A new look for FIG dining

“We’re actually using equipment that works, not something we’re used to,” joked FIG executive chef Jason Stanhope (right) about the renovated kitchen, where he was testing a new dish with Rachel Pearce (clockwise, from foreground), Travis Burgess, Jacob Lee, Melanie Durant and Braydon Sutherland.

When a restaurant is helmed by the reigning best chef in the Southeast (as determined by the James Beard Foundation’s judging panel); co-owned by a previous winner of the same award; and home to a wine program that the anointing organization considers among the five best in the country, what could its customers possibly find to complain about?

At FIG, the physical space has long been a point of contention. “Guests told us it looked dated,” co-owner Adam Nemirow says of the 13-year-old restaurant at Meeting and Hasell streets. Even a substantial 2012 refurbishment involving new floors and bathrooms didn’t fully quell gripes about noise, heat and color schemes. So on Jan. 10, FIG closed the doors on its existing dining room for the final time, excusing its employees for a few weeks and politely putting off reservation seekers.

As soon as the restaurant’s renovation plans became public, “everyone told us don’t change it,” co-owner Mike Lata says.

But the overhaul, several years in the making, wasn’t negotiable. In addition to the cosmetic upgrades requested by patrons, Nemirow and Lata were intent on creating more space in the kitchen; modernizing the HVAC system and wiping away traces of make-do fixes that added up to an unsightly, ineffective jumble of knick-knacks and paint.

“We were ignorant,” Lata says of their mindset when they launched FIG in a former Western Union. “It’s like a 16-year-old who gets a beater car. It’s the best car he’s ever had. But as you mature, you realize what really needs to be done.”

FIG last month was named to Eater National’s list of 38 restaurants “that shape and define American dining,” alongside Bern’s Steakhouse, Chez Panisse and Blue Hill at Stone Barns. All of the fine dining restaurants so distinguished aren’t Jettas, but Jaguars, built to last. And now FIG, which was scheduled to reopen on Tuesday, looks the part.

When FIG first opened, whatever money the first-time restaurateurs may have saved on visuals wasn’t apparent to diners struck by the earth tones and paintings of roosters. “FIG keeps things light and sophisticated in the decor department,” The Post and Courier’s restaurant critic, Holly Herrick, raved in the restaurant’s first formal write-up. She described the dining room as “a haven for the sexy, young and hip.”

Within a few years, customers were beginning to question FIG’s minimalist charms. “There is enough decor to call it such,” Post and Courier reviewers Scott and Molly Goodwin sniffed in 2006.

Behind the scenes, though, employees were dealing with more significant structural issues, including a hand-me-down hood and cramped cook line. Everyone was aware of the cooling system’s limitations, since the crushing kitchen heat that led Lata to build up a wardrobe of seersucker jackets invariably engulfed the dining room. “We could crank the thing down to 60 degrees, and as soon as we got full, it was a sweatbox,” Nemirow says.

“People would be waving menus in their faces,” Lata adds.

Still, Nemirow and Lata never had the opportunity to properly address the problems. They postponed attacking the air conditioning because of the project’s complexity: The wires for cooling were intertwined with wires controlling the security cameras, wi-fi, stereo system and lights. Agreeing that mismatched ceiling tiles were an eyesore, they painted over them — inadvertently eliminating their sound-dampening qualities in the process.

Not every design element was a bust. Overall, the room had the warm neighborhood bistro feel that the partners wanted to cultivate. And guests responded well to the white tablecloths and fresh flowers, items that many special-occasion restaurants abandoned in the onrush of the casual dining revolution.

The tablecloths and flowers are staying on, as is the greater part of the table arrangement. “The basic layout is what it is,” Nemirow says. But longtime customers are bound to notice changes.

Nemirow is certain that FIG’s audience will adapt to the redesign almost immediately. “One month after it opens, you’re not going to remember what it used to look like,” he says. “Which is unfortunate for the amount of money spent on it.”

Similarities between old and new are partly intentional. “It’s still the same restaurant,” Lata says, referring to the restaurant’s longstanding mission statement highlighting integrity, seasons, the Lowcountry and respect.

Lata warns that FIG isn’t reopening as a finished product: Rather than rush decisions, he and Nemirow decided to hold off on reconsidering the restaurant’s brand and menu design, for example.

Lata estimates it will take about six months before the renovation is entirely realized. In the meantime, diners can absorb the following adjustments to the room, which is now dominated by blues and grays:

The removal of the specials chalkboard near the front door. “We have to involve ourselves in trends,” Lata says, speaking to the necessity of keeping young chefs engaged in the restaurant’s work. That trend, though, appears to have run its course.

The addition of decorative materials such as reclaimed cypress and oil-rubbed brass.

Reformatted lights, including recessed canned bulbs; wall sconces; and oversized pendants suspended in the center of the dining room.

Large wall mirrors to counterbalance the elegance of new lighting and paint.

One less table in the dining room, which allows for the creation of a table to accommodate larger parties.

The two-top booths tucked into the nooks nearest the bathrooms have been remade as harbored four-tops.

With its return, FIG is also introducing spiffed-up uniforms and a rewritten wine list.

“When we anticipated the closure, we figured the less wine we had to move, the better,” says Nemirow. The new list is wholly of general manager Morgan Calcotte’s making. In the back of the house, there’s a new convection oven, among other technical improvements.

For the cooks, “it’s going to feel like camping in the woods for five years and then staying at the Days Inn,” Lata predicts.

Prior to Monday’s reopening, perhaps the most eagerly anticipated addition was customers. “We always look at these design books, and it’s always pictures of empty restaurants,” Nemirow says. Yet at FIG, as at all great restaurants, it’s ultimately people who make the room.