Neon Tiger is John Adamson's newest project, a moody and mysterious upper King Street spot that has him focusing on growing the vegan food community in Charleston after making a name for himself with engaging restaurant design at popular Charleston destinations like The Rarebit.
Opening an entirely plant-based restaurant and cocktail bar is more than just a business endeavor for Adamson, who previously owned The Rarebit along with The Americano, a Cuban-themed Mount Pleasant eatery that closed in 2017. According to the restaurateur, he spent most of his life as a meat-eating American until 2017 when he first experienced what vegans call "making the connection" between animals and the meat on your plate.
"I had never even considered any form of veganism or vegetarianism before I made the connection, but once I did, I instantly went vegan," Adamson said. "And, I also simultaneously became an activist."
This newly found calling to advocate for veganism, a diet that avoids animal-derived food and products tested on animals, is driving the cuisine at Neon Tiger. Look for an entirely vegan cocktail menu paired with an innovative assortment of dishes created by Toronto-based chef Doug McNish who has worked on vegan menus at restaurants in Canada, the United States, Europe and Australia. Currently, the restaurant is operating with limited offerings featuring pizzas, sides and salads while McNish is stuck in Canada due to COVID-19. But in the coming months, the full menu is set to have vegan versions of pasta, tacos, burgers, crab cakes, mac and cheese and desserts.
An early favorite has been the fried "shrimp" made from konjac, a high-fiber herb that grows in parts of Asia. Pizzas are made using non-GMO flour and topped with an assortment of vegetables and proteins like crispy soy bacon and seitan pepperoni.
"Making vegan meat substitutes is really about the texture and the flavors," Adamson said. "Now, we can replicate the texture and we can absolutely replicate the flavor."
"I was so excited about this place as a consumer," said Neon Tiger general manager Isabelle Maloney. "Because there isn't a place in Charleston where you can go and not have to wonder if the bartenders are using egg whites or Worcestershire. To be able to come in as a vegan, vegetarian or just someone who's curious and know that you can pick off the entire menu is really exciting."
Adamson's plans for Neon Tiger's local footprint are lofty, as he hopes the restaurant can be more than just a place to go for healthy, delicious cuisine and cocktails. Currently, he is in the process of getting the restaurant classified as a B Corporation, which would make it one of only three in South Carolina. B Corps are part regular corporation and part nonprofit, keeping consumers informed about the way the business spends its money.
Adamson will start by contributing a percentage of profits to the Agriculture Fairness Alliance, an organization working to give the vegan community a voice in debates over agricultural policy.
Adamson says the impact of animal agriculture on the world's oceans inspired Neon Tiger's eclectic decor. The dark colors, retro futuristic murals and eye-catching plant wall are all meant to depict what the world might look like in 2048 — the year when some experts believe oceans will be dead due to pollution and climate change.
"Neon Tiger is supposed to be a glitch in the matrix," Adamson said.
The current menu is just a small taste of what Neon Tiger plans to offer, and Adamson hopes Charleston can catch up to other cities with a strong vegan presence. Unlike cities which boast dozens of vegan restaurants — Toronto, Los Angeles and New York City — Charleston has very few all-vegan options.
"The vegan community is growing every day," said Maloney. "And, in terms of other cities, I think Charleston is very behind especially for being such a culinary destination and a food and bev town."
Adamson and Maloney hope to clear the way for more vegan restaurants as Charlestonians begin to venture into Neon Tiger for a piña colada with oat milk or an old fashioned with date syrup and stay for a bite of something delicious.
For the time being, the restaurant is only open for takeout 5-9 p.m., but follow @neon_tiger_ on Instagram to get the scoop on the dining room's opening date and expanded menu.