It’s a common problem that just gets commoner around this time of year: You’re approached by a tourist hungry for shrimp-and-grits. Where do you send him? Another visitor wants to know where she can eat with a view of the water. What do you tell her?
These are the kind of conundrums that can keep you up at night. It’s all too easy to give the wrong answer. Perhaps you picked up this column because you’ve burned nice-seeming folks in the past.
So what would you say if I told you that giving great advice is within your grasp? No hocus-pocus or hanky-panky required; success can be yours in one simple step. And I’m about to reveal that secret at no cost to you. Memorize it with me:
Spirit of Carolina.
Let’s face it, the fact that you get an eyeful of Charleston Harbor while motoring through it isn’t surprising. But I want to draw your attention to the part of the triple-deck boat you don’t see when taking a SpiritLine Cruises’ dinner cruise: That full-sized kitchen down below is putting out a plate of shrimp-and-grits that deserves to be ranked among the city’s best.
I know what you’re thinking — Raskin, you’re nuts. In a city with so many James Beard awards that chefs could play table shuffleboard with them, who goes looking for superlative dishes at a restaurant where you’re asked to pose for a commemorative photo before being seated? Believe me, I had my doubts, too.
Have you ever been served a bowlful of shrimp-and-grits that’s thin and soupy? Or worse, leaden and cheesy? It can happen to even the savviest diners. Hey, it’s happened to me. But it doesn’t happen to Spirit of Carolina passengers. Executive chef Shawn Eustace’s take on the Lowcountry essential is orderly as a Morse code message, with a central sculpted disc of yellow grits surrounded by evenly spaced coils of blushing North Carolina shrimp. (Feel free to add that line to your talking points.)
What defines the dish, though, is neither the shrimp nor the grits: It’s a smoky tomato gravy.
If you talk to Eustace, who was hired last year, he’ll tell you that what makes his sauce special is the top-tier andouille sausage and tasso ham he renders to make it. Pork fat does wonders for the richness of any dish, right? Still, it’s the liberal use of Old Bay and Cajun spices that set the tone here, sending up scent signals of flavors that expand on the palate like an accordion.
At this point, you’re probably ready to book your $54.53 ticket, which gets you a cupful of she-crab soup, a small tossed salad, shrimp-and-grits (or another one of the four available entrees, if you insist) and as much sweet tea and coffee as you wish to drink. A private table, a dozen roses, key lime pie and eating on Friday or Saturday cost extra.
But as a wise man once said, look before you leap. In other words, this wouldn’t be much of a self-improvement story without at least one cliché — and an analysis of the challenges that could keep you from becoming a Spirit booster.
In some ways, it’s ideal that all of the diners aboard the Spirit of Carolina are trapped for two-and-one-half hours. Without the distraction of people coming and going, or the opportunity to leave, guests can focus fully on the restaurant experience. But the quality of that experience varies according to factors that are beyond SpiritLine’s control, such as the outdoor temperature, what time the sun goes down and how many of the 240 seats are taken.
Toward the start of the season, when the boat is sometimes 100 people short of capacity, the energy in the dining room is dictated by a lone cover musician with a guitar and a foot pedal. Too bad it takes more than a decent Jimmy Buffet impression to override the patterned carpet and chintzy chairs. It’s hard to shake that hotel wedding feeling.
Of course, servers can help on that score, and there are a few talented front-of-house pros on the Spirit. With a basic menu and predetermined pace, good service mostly involves concealing the assembly line aspects of the operation and staying cheery. On my first visit, our server very nearly passed that test, but then chased our party to the top deck where we’d gone for an after-dinner drink. “Was there something wrong with the service?,” she asked, waving our check slip at me.
As server-guest interactions go, it doesn’t get much worse than that type of confrontation. But in the misguided server’s defense, SpiritLine has a disastrous gratuity policy. The tip is not included in the pre-paid price, a situation mentioned in small print on the tickets, which are generally handled by only one person in the party, and that’s not necessarily the person who gets the bill for drinks and desserts.
The disclaimer is repeated in small print on the tab, but if you make the mistake of handing over a credit card without carefully reviewing your charges, you end up signing a receipt for $34.50 and reflexively tipping $8 on it. Yes, there is a line on the menu warning that “gratuity for your server may not be included in your prepaid fare.” It’s still way too easy to under-tip by $22.
Fix the system, SpiritLine, so guests can instead focus on the freshness of the respectfully handled vegetables in the salad, and the welcome zing of the basil vinaigrette dressing them. Send them home with memories of the grill-marked steak, rubbed with a garlicky, peppery Montreal steak seasoning hacked to Eustace’s specifications.
Don’t give guests a chance to look past the superiority of the milky she-crab soup, flecked with mirepoix vegetables and packed with silly amounts of crab meat and crab roe. “It is a very expensive product for us to put out,” Eustace says. Make sure they leave talking about the glories of eating exceptional shrimp-and-grits while gliding beneath the Ravenel Bridge: It’s a message people are waiting to hear.