Savannas offers uptown dining experience in Amherst

  • Jonathan Crespo prepares a pizza for the wood-fired oven in the open kitchen at Savannas Amherst Bar & Bistro. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Aaron Jolly, the owner of Savannas Amherst Bar & Bistro, is seen in the main dining area before opening for dinner last Friday. Jolly previously ran Amherst mainstay The Pub before it closed in 2019, and he also had a role in running Rafters Sports Bar & Restaurant.

  • A warm tomato and burrata bruschetta was one of the starters on the day’s menu at Savannas Amherst Bar & Bistro on Friday. STAFF PHOTOS/KEVIN GUTTING


  • A 14 oz. grilled pork chop with fingerling potatoes was one of the entrees on Friday’s menu. The restaurant has a new menu daily.

  • Savannas Amherst Bar & Bistro is on University Drive in Amherst.

Staff Writer
Monday, January 10, 2022

AMHERST — For more than half a century, the Jolly family has run Amherst restaurants where people can drop in to get a burger and beer in a casual environment.

In Savannas Amherst Bar & Bistro, owner Aaron Jolly is creating a place that he hopes will take customers beyond what they may have enjoyed at The Pub or Rafters Sports Bar & Restaurant.

“We felt that Amherst was in line for something different,” Jolly says. “This is more chef-driven cuisine than our last two locations.”

As people enter the 40 University Drive building and notice the high ceilings and gleaming white tablecloths, they also will see, when their meals are brought, what Jolly describes as a focus on plate presentation for the farm-to-table food.

The entrees feature fish, chicken and other meats, and a variety of wood-fired pizzas, appetizers and salads. The menus are printed daily to reflect the constant change to what is available and in season.

Among the regular entrees are grilled swordfish with roasted garlic herb potato round, haricot vert, roasted cherry tomatoes and chimichurri sauce; sushi-grade yellowfin tuna with jasmine rice, scallions, baby bok choy, wasabi avocado sauce and wontons; and the grilled pork chop with Za’atar roasted fingerlings, balsamic reduction, haricot verts and shallot marmalade.

The appetizers include wood-fired Wellfleet oysters and sweet and sticky ribs with Korean barbecue sauce and mango daikon slaw, while the salads range from an autumn beet salad with goat cheese and white balsamic vinaigrette to a Caprese salad with buffalo mozzarella and balsamic glaze.

Savannas, which has space for 76 customers, was developed by Barry Roberts and designed by Kuhn Riddle Architects specifically for the restaurant, and Jolly had a role in outfitting the prep space.

“Savannas flows very well,” Jolly said, pointing to the visible kitchen with an open-hearth concept.

At the rear is a garden room that seats another 48 people, and adjacent to that is an exterior patio, with heaters, for 16 more people. Jolly said the garden room is essential to support the enterprise.

A large chalkboard taken from a former Hatfield elementary school lists the daily specials, while a textured panel mural by local artist Laurieanne Wysocki provides the backdrop for the bar. Handblown lampshades created by Cape Cod glassblower Michael Magyar are suspended over the booths and bar.

Jolly managed The Pub until it was forced to close after more than 51 years at the end of 2019, and he also played a role in running Rafters, which had a 30-year lifespan.

Starting anew and bringing on 30 employees was not easy. “Getting it open was a hurdle,” Jolly said.

The restaurant came together once he hired head chef in Greg Daviau, sous chef Matt Brehm and assistant Anthony Pascoe.

“We got together and shared the concept for what we wanted to bring to Amherst,” Jolly said.

In addition to the food, they wanted to have a bar where mixed drinks would feature everything juiced in-house, such as fresh-squeezed grapefruit, limes and lemons.

Fiona Russell of Northampton said she had high expectations that were met when she went to Savannas for the first time, and was impressed with the presentation and the quality of her meal after ordering the yellowfin tuna rare. “It was absolutely beautiful,” Russell said.

She added that Savannas is a nice addition to the dining scene in the Amherst and Northampton area.

Most of the entrees are $27 and up, which Jolly said reflected the increase in the cost of proteins during the pandemic. “The supply chain can be frustrating,” Jolly said.

The restaurant is open from 5 to 9 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and 4 to 8 p.m. on Sundays, but a brunch may be launched in January.

“Amherst sort of has a void in that market right now,” Jolly said.

He is not anticipating changing hours to have a lunch business, though more to-go and curbside pickup business is expected to evolve.

Valet parking is available on Friday and Saturday evenings. Savannas also will be open for New Year’s Eve.

Jolly said he appreciates the reaction so far to the restaurant, which takes its name from oak savannas on the Holyoke Range, noting that he spent a lot of time hiking on the trails during the pandemic.

“There’s been so much positive feedback about bringing something different to Amherst,” Jolly said. “People are thrilled and excited for something new.”