The last time Brett McKee had a restaurant on James Island it was located in a former lawn and garden space on Maybank Highway (now Mustard Seed), a spot that nobody thought would be any good. But he had a successful seven-year run there with Brett's Restaurant, which had an Italian menu and plenty of fans from Kiawah, Seabrook, and Johns Island who appreciated not having to drive all the way into town for serious food.
He left that venture to focus his energies on Oak Steakhouse, located on Broad Street, an area that's a bit off the beaten path when it comes to fine dining. He's since left Oak to concentrate on his Roadside Kitchens concept, opening a second location in Charlotte with others planned in Greenville and Nashville. But first, he's busy working on opening a new James Island location, which will be called Brett's Roadside Kitchen, a nod to his former place on Maybank.
This time around, he's taking over a cursed space on Folly Road that most recently housed Palmetto Ale House. Before that it was Necter and, before that, Brinson's Steakhouse. These previous entities didn't find much success, despite the experience of the restaurateurs behind them. But that doesn't worry McKee.
"I like going and finding locations that others find less desirable and making it a destination," he says, pointing to the outlying location of 17 North Roadside Kitchen at the far end of Mt. Pleasant as a prime example. In Charlotte, they put 15 North Roadside Kitchen in a busier, more high profile location, and McKee is careful to say that it's been a bit more difficult for them there.
"Charlotte is harder; it's successful, but we're in this area where everybody is," he says.
It seems to be a classic case of supply and demand. The affluent 'burbs are generally stuck with the big chains (just look at Towne Centre for an example) and few unique dining experiences. In Mt. P, 17 North's sprawling patio with its firepit and complimentary S'mores has become a de facto gathering place for surrounding residents. Parents can come and hang out, the kids can get up and move around, and everyone's happy eating a menu of comfort dishes that range from hamburgers and fried chicken to smoked pork chops and eggplant parmesan.
McKee intends to replicate that model at his Folly Road location. The space itself is huge, with a large dining room, a big bar area, and a large back room that allows for even more seating. Even better, there's a garage door that opens to the patio area where there's plenty of room for tables and a firepit. Plus, there's already an outside bar.
To get the place ready to reopen by the end of April, McKee and his team, which includes new operations manager Chuck Isenberg, have repainted the walls a lighter color, removed the countless televisions, and ripped out the beer taps. Artwork, including a mural by local graffiti artist Sheepman, will soon appear on the walls.
The menu was finalized this week. McKee's Roadside Kitchen concept relies on social media and the surrounding community to set the taste standards. For instance, the large Jewish community in South Windermere will find matzo ball soup and potato latkes with smoked salmon on the menu. "We're trying to create food memories," says McKee. "Tell me a dish that is important to you and your family, and we'll make it a special." If it proves popular, it might even become a regular menu item.
McKee has also brought back some of the Italian dishes that he's known for on James Island: meatballs, penne a la vodka, eggplant parmesan, and lasagna. There's also some of the favorites from 17 North including fried chicken, smoked pork chops, and lobster mac and cheese. For Sunday brunch, the menu spans build-your-own omelets, steak benedict, shrimp and grits, corned beef hash, and housemade pancakes. As the menu evolves, 40 percent stays the same while the rest changes with the seasons and community preferences.
It's a concept McKee is very confident will find an audience on James Island. "This isn't some pretentious chef-driven concept. We ask the community, what do you want?" he says. "We're doing it together and making the community feel like it's their restaurant." Which should be good news for James Islanders, who have a very limited selection of restaurants to call their own.