Historic Hunter House Celebrates Twenty Years! 1989-2009

September 27, 2010 by  
Filed under Business News

The Hunter House Celebrates! (Previously Published in Februauy 2009)
By: Story – Editor Cynthia Kinkel; Photos – Nancy Heffernan

“Tybee Treasures” Series: Fine Cuisine with Historic Flare!

Prestigious Restaurant & Inn Celebrates Twenty Years of Fine Island Dining!
1989 – 2009

Spend an evening with a glass of wine on the front porch at 1701 Butler Avenue on Tybee Island and you’re sure to agree with the locals that there’s no other place quite like it. The large house with the breezy wrap-around porch fairly exudes down-home, southern charm, and passers-by might not guess that it’s actually an upscale local eatery were it not for the sign out front. 

Built in 1910 as a luxury beach dwelling for a Savannah family, the house is nearly 100 years old – another reason to celebrate as the historic structure reaches its centennial birthday. Like many other old Tybee landmarks it enjoyed a hey day years ago while prominent vacationers summered on Tybee in Victorian style, only to fall into disrepair some time later.

When Florida businessman and Tybee transplant John Hunter found the place in 1988, it was a rundown boarding house populated by local fishermen, bikers, artists, and Tybee “beach-bums.” In fact, it was nic named,”The Animal House,” after National Lampoon’s 1970’s film about Delta House, the raucous college fraternity house where John Belushi (Bluto) and his friends threw “toga parties.”

However, the enterprising Hunter envisioned a promising restoration, so he purchased the property and set about it bring it back to it’s former elegance. The three-story structure that opened in 1989 as The Hunter House Restaurant and Inn would soon become the standard for upscale and gourmet dining on Tybee, and simple, “beachy” accommodations. All that was necessary to complete the package was the addition of a remarkable chef. Funny thing, within a year of his opening, Hunter found one on the front porch of his new restaurant jokingly complaining about the food. But an evening at Espy Geissler’s house for dinner convinced John Hunter to invite Geissler to come on board as a cook – eventually he would welcome Espy as his business partner as well.

Chef” Espy, a professional artist originally from Savannah had spent years on the West Coast and in Manhattan working for a 3rd generation French restaurant owner. After moving back to Georgia in the mid ‘80s and out to Tybee, he began frequenting the new establishment and appreciated its laid back elegance.
John Hunter’s offer seemed like an interesting, and creative business venture so Geissler took him up on it.
“I started out slowly changing the menu, experimenting with natural and whole foods one item at a time,” explains Espy, “I didn’t use a lot of fancy, intimidating foreign names that local folks didn’t understand though some recipes were exquisitely exotic. I’ve tried a lot of experimental stuff as “beach fare,” but really gained a reputation for quality, fresh ingredients, and the fact that the food just tasted good!”
Today, a lot of novel techniques go into the menu items as well as the most healthy food preparation methods available. Chef Espy originates, writes and tests the recipes, then instructs the staff on how to recreate them. “Our fine wine list is also very extensive,” he adds, “and our baked goods come straight from New York!” There are no butter ‘patties,’ either, just pure virgin olive oil and spices for dipping. 

A culinary artist always interested in finding new, eye-catching ways to present the food items on the menu, Espy also says that he especially likes developing new sauces, moles and roues, and experimenting with innovative cooking techniques.

(Left to right – Austin, MacDowell, Simmons)

One of the restaurant’s signature items, an original tomato chutney created by Chef Espy has been marketed successfully at area outlets like Davis Brothers, Polks and Piggly Wiggly. It’s also available by direct mail. Espy says he’d like to package more original recipes in the future. He and John Hunter have also made a few recession-minded changes, including lowering regular prices – all entrees are now priced under $30, and they offer a lot of coupon deals online at hunterhouseinn.com.
Of course, no operation is complete without help from an experienced kitchen and wait staff, and the Hunter House is well equipped to serve. Currently joining Chef Espy, there’s Chef Daniel Simmons, Line Chefs Malcolm MacDowell and Taylor Austin, while Manager, Mary Helmly, and server Diane Hudson are always ready to greet you at the front door – that is if John Hunter doesn’t beat them to it!
(Left to right – Hudson & Helmley)

(Locals relish the perfect evening out!)
After dinner the inviting adjacent lounge and the front porch chairs are always waiting, or bed and breakfast guests may retire to quarters just steps away. You’re bound to feel at home in this roomy old Tybee beach house where fine dining is always a pleasure!

Photos compliments of Nancy Heffernan Photography!

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