Spotlight: Souths

Because this site focuses on news, the businesses that have been around awhile—and that make this neighborhood special—don’t get the coverage they should. Photographs for the “Spotlight” series are by Claudine Williams Photography, a full-service photography studio specializing in portraits for families, individuals as well as personal and professional branding.

“We have friendly staff and good food and a nice, casual atmosphere,” says Souths co-founder Johnny Griffin (above right). “We’ve never wanted to be something we weren’t.” And therein lies the restaurant’s charm.

How did you get started in this business?
When I came to New York in the mid-1980s, most Irish people went into construction or the bar business. I didn’t know much about construction, and I knew even less about bars, but I got a job as a bartender. I started at the Ear Inn a long time ago—I worked there over 20 years. Then I got into owning my own places. Souths was originally opened by two owners of the Ear Inn and two friends of mine, and my business partner Roger Herr (above left) and I took over Souths from them on July 1, 2000.

Do you know when Souths opened?
Before it was Souths, from 1996 to 2000, it was S.J. South & Sons—but everyone called it Souths and we inherited it that way. Before that, it was the R Bar, which lasted four years or so. And before the R Bar, it was Copper’s. I’m not too sure how long Copper’s was around—let’s say three to four years.

And you have other establishments, too?
Myself, two owners of Ear Inn, and another ex-bartender from the Ear Inn opened 11th Street Bar, between Avenue A and Avenue B, that Roger and I took over about 10 years ago. And two friends and I have a place in Park Slope, Prospect Bar & Grill, that opened just over five years ago.

What is Souths known for?
We’re a neighborhood bar and restaurant serving good comfort food.

…in a neighborhood—on an island, I should say—where that gets harder to find.
A dying breed, the neighborhood bar and restaurant. We always kept the menu as a comfort food menu. We never wanted to get into high-end dining. In hard times, places like this have a better chance of surviving. But I like the specials to be a little surprising—so you think, I didn’t expect to find this here. 

What’s the most satisfying part of what you do?
As a bar/restaurant owner, I like to see happy faces entering and leaving. And when people come in on a regular basis—well, we must be doing something right. Also, over the years, people will come back after moving away, and they’ll say, “It’s great to see you guys are still here.” That’s rewarding to hear. And compliments about the food and service are always appreciated.

Most popular item on the menu?
The nachos are the most popular and the most talked about.

I can see why! I ordered them once at lunch, by myself. I should’ve brought backup.
Four guys came in for lunch a number of years ago, and all four sat down and each ordered the nachos. All four plates were cleared.

Is there a story behind the nachos?
They’ve been here since the beginning. Roger is from Texas, which may be how they got put on the menu. We started with basic nachos and, over a period of time, molded them into the dish they are now. Everything is homemade; nothing is fake. But when avocado prices recently went through the roof, we couldn’t do guacamole. Thank God they’re back to the original price.

What have you learned about the menu over the years?
What works as a special doesn’t always work on the menu. When we added rib-eye as a special, people raved—but as a menu item, it wasn’t getting ordered. We had a vegetarian sandwich as a special that was very good, but when we put it on the menu, it just sat there. We’ll probably bring it back as a special.

Your very favorite item right now?
I like the half herb chicken on the dinner menu. We just recently brought back a special, the pork chop, which I love. And last night I had the turkey burger, which is very nicely seasoned.

What percentage of your business is local?
Monday through Friday, you have to depend on lunch and happy hour. All of that is transient. After that, you have local business. What helps us here is the theaters in the neighborhood: the Flea, Soho Rep, and Access Theater. Yesterday [a stormy Sunday] was very slow, but then folks from Soho Rep came in, which really helped.

Tribeca has obviously changed a lot since you started. How have the changes affected your business?
What concerns me is losing commercial to residential. From commercial buildings, we have guests for lunch, happy hour, and early dinner. We used to get a lot of business from 346 Broadway. That conversion has been a big hit to us.

Commercial buildings also tend to be a lot denser—many people used to work in an office that’s now an apartment for two, three, four people.
Who’s buying these apartments and what’s the owner-occupancy rate? I bet it’s low. Someone said to me when all of these buildings are finished, walk around and see how many lights are on. Old Tribeca certainly was a lot more fun. People living here were artists, musicians, just regular folks. How far do you have to go now to see a deli? And God forbid there be a laundromat in Tribeca. And it was a destination neighborhood back then. You don’t get people coming to Tribeca the way you used to for, say, the Knitting Factory. It has priced itself out of reach for a lot of people, and we’re headed the direction of a gated community. I feel it and see it on weekends, especially. As I mentioned before, what keeps us going is theater people.

What does the future hold?
We have seven-and-a-half years left on the lease, and we’ll stay as long as the lease allows us to. Will we survive as a neighborhood restaurant? I hope so. That depends on how the neighborhood transforms. I do like to think we will survive, and I certainly hope the neighborhood welcomes us.

What’s the one thing you’d like people who’ve never been to Souths to know?
I’d like to ask them why they haven’t come in, because if something doesn’t seem right, I’d want to fix it. If you’re looking for fancy, I understand. But if not, please come in! You’ll get a good steak, a good burger. And everything’s fresh. Food doesn’t sit around here because I don’t have the space!

Previously in this series:
••• R & Company
••• Duane Park Patisserie
••• Chambers Street Wines
••• Sweet Lily Natural Nail Spa
••• Floratech
••• Steven Sclaroff
••• Roc
••• Estancia 460
••• Boomerang Toys
••• Antiqueria Tribeca
••• Real Pilates
••• Church Street School for Music and Art
••• Kings Pharmacy
••• Church Street Surplus
••• New York Nautical
••• Lance Lappin Salon
••• Joseph Carini Carpets
••• Donzella
••• A Uno
••• Balloon Saloon
••• Fountain Pen Hospital
••• Abhaya
••• Chambers Pottery
••• Square Diner
••• Langdon Florist
••• Tribeca Upholstery & Draperies
••• Double Knot
••• Philip Williams Posters

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9 Comments

  1. South’s is A+ in my book. Been going for almost 5 years now. Amazing bison burger! Almost all the food is well priced, well seasoned and service is always good.

  2. South’s is the best! I have never had better nachos anywhere. We would go with our baby in the stroller and the staff was always great in accommodating us. Never had a bad meal or bad experience there.

  3. Why haven’t I gone in? I feel like you are either a Souths person or a Walkers person, and somehow Walkers has become my place when I want to scratch that “itch”. Whether correct or not, they feel like they fulfill the same need for me. Maybe I will try South’s sometime for a change.

    You asked!

  4. After living in TriBeCa for 11 years, I recently moved uptown(for the same reasons mentioned in this article). I used to order from Souths all the time and really miss the joint! Their macaroni and cheese is by far my favorite item on the menu. I do hope this place stays around for a while, and doesn’t get priced out.

  5. The building was listed for sale last March at $13,500,000.

    https://tribecacitizen.com/2017/03/22/in-the-news-tetsu-opening-forecast/

    It’s now listed for $11,900,000.

  6. My family lives next door, and this is our second dining room. Cannot tell you how much we love this restaurant and the owners and staff. One year they lent us a high chair for OUR Thanksgiving dinner. It’s like having the CHEERS bar right next door. Very special. Food is great too. Makes Tribeca feel like the neighborhood it is.

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