Today kicks off the fifth installment of Charleston Restaurant Week, which runs through Jan. 22 and has become one of the most popular dining-out times of the year.
The Charleston Restaurant Association organizes the week for its members. Restaurant Weeks are held in January and September, when business tends to be flat.
"It's a great way to bring people out in a slow time of year," said Steve Kish, owner of 82 Queen. The longtime downtown restaurant will triple its business during this promotion compared with a typical January week, he said.
The event has tripled in size to include 100-plus restaurants that offer specially priced menus for the duration.
Restaurants take different tacks with their menus, but they are priced in one of three ways: three (occasionally four) courses for $20, $30 or $40.
It's only the second appearance for the $40 category, which includes several of the area's higher-end eateries.
At least a dozen restaurants are participating for the first time, such as Peninsula Grill and its sister restaurants, Hank's and Mercato.
Peninsula Grill executive chef Graham Dailey thought it was time to get on board.
"We had seen the potential over the years. It's grown and grown."
He sees an opportunity to give diners a taste of his cuisine that he hopes will whet the appetite for more. "It generates people ... and they might return later on down the road."
The Macintosh and Oak Steakhouse
As executive chef of Oak Steakhouse and the recently opened The Macintosh, Jeremiah Bacon's food is turning a lot of heads lately. But Bacon's cuisine isn't about ego, it's about a natural pride of place.
He recharged the steakhouse concept at Oak by increasing its prime beef choices and sourcing local oysters, clams, fish and vegetables, including salad greens.
But The Macintosh, which Bacon terms an "upscale tavern," is a concept closer to the chef's heart. There he also is buying as much as possible from South Carolina farmers and fishermen.
"You'll always see a backbone of Southern food here because of that," Bacon said.
Nevertheless, the eclectic menu defies stereotypes. Grilled octopus salad and braised rabbit are popular starters. A beef cheek ravioli is on its way to becoming a signature dish. Sides include a bone marrow bread pudding.
"Everything has to be grounded in flavor," Bacon said. At the same time, "we try to keep it real."
The soft-spoken and focused Bacon brought a stellar resume home to Charleston when he took over the kitchen at Carolina's in 2007.
He grew up on Kiawah Island in the 1980s when it was still a playground of nature. Now 41, Bacon graduated from Bishop England High School and the College of Charleston (philosophy). He was bartending in London when bitten by the food bug.
Bacon returned to the U.S. and did a volunteer stint under Frank Lee at Slightly North of Broad restaurant before setting off for the Culinary Institute of America in New York. Afterward, Bacon spent a decade honing his skills in the Big Apple's finest, including The River Cafe and Le Bernardin. He was part of the opening team for chef Thomas Keller's Per Se restaurant, the New York extension of California's famed French Laundry.
Bacon has been rendering his talent since he returned to Charleston five years ago. He joined the Indigo Road Group (Oak, O-Ku, The Macintosh and The Cocktail Club) more than a year ago. Now he's definitely found his sizzle.
Red Drum and Next Door
The Cooper River is not the Rio Grande, but Texas native Ben Berryhill staked his territory on its east side by opening the Red Drum restaurant in Mount Pleasant six years ago.
He's driven familiar ingredients of the South to a unique place within the restaurant landscape here, a style he defines as "Lowcountry local with bold Southwest flavors."
Think Breach Inlet clams with Texas toast and a red chile broth. Or a wood-grilled steak with a lime beurre blanc and a side of jalapeno cheese grits.
As of August, Berryhill and company (wife Marianna and Charlie Chance) are riding a new steed: Next Door, just down the street on Coleman Boulevard.
Next Door allows the chef more wide-open cooking while still using locally sourced products, such as white pizza topped with speck ham, cippolini onions and a lemon basil pesto. Those local clams are cloaked in a bacon and white wine cream sauce and nestled with fettuccine.
Berryhill, 46, said he was feeling a little fenced in by the Red Drum concept, as popular as it is. "I have a guy that comes two or three times a month and he never orders anything but the grilled chicken."
With the Red Drum being a big, bustling, go-to kind of place, he desired an intimate neighborhood bistro that would allow him to stretch his creativity. Enter the Next Door, at the former location of Samos. Berryhill said its menu is more vegetable-driven, artisan and spontaneous. He gives a lot of credit to sous chef Nathan Hood, whom he calls the "most inquisitive sponge I've ever met."
Next Door is a "very sexy restaurant," Berryhill said. "I think you could plant it inside any major city. (But) a lot of people come in and think, 'Oh, special occasion.' That's not what we want. We want to be approachable every day."
Berryhill is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America whose trail led to the Rocky Mountains and back to Texas before Charleston. He spent a dozen years at Cafe Annie in Houston under chef Robert Del Grande, regarded as one of that city's top chefs.
Husk and McCrady's
What does Sean Brock do for an encore?
After being named the James Beard "Best Chef Southeast" in 2010 and after Husk notched No. 1 as "Best New Restaurant in America" from Bon Appetit in 2011, the question is inevitable.
For Charleston's most-talked-about chef, there's only one answer: keep your nose to the grindstone.
As master of the kitchens of McCrady's and Husk, Brock rarely rests for long. That level of devotion is simply part of his ethic.
To wit: Making his debut as executive chef at the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville, Tenn., a decade ago, he slept in the kitchen for eight months after a critic's bad review.
Moreover, the 33-year-old never stops being inquisitive -- probing and pushing the limits of food and flavor. That is Brock's zen.
This past year, Husk diners have been treated to the delights of pigs ears, trout "ribs" and fried chicken skins (at last, only the best part). National media has lauded his farm-to-table extreme with its all-South pantry and suppliers listed on a huge chalkboard.
It's a different experience at McCrady's, one Brock describes as "refined food" that targets international foodies and adventurers. Take the same chicken from the same farm, stuff truffles and foie gras under the skin and breast, seal and poach.
"Like something straight out of France," said Brock, who grew up in a Virginia coal-mining town.
The ball-capped chef's latest project is a "native" soy sauce. Brock wants to use Sea Island red peas, farro or grits instead of soybeans.
In the same breath, Brock waxes about the "beautiful" vinegars from his kitchens. Among them are Concord, stout beer, honey-bourbon and apple.
"We've been aging one muscadine vinegar for about a year and a half now that's close to balsamic. It's pretty amazing. It smells like Big League chewing gum."
Vintage Sean Brock.
Never mind that Marc Collins will turn 40 this year and that he has been the executive chef of Circa 1886 for more than a decade. Collins thrives on keeping his menu interesting and a bit international, even as Circa remains grounded by the Southern table.
Two years ago, he began exploring ways to prepare healthier dishes without sacrificing flavor. Collins found substitutes for fat-laden creams and butter, such as vegetable purees, fruit sauces and plant oils. Whole grains and flours such as rice also were incorporated into the dishes.
With foie gras, for example, instead of using it as is, his kitchen chose to make a stock from the ultra-rich goose liver through caramelizing and adding vegetables, herbs and white wine.
"You get the flavor and essence of foie gras without the calories," said Collins, an ardent supporter of Louie's Kids, a nonprofit that focuses on childhood obesity.
Circa isn't trying to "hit people over the head" with a health message but simply hopes the food will be so appealing they won't notice.
Like whipped olive oil instead of butter for the bread, or pressure-cooked summer squash that becomes so rich and creamy that it can replace butter in certain dishes.
The chef grew up in Erie, Pa., and had early dreams of being a fighter pilot. His less than 20-20 eyesight shot that down, but meanwhile, he found himself drawn into the culinary world. The seed was planted when he served as a chef's apprentice aboard a yacht as a teenager.
Collins graduated from the Pennsylvania Institute of Culinary Arts and went to San Antonio, Texas, to launch his career. After working at a number of restaurants there, he was made executive chef of Fairmont Hotel. He was only 23.
Collins was lured to Charleston in 2001. Within a few years, he was to make an impact on the city's restaurant community, especially its national visibility.
Collins and Angel Postell hatched the idea of the Charleston Wine + Food Festival in 2004. Postell is now director of the festival, which turns seven this year. The festival was a $7 million shot to the economy last year and attracted more than 20,000 people.
Slightly North of Broad
Frank Lee’s name fits like a glove. It fits his food, his down-to-earth nature, his candid talk. He favors a denim work jacket. There is no pretense about the executive chef of the Maverick Southern Kitchens family, which includes Slightly North of Broad restaurant.
After two decades with Maverick, Lee, 58, has made a big imprint on Charleston’s dining scene and its reputation. He was onboard SNOB from the get-go in 1993, when many of today’s hot, young chefs were mere adolescents.
Lee earned his stripes in some rigorous kitchens during the 1980s. Among them were Le Pavillion in Washington and Le Perroquet and Les Nomades in Chicago. He labored long hours and under exacting chefs, but learned much.
The South Carolina native got into the restaurant business on a whim. In 1974, he and three teenage friends opened a vegetarian restaurant in Columbia called 221 Pickens Street. What was supposed to be a summer work bridge turned into six years for Lee.
His hiring by Charleston restaurateur Dick Elliott in the early 1990s also was serendipitous. Elliott, then owner of the Colony House, often observed a young chef (Lee) unloading fresh vegetables and fish from a truck across the street. Chefs gathering food from local sources was unusual at the time.
Not today. Lee firmly established that as the norm for fine dining in all of Charleston.
Lee said there is no deep mystery about his approach to cooking: “Take good ingredients and don’t screw them up.”
Consistency is SNOB’s strength, Lee said.
“When I go back to old menus, in the fall, the ingredients aren’t much different than they are now. I’m serving triggerfish in the fall and crowder peas ... pea shoots and soft-shell crab and shad in the spring. It’s about the rhythm of the seasons and the rhythm of your mise en place.”
Lana Restaurant and Bar
Chef John Ondo said restaurant diners tend to be chicken-averse, but he’s proud to call chicken one of Lana Restaurant and Bar’s signature dishes.
His kitchen does it
Basque-style with tomatoes, peppers and prosciutto. The “airline” breast, with an attached wing joint, is crisped up then finished off in the oven.
“And it comes with potato croquettes, which is probably the second-best thing on the planet because it’s fried mashed potatoes.”
The towering chef is fearless and funny, has a way with words and an affinity for BMW motorcycles. He once tried out for “The Next Food Network Star.” Thankfully for his fans, it didn’t work out.
The co-owner of Lana since 2005, Ondo is a Charleston native and Culinary Institute of Charleston graduate. He has worked in the kitchens of McCrady’s, Carolina’s and Il Cortile Del Re, and is known as a hands-on guy.
And he may be one of Charleston’s best-kept secrets. That is only because of Lana’s relatively low profile at Rutledge Avenue and Cannon Street.
He characterizes Lana’s cuisine as “new Mediterranean.”
“We have a big Old World influence in classic dishes, but we do it with stuff we can source around here.”
That translates into dishes such as pork belly confit with Mepkin Abbey oyster mushrooms, local greens, pearl onions and a bit of agrodolce — “like a high-fangled sweet and sour pork,” he said. (Agrodolce means sweet and sour in Italian.)
Ondo, 39, always knew he wanted to cook. With a working mom always on the go, Ondo started “dabbling” in the kitchen as a kid and aggravating his grandmothers.
“I always liked to eat,” he deadpans.
He got an omelet pan when he was 12.
“I thought I was bad because it looked like a paddle.”
He says he loves what he does.
“I don’t think I’m wired to sit at a desk. I have the attention span of a cocker spaniel.”
Langdon’s Restaurant and Wine Bar and Opal
Consider the suburban strip mall setting of Langdon’s Restaurant and Wine Bar like a Sleeping Beauty that is awakened as soon as one steps inside. Within, one finds sleek, sophisticated surroundings and an eclectic menu of beautiful food and wines to match.
Chef-owner Patrick Langdon Owens set up shop in Mount Pleasant in 2003. Nine years later, the culinary flame still burns brightly in the same unlikely locale. Last summer, Owens expanded his East Cooper footprint by opening the Mediterranean bistro Opal.
Langdon’s stands tall among its peers across the river. It holds AAA’s Four Diamond Award seven years running, the only restaurant east of the Cooper to claim the honor.
Wine Spectator also has weighed in with an “Award of Excellence” every year since 2004.
Owens, 36, is a self-taught cook whose muse lies in his Mount Pleasant upbringing. He was an all-star football player at Wando High School, who went on to Clemson University and a degree in marketing.
Restaurant chef wasn’t his clear calling for some years. As a young adult, he worked in several local restaurants such as Circa 1886 and Magnolias. At the same time, he played guitar in a band for seven years and was torn between the two.
“Ultimately, I was a better chef than musician and it made the decision pretty easy,” he said in 2009.
At Langdon’s, Owens plays culinary riffs on seasonal Southern ingredients with global notes, often Asian. His Hoisen-Honey Glazed Kurobuta Pork Chop might be set off by local collards and a bacon-leek mac ‘n’ cheese. Or sweet potato gnocchi and spinach.
At Opal, the shrimp bruschetta with chiles and garlic is on the way to becoming a signature dish. Pastas are made in-house and include the likes of a “lasagnette” — narrower noodles — with a local pork and lamb ragu.
North, South, East or West, the food is music to the palate.
Ken Vedrinski is a chef who has a history of taking a gamble and succeeding. The Italian cuisine he brought to the peninsula in 2008 at his Trattoria Lucca restaurant is no bluff, either.
The veteran chef landed in Charleston in 1995, taking the reins as the first executive chef of the newly opened Woodlands Resort & Inn in Summerville. Within two years, the resort had earned a prestigious AAA Five Diamond Award, the only place in the state with the distinction.
Eventually, Vedrinski desired to be on his own. He left to open Sienna on Daniel Island in 2004. Esquire magazine named it one of the “Top 20 New Restaurants of the Year.”
Then he risked location in a bigger way. He sold Sienna and renovated a former soul food restaurant on Bogard Street in 2008 to become Lucca. The small, cozy trattoria sits in the midst of a transitional neighborhood of old homes, far from downtown’s bustling dining core.
But Lucca soon established itself as a gem, a kitchen that sparkles in its preparations of local fish, seafood, vegetables and handmade pastas. Lucca also shines in its offerings of Italian cheeses and salumi, Italian wines and fruity olive oil, all hand-picked by the chef. Many fawn over his super-fresh pesce crudo, the Italian version of sashimi.
But for Vedrinski, the backbone of Lucca is its pasta. A customer favorite is one with Calabrian chiles, preserved lemon and roasted local tomatoes, with fresh raw tuna tossed in at the finish. “Almost like a crudo,” he said.
Inspired by the cooking of his Italian grandmother and her big Sunday dinners, Vedrinski set his sights on being a chef straight out of high school in Columbus, Ohio. He traveled through kitchens here and abroad, including the Hyatt in Grand Cayman, Four Seasons in Chicago and Opus in Atlanta.
Since launching Lucca, Vedrinski also opened Enoteca in 2010, a wine and cheese bar on nearby Percy Street.
Vedrinski, a James Beard Award semifinalist for “Best Chef Southeast” in 2011, said his staff goes quietly about its business.
“We almost work like we have a chip on our shoulder. ... We’re full all the time, and there is something to be said for that with the location.”
Michelle Weaver has a little extra challenge in her job as executive chef of Charleston Grill at Charleston Place.
The hotel restaurant has to appeal to the tastes of locals and tourists. It also must please the diverse palates of business and luxury travelers.
That’s why in 2007, under the tutelage of then-top chef Bob Waggoner, she created a menu of four quadrants: Lush, Pure, Southern and Cosmopolitan. It’s where Coconut and Kabocha Soup share space with an Oyster Po’ Boy Salad, for example.
Signature dish? Her crab cakes.
“I would be torched if I every tried to take the crab cakes off the menu.”
Weaver, 46, came to Charleston in 1997 with her mentor, Waggoner, from the Wild Boar restaurant in Nashville, Tenn. She became his sous chef at Charleston Grill, and they worked alongside each other for years.
As a team, they earned Four Diamond and Four Star awards for the restaurant.
Weaver has deep Southern roots. She hails from Decatur, Ala., the daughter of “one of the best Southern cooks I’ve ever known,” in her words. The family garden supplied the kitchen.
Weaver read cookbooks instead of novels as a child. Her heroes were celebrated female chefs such as Julia Child and Alice Waters.
In her late 20s, Weaver left home for Vermont and the New England Culinary Institute. After graduation, she worked in New Orleans before connecting with Waggoner.
Weaver, 46, said the goal of Charleston Grill is “not to be just another hotel restaurant. We still want to be part of the Charleston culinary scene, as well. We’ve got some farm-to-table stuff, some steakhouse stuff; we’re a combination of several restaurants you would find in this city.”
The icy hues of Tristan’s dining room are in tune with the food of its kitchen: simple, pure, contemporary.
Executive chef Nate Whiting, 32, describes himself as the “middle man” between the farmers, fishermen and purveyors that supply the restaurant, which is part of the French Quarter Inn.
“I really don’t feel that I’m an artist or creator, I feel at most I enhance. I just try to get the best ingredients I can and make them taste more like what they taste like. I just focus on the journey of the dish, every little detail, and as they accumulate, the cooking gets better.”
Whiting said his cuisine is Italian-inspired with vegetables dictating the menu, which frequently changes. Tristan doesn’t have signature dishes but more of a signature style, he said.
Whiting has been working in restaurants since age 13. He learned at the side of his father, a cook who at one time ran the cafeteria for Xerox in Rochester, N.Y.
The Johnson & Wales University graduate worked under former Peninsula Grill chef Robert Carter. Whiting’s resume includes training at the prestigious Da Vittorio in Bergamo, Italy, and The Inn at Little Washington and Maestro in Washington.
Whiting made the move to Tristan in 2009 after six years cooking for the Dining Room at Woodlands Inn in Summerville. He left there as executive chef.
The chef said he is open to new ideas and techniques but not just for the sake of using them. His aim is to find a balance between traditional and modern, with restraint as a guiding hand.
Whiting is reluctant to name customer favorites at Tristan, but allows that the She-Crab Raviolo and the Lowcountry Carbonara — quail, pasta, bacon creme fraiche and a sunny-side up egg — are always in demand.
Those and the salad of roasted and raw beets with goat cheese, oranges and pistachio pesto.
“If I tried to take that off the menu, I would have a problem on my hands.”