The big blue mural on the side of the tall pink building at the corner of Rutledge and Cannon has become one of the iconic images of Charleston. The mural features a white-clad waitress holding a tray with a steaming bowl in her hands. She says, "Grits are good for you." And at Hominy Grill, the site of the iconic artwork, grits most certainly are. The restaurant's owner-chef Robert Stehling was mentored by the legendary Bill Neal at Crook's Corner in Chapel Hill, N.C., and he spent a couple of years after that up in New York City. When Stehling's wife, Nunnally Kersh, was recruited to Charleston to become the producer for the Spoleto Festival in 1996, they came back to the South and opened Hominy Grill. Fourteen years later, it remains one of Charleston's signature restaurants.
Stehling's stature in the Southern culinary world was cemented in 2008, when he won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast. It was a surprising choice, since Hominy Grill, a neighborhood place that serves bacon, eggs, and grits for breakfast, is a far cry from the fine dining restaurants whose chefs have traditionally taken the award. But it was an indication that the time for taking traditional Southern food seriously had arrived.
At breakfast, many of the items are the kind of thing you'll find in your regular neighborhood restaurant breakfast, but just a little bit better. The country breakfast has two eggs with grits and toast ($6.50), and for an extra $1.75 you can add double-cut bacon or Stehling's housemade pork sausage. It's a basic breakfast, but the toast is on good, broad white bread and the grits are stone-ground with a wholesome corn flavor. For his sausage, Stehling grinds Boston butt with red pepper flakes, black peppercorns, and plenty of sage, which gives it a wonderfully rich flavor. Unfortunately, it's a bit on the dry side, which Stehling himself has noted, explaining that today's ultra-lean hogs just don't have enough fat content.
Hominy Grill is famous for its shrimp and grits ($14), which are made from white stone-ground cornmeal with cheddar, parmesan, and butter stirred in. The shrimp are local and fresh, sautéed with bacon, mushroom, garlic, and green onions. It's one of the simpler versions of the dish around town, and its recipe lets the flavor of the grits come through. The grits are cooked in water, not cream or stock, and the modest amount of cheese complements rather than overshadows the clean, hearty flavor of stone-ground corn.
If you're into wanton excess, Hominy can take care of you, too, with the Big Nasty Biscuit ($7.25). That's a deep-fried chicken breast stuffed inside a tall, fluffy biscuit and completely drowned in cheddar cheese and white sausage gravy dotted with diced red pepper. Stehling has published a lot of his Hominy Grill recipes (you can find some for free on their website and order 20 more in a slim book), but he's keeping the Big Nasty to himself. As the Hominy Grill Facebook page explains, "It's one of those things best experienced at Hominy ... it's pretty labor-intensive not to mention you'd have a heart attack seeing all the butter involved."
The shrimp and grits and the Big Nasty put Hominy on almost everyone's "best-breakfast/brunch in Charleston" list, but for me the dinner menu is where the food really shines. It's served starting at 11:30 a.m. on weekdays, since, as Southerners know, dinner is properly eaten midday, not at night.
Each table gets a small paper tray of warm boiled peanuts to start things off, but for a more dramatic beginning, try the picnic sampler ($8). The okra pickles are sharp and tangy, while the quartered pickled egg — despite its violet color — has a mild, subtle flavor from the beet juice in which it's pickled. The scoop of bright-orange pimento cheese is one of the best versions in town, but most remarkable is the thinly sliced smoked country ham, a genuine, old-school product with a deep mahogany color and a complex, nutty flavor. It's every bit the equal of the best imported prosciutto and a testament that, in its traditional form, Southern cookery is one of the world's great cuisines.
The printed menu has a generous selection of appetizers, sandwiches, and "main plates," but the real action is on the big black chalkboards full of specials: seven or eight entrées a day and up to 20 vegetables. A firm believer in fresh, seasonal produce, Stehling's offering rotates constantly, and this time of year there are so many tempting items to choose from it's almost maddening. The Hominy Grill website proudly announces, "We don't open any cans here," and you can taste it. The vegetable plates give you a choice of three ($7.95) or four ($9.50) along with a big wedge of white cornbread, and you can easily make a meal with just the side dishes. They range from the simple (like greens and red field peas) to the not-really-a-vegetable (like macaroni in a creamy white cheese sauce and deep fried cheese grits). The potato salad, with a light dressing, chives, and green onion, is a cool summer accompaniment for a sandwich. Even something as simple as applesauce is made delightful in Stehling's hands: sweet with brown sugar and a little cinnamon.
Fresh local fish always feature prominently on the chalkboard, and it's a great way to try some of the less-common but sustainable local varieties. On my last visit, there was grilled wahoo with roasted summer corn ($18.95) and cornmeal-crusted porgy with a crab and tomato sauce ($17.95) along with the more common fried flounder ($19).
Hominy's house specialties include several old-time dishes served over rice, including shrimp creole ($16) and country captain ($14) with sautéed chicken breast in a tomato curry sauce. Most chefs shy away from rice, since it doesn't hold up well in a high volume kitchen, but Stehling pulls it off somehow. And Hominy Grill is one of the few restaurants anywhere that serves the true classic of Lowcountry rice cookery: purloo. A dish of rice simmered in aromatic broth, it dates back to the earliest days of rice culture in Charleston. Stehling's version ($16) is definitely a modern variation, but it's delicious. The rice is cooked with bits of sausage and green pepper, which imbue it with a rich, savory flavor. It's served over a pool of bright orange sauce and topped with three fried shrimp and three barbecued chicken wings. Two hundred years ago, the shrimp would have been cooked right in the pot with the rice, and the barbecue chicken wings are a completely modern but impressive innovation. The shrimp are super fresh and flavorful, battered in a very light and crispy batter. The wings are so smoky and delightful you'll gnaw every last scrap off the bone.
Hominy Grill's buttermilk pie is the signature dessert, and it's easy to see why. An uptown version of the classic chess pie, the lemon-tinged custard is baked in a flaky pie shell and topped with a big swirl of fresh whipped cream. The texture is creamy and luxurious with just a hint of lemon and nutmeg, a perfect finish to a big Southern meal.
I do have one complaint about Hominy Grill: way too many people know about it. You can only make reservations for nighttime meals, so a considerable line can form out on the sidewalk during the day, particularly on the weekends. The restored 19th century barbershop, with its white bead-board and painted punched-tin ceiling, is a beautiful setting. Unfortunately, it's also rather small, and the room can get cramped and loud, and — since there's no waiting area — dining near the front of the restaurant can be warm and disrupted by the constant stream of hungry people bustling in the squeaky front door.
None of this would be a problem if we had managed to keep Hominy Grill a secret and not let all those Yankee journalists publish stories about Stehling (he's been featured in The New York Times more than a dozen times). And it might serve to keep us locals away, except that the food's so damned good.
Ultimately, Hominy Grill provides a tempting glimpse of what dining in the South might have been like before the industrialization of food and modern transportation networks took us far from our contact with gardens and pastures. If you're looking to sample good, honest, traditional Southern cooking, Hominy Grill is a must.