Hominy Grill, which helped put Charleston on a course toward culinary preeminence by dazzling diners with shrimp Creole, tomato pudding and other Southern dishes once dismissed as too modest for restaurant tables, will close April 28.
Owner Robert Stehling says the decision wasn’t precipitated by the rising cost of rent or dwindling supply of workers, among other factors commonly cited by local restaurateurs closing still-popular restaurants. Stehling owns the building at the corner of Rutledge and Cannon streets, and has cultivated a loyal crew of employees. But after nearly 24 years in business the James Beard Award-winning chef says he’s ready for a break.
“Things have a beginning, a middle and an end,” he says. “I felt like at this point in my life, I would like to be open to new experiences.”
Stehling planned to share the news with his employees Monday afternoon, and is bracing for an onslaught of farewell visits from the many biscuit devotees who rank Hominy among their favorite restaurants.
“I’m trying to make as much sausage gravy as I can,” says Stehling, who developed Hominy’s signature fried chicken breakfast sandwich in homage to a Hardee’s biscuit favored by his mechanic. As he told a Southern Foodways Alliance oral historian in 2015, “(That) kind of exchange with the community was a really important part of Hominy’s identity.”
Yet when Stehling first opened Hominy Grill in 1996, his penchant for celebrating simple foods wasn’t roundly appreciated by a city intent on demonstrating its sophistication. In 1997, The Post and Courier mocked the restaurant for classifying mac-and-cheese, candied yams and grits as vegetables.
“When you’re born and raised somewhere, you want stuff from outside to come in and validate you,” Stehling says.
While Stehling had worked in New York City restaurants for a decade before relocating to Charleston so his now-wife Nunally Kersh could run the Spoleto Festival, he wasn’t keen to replicate the Italian pastas he’d prepared in Greenwich Village. He’d envisioned a place like Hominy Grill since cooking for Bill Neal at Crook’s Corner in his native North Carolina. Neal, an early champion of Southern cuisine, helped Stehling see that hoppin’ John was as noble as risotto.
“When I opened Hominy, I really felt that the town needed to focus more on the culture and the history. I found that very exciting,” he says. “I was raised in the South, and I had this burned inside in me to do this.”
His passion resonated with Johnny Apple, The New York Times’ legendary political correspondent and roving gourmand. Apple in 2000 gave Hominy Grill a rave review, proposing its breakfasts “may well be the best breakfasts in the Carolinas, which means some of the best in America.” He praised the fried green tomatoes on Hominy’s BLTs, the lard in its biscuits and the rubbed sage in its gravy.
Two years later, Stehling’s bacon-roasted turkey was featured on the front cover of Food & Wine magazine's Thanksgiving issue.
In 2008, Stehling received the James Beard Foundation’s award for Outstanding Chef Southeast, a testament to Hominy Grill’s influence on contemporary Southern cooking. Stehling was the first of three Charleston chefs to win the prestigious prize in the span of three years, securing the city’s reputation as a culinary destination.
At the time, Stehling says, he was unaware of how dramatically Charleston’s food scene was changing. Even the surrounding Cannonborough-Elliotborough neighborhood, which felt light years removed from the East Bay Street dining district when Hominy Grill first opened, was filling up with restaurants.
“I was head down in my own thing,” he says. “I was back there stirring grits and the whole world was happening.”
Still, Hominy Grill didn’t fade from relevance. In 2015, Eater critic Bill Addison named it to his inaugural list of the nation’s 38 essential restaurants. Addison wrote, “This is a place worth returning to again and again to savor creamy she-crab soup laced with sherry, chicken bog and gossamer coconut layer cake,” implicitly recognizing Hominy’s fingerprints on the many restaurants in or of the South that he’d reviewed during his tenure at Atlanta Magazine.
“When I first put pimento cheese on, I was an oddity, you know,” Stehling recalled during his interview for the Southern Foodways Alliance. “And now it’s every which way, but it’s also made me feel less individual and unique or cutting edge … (Now) everybody is doing some of these dishes and … it’s been great, you know, to push me professionally, although sometimes you feel tired.”
So tired that Stehling isn’t anxious to jump into another project beyond seeing his daughter through her senior year of high school. Hominy Grill on Sunday night Instagrammed a picture of Stehling plating a pre-prom dinner for his daughter and her friends.
“I need to really decompress,” he says. “I’ve got a few good years to have fun. I don’t want to make up my mind yet.”
Because Stehling ultimately decided against selling Hominy Grill (“It’s complicated to sell something,” he says. “The process can be long and drawn out, and there are a lot of variables.”), he isn’t bound by a non-compete agreement that would bar him from reviving his favorite elements of the restaurant in a different setting.
“The industry has changed so much in the past 25 years,” he says. “There are so many opportunities to do pop-ups and put your food in front of people without carrying the stressful burdens of insurance and staff.”
One of the rare advantages associated with the tight labor market is Stehling doesn’t have to worry about any of his employees being out of work for long. But since he isn’t certain how long their job searches will allow them to stay, he hasn’t plotted anything extravagant for the restaurant’s final weeks. Instead, he describes the closing as a “strategic retreat.”
“I wanted (Southern cuisine) to feel respected,” Stehling says when asked about Hominy’s legacy. “The food at Hominy made people look at their food, and think, ‘The food I grew up with stands up with French cuisine and Italian cuisine.’”
It’s not in Stehling’s nature to declare success on that score, but he allows, “it felt special to me.” Thousands of patrons would no doubt agree it felt special to Charleston, too.