A two-legged goat named Toby is indirectly responsible for an all-vegan cocktail lounge slated to open on upper King Street this spring.
Charleston restaurateur John Adamson for 20 years has made a living from pepperoni pizzas, cheeseburgers and sausage scrambled eggs. But after he happened upon the popular Goats of Anarchy account on Instagram chronicling one woman’s efforts to rehabilitate goats with special needs, he decided he no longer wanted to be complicit in animal consumption.
“The suffering that goes into our food choices was not OK with me,” says Adamson, who briefly scaled back his meat intake to chicken before declaring himself vegan in October 2017.
“It was so not OK with me that I immediately became an activist, which was very confusing to people because I owned a restaurant that exploited animals,” he continues. “But I’m not going to waste a minute of trying to wake people up; I’m super passionate about helping animals and animal liberation, and my strength is designing restaurants.”
Before cutting ties with The Rarebit, Adamson helped to implement a vegan menu there. He’s since been focused on developing Neon Tiger, a full-service vegan bar and restaurant occupying the space which previously functioned as Juliet and the original location of Butcher & Bee.
According to Adamson, Neon Tiger, which was so named to draw attention to the animal extinction crisis, will serve as “an avenue to educate.”
“I’m not going to make your ears bleed,” Adamson says. “It’s going to be super welcoming. No one would know it was vegan unless you knew it was vegan.”
Still, Adamson says he’s looking forward to offering cooking classes and certifying the company as a B Corp, so it can formalize its commitment to countering planetary destruction.
“Veganism is ultimately fighting for everyone,” he says, adding that Neon Tiger won’t stock any canned or bottled beer.
Adamson says he would have converted The Rarebit to a vegan venue rather than starting anew but wasn’t in the financial position to risk alienating customers after losing $1.5 million on The Americano, a South Beach-themed restaurant he opened on Coleman Boulevard in 2014. Adamson attributes The Americano’s failure to “a classic example of going over budget.”
“We went like $500,000 over budget,” says Adamson, who admits he’s inclined to make his restaurants highly conceptual and insists on every decorative element aligning with his vision. “When you’re in the middle of something like that, you already have the money sunk, and it’s not like at any given point I was able to identify it would be $500,000.”
While a vegan restaurant set back from the street might not sound like a sure thing from an economic standpoint, Adamson says he has faith in his fellow vegans, who now constitute close to 1 percent of the nation’s eating population.
By that math, Adamson says, Charleston annually welcomes 70,000 hungry vegan visitors, many of whom are likely to make a beeline for Neon Tiger.
“From a viability point, I have absolutely zero concern,” he says.
At Neon Tiger, they’ll find a menu of pizza, burgers and fries put together by Adamson’s partner, chef Doug McNish. McNish, an activist from Toronto, has authored five vegan cookbooks.
As for the look of the restaurant, Adamson says it’s subtly themed around 2048. That’s the year “when our oceans are predicted to die from overfishing,” he explains. While the futuristic bent won’t be immediately apparent to patrons, just as diners at The Rarebit may not realize they’re within Adamson’s idea of a 1962 dog track, Adamson says they’re bound to pick up on his deep-seated opposition to animal, human and environmental suffering.
“I kind of just feel like I’m slowly breaking free from brainwashing,” he says. “Our compassion is stolen from us from the time we can stand; I will never be part of that again.”
Neon Tiger is aiming to open by March at the latest. Adamson declined to predict whether the restaurant will last until the year it intends to evoke, but predicted there will be many more restaurants like it by 2048.
"Assuming we even have restaurants at that point, and aren’t eating each other, I believe at that point we’ll understand what sustainability means," he says.