Stobart.”
He also teased, “Every day is a day closer to opening. Don’t ask. We will let you know.”
Two local restaurant owners who have kept a very close on eye on the recent developments in the Summerville area have been Brian Brittingham and George Claussen IV of Southbound Smokehouse on Central Avenue. Since opening their popular barbecue joint on Central Avenue in the summer of 2015, Brittingham said they have been amazed by the amount of growth in the area surrounding the restaurant over the past few months.
In fact, their success with Southbound has led them to decide to expand on their original idea.
“Right next door to our restaurant, we are planning to open Southbound Music Hall which will hopefully be about a 300-ish capacity venue that will kind of cater to national, regional and local acts,” Brittingham said. “It will be very nice with a state-of-the-art stage and lighting. We think it will be a great addition to the area because we don’t have anything really like it in town that is that size. We’ve got bigger stuff, but we felt like that there’s a void for this size of a room.”
With the combination of Claussen, as a music promoter and founder of Friends with Benefits, and Brittingham, as the former owner of the Red Lion Pub, it was just inevitable that this partnership was going to establish a new music venue here in Augusta, he said.
“Augusta is great and it has been supporting a lot of music lately,” Brittingham said. “But it is still hard on a random Monday or Tuesday night to get enough people to fill up some of the bigger places, so this will be a great way to get some national acts and route them through here. This venue will be able to take care of some of the bigger names on a smaller night.”
“We are hoping that we are going to start doing the build-out in November and it will take about 90 to 120 days,” he said. “We think March 1 is a reasonable timeframe for an opening, but, obviously, when we get into a project like this, we might be able to push that date up or have to push that back depending on our progress. But we absolutely plan to be open by Masters Week.”
Brittingham and Claussen believe the time to invest in the Summerville neighborhood is right now, he said.
“Initially, I used to own the Red Lion Pub, which is obviously kind of in the same vicinity as Southbound, so I’ve always loved this area,” Brittingham said. “I was also born and raised on the Hill. That is my neighborhood. It’s my family and friends that I’ve grown up with, so it just kind of makes sense for us to embrace this area.”
When Brittingham and Claussen chose to invest in Southbound Smokehouse on Central Avenue, they did so because they both appreciated the legacy of the location, he said.
“The location itself, going back to Cafe Natural (which was originally a vegetarian restaurant), and then Cafe DuTeau and then to eventually Crums, it was always a space I was very familiar with and it had been in my history for a long time,” Brittingham said. “Also, I do know Andrew Crumrine, who started Crums, very well. So when the building became available, the idea for a barbecue joint kept resurfacing and then the timing just worked out. So, I think the location is great, and the building has a lot of good history and great memories.”
Brittingham also believes the area along Central Avenue, Kings Way and Monte Sano Avenue is developing so rapidly that it should soon have a particular designation.
“One term that I keep seeing coined is this ‘Midtown’ term,” Brittingham said. “I kind of feel like that whole area, from where we are on Central Avenue going up the Hill to where Beck’s is going to soon open on Kings Way, then up to Sheehan’s and then over to The Indian Queen on Wrightsboro Road would be great if it was called Midtown. Because it is not downtown and it’s not the very top of the Hill. That area is in between.”
The Indian Queen, which sits on the corner of Monte Sano Avenue and Wrightsboro Road, has been providing locals with signature cocktails in its log-cabin exterior enhanced by a large deck for the past four years.
Owners Steven Moore, Brandon Mears and Ryan McArdle wanted to create a relaxed bar where patrons would automatically feel at home.
“When people walk through the door, we treat them well,” Moore recently told the Metro Spirit. “We know the better we treat them, the better environment we create, and the happier they are, and the better off we all are in the end.”
Its quiet interior, rustic furnishings and open fireplaces are certainly enticing, but Moore believes it is the people behind the bar who make the bar a favored destination.
“Our whole team is strong. Our whole team plays the part,” Moore said. “I’ve been fortunate to have had a steady staff since we opened; the turnover that we’ve had has been very low. So the reason we’ve been able to be so successful is that staff.”
Also on Monte Sano Avenue is the newly opened Arsenal Tap Room that offers patrons more than 30 craft beers on tap, growlers to go and bar food such as gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches and tater tots.
And, of course, a long-time favorite for residents in the Summerville area has been Helga’s Pub and Grill on Central Avenue. It’s an Augusta institution of sorts and has long been the hangout of choice for the city’s medical students.
With all of these restaurants and bars in close proximity to one another, Brittingham believes a brand like Midtown could make the area a true destination.
“Whether you are in Atlanta or Columbia, S.C., or wherever, most cities have a midtown area and this is really ours,” Brittignham said. “George (Claussen) and I have kind of been talking about how to start the branding Midtown, because it is becoming a very legitimate area of town.”
And the growth has just begun, he said.
“I think it is just going to keep growing with the Augusta University dorms that just opened up,” Brittingham said. “If you just keep going down Central Avenue, you run right into the new dorms and there is a fraternity house that just opened up that has been there for a year now. So, we are getting a lot of students — and that’s all kinds of students like undergraduates, grad students and med students — along with a lot of families moving into this area. So I think that this whole area is just really picking up a lot and I think there will be a lot more growth over the next few years.”
While Todd Schafer of Abel Brown appreciates Brittingham’s enthusiasm over branding the area, he’s not sure if Midtown is the right name.
“I think it’s a good idea. I know they are saying Midtown, but I think it needs to be rebranded to something like, ‘In the Heart of Summerville’ or something like that,” he said. “At least when we were looking at it, we were thinking more like ‘In the Heart of Summerville,’ because people are already familiar with Summerville.”
As far as all of this talk about branding a neighborhood and the importance of a restaurant’s location, Kevin Goldsmith, owner of TakoSushi in Surrey Center, believes its more about the quality of the food and service at a restaurant, rather than the location.
With five current TakoSushi locations in Augusta, downtown Aiken, Evans, Greenville, S.C., and Columbia, S.C., and Asheville, N.C., Goldsmith thinks a restaurant’s success is based on its timely delivery of good food to its customers.
“Quite honestly, most of my stores do about the same. I don’t think there is that big of a difference between, say, here in Surrey Center and the Evans location,” he said. “I think Evans is very busy. I don’t think Evans has the quality of restaurants, overall, that we have in our area, but it is a different crowd. But, good God, drive through Evans sometime and look at the zillions of restaurants there. It is just a different type of restaurants.”
In fact, Goldsmith said he has encouraged other local restaurant owners such as Schafer and Beck to start thinking about opening new locations in the Evans area.
“They would do very, very well out there,” Goldsmith said. “So I don’t think it is the area that makes any restaurant successful. I think if anybody opens a good restaurant in the Augusta area — I don’t care if it is in Evans or if it is downtown or if it is on Central Avenue — people are going to go. People go to good restaurants. I don’t think it is magic by being in a certain location.”
Augusta is not like other cities such as Atlanta where it could easily take a customer an hour to get to a specific restaurant, Goldsmith said.
“Here in Augusta, nothing is far from us,” he said. “Evans is 12 minutes away. Downtown is basically 12 minutes away. We are lucky that we can get anywhere within 10 to 20 minutes, so that is not a real big drive to get a good meal, no matter what direction you are going.”
When Schafer was asked about any future plans to open a restaurant in Columbia County, he said that could possibly happen “down the road.”
“The plan is to eventually go out to Columbia County, but it’s about finding the right location,” Schafer said. “And, honestly, I don’t feel the architecture out there is ready yet. It just doesn’t fit my needs. So, until I can find the right spot, I’m very happy right here. This neighborhood has been very good to me.”