A significant moment in the city’s recent food-and-beverage history ended on Saturday night with a raucous wake for Bar Normandy, forced out of its Normandy Farms Bakery home because the landlord suspected its nightly annexation of the space was causing structural damage. The going-out-of-business party was as wild as promised, with customers singing into sex toys and passing around a porron of cider, sporadically tilted into other people’s gullets from recklessly high altitudes.
“He was the first,” one of owner Alex Lira’s devoted fans said between pours.
The man was apparently referring to the spate of scaled-down pop-ups that have taken over the dining scene since Lira opened in 2016. But Lira was also the first local chef in a long while to demonstrate that making good food and caring about guests is always a successful strategy. Never mind the rigmarole.
Rigmarole was the guiding principle of McCrady’s when it opened (one month after Bar Normandy) as a tasting menu counter. Then-executive chef Sean Brock sketched out the McCrady’s experience to the second, so even the best meals there felt like dispassionate exercises in fidelity.
Now, though, Brock is officially out of the picture, having severed ties with Neighborhood Dining Group this summer. And while he was almost never at McCrady’s, allowing the on-site cooks to fully claim the 10 courses they’re creating seems to have reinvigorated the restaurant. What looked like an end — since no format is more dependent on head chefs and the diners who fawn over them — was actually a beginning.
I ate at McCrady’s after stopping by the celebration at Bar Normandy, since its loyal customers ate almost everything in Lira’s inventory in the days leading up to the restaurant closing down, and nobody on Saturday night was in any shape to prepare what was left.
Outwardly, McCrady’s highly formalized service and exquisite glassware seemed like the total opposite of what Bar Normandy was offering just down the block. At McCrady’s, for example, the chefs weren’t wearing bathing suits.
Yet there was the tiniest hint of overlap in the way a 2017 J. Brix Chardonnay and the brown butter underlying a wedge of locally caught mahi vocalized the same pro-citrus message. McCrady’s has begun to appreciate the value of forging connections between wine and food; servers and guests; place and dishes. On Saturday night, the menu included a witty interpretation of garlic crab and an outstanding hoppin’ John made with flawless rice.
Is The Rare Wine Company’s Charleston Madeira, paired with a chocolate-and-sweet potato confection, a sop to tourists? Sure. But Saturday night marked my first time at McCrady’s that guests didn’t look uniformly somber. Maybe it helped that one of them was wearing a hot pink bachelorette sash.
In any case, whether at McCrady’s or the late Bar Normandy, connection is what Charleston restaurants do best. The Boston Globe’s Devra First recently published a deep dive into her city’s failure to win critics’ hearts, concluding in part that the problem is “it is not enough to simply be excellent anymore. To stand out, a restaurant must have a point of view. It needs to express something resonant, be it deeply personal, cultural, or both.”
Charleston is not especially good at reflection and deep thoughts in the dining room: Its forte is hospitality and fun, which is all about personal connections. I like to think it’s not a coincidence that the letter I swiped from Bar Normandy’s changeable letter board menu as a souvenir is a capital C.
If Charleston can stick to that script, its restaurants stand a chance of not being brought down by staffing shortages and rising rents. Years ago, when I talked to economists, historians and Realtors about the growth of the city’s restaurant scene, they agreed that once a city acquires a reputation as a dining destination, it usually maintains it. Even Lira has plans to cook here again.
All of them added a caveat, though. Their predictions for Charleston would be invalidated by a hurricane. By which they meant roads closed to tourists and dining rooms inundated with flood waters could devastate the food-and-beverage sector.
That remains true, but it might not take a storm of Hurricane Hugo’s magnitude to have the feared effect. As of this writing, Florence is supposed to reach South Carolina around Thursday evening. There are many downtown Charleston restaurants that can’t afford to lose a weekend’s worth of business, whether to an actual hurricane or an evacuation ordered in deference to a forecasted one.
There’s no telling what a hurricane will do. But as you stock up on bottled water and check the batteries in your flashlights, consider adding one more item to your list of Florence-readiness tasks: Go eat in a Charleston restaurant. That’s obviously a costlier proposition than clearing out your freezer, but it’s Restaurant Week! All it takes is $30 (plus taxes and tip) to show you care about the restaurants that, in Charleston tradition, have cared for you.