When it comes to the stars of the Holy City's culinary scene, you may not instantly recognize the name David Thompson, but chances are you've eaten in one of his restaurants: FIG, The Grocery, Butcher & Bee, The Belmont, Indaco, The Ordinary, Craftsmen Kitchen & Tap House, The Daily, Artisan Meat Share, to name but a few. And next up: the transformation of the two-story southern wing of The Cigar Factory on East Bay into an 8,000-square-foot gourmet market and exposition kitchen and bar called Mercantile & Mash opening this summer.
Earlier this year, Thompson sat down to fill us in on what it takes to get a restaurant up and running. We walked away with these 10 nuggets of wisdom:
Prior to 2002, Thompson had been designing shopping centers, schools, residences, and museums. But then he began working for Reggie Gibson, an architect whose portfolio included McCrady's, Coast, Rue de Jean, and Hank's. For years, Gibson had been helping Mike Lata and Adam Nemirow select the right property for their flagship venture, FIG. After they settled on the corner of Hasell and King, Gibson handed off designing the restaurant to Thompson, offering advice as needed.
"I worked with Reggie for eight years, and we were partners for the last two," says Thompson. "By the time I left, I was running most of the restaurant jobs." When he branched out on his own in 2010, Thompson received a fair share of press, which made him uneasy. "It didn't feel totally warranted because I feel like there's someone before me that was doing it bigger and better. I never did anything that was without [Gibson] being involved. You have to be reverential. You don't take ownership for stuff you did as a partner."
For Thompson, Charleston is full of ghosts — the spirits of fully designed restaurants that never came into being. "If you saw the stacks of drawings that get done for restaurants in this town that never open ... " Thompson pauses. Of the 60-some restaurants and bars that Thompson has worked on, only about half ever come to life. "It's kind of heartbreaking," he says. "Some of my favorite designs, we talk about as if they're real, but they never materialized. For example, I designed two different restaurants where Union Provisions is now. The wheels go in motion a long time before a restaurant opens."
Once a deal is set, Thompson enters what he calls the "exploratory demolition" phase. Like the peeling of an onion, false ceilings are ripped out, walls removed, floorboards lifted. "It's amazing the kind of stuff you can find if you just strip away a bunch of junk," he says. "Sometimes you uncover something beautiful, sometimes you uncover a lot of problems." At Craftsmen Kitchen & Tap House his team discovered that water pools in the basement at high tide. "I was standing on the beams where the floor boards had been, and you could see the tide coming in and out," Thompson says. "When you see that, you remember where you're working, how old it is, what the history of it is, how fragile it is. Pretty amazing."
The steel plates surrounding the old bank vault at The Ordinary were stacked outside for about five months. They rusted. When Thompson saw the naturally weathered metal, he got an idea. Why not wrap the face of the bar with this authentic piece of the building's history? "It's something you might not even notice, but the face of the bar is probably the prettiest thing in The Ordinary," Thompson says. "It's gorgeous. All the old bolts are there, with graffiti that was torched onto the surface by the original welders. I hope that, at some point, the bartender or the oyster shucker will hear the story and they'll tell someone about it, and they'll tell someone. Storytelling builds into it."
It just so happens Charleston has an army of artists and craftsmen ready to kick any design up a notch. Thompson draws from a number of talents for signature touches, such as Peyton Avrett for custom lighting and furniture, Peyton's father Rick for ironwork, Charles Thornburg for booths and banquettes, Mike Moran for tabletops. "How you make something authentic to where you live is having people that live there make it. If you can just get an owner to accept that it's going to be harder, take longer, and cost more, and that it's going to be worth it, that's a big deal. You almost always will get something great out of it," Thompson says.
"A whole restaurant project is a year, from pencil to opening," Thompson explains. "So it's intense, exciting, never dull, never stagnant. I like being a little bit nervous, a little bit under the gun. A lot of people aren't suited for that. I enjoy it."
Part of being a great restaurant architect is knowing when to stop. "I like the idea that when we're done with a restaurant, it's not done. Restaurants can be over-designed. It starts to feel a little like a stage set, everything's so perfect and precious. To me that doesn't feel right," he says. "A restaurant, if it works, becomes this sort of institution if it's not perfect. It gets beat up, but it gets beat up well. It's got to be able to age right. I think our job is done well when it can age gracefully, and when the owner can bring his own thing to it, make it theirs."
Kitchen work is something that sets Thompson apart from many architects who do restaurants. "I think that's one of the big things I learned from Reggie," he says. "A lot of restaurant designers stop their drawings at the kitchen door, then the kitchen staff deals with the equipment provider and there are a lot of gaps. The hardest part of the job is not pretty. How the dishwasher works, how servers work, how you bus, where you store the extra ingredients. Most people only see the pretty dining room, cool bathrooms, the bar. But we do the whole thing."
Thompson feels the city needs to readdress its permitting process. "In Charleston, we are probably 10 to 15 years behind other like-sized cities in terms of technology for the permitting, and that equates to both time and cost. Here, we've got individual permitting agencies such as the BAR, zoning, health department, water, fire, and building inspections, none of which are under the same umbrella. All of these people have different requirements, different formats, different time tables, different sequences in which they need to see your project. In any other city, you make one submittal online, and everybody gets its. Not only do we have to do paper here, but architects are required to physically sign every page on a set of documents, so when we do a set of drawings for a restaurant, that's 78 pages of drawings times three copies, and every page must be signed," he says. "I don't know what it's costing the city in terms of lost business opportunities, but plenty of people choose to locate restaurants outside of Charleston based solely on permitting. I know that I'm not the only architect or realtor or contractor or developer that's talked to the individual heads of various permitting agencies to discuss these problems. None of them individually are in a position to be able to fix it. It's how you tie all of their houses together, provide the manpower, and upgrade the software."
Growing up in the suburbs of Washington D.C., going out to eat was always a celebration for Thompson's family. "I view restaurants pretty deeply. They're not about fashion or trends. They're about important memories," Thompson says. "My most important moments as a kid have a meal or restaurant associated with them. So I love restaurants, but think they're also important culturally. So many people go through their doors and interact and have meaningful experiences. Working in a small office, I'm probably never going to do a museum, or library, or civic building of any size, so for me, doing restaurants is as close as I'm going to get to a building that will reach a lot of people."
On Fri. March 6 at 7 p.m. David Thompson will speak at Charleston Wine + Food Festival's Pecha Kucha + Wine + Food event. Tickets are $40 and may be purchased at charlestonwineandfood.com.