Caretta, a 250-pound loggerhead turtle, swam behind Nate Whiting in the Deep Sea tank at the S.C. Aquarium, close enough to check out the Tristan chef's lobster and bone marrow tortelloni.
Down the hall, a mostly red fish with a bright gold tail sashayed past in the Reef Habitat as chef Michelle Weaver of Charleston Grill passed cups of an equally colorful seafood cocktail.
It was tough to choose between the main attractions -- the food or the fish -- at the Opening Night Party of the BB&T Charleston Wine + Food Festival on Thursday night. For the first time in its seven years, the festival moved the kickoff fete away from Marion Square. Organizers said they wanted to showcase more of Charleston and liven things up.
The change made a big splash. "It's beautiful. We've got a great view of the fish," Weaver said. "It's fresh, it's fun, and there's a good flow of people."
"I thought it was nice at the park but this is phenomenal," said chef Frank McMahon of Hank's Seafood Restaurant, who was serving tasty plates of swordfish across from another tank where very large red drum and crevalle jack fish had a captive audience.
Angela Hall of Charleston was juggling a plate of sushi in one hand and a wine glass in another. It was the fourth year she's attended the opening party, and she said it is her favorite of any and all Charleston events.
Hall applauded the new digs and the food, too. "It's a great setting and it shows our city off. I think it's the perfect venue. The chefs are putting out the best of the best."
There was a brief scare on the second floor about 45 minutes into the event. Guests heard a whoosh-pop sound, and some at first thought a tank might have broken or a Champagne bottle had burst.
Instead, it was the sound of a butane canister that overheated and exploded off a burner at the station of Husk restaurant. The canister narrowly missed hitting the head of Travis Grimes, the chef de cuisine, but whizzed past and ended up around the corner before apparently shattering someone's glass.
Members of the Husk staff said no one had ever seen that happen before. The hubbub died down within a few minutes and the party got back into full swing.
Downstairs, chef Marc Collins of Circa 1886 reflected on the success of the festival, which he helped found with Angel Postell in 2004. Postell eventually became the executive director.
"I expected it to do well," he said, but there was uncertainty with Charleston being a smaller market than some other cities with similar festivals. "Are they gonna come here? And they have."
Collins said he thought having the party at the aquarium was "awesome."
"Every year they (festival staff) try to think out of the box to make it fun. You don't want it to become stale."
About 20,000 people are expected to attend the 2012 festival, about 1,000 more than last year, according to communications director Ashley Zink. Events have grown in number from 70 to 75, and many sell out before festival week arrives.
Jacqueline Brewer, 57, of Fayetteville, N.C., came to the festival four years ago with one friend. This year she's back with a dozen, and the oldest is 92.
She and a group of wine aficionados used to be loyal to a Labor Day festival in Pinehurst, N.C. But Charleston changed their minds.
"The one here is so much more fun because it's so Charleston," said Brewer, who bought a two-day hotel and festival package through the King's Courtyard Inn. "Nobody does food like Charleston."
Other festivals might be higher on the glitz and glam scale, but that doesn't matter to Brewer.
"You're not Aspen yet but you're getting there. I think that's one of the things about Charleston. It's not about the celebrities, it's about the food and the wine."
Gretchen Fitting of Wilmington, Del., arrived in Charleston with a friend Thursday. Her five-day stay at the John Rutledge House Inn is chock-full of plans, including a Perfectly Paired Dinner tonight at Anson.
She is staying through the Lowcountry Gospel Brunch on Sunday and plans dinner at Husk that evening. In the past she has had to leave the brunch early for her return trip. But now, with the brunch being held at Lowndes Grove Plantation, she is eager to allow time to explore the grounds.
"We decided, oh the heck with it. We'll just stay over."
Anita Lo has never been to the festival or to Charleston. The chef-owner of Annisa in New York City and author of "Cooking Without Borders" was invited to participate in today's Taco Turf Wars and also book signings.
"I was so happy to come because we were actually talking bout coming down to Charleston just to eat. Then a week after I got the call."
This is the fifth year for Chris Hastings, chef of the nationally acclaimed Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham, Ala. He says Charleston's festival is different than most.
"I've done a bunch all over the country. The camaraderie is really extraordinary. ... There's very little diva stuff going on here, not a lot of high-maintenance chefs. Everybody is pretty laid back. I think all these visiting chefs kind of channel their Southern vibe."
Hastings arrived a little earlier than usual for this year's festival to get time to talk charcuterie with Cypress chef Craig Deihl. Hastings also will be cooking with chef Robert Stehling at Hominy Grill on Saturday night for a "Charleston Classics" dinner.
Hastings said he has seen the festival mature in good ways.
For one, having winemakers at each of the Perfectly Paired Dinners provided a new twist and strengthened them, he said.
Also, the festival reached out to chefs outside the South after the first year.
"I think it was a really, really smart move. A lot of chefs were curious and thrilled to come to the city and a great event. Angel made inroads with some big-time names in New York, out West and other parts of the country. It's really added some nice energy."
The opening ceremonies for the 2012 BB&T Charleston Wine + Food Festival will be 11-11:30 a.m. today in Marion Square. Admission is free.
To purchase tickets, go to www.charlestonwineandfood.com or Marion Square. Tickets are available today to the following events:
11:30 a.m.: Prestigious Producers of Friuli, McCrady's, $50. Noon-2 p.m.: Taco Turf Wars, Lowndes Grove Plantation, $100. 2-5 p.m.: Culinary Village and Grand Tasting Tents, Marion Square, $75. 2-5 p.m.: Shop, Sip & Savor on lower King Street, $50. 7 p.m.: Perfectly Paired Dinner at The Grocery, $175. 11 a.m.-2 p.m.: Culinary Village and Grand Tasting Tents, Marion Square, $100. 11 a.m.: Hendrick's Gin, a Deconstructive + Cocktalian Study, Palmer Campus of the Culinary Institute of Charleston, $55. 2 p.m.: Celebration of Krug tasting, High Cotton, $195. 3-6 p.m.: Culinary Village and Grand Tasting Tents, Marion Square, $100. 4-6 p.m.: Winemaker + Private Home Receptions, $100. 4-6 p.m.: Celebrity Authors Reception, Governor Thomas Bennett House, $50. 7 p.m.: Craft Beer Dinner at Closed 4 Business, $125.
1-4 p.m.: Culinary Village and Grand Tasting Tents, Marion Square, $75 or $70 (locals).
1-4 p.m.: Perimeter Pass, Marion Square, $25.