The five French restaurants which this year have opened in and around Charleston may vary in ambiance and menu specifics. But all five of them emphasize the same kind of accessible, down-to-earth cooking: On any given night, at least three of the restaurants are plating up frites.
Philippe Million had a very different notion of French cookery in mind when, in 1983, he opened Philippe Million Taverne Historique at 2 Unity Alley, the address now associated with McCrady's. The French chef had already earned two Michelin stars for his restaurant in the French Alps when Charleston's Chi Xuan Diep, a frequent customer, persuaded him to open here.
Charleston's first authentically French restaurant was initially a financial and critical flop. "We could have surrendered to temptation and given people only what they wanted," opening chef Jose DeAnacleto later told The News and Courier, recalling the two debut years in which the restaurant "lost considerable money." But they didn't.
The restaurant's unwillingness to bend to local expectations resulted in a scathing review from the late Frank Jarrell, which doesn't still exist in the newspaper's clippings file. But reaction from sophisticated diners from as far away as Detroit torched the letters-to-the-editor page: Readers accused the critic of getting up "on the wrong side of the gustatorial bed" and having "an idea of fine cooking confined to sirloin steak, calabash and fried chicken."
Two years later, around the time that the restaurant received a prestigious "Relais Gourmad" rating from Relais et Chateaux, the newspaper dispatched an assistant features editor for a six-course meal that started with duck pate and concluded with chocolate mousse. ("Although the menu said choice of dessert, the maître d' said he liked to surprise people, presenting each one at the table with something different," according to the writer's diplomatic description of service tactics that likely alienated the sirloin steak crowd.)
The re-reviewer was disappointed by the pace of coffee service, but was impressed by the way waiters whisked silver cloches off the entree plates "in unison, saying 'Voila!'" and discreetly appeared to light guests' cigarettes. "Definitely worth a visit," she wrote.
In 1988, DeAnacleto purchased the restaurant, then known as Restaurant Million. Under his ownership, the restaurant continued to draw national acclaim: The Chicago Tribune praised its "sliced, lightly cooked scallops with beluga caviar."
Even Jarrell came around, awarding three and a half stars to a menu featuring goose liver, braised veal sweetbread with morels and roasted pigeon in 1990, when Frank Lee (Maverick Southern Kitchens) was serving as sous chef. In 1994, Frank McMahon (Hank's Seafood Restaurant, Brasserie Gigi) was hired as executive chef.
But over the following years, Restaurant Million had to contend with more fine-dining competition. In 1998, 82 Queen's Steve Kish told The Post and Courier that Charleston couldn't handle one more restaurant. "Indeed, an array of recent high-end arrivals - Peninsula Grill, Sonoma Winebar & Cafe, Charleston Chops, Robert's and Louis's - now vie for the city's fine-dining clientele with swanky stalwarts such as Anson, Magnolias, Carolinas, Saracen, Restaurant Million and Charleston Grill," John McDermott reported.
Within two years, Restaurant Million was closed.
"Restaurant owners in Charleston remember the fate of Philippe Million, perhaps the finest local restaurant in memory," The New York Times' William Grimes reflected in a 2000 overview of Charleston restaurants. "The owner, a French-trained chef, ran the place along formal French lines, and he succeeded in emptying out his dining room in record time. People in Charleston wanted good food, but they also wanted a good time. Part of having a good time is the luxurious sense of ease - good manners with a little room for sprawl - implicit in Southern hospitality."