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Downtown Charleston restaurants turn to kitchen guest stars to make meals out feel special

Chasing Sage

Maxfield Clarke prepares sushi for a customer's order during dinner at Chasing Sage Saturday Jan. 16, 2021, in Charleston. Gavin McIntyre/ Staff

The Post and Courier Food section is checking in weekly with four downtown Charleston restaurants coping with the coronavirus pandemic and recovering from restrictions designed to contain it. For previous installments of the series, as well as more information about the four featured restaurants and their chosen strategies for success, click here.

Butcher & Bee: Working together

Even for people who feel comfortable eating in restaurants, meals have gotten a little lonelier since the start of a pandemic. Diners have to choose their companions from within compact social circles, and they can’t sidle up to strangers at the bar after eating.

That sense of isolation isn’t confined to the dining room. Especially in Charleston, where back-of-house crews tend to be as sociable as their guests out front, the forced hiatus of pop-ups, menu takeovers, visiting chef dinners and kitchen residencies has been felt acutely by restaurant employees.

But as COVID-era operations settle into more predictable rhythms, special events are creeping back on to restaurant calendars. Butcher & Bee, which has always prioritized collaboration, last week announced plans to host the creators of Rosalie’s Pizza every Wednesday, starting Feb. 10.

Butcher & Bee team members describe the six-week stint as another step toward normalcy.

“We’re giving them an opportunity to see what it’s like to run a restaurant,” general manager Drisa Lamb says, adding that the arrangement isn’t purely for Rosalie’s benefit: “Their pizzas are fire.”

Jeremy Williams and Leah Highfield launched their food truck just weeks before lockdown, which didn’t stop them from serving Sicilian-style meatless pies in parking lots; by the fall, they were making regular appearances at breweries and in subdivisions, winning over fans with their organic crusts and vegan cheese.

The milk-free mozzarella “coincides with what we do here,” Lamb says, so the decision to give the couple access to Butcher & Bee’s ovens was a relatively easy one. The plan is for them to serve three of their pizzas, while Butcher & Bee will offer complementary menu items, such as appetizers and dessert.

“We don’t open the doors without whipped feta,” chef Rick Ohlemacher says, making his co-workers laugh.

Williams and Highfield are just two of many Charleston area food entrepreneurs who used the weirdness of 2020 to their advantage, cultivating a loyal following of eaters willing to look beyond restaurants for culinary thrills.

While Butcher & Bee chief of staff Tara Pate says “we haven’t seen a bunch of inquiries coming in” from up-and-comers yet, she isn’t ruling out more collaborations with breakout stars: It’s nice to have company again.

Harold's Cabin: Doing the math

When The Post and Courier last checked in with Harold’s Cabin owner John Schumacher, he had just taken his first COVID test. The results are now in, and he’s fine.

At least, he tested negative for the coronavirus. But he didn’t shut down his westside restaurant for his health: He continues to worry about COVID’s toll on the community, particularly as last week’s vaccination updates morphed into what looked like an endless chain of hitches and glitches.

“Granted, it is the largest vaccination project in our country’s history, and will take some time to coordinate, but I’m not holding my breath it will happen anytime soon,” he says of the effort to vaccinate 3.5 million South Carolinians, “given the low side of 70 percent herd immunity.”

As of Friday, South Carolina had administered 146,219 vaccine doses.

In Schumacher’s mind, that’s nowhere near enough. But he hasn’t settled on a percentage which would represent the “tipping point” for reopening.

And even if he could target a certain vaccination total and positivity rate which would signify safer operating conditions, he still can’t answer the critical question: “When will most customers feel comfortable going out to dine?”

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Vintage Lounge: Staving off the dry of January

At Vintage Lounge, owner Nathan Wheeler tunes his by-the-glass list to the weather, so dark and chilly January brings a selection of full-bodied reds.

For many trendsters, though, January means it’s time to experiment with sobriety.

Dry January already had detractors, with some addiction experts arguing it put alcohol abusers at risk of relapse and didn’t offer the support associated with successful recovery. Other arguments against the practice weren’t so high-minded: “Please do not act as if this is some amazing feat of moral superiority,” a Grub Street writer instructed, begging social media users to “stop bragging” about their minor demonstration of willpower.

But that was before the pandemic put bars and restaurants in a financially precarious position. Now those annual flings with wellness represent the loss of much-needed revenue.

As Vintage Lounge’s near-neighbor Proof recently joked on Instagram, “The governor has cancelled sober January. They are working on rescheduling this event for next year.”

Charleston Grill took a different approach, announcing last Friday via Instagram that patrons could “Resolve to enjoy a night out without all the guilt. Our bar menu features non-alcoholic wine.”

Wheeler says he hasn’t seen increased demand for mocktails at Vintage Lounge, nor do the wine bar’s sales appear to have taken a hit from the buzz around a booze-free month. Perhaps like him, Vintage’s customers respond to the cold of winter by seeking out “a glass of wine and a cozy place to drink it.”

Chasing Sage: Sushi Saturday

From the day that the Chasing Sage team premiered its rotating pop-up program with a Korean menu called “We Got Seoul,” it hasn’t tried to hide its fondness for wordplay. Its members like puns and rhymes and adore alliteration. That’s why when they decided to serve sushi once a week, they scheduled it for Saturday.

Owner Walter Edward says they’re glad they did. The first Sushi Saturday was one of their highest-grossing nights yet.

“When you get ramen, it’s mellow and comforting,” Edward says of their current menu staple. “Sushi is more of a thing: People are wanting to be more extravagant.”

In other words, it’s the perfect fit for an evening associated with special meals and celebrations.

Still, general manager Max Clarke says customers didn’t abandon ramen just because he was slicing hamachi and treating it with the juice of local satsumas he’d pickled: “I wondered if it would cannibalize, but it didn’t seem to do that.”

Clarke is Chasing Sage’s resident sushi chef, having opened two sushi restaurants in San Diego. When he first moved to Charleston, he spent a few months in the kitchen at O-Ku.

“It’s a skill that’s in high demand and short supply,” says Clarke, who’s also trained in sake service.

Owner Cindy Edward admits she’s not the one driving up demand: She’s never acquired a taste for seafood (although she gamely sampled the pickled sardines that Walter Edward ordered for them on an early date, before they’d had a frank conversation about food preferences.)

But she tried Clarke’s sushi and pronounced it “really, really good.”

According to the Chasing Sage team, customers had the same reaction. The only complaint they heard was from fellow food-and-beverage professionals who work weekends: They’d like to see the restaurant switch to Sushi Monday.

Reach Hanna Raskin at 843-937-5560 and follow her on Twitter @hannaraskin.

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