We've looked to Charleston's near past to assess where we were then in terms of eating and drinking in the city and how we got where we are today. Now it seems only fitting that we should swivel around and peer 15 years out in the future and see what things might look like in 2029.
Let's start by considering the direction in which we are heading to gauge where our current momentum might take us. It's clear now that the New New Southern mode of dining — the locally focused, ingredient-centric cooking characterized by such restaurants as Husk, the Macintosh, and the Grocery — has crested. The opening of Edmund's Oast, in fact, may have marked the last shot out of the cannon, rolling together all the elements that have characterized cutting-edge Charleston dining in the past five years — local ingredients, whole-animal charcuterie, excellent craft beer, inventive cocktails — into a sensory overload of intensely flavored eating.
The latest wave of restaurant openings suggests a continued move away from formality and toward the casual. The center of attention is shifting further up King Street past the Crosstown and filtering out into the Cannonborough and Wraggborough neighborhoods, where aspirants are converting all manner of small buildings and houses into restaurants and coffee shops. Most of them are basing their menus around the most humble of foods, too.
When Brooks Reitz stepped down as general manager of the Ordinary, perhaps the flashiest high-end seafood house in the South, to open his own place, he went in a decidedly different direction, Leon's Oyster Shop, slinging fried chicken and shucking oysters on the half-shell. For dessert? No chocolate ganache or panna cotta to be found, just old-school soft-serve vanilla ice cream in a cone.
Robert Stehling of Hominy Grill also has a new poultry-centered venture in the works, a fried chicken shack he plans to name Chickenland. Queen Street Hospitality Group, which runs 82 Queen and Lowcountry Bistro downtown, headed out to West Ashley for their latest venture, and it's more casual in nature, too: a barbecue joint called Swig & Swine.
In making such downscale moves, restaurateurs are turning their backs on formal settings as well as the strictures of the hyper-Southern, farm-to-table aesthetic. Local photographer Paul Cheney is teaming up with Marguerite Chalmers to create West Side Deli, which should open this fall, and they took their inspiration from New York bodegas. "We hope to help reclaim a little normalcy in the dining scene," Cheney stated in a Facebook post announcing the venture. "A lil bit of a 'back to the basics' mentality. One of the owner/operators works on a farm now, but we will not be farm-to-table-marketed!"
And then there's Sean Brock, Charleston's world-acclaimed super chef. Now that he's finished getting Husk Nashville up and running, where is he turning his attention next? A taco joint. Or, to be more precise, a casual restaurant serving food inspired by the cuisine of Mexico. When he dropped a hint about the new place to a writer for the James Beard Foundation blog, Brock noted, "It's going to be small, extremely fun, and even more affordable. No more serious restaurants for me."
I don't think any of this means that chefs and diners are actually going to stop taking food seriously. They're just going to start taking different kinds of food seriously. What seems to be happening, in fact, is that restaurateurs are picking out their own thing, drawing a very limited circumference around it, and focusing on doing that one thing really well.
The menu of the new Palace Hotel is built around hot dogs, and what dogs they are: topped with char siu glaze and kimchi or with beet relish, tandoori mustard, and pickled chicken peas. Callie's Hot Little Biscuit has a little menu built around, you guessed it, little biscuits. At Boxcar Betty's on Savannah Highway, the proprietors declare, "We focused on only one item, the fried chicken sandwich, and we think we mastered it."
Sean Brock may never open a "serious" restaurant again, but does anyone really think he isn't going to be relentlessly obsessive about the quality and creativity of ingredients that go into his Mexican street food?
Amid all these new openings, we've seen the departure of some old favorites. In the six months since the last issue of Dish, two mainstays of Charleston dining closed their doors, and they were high-end, large format places: Carolina's and Tristan. (Notably, Jill Mathias, the executive chef at Carolinas, struck out with some partners to open Chez Nous, a casual French- and Italian-themed restaurant in a tiny Cannonborough courtyard with a slim handwritten menu of just two appetizers and two entrees a day.)
Fried chicken, oysters, and tacos, menus you can fit on a postcard — is this the future of dining in Charleston? Perhaps for a few years. But if you're looking out a decade and a half, there's a lot of runway for trends and countertrends to come and go. I seriously doubt that in 2029 everyone will be taking their dates to eat Korean barbecue tacos and spicy chicken biscuits.
Formality won't remain passe forever. We've already got food critics trolling around town with decibel meters, capturing diners' increasing discomfort with the extraordinary loudness of our hottest new restaurants. And surely diners will start demanding relief for their poor backs soon. High-top tables with angular, gleaming metal stools and booths made of polished wood look great in pre-opening press photos, but they're murder on your spine.
We'll spend some time getting back to the basics, exploring the essential qualities of a range of cuisines from all over the world, and doing just one or two things and doing them really well. And then, at some point, we'll be ready for something different, something more, and something much larger in scale.
We'll want our big nights on the town to make us feel pampered again, and those in the know will decry how the hipsters drove all the luxury out of life. Open kitchens, exposed brick walls, bars right out in the middle of the action? So 2014. Dining rooms will return to elegant affairs, the clash and din of a big Friday night supplanted by the tinkling of crystal, the clink of real silverware on china, the low murmur of conversation. The maitre'd will greet us by name, the servers will whisk away crumbs between courses with silver sweepers, and they'll fold our napkins when we get up to visit the restroom.
Just as classic cocktails came back around, so will French and Italian wines. The new generation of hipsters will know the difference between the 2023 Châteauneuf-du-Pape and the 2024 (the 2023 is quite extraordinary, the 2024 simply appalling). As for ordering an IPA or a saison at a nice dinner? Well, that's the kind of thing your lame Dad would do.
Beards will be out. Tattoos will be something associated with old people. The hot new chefs in town will be clean-shaven and have arms as pristine as a baby's bottom.
And as for those chefs and the food they'll serve on the best china, I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that the people who today do much of the actual work in kitchens — the dishwashers, prep and line cooks — will move to the front and center, and in the highest of the high-end places, too.
Already people are starting to ask why it seems that only an Anglo chef can take "ethnic" dishes and sell them as fine dining. Although the kitchens in Charleston and across the country are largely staffed by African-Americans, Latino-Americans, and Asian-Americans, with a notable few exceptions, such workers have had two primary tracks in the industry: stay in the background as an employee in fine-dining restaurants or operate on your own in the rather rigid genre of ethnic or "soul food" places.
I don't think this division can last forever, and seems likely that the next generation of culinary superstars will be drawn from different parts of the population. And, as a generation of chefs did two decades ago when creating the "New Southern" cuisine, it seems quite possible that they will draw upon the culinary traditions of their families and combine them with the formal techniques learned in culinary schools and upscale kitchens to create a vibrant, energetic new mode of internationally-inspired fine dining.
Sophisticated food from Mexico, Honduras, Vietnam, and even the American South — fifteen years from now, that's what my kids will be eating when they take dates out for a big night on the town (And, that's a sobering thought: my kids on dates.) And they'll be wearing jackets and ties and ordering fine bottles of wine when they do.
You heard it here first.