It’s all coming around full circle for Steve Palmer. A native Atlantan, he’s returned to his hometown to expand his Indigo Road Hospitality Group, opening outposts of O-Ku, Oak Steakhouse, and two Italian restaurants there over the last few years.
The Indigo Road empire started with Oak Steakhouse on Broad Street in Charleston, but Palmer got his start in Charleston managing Peninsula Grill back in the late ’90s when Chef Robert Carter was training up an entire generation of chefs, including Sean Brock (McCrady’s, Husk), Jacques Larson (Wild Olive, Obstinate Daughter), and Joseph Lenn (J.C. Holdway in Knoxville) among others.
Today, sober and secure in his abilities, Palmer was just named a semifinalist for the James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurateur, an honor he says he is humbled and surprised by.
His latest and perhaps most interesting Atlanta project, which has taken many years to come to fruition, is at the Hotel Clermont in the Poncey-Highlands neighborhood.
Hotel Clermont, for those not familiar, is home to the infamous Clermont Lounge, a strip club located in the basement that opened in 1965 and is known for colorful strippers of all ages and sizes; Blondie being the most famous. It’s an iconic location that has remained practically untouched for generations, even while the Clermont Hotel remained empty and desolate up above.
In 2013, a group of young entrepreneurs who’d opened The Oliver, a boutique hotel in Knoxville, Tenn., purchased the old hotel for a mere $2.3 million and have spent the last five years putting their plan in place to renovate and restore the circa-1924 building to its former glory. Back then, Murder Kroger, an aptly nicknamed grocery store, was still operating in the neighborhood and the Ponce City Market was yet to open in the old Sears building nearby.
The ambitious team tapped Palmer and Indigo Road to manage the food and hospitality offerings and Charleston-based Charlestowne Hospitality to run the hotel.
“It’s been my favorite nonprofit project of the last six years,” jokes Palmer, who has spent countless hours meeting, planning and designing Tiny Lou’s, a French American brasserie that will open soon at the hotel. “I would’ve probably bailed on it a long time ago, but it was the lure of the Clermont that kept me in.” He feels nostalgic for a place that once kicked him out, back in his partying days. "Forcibly," he adds.
Tiny Lou’s is named after a stripper who presided over the Gypsy Room, the Lounge’s precursor. Legend has it that she refused to dance for Hitler. Palmer says the new restaurant’s chef has already tattooed Tiny Lou on his arm, so he’s not the only one counting on this restaurant to succeed.
That chef is Jeb Aldrich, and he also has a Charleston connection. He attended Johnson & Wales here and also worked in that Peninsula Grill kitchen where Brock and others trained.
“Jeb had been off in France,” says Palmer. “We’d lost touch, but I’d always wanted to do a French restaurant and he had French cooking in his background.”
Aldrich came to Charleston recently to work in the Indigo Road kitchens here and learn how they manage things. The two are looking forward to Tiny Lou’s opening this spring along with the hotel.
Elsewhere, Palmer’s team is expanding with a new O-Ku in Washington, D.C. and others planned for Raleigh and Nashville. And whether or not he wins the James Beard in May, he’s going to continue to run things the way he’s been doing because it seems to be working.