This was not a great year for Charleston, and in some regards, things were also less than cheery in the food realm. From farm-damaging weather to vanishing restaurant institutions, there were some gut check moments (pun, of course, intended). And don't even get us started on the closure of Wet Willie's. We know it's going to take some of you as long as it did to recover from your last Call a Cab hangover to get over that one. So here it is, in no particular order, the highs and the lows from this past year.
First, the grim reality. We could be feeling the effects of this fall's 1,000-year-storm for a very long time. The places it's going to be seen the most? The plate and the pocketbooks of farmers and fishermen. When October's epic rainfall pummeled the state, we knew infrastructure would take a hit. Roads washed out, houses flooded, but the worst of it impacted rural farms and caused an estimated $1 billion in damges. In many parts of the state, produce like kale, broccoli, beets, carrots, and collard greens were washed away. Peanuts and cotton were also destroyed. Then, the Monday after the storm, we learned that shellfish beds had been closed. Luckily, they were reopened later in the month, but more recent reports have shown that the impact to seafood may not be over. According to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, in some oyster beds as many as 20 percent of the mollusks have died due to the increase in fresh water. It's clear we haven't heard the last of this storm.
There are times when this city feels about as progressive as Prohibition. But occasionally our preoccupation with the past creates surprisingly forward-thinking ideas, and such was the case with this spring's Nat Fuller Dinner. In researching this city's most prominent chefs, University of South Carolina professor David Shields discovered Nat Fuller, a 19th-century caterer and "entrepreneurial African-American broker of wild game." During his life, Fuller owned one of the finest restaurants in Charleston and was well respected among all races in the slave-owning city. But what Shields and a group of local leaders found most interesting about the man was the unprecedented dinner Fuller hosted in the spring of 1865 — a mixed-race celebration commemorating the end of the Civil War. To honor the 150th anniversary of the event, this spring a recreation of the dinner was held at McCrady's. Shields, along with Chef Kevin Mitchell of the Culinary Institute of Charleston and Gullah-Geechee food specialist Chef BJ Dennis, reproduced similar Fuller dishes. Robert Moss wrote, "the central theme — reconciliation between two long-divided communities — seemed all too relevant." What Moss didn't know at the time was that the need for the discussion would be even more relevant just two months later following the Emanuel AME Church shooting.
If we learned one thing this year, it's that good can come out of tragedy. When Dylann Roof murdered nine people at Mother Emanuel church on June 17, the citizens of Charleston were shocked but not silenced. Many hundreds of people immediately began organizing fundraisers for the victims' families and that included Charleston's F&B community. Just days after the shooting, Charleston Grill GM Mickey Bakst announced one such event, A Community United. More than 50 restaurateurs and dozens of beverage purveyors donated their food, drinks, and time, and helped the event raise over $500K. It was a brilliant reminder that when words are not enough, food can bring us all to a common table.
Not to belabor the point, but like we said, there were some harsh realities we had to face this year. One of those was the fact that by last spring we realized Charleston was losing Gullah restaurants. Six closed in the span of 12 months and that included institutions like Gullah Cuisine, a long-time favorite in Mt. Pleasant. So we dedicated our entire summer Dish issue to Gullah and Geechee eats, and we hope the stories will continue to encourage people to visit the remaining spots, places like Bertha's, Hannibal's Kitchen, Nana's Seafood and Soul, and Buckshot's Carry-Out. Go try them out. No reservations are needed.
In better news, this year saw the arrival of not one but two James Beard awards to Charleston. Following a disappointing 2014 Beard season — Sean Brock lost Outstanding Chef to Nancy Silverton of Pizzeria Mozza in Los Angeles and FIG lost Outstanding Wine Program to The Barn at Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tenn. — Charleston took home two awards in 2015. Brock's hugely successful Heritage cookbook won the American Cooking category, but the highlight of the Beards was when Jason Stanhope, executive chef of FIG, won Best Chef: Southeast. Sure we were glad a hometown took the prize, but honestly it was even better to see the award go to not just a deserving chef, but to an all-around nice guy. Plus, his win allowed us to say we'd eaten mealworm wontons made by a Beard award winner.
You know a city is hot for something when they're willing to wait in 100+ degree heat to get it. Such was the case with John Lewis's summer-long Saturday barbecue pop-up at Revelry Brewing. At the height of July's heat, meat-craving Charlestonians cued for upwards of an hour and half to get their hands on the barbecue boss's brisket and Texas hot guts sausage. Luckily they had the brewery's Lean or Fat? English pale mild ale to cool them down. Lewis tells us his official Charleston home, Lewis Barbecue, will be opening this spring. Until then, memories of your summer meat sweats will have to keep you sated.
Food talk inevitably revolves around Upper King these days, but East Bay attempted to steal the spotlight this year. First Bill Hall, Sr., owner of Halls Chophouse and Rita's, inked a deal with Dick Elliott to buy his Maverick Southern Kitchens portfolio. Suddenly Slightly North of Broad, High Cotton of Charleston, High Cotton of Greenville (now becoming Halls Chophouse Greenville), and Old Village Post House came under the Hall umbrella. Then, continuing the shake up, 5Church opened at Market and East Bay, Minero moved upstairs, and, as we all know, Wet Willie's closed (it's being replaced by a Southern restaurant from Stars & Amen Street owner Keith Jones). As many a business owner told us, not only is East Bay still viable, it remains a hot spot for restaurateurs and investors.
Remember that time Anthony Bourdain came to Charleston and we breathlessly tracked his whereabouts? Yeah, well, in October we learned what his Sean Brock/Bill Murray bro-fest was all about it: Parts Unknown: Charleston. Turned out the show wasn't half bad. In fact, we'd argue it vindicated the snarky TV host's 2007 No Reservation's sins. Bourdain hit all the high notes: there was boozing at The Griffon, a Waffle House epiphany, a Murray cameo at Husk, an appearance by Chef BJ Dennis, and enough bourbon to make even the Brown Water Society folks ill. Bourdain summed up his Holy City adventure by concluding that "Charleston is a special place." We couldn't agree more and we're glad he got it right.
Finally, in our Winter Dish issue Robert Moss announced his retirement as a City Paper restaurant critic. For seven years Moss helped Charlestonians determine where to dine. From pronouncing The Ordinary the "quintessential Lowcountry oyster bar" to navigating the world of "bastard burgers," for many his word was law when it came to eating in this city and we were all better educated diners because of him. But it wasn't all posh plates and free meals for Moss. During his tenure, he discovered that many of the places he went to sucked. Therefore his credo became: "I eat this stuff so you don't have to." So here's to you, Moss. Thanks for handling all that heartburn on our behalf.