In 2004, Anne Vaselaros and her husband Craig sold their restaurant in Maryland and headed south in search of affordable coastal living. They found just that in Savannah, Georgia, and in 2008, they opened Tortuga’s Island Grille in the nearby town of Thunderbolt.
Neither Anne nor Craig are professionally trained — instead, their culinary skills have been honed over the course of their combined 30 years in the food industry, plus a fair amount of experimenting at home — but Tortuga’s has nonetheless carved out a niche for itself by way of combining sweet and spicy Caribbean flavors with traditionally Southern dishes, with the end result being delicious, creative dishes.
Their experimentation has paid off with customer favorites like their shrimp and grits, Maryland-style crab cakes and their signature jerk chicken sandwiches, plus a number of delectable homemade desserts. In addition, the family-run restaurant also hosts a popular Sunday brunch.
We have always been in the industry — managing, waiting tables, bartending.
What made you decide to set up shop in Savannah and open Tortuga’s?
We fell in love with Savannah and wanted to be close to the beach.
How is running a restaurant in Savannah different from doing so in Maryland?
It’s basically the same, you just have to learn the different laws.
What item on the Tortuga’s menu do customers rave about the most?
Our most popular dinner item is our fresh local fish, which we get from Derek Brown, or our Maryland-style jumbo lump crab cakes. Lunch would be our Ponce de Leon chicken sandwich or our fresh fish BLT.
What’s the best part of your job?
Craig and I both enjoy hearing that people like our food. Nothing is better than a good, old-fashioned compliment.
In running a restaurant, is it difficult to maintain a work/life balance? What do you do to unwind after a long day?
Yes!! We have two children so scheduling time for family and always being at the restaurant is difficult. On Sunday afternoon, after working brunch, we love to go relax at the beach as a family.
What are the pros and cons of working with your spouse?
Pro is spending alot of time together, con is we never get away from work; we do it and talk about it 24/7.
How did you and Craig meet?
Craig and his mom and dad owned a restaurant in Maryland where we lived. We met on my 30th birthday. I had gone to his bar to have a drink. He asked me out two weeks later, and we have been together ever since.
What is the best and/or most memorable meal you’ve ever prepared at home?
Eight years ago, we had our house renovated so we moved across the street to a rental property, where I prepared Thanksgiving dinner from scratch in a kitchen that did not have all the right equipment. Everything turned out great; it was the moistest turkey I have ever made.
What do you enjoy most about living in Savannah?
We love the weather and the relaxed atmosphere.
When friends or family visit Savannah for the first time, where do you take them or recommend that they go?
We tell them to go to the beach, River Street, Broughton Street, Sand Gnats games, or trolley rides for the history.
What would you like to do that you simply haven’t found the time for yet?
Spend more time with our kids, to be able to take one awesome family vacation.
If you had to offer one piece of advice to someone looking to open a restaurant, what would it be?
Just to make sure you are prepared. We also think it is very important that you be hands on. Most places don’t run well or go out of business for that reason.
Craig said, “Don’t.”