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These 9 restaurants are the safest places to eat in Charleston area, our food critic says

After a summer of being starved for professional sports, spectators in September had their pick of top-flight events, from the Kentucky Derby at the start through the Stanley Cup finals toward the end.

From a viewer’s perspective, what was striking was how different they all looked: Not just from their own pre-pandemic versions, but from each other. Level of play aside, the U.S. Open Tennis Championships, which struggled with shifting social distancing rules and last-minute cancellations, appeared quiet and sad.

By contrast, the tournament staged by the NBA, which famously created a futuristic safety bubble, was rocking. Between virtual fans and canned crowd roars, the league put on a show that seemed like what most Americans would recognize as basketball.

In other words, the path back to normalcy isn’t forged by denial. Acknowledging the grave threat posed by the coronavirus and coming up with creative ways to mitigate it is often the best way to get on with life and fully enjoy its greatest pleasures.

And what has been proven in sports arenas holds true for restaurants, too.

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There are a regrettable number of restaurants in the Charleston area that still aren’t doing anything beyond what’s legally required to control the spread of COVID-19, even as the virus continues to flare up among workers and present an as-serious-as-ever risk to vulnerable populations, including older diners.

That became abundantly and discouragingly clear when The Post and Courier Food section asked readers to submit nominations for area restaurants going the extra mile to keep their employees and guests safe.

Several readers wrote approvingly about employees wearing masks, even though to do otherwise is to violate state law. Others cited restaurants sanitizing their silverware, which was written into South Carolina’s food code years before anyone had heard of the coronavirus.

While it’s terrific that those measures bring peace of mind to the Charleston-area diners who were impressed by them, local restaurants need to do more to facilitate and enforce social distancing, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranks as one of the most important preventive techniques.

Creating ample space around guests is critical to their health, as well as the long-term prognosis for Lowcountry restaurants.

According to the latest market research from Datassential, 47 percent of American adults say they “definitely avoid eating out.” For Americans born before 1965, that figure jumps to 61 percent. Another 30 percent of American adults report they’ll eat at restaurants, but they’re nervous about it.

Considering the financial damage that the pandemic inflicted on restaurants, their owners can hardly afford to give up half of their potential business.

From a purely economic perspective, it makes sense for restaurants to invest in outdoor seating; easy-to-use online ordering systems and pick-up arrangements that don’t force customers to wander through enclosed dining rooms. Especially in a tourist market, viability may ride on pulling out barstools and erecting barriers between tables.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, those adaptations also pave the way to make dining out fun again.

Clearly, such efforts don’t align with pre-pandemic expectations. But they are at the core of modern hospitality, which is why The Post and Courier set out to salute those restaurants that have made them.

Although this project started with a call for suggestions, it wasn’t structured as a popularity contest, with awards going to the highest vote-getters. Instead, those nominations helped shape a schedule of site visits, since it’s impossible to know from afar whether supposedly safe restaurants are keeping their hand sanitizer bottles filled or asking people not to sit at the bar.

In certain cases, restaurants which looked great on paper were removed from consideration because employees had masks hanging beneath their chin, or because a manager rushed over to greet guests with a hearty handshake.

In other cases, restaurants were eliminated because they didn’t offer any kind of outdoor seating, even though they had terraces or courtyards which could have been used for that purpose.

Clearly, it takes vigilant oversight and a cash outlay to get the food-and-beverage safety situation exactly right, as leaders in the field have discovered. Fortunately, the Charleston area is home to some of them.

We are proud today to award the first-ever Dr. Leon Banov Banners of Distinction to nine restaurants that have demonstrated the utmost concern for the health and safety of their employees and customers, with three restaurants selected for highest honors, designated here by an asterisk. We encourage you to return the favor by supporting them.

(A note on criteria: Although many corporate chains have done an excellent job of enhancing their safety protocols, these awards were reserved for independent restaurants. Additionally, since this selection process was designed to help readers make smart dining decisions, restaurants which remain closed were not eligible for awards. But as Scott Shor, owner of banner recipient Edmund’s Oast, said, “I bow to Estadio, Harold's Cabin, and those who have opted to remain totally closed to put safety first. That is the real deal.”)

843 Korean BBQ & Sushi House

843 Korean BBQ & Sushi House is on Rivers Avenue. File/Staff

843 Korean BBQ & Sushi House *

When the nation’s diners first came to grips with the scope of the pandemic, they began ticking off all the restaurant formats they might never again experience, such as Japanese steakhouse and seafood buffet. At least in this country, they might well have put Korean barbecue on the list, since a communal feast over a tabletop grill sounds like trouble when everyone is concerned about shared air.

Yet those worries just about evaporate if the charcoal grills are placed outside. In response to the pandemic, 843 Korean developed what amounts to an outdoor dining room, with multiple spaced-out grill tables and a bar.

“When we first opened the patio, even though the weather was really hot, customers were still enjoying it,” manager Angela Kang said. “Customers appreciate the fact we have that open.”

Inside the restaurant, which 843 didn’t immediately reopen when the state OK’d indoor dining, there are giveaway masks and personal-sized hand sanitizer bottles near the front door; arrows on the floor to guide traffic and air circulators in every corner. Enormous ceramic jugs impervious to budging sit atop the 50 percent of tables which are off-limits.

“It was very difficult,” Kang said of the changeover process. “But it was either sink or swim.”

6601 Rivers Ave., North Charleston | 843-764-9578 | 843koreanbbq.co

SEC OPTION -Edmund's Oast

Edmund’s Oast bar manager Jayce McConnell sanitizes the table on Monday June 29, 2020, in Charleston. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

Edmund's Oast *

Because of its growing reputation for exceeding every basic safety standard, Edmund’s Oast tends to draw diners who thought they’d never go to another restaurant again. They’re apt to leave with the modified conclusion that they will, in fact, dine out again, but only at Edmund’s.

“We don't claim to be everyone's kind of place nowadays,” owner Shor said. “We are a place for people who are very serious about taking their health safety precautions to the fullest extent, short of not actually going out.”

That’s made clear from the moment patrons approach the restaurant, which for now is operating exclusively outdoors. A greeter briefs them on restaurant rules and prompts them to sanitize their hands.

Should a patron fail to replace his or her mask when getting up from the table to swipe a credit card for a second drink, or ignore the floor markings indicating where people should stand while waiting to order food (which will be packed in single-use containers and delivered in a closed bag), staff roaming the floor issue a stern and immediate correction.

“We simply do not allow any unsafe behavior that we see to go unchecked,” Shor said. “This has certainly cost us money and customers, but ensuring our staff and guests feel safe is our number one concern.”

1081 Morrison Dr. | 843-727-1145 | edmundsoast.com

Low Life cleaning.jpg

John Corbett cleans a table at LowLife Bar on Folly Beach Thursday September 17, 2020. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

LowLife Bar *

On Folly Beach, plenty of potential customers don’t take kindly to LowLife’s code of conduct. Upon learning they’re supposed to keep their masks on when approaching the bar, for instance, they’ll sometimes threaten to take their business elsewhere.

Owner T.J. Lynch is happy to see them go.

“It’s been really awesome and positive to hear, ‘This is the only place we feel safe: It’s nice to know we can get out’,” Lynch said of the more common response to LowLife’s model.

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The cornerstone of LowLife’s safety plan is keeping everyone other than employees out of the building, which is why there are portable toilets set up for customer use.

But its aims are also advanced by a pickup system which minimizes contact between guests and staff, as well as a table arrangement so roomy that diners almost need to squint to see who’s sitting at the next table over. (Or maybe that’s the beachside sun, which along with ocean breezes gives the space an extra healthful air.)

Thus far, only one LowLife employee has tested positive for the coronavirus, which is a startlingly low number by food-and-beverage standards. “And she was stupid and went to a house party,” Lynch said.

Although Lynch allows it was initially challenging to reconceptualize LowLife as a walk-up counter, he finds it “mind-blowing” that more restaurants haven’t done the same.

106 E. Hudson Ave., Folly Beach | 843-633-0460 | lowlifebar.com

babas exterior.jpg

Customers wait for their food outside of Babas on Cannon on Tuesday, September 15, 2020. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Babas on Cannon

For Babas customers, the downtown restaurant’s intuitive and personable app makes ordering takeout halfway pleasurable: Who doesn’t want to buy a $5 bag of ice when it’s described as “I know, you can’t believe what you’re seeing, we’re offering 10-pound bags of Kold-Draft ice cubes like they have in all the fancy cocktail bars”?

That same resourcefulness led to the creation of a lovely dining patio in an alleyway alongside the café, which only admits two customers at a time.

But Babas also deserves credit for what it’s done on behalf of its employees.

“We have really made an effort in the past few months though to ensure the safety of our team,” co-owner Edward Crouse said, referring to the number of employees allowed in the building simultaneously (four); the number of feet between work stations (six) and how many positive tests its staff has recorded. (Co-owner Marie Stitt is too superstitious to reveal the figure, but it’s fewer than one.)

11 Cannon St. | 843-284-6260 | babasoncannon.com

Turtle cupcake

Turtle cupcakes and other desserts are offered at Nana's Uptown on Wednesday, July 24, 2019, in North Charleston. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

Nana’s Seafood & Soul

It’s far too early to predict how many restaurants will eventually succumb to the stresses of the coronavirus, but in downtown Charleston, Nana’s Seafood & Soul was among the first. “(We) just realized we weren’t making any profits,” owner Kenyatta McNeil told The Post and Courier when he announced the location’s closure in April.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that McNeil isn’t trying to pretend away COVID-19 at his North Charleston store, which has sealed off its dining room. Patrons now place their orders through a makeshift takeout window installed in the restaurant’s entrance; they’re then prompted to return to their cars until the food is ready.

And on the other side of the one-time front door, McNeil said, “We are continually keeping up with sanitation and hand washing practices, which is crucial in our industry.”

5117 Dorchester Rd., North Charleston | 843-937-9311 | nanasseafoodsoul.com

NICO

NICO is in Mount Pleasant. File/Staff

NICO

One sure gauge of a restaurant’s commitment to safety is the keenness of its team to win an award for protecting guests.

NICO owner Nico Romo was the lone Charleston-area restaurateur to ask for his customers’ support when The Post and Courier put out its nomination call. More than 50 of them complied with his newsletter request, sending in itemized lists of the safety measures they most appreciate, including a handwashing sink at the host stand; plastic curtains between indoor tables; sufficient space between outdoor tables and an upgraded air filtration system.

But the most heartfelt part of their messages involved listing the young and old family members they feel comfortable bringing to the Mount Pleasant restaurant.

“NICO was the first restaurant that I visited with my 80-year-old mother,” one correspondent wrote. “They let us know that safety was important to them. They showed every precaution and made sure we had a great experience: They made the new normal feel normal.”

201 Coleman Blvd., Mount Pleasant | 843-352-7969 | nicoshemcreek.com

Royal Tern

The Royal Tern is located along Maybank Highway on Johns Island. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

The Royal Tern

Fans of The Royal Tern are so loyal that co-owner John Williams said it’s not unusual for them to make reservations for their next visit when they leave. They know that’s the only way they’re getting a table since the Johns Island restaurant adopted a reservations-only policy.

“It allows for us to control the situation a little bit more,” he said. “We can go over our procedures.”

Procedures include temperature checks at the front door. Party sizes are now limited to four people and water is served in carafes to cut down on server interactions.

“It’s not as fun as it used to be,” said Williams, who splits sanitation duties with his brother and co-owner; one or the other of them is on the floor throughout service, staying atop a detailed checklist.

But it’s not just the owners who are schooled in sanitation: When The Royal Tern reopened, every employee, hostesses and dishwashers included, was required to obtain safe food handling certification.

3005 Maybank Hwy., Johns Island | 843-718-3434 | theroyaltern.com

San Miguel.jpg

San Miguel Mexican Grill is one of nine to receive Leon Banov Banners of Distinction which have demonstrated the utmost concern for the health and safety of their customers and employees. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

San Miguel Mexican Grill & Bar

The newest restaurant from the Vera family, which also owns El Jalapeno in Summerville, San Miguel didn’t have an outdoor patio when it opened in 2019. But before it returned to on-premise sales, following its state-mandated spell offering takeout (and selling its popular margarita mix by the half-gallon), owner Luis Vera erected a giant tent in the lot alongside the restaurant building.

"It wasn’t mandatory, but I decided to go ahead and do it because customers would feel safer," said Vera, who has applied to the city for a permit to expand the new al fresco seating section.

Beneath the tent, there are 17 tables, with eight feet of open space surrounding each of them. And on certain sunny afternoons, Vera said, there are margaritas atop all of them.

1711 Shoremeade Rd., Suite 110, Mount Pleasant | 843-352-2997 | facebook.com/SanMiguelMexicanGrill

Workshop01.JPG

Workshop on King Street Extension is one of nine to receive Leon Banov Banners of Distinction which have demonstrated the utmost concern for the health and safety of their customers and employees. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Workshop

“The tables are lava,” reads one of the posted guidelines at Workshop, a playful reference to the children’s game “The Floor is Lava,” in which touching the floor is forbidden.

Workshop has always been popular with families but now appears to have endeared itself to the demographic even further by expanding its outdoor space in socially distant fashion (so long as guests leave the tables where they find them). According to chief of staff Tara Pate, the food court now has twice as many outdoor seats.

Additionally, while customers formerly approached each stall individually, they now order directly from a consolidated cashier station outside of the building, or place their orders online.

“We’re built on the idea of new concepts, new chefs and new flavors and that’s really hard to do when they aren’t the ones who get to interact with each guest,” Pate says, adding that the safety upgrades were contingent upon “the unwavering commitment each of our tenants have made.”

1503 King St. | 843-996-4500 | workshopcharleston.com

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

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