Changes are not always for the better, and one need look no further than the local restaurant scene to see that. Charleston lost much this fall.
Most notable was the tragic death of a pioneer, Mr. Tom Parsell, whose Hospitality Management Group's restaurants — Cypress, Magnolias, and Blossom — are favorites among natives and guests alike in the Holy City. Parsell and his superstar chef Donald Barickman have been instrumental in establishing Charleston's cuisine on the national stage.
Cypress' haute cuisine and "wall of wine" still rank among Charleston's most innovative offerings, gastronomic and architectural, even after years of peak operation. We spend our days and nights picking apart the efforts of people like Tom Parsell, worrying about the service, the lack of salt, or the thickness of the rims on the wine glasses (my own personal peeve), but tragedy transcends such things and brings the critics down to earth, out of our ivory towers and back to the people who make Charleston such a wonderful city in which to eat.
We also lost another pioneer in John Marshall, whose sale of Al di La and subsequent move to the Yadkin Valley of North Carolina left us particularly sad at the City Paper. Al di La has always been one of our favorite haunts, and thanks to the vision of its founder and his willingness to pass the baton to former employees Mark and Jillian Kohn, the place still reverberates with a similar if not entirely identical energy, and we still duck in regularly to get our late evening grappa fix. The gnocchi remain soft as feathers, the pasta still has that velvety touch, and the braised meats fall from the bone.
One of the promising stars of the scene, Cordavi, closed its doors — a testament to the difficulties of running a small restaurant start-up and perhaps prescient of things to come as the financial markets slow further and owners find slack demand. Rumors about town whisper that even some of the more well-funded ventures are in trouble, and we will be sad but not surprised to see more popular spots succumb to market forces.
In spite of the setbacks, the scene seems to be adapting, even going "underground," as with the new Guerrilla Cuisine dinners. Led by the ever-cutting-edge guys over at McCrady's, these dinners have popped up at unlikely places, funded through internet marketing and a diverse clientele wishing to do away with the pomp of downtown dining, and get down to the business of food — and nothing but the food. You bring your own wine, beer, or other beverage, pay a paltry sum (relative to a private dinner in a swank downtown spot), and dig into some of the most creative cuisine in the city.
We have also seen the rise of the quality mid-priced eatery, a relatively unknown animal in the beginning days of places like Al di La and Boulevard Diner. We now have a plethora of new, nicely affordable offerings: Monza, the new pizzeria on King Street; Fez, a fusion of North African and French on James Island; Fat Hen, a country French bistro on Johns Island. Such trends speak to tighter wallets and give a glimmer of hope to those who don't want to blow an entire month's dining budget at Charleston Grill, but refuse to eat greasy fried seafood platters and dried-out fried chicken shoulder to shoulder with the tourist throng.
I'm excited about this new year, about some new writers who will be joining the City Paper food team, about the new farm that Sean Brock is busily preparing for a spring harvest, the forthcoming opening of another Pearlz raw bar in Avondale, the homespun creations of our own Sarah O'Kelley at the new Glass Onion in West Ashley, and many more Guerrilla Cuisine dinners among friends. I'm sad to see 2007 go, and all that went with it, but I'm overjoyed at what looms just over the horizon.