Assessing FIG’s chances for a third James Beard award

FIG. Wade Spees/Staff Monday February 1, 2016

In just under a month, FIG will either bring another James Beard Foundation award home to Charleston or it won’t. That’s about the only thing that’s certain in the restaurant’s category, Outstanding Wine Program.

This year, FIG is the sole nominee from Charleston. Sean Brock of Neighborhood Dining Group is also up for a national award, but for the first time, he’s an Outstanding Chef candidate for his work at Husk Nashville.

So the city’s hopes are riding on FIG, which was also nominated for its wine service last year. Along with McCrady’s, it lost out to San Francisco’s A16. Does that mean James Beard voters are partial to neighborhood-type restaurants with focused lists featuring food-friendly European wines from small producers? Possibly! But the business of projecting a wine service winner is complicated by how much leeway judges are given to determine which restaurant is worthy of a prize.

Basically, voters are asked to choose which of the nominees does the best job of stocking, suggesting and serving wine. That’s not the exact wording, because the formal criteria has gone missing from the awards’ website (at one point, users could click on the bolded award titles beneath the heading ‘Criteria for Restaurant and Chef Awards’ for elaboration, but that hasn’t worked lately.) Yet the real phrasing is every bit as vague. Voters are trusted to fairly answer the question “whaddya like?” without resorting to any point system or other device establishing foundation-wide priorities.

For many years, the wine award was bestowed on New York City restaurants with massive inventories. Eight New York restaurants collected the prize between 2002 (when it went to Gramercy Tavern) and 2011 (when The Modern took it home.) This year, though, there isn’t a single nominee from New York City. Instead, FIG is up against Canlis; Bern’s Steak House; Commander’s Palace and Sepia.

Chicago’s Sepia is the outlier. Its wine program is indivisible from its young beverage director, Arthur Hon. Under his leadership, Sepia – which opened in 2007 -- was named an Outstanding Wine Program semifinalist in 2012, 2013 and 2014.

The three other restaurants are legendary. Collectively, they represent 262 years of dining history (Bern’s is the upstart, having opened in 1956.) All three restaurants reliably deliver the kind of special dining experiences that industry professionals adore: Wine isn’t always the central element of those experiences, but it’s a comprehensible way of talking about the added oomph that distinguishes an icon from every other professional kitchen.

Still, consistent magic isn’t a magnet for awards. Seattle’s Canlis, shockingly, has never won a Beard. Its chef, Jason Franey, was nominated for Best Chef Northwest three times. It reached the finalist stage of the Outstanding Service category four times between 2003 and 2008. But the closest it’s come to an award for wine is a semi-finalist finish in 2012.

Bern’s, by contrast, has won the top award for wine. But that was back in 1992, the same year the award was introduced. The Tampa restaurant hasn’t won a single Beard since, despite last year earning a nomination for its wine program.

Similarly, the front-of-the-house at Commander’s Palace had a strong showing in the awards’ early years, collecting an Outstanding Service award in 1993, and an Outstanding Restaurant award in 1996. Since then, the New Orleans institution has twice produced a Best Chef South.

Commander’s Palace may have the toughest road to victory. It hasn’t been neglected for as long as Bern’s or Canlis, and voters may feel inclined to spread their votes around geographically: New Orleans is all over this year’s ballot, with strong candidates in three other categories.

It’s also hard to divine whether Sepia’s successive semi-finalist finishes are a point in the restaurant’s favor. Thrice failing to garner enough support to advance to the final round isn’t necessarily indicative of a broad base of support.

That leaves Bern’s and Canlis, which boast magnificent cellars, and FIG, which operates very much in the mode of last year’s winner. Bern’s might have the teeniest edge because the Association of Food Journalists in 2015 met in Tampa, which means lots of voters have dined there recently. That’s important, because voters are restricted to voting for restaurants they’ve patronized in the last year. But every chef who’s won a Beard gets to vote too, and FIG sees a good share of that constituency.

In other words, you heard it here first: FIG on May 2 may win another James Beard Foundation award. Or it may not.