I began writing about food for the Charleston City Paper three years ago with a contribution to the Winter 2008 installment of Dish. Looking back at that issue, it now seems like I hopped aboard the train at just the right time.
The articles in that particular issue were unified in tone and theme in a way that they hadn't been before. Things were coming together in Charleston dining. We profiled how Anthony Gray was breaking down whole hogs with paring knives at High Cotton and how local chefs like Ken Vedrinksi and Nathan Thurston were growing their own vegetables to serve in their restaurants. We surveyed the growing list of chefs starting to use Carolina Gold Rice in everything from pilau to rice wafers, and we celebrated the increasing vogue of retro cocktails.
I had joined a team of food writers, led by the inimitable Jeff Allen, who were excited by what they were starting to see around town. For some time they had been lamenting the state of Charleston cuisine as "a modern Disneyland preserving the vestiges of a legacy that, without the saving grace of tourism, might have vanished altogether." Pioneers like Frank Lee and Louis Osteen had taken Lowcountry cooking upscale and put grits and cornbread on white tablecloths, but for too long it seemed as if we were coasting on that momentum. We had grown bored with shrimp and grits and she-crab soup and were ready for something more.
By the winter of 2008 it was clear that important changes were underway. Charleston Grill had reopened after a major renovation, bringing an overhauled four-panel menu that expanded the notions of what Charleston cuisine could be. High gravity beer had finally been approved by the state legislature, and COAST Brewing Co. had just opened its doors.
People were beginning to decide that being "fresh and local" was more important than "organic," and chefs were jumping on the bandwagon. Crew Carolina had just broken ground on a large farming project at Kensington Plantation. Sean Brock at McCrady's was having a hard time finding enough good local produce, so he rented a patch of land on Wadmalaw Island and started growing his own. Vedrinksi was raising herbs, eggplant, and limes in a half-acre plot behind his acclaimed Sienna Restaurant on Daniel Island. He was also gaining notice for serving locally caught, sustainable fish, though triggerfish and skate wing were still novelties in a market more comfortable with flounder and red snapper.
Small plates and wine bars had just enjoyed a period of vogue downtown, and Muse, La Fourchette, and Pane e Vino were still newcomers on the scene. At new mid-priced but high-quality restaurants, like the Fat Hen, the Glass Onion, and Bacco, chefs who earned their stripes at downtown restaurants were starting to take their passion for good food beyond the peninsula.
As 2008 opened, we were teetering on something of a brink, a city striving to move beyond its stereotypical cuisine and step up fully into the limelight.
There were obvious clouds on the horizon. The real estate market had ground almost to a halt, and banks had already started writing down big losses. By the start of 2008, the general economy was feeling the drain, and the Charleston restaurant industry had been pinched. Some notable places (like Cordavi) had already closed their doors and others seemed likely to follow.
But we were hopeful. While it seemed we still had a slow, gray period ahead, we were confident that the worst was behind us and, strengthened by a little belt tightening, new beginnings lay ahead.
So what have the three years since then brought?
For starters, they brought a crippling financial crisis and an economic downturn far worse than anyone but a few curmudgeonly pessimists saw coming. The initial reaction of our restaurateurs was to retrench and focus on the fundamentals. Mike Lata at FIG insisted that his team raise their standards for ingredients even higher and ensure that each and every plate that left the kitchen was perfect. When Vedrinksi left Sienna on Daniel Island and opened Trattoria Lucca on a not-so-tony corner of Bogard Street, it seemed somehow emblematic of what to expect for the foreseeable future: a return to simplicity, to more modest but pure and traditional things. We expected to have less but make the most of it.
But that's not what we got at all. Instead of less, we got more.
More restaurants. More good food. More diverse food. More choices for drinking, too. And even more notice and praise.
Some unfortunate top-notch establishments got caught in the economic thinning, but the economic woes mostly weeded out the marginal places.
Today, there's more good food on Upper King Street, both higher end — Halls Chophouse, O-Ku, Virginia's — and more moderate but funky too: Barsa and Closed for Business. Cork Bistro has joined Sesame and EVO, offering a few choice dining destinations in North Charleston's Park Circle. In Mt. Pleasant the scene has stepped up with Graze, Coleman Public House, Crave Kitchen and Cocktails, and Brett McKee's 17 North Roadside Kitchen enriching the scene.
That bounty of fresh local produce, fish, and meats that so encouraged us in 2008 seems to get larger each year. What was once a tiny outpost of small farmers on Johns and Wadmalaw Islands has been joined by more and more producers. Gary Thornhill (a partner in the Neighborhood Dining Group, which operates McCrady's, Husk, and Queen Anne's Revenge) launched an ambitious 100-acre effort with Thornhill Farm. Close to a dozen community supported agriculture (CSA) subscriptions now make tons of seasonal produce available to their members. And it's not just vegetables. Craig Deihl of Cypress launched the Artisan Meat Share, his own charcuterie-based form of CSA, while Jason Houser, formerly the chef at Muse, traded his toque for a butcher's coat to start Meathouse, a craft butcher venture.
Just a few short years ago, we were writing that "ethnic fare can be found in Charleston, you just have to hunt for it," and that meant ferreting out a Mexican grocery on Johns Island or a taco truck in North Chuck. It's a lot easier now. Dorchester Road has become something of an international food corridor, with Mexican seafood at Vallarta Grill, charcoal grilled chicken and Colombian treats at Pollo Tropical, and Bosnian (Bosnian!) at Café Europa. Genuine Cajun specialties can be had at Cherie's Specialty Meats in Hanahan and at Cajun Kountry Kitchen in North Charleston. Vietnamese pho is dished out amid skeeballs and whack-a-mole at Quyen/Party Kingdom on James Island. There's Japanese comfort food at Little Tokyo and Jamaican jerk spices on the old Navy Base at Runaway Bay. With the opening of Patat Spot Friet & Falafel, you can even sample Dutch street food downtown.
There are more good things to drink, too. Palmetto Brewing Company and Southend Brewery have been joined by new beer makers like Westbrook Brewing in Mt. Pleasant and the forthcoming Holy City Brewing. The Charleston Beer Exchange and Laura Alberts brought growlers to downtown tipplers and to Daniel Islanders, too. Bacco, Carolina's, Old Village Post House, and Social are just a few of the restaurants that have swapped the corkscrew for the bottle opener to host beer-themed dinners.
And, thank heavens, you can get real old-school cocktails in all sorts of places today. In 2008, our notion of "retro cocktails" were the bellini and the Singapore Sling. These days, you can try a Brown Derby or a grog from Brooks Reitz at FIG, a sidecar or Ward 8 at McCrady's, or a Monkey Gland or Corpse Reviver No. 2 at Husk. The Gin Joint, which was opened by Robert Dickson's daughter and son-in-law MariElena and Joe Raya in the old Robert's location, is an entire establishment devoted to recapturing the glory of pre-Prohibition tippling. At all of these spots and plenty of others (like Cypress and the Blind Tiger), you can have high-end bar snacks served with your classic cocktail, too.
Three years has also brought Charleston even more attention and recognition from the rest of the country. We used to make a big deal about a local star bringing home the James Beard Foundation's Best Chef Southeast award. After three successive wins — Robert Stehling of Hominy Grill in 2008, Mike Lata in 2009, and Sean Brock in 2010 — we're starting to just expect it. (I know, I know ... I'm jinxing it.) In 2008, we thought we were being brash and daring when we proposed that Charleston had eclipsed New Orleans as the Southern culinary capital. Now, writers from across the country make that point for us.
The long-awaited November opening of Husk, Sean Brock's new all-Southern restaurant, was in many ways symbolic of Charleston's full emergence upon the national culinary scene. Our best up-and-coming chefs used to go to Paris, Italy, and New York to "stage" (intern for free). Now, aspiring chefs are coming to Charleston specifically to learn our particular brand of high Southern cuisine.
Charleston has a distinctive culinary style, something special that you can't find anywhere else. It's a unique combination of history, Southern ingredients, and inventive energy, and it continues to evolve. The historical legacy of the plantation rice culture and the foodways it launched are the foundations of our local style, but they don't overwhelm or stifle it, and the inertial drag of antebellum nostalgia seems to fade each year.
For food lovers, it comes down to simply this: there's more to choose from, more to experience, more to talk about, and more to love. And I think the next three years will be very exciting indeed.