Is it over yet?
Fortunately for people who didn’t want to spend another minute thinking about political news this year, there was no shortage of restaurant news to distract them. Locally, there was a headline moment almost every month, as the increasingly stressed Charleston food-and-beverage sector looked for ways to stay robust and relevant: Restaurants opened. Restaurants closed. Chefs got hired. Chefs got fired. And the competitive pace of change took a human toll, with a number of culinary talents leaving town or getting out of the business altogether.
Toward the middle of fall, around the time that a mandatory hurricane evacuation order made a mockery of profit projections for the third year in a row, the situation was looking especially bleak: Nearly every conversation involving at least one industry member included some variant of the macabre question, “Which restaurant is going down next?”
Regardless of the reasons why Alvin Ord’s Sandwich Shop never opened on Savannah Highway – almost every lamentable hospitality development this year was a knotty jumble of personal friction, unmet promises, staff shortages and the surging cost of rent – the finished restaurant stood as a symbol of the city’s greatest fears.
What if Charleston’s dining rooms were polished, ready and failing? What happens when passion and a commitment to quality yields nothing but a locked-up door?
For an uncomfortably long time, it seemed like downtown Charleston was destined to be at the mercy of monied restaurant groups and wannabe owners from off, intent on colonizing the city with overpriced California wine and mishandled seafood.
And then, just as the days literally got darker, a few rays of light cracked the collective gloom. Fittingly for a dining scene that briefly felt as though it was on the verge of falling apart, the most hopeful news involved people coming together. Respected food-and-beverage professionals known for their integrity and skill began teaming up, giving the dining community new reason to get excited about 2019.
Picking up on the theme forged by EVO and Holy City Brewing, which this summer announced they were joining forces to bring pizza and beer to the Eastside venue vacated by DeSano Pizza Bakery, Short Grain Food Truck’s owners recently partnered with the owners of Stems & Skins to scheme the launch of an izakaya. Plus:
- David and Tina Schuttenberg worked with the owners of The Lot, which in September closed after six years in business, to permanently locate their Sichuanese pop-up, Kwei Fei, in the James Island building that formerly housed the beloved farm-to-table spot.
- Wine seller Marie Stitt; truffle salesman Edward Crouse and barman Lane Becker collaborated to open the estimable Babas on Cannon.
- Brooks Reitz and Tim Mink hired chefs Reid Henninger and Emily Hahn to run the kitchen of a remade Monza, which will absorb the space previously occupied by Closed for Business.
Cooperation isn’t new to Charleston restaurants: A strong sense of community is part of what garnered attention for the latest dining renaissance in the first place. Still, it’s the kind of throwback that workers and diners can get behind -- while keeping their fingers crossed.
As a refresher, here’s a short list of everything that went down this year. (If you want a lift, just skip to the end for the cheeriest food news items of 2018.)
Patrick Properties CEO ousted: Hours after The Post and Courier published an article detailing allegations made by eight of Randall Goldman’s former employees, the Charleston Wine + Food Festival removed the prominent hospitality executive from its board. Within the next week, amid accusations that the Patrick Properties CEO doled out backrubs, planted kisses and sent unseemly late-night text messages against recipients’ wishes, Goldman was dismissed from the Greater Charleston Restaurant Association board and asked to resign from the James Beard Foundation’s national advisory board, which he did. Goldman on Feb. 28 agreed to give up his job.
Sales tax shenanigans: In an effort to cover the cost of credit card processing, sister restaurants Xiao Bao Biscuit and Tu in late 2017 began unlawfully folding an undisclosed 2.5 percent “convenience fee” into the sales tax they assessed. After the scheme was revealed by The Post and Courier, the restaurants reformatted their guest checks so the sales tax was calculated and charged correctly. “Charging extra sales tax is not a common occurrence,” S.C. Department of Revenue spokeswoman Bonnie Swingle told The Post and Courier. “The majority of South Carolina businesses strive to comply with South Carolina tax laws.”
Loss of a beloved local beer pioneer: Rich Carley, the co-founder of Charleston Beer Exchange and Edmund’s Oast, died at 37. The visionary champion of craft beer was an organ donor, and his family arranged for his kidney to go to a childhood friend coping with end-stage renal diseases. “It’s not lost on us that this is just the smallest of silver linings in a tremendous tragedy,” the recipient’s older brother said. “But Rich was available for a final gesture of friendship.”
Patrick Properties, Part II: Weeks before opening Parcel 32, its restaurant taking the place of Fish, Patrick Properties fired executive chef Digby Stridiron, the celebrated St. Croix chef who was supposed to make the Upper King Street restaurant a leader in reimagining coastal American cuisine and asserting indigenous people’s place in it. “They say they’re changing plans, but the only thing changing is me,” Stridiron says. Patrick Properties attributed the leadership change to “creative differences,” opening with Shaun Brian Sells at the helm.
Delivery, no longer so special: Postmates in July started ferrying food to folks who didn’t want to leave their homes for poke or pulled pork. DoorDash followed soon thereafter, bringing the city’s delivery service options to four. It’s still too soon to know how the growth of home delivery will influence the Charleston area restaurant scene, but recent reports that UberEats is creating “ghost” restaurants – meaning kitchens with attractive menus, but no physical locations – suggest fixed locations will soon have to compete against brands that aren’t paying much rent.
Spero closes up shop: Restaurants close as a matter of course: Among the local places that didn’t survive 2018 are The Green Goat, Sermet’s Southernterranean, Fill and The Bearded Café. But Spero’s shuttering in mid-July kicked off a series of closures that rattled the industry, in part because the victims had seemed more invincible than most. The popular Spero had talent, 492 had money behind it and Pancito & Lefty magnetized margarita drinkers. And then they were gone.
The closures keep on coming: Another wave of closures was instigated by unresolved disputes between landlords and their restaurant tenants. Annie’s Bistro in August went looking for a new location because of unreliable air conditioning; Bar Normandy was asked to leave Normandy Farms Bakery because the operation lacked a grease trap and hood; and Roadside Seafood struggled to deal with infrastructure problems at its James Island address.
Sean Brock makes his move official: Years after relocating to Nashville, celebrity chef Sean Brock doubled down on his commitment to the city, severing ties with Neighborhood Dining Group to work on a new project there. Under the terms of his departure, he took on the title of “founding chef and culinary advisor” to the four Husk locations (Charleston, Nashville, Greenville and Savannah), but is no longer involved in any way with McCrady’s, McCrady’s Tavern or two Minero locations (Charleston, Atlanta).
Out of a job? #metoo: The year started out looking rosy for women chefs, with a number of new restaurant owners making a point of recruiting women to serve as their execs. But the number of women executive chefs dwindled quickly, with just three of 11 still in their jobs by September. At least one of the departures was under happy circumstances: Chelsey Conrad of Butcher & Bee, a Culinary Institute of Charleston grad, left the restaurant to further her career by traveling and cooking under Michael Solomonov. In other cases, though, women claimed they were undermined by bosses or penalized for speaking their minds.
Pane Di Vita is toast: Citing persistent staff shortages, wholesale baker Richard “Chip” Plaistowe gave up his company and took a job with Hall Management Group, sending restaurants scrambling for replacement suppliers. Although the panic wasn’t apparent to diners, it was a clear reminder that the citywide lack of employees has left the industry newly vulnerable to crisis.
Closing time for BevCon: Supporters of Charleston’s craft beverage scene hoped BevCon, which drew respected drinks professionals from across the country, would become a regular event on the city’s culinary calendar. But two years after the program’s launch, founder Angel Postell relocated it to Los Angeles, much to the dismay of some previous attendees. “She had volunteers. She had venues. She had a great location: By trying to make it a bigger thing, I think that just screwed it up,” whiskey writer Mark Gillespie lamented. In October, Postell put BevCon on indefinite hiatus.
Caught with his pants down: Normandy Farm Bakery owner Mike Ray on Oct. 26 showed up at a private party for women-owned businesses, held in an event space he’d rented to its hosts: Then he stepped into a photo booth and dropped his pants to his ankles. “You know I’ve always been the life of the party,” he told The Post and Courier. “But this attempt didn’t go over so well.” According to the police report, Ray’s “bare buttocks (were) approximately five inches from” the pelvic region of one of the women standing in the booth. Ray vowed to stop exposing himself in public and stepped away from his company’s day-to-day operations; five days after the incident, he was charged with indecent exposure.
PLUS, THE GREAT STUFF THAT SHOULD TRANSCEND TIME:
Charleston declares Red Rice Day: Thanks to the efforts of activist and educator KJ Kearney, the last Saturday in September will forevermore be known as Red Rice Day, in honor of the iconic Gullah-Geechee dish. “It’s probably literally one of the most unifying things,” Kearney told The Post and Courier. “People might not like it with sausage; they might not like it with shrimp, but nobody is going to say they don’t like red rice.”
Two more Beards for Charleston: The city had a phenomenal year at the annual James Beard Foundation awards, widely recognized as the Oscars of the food world. Rodney Scott won the Best Chef Southeast title on his first nomination, and FIG took home the Outstanding Wine Program award on its sixth try. To put the evening into perspective: There are entire states that haven’t won a single Beard in the award’s 28-year-long history.
More pizza, please: At the start of the year, it was fashionable to gripe about the number of pizzerias opening in the Charleston area. But once they opened, folks were too busy eating slices to complain. A striking number of the new pizza parlors are quite good, especially those that have found and filled pizza niches. On any given night, Charleston eaters can now eat bar pies; Sicilian-style pizza; Detroit-style pizza and Roman pizza (the latter at Melfi’s, which continues to insist it’s not a pizza-first kind of place, despite its accomplished crust and stracciatella cheese.) There’s also estimable higher-end pizza at Renzo, although the composed dishes remain the top draw at the restaurant, which turned up on Thrillist’s national list of best new restaurants.
Life Raft Treats sweetens the deal: Pastry chefs Cynthia Wong and Mary Oster teamed up on a roving ice cream operation that single-handedly revitalized the local dessert scene with their impish take on sweets. Although an ice cream drumstick shaped and decorated to resemble a chicken drumstick stole the spotlight, they came up with a range of creations for various occasions – and, even more importantly, for restaurants (pop-up and permanent) which don’t have the budget for a pastry chef.
Making the waterfront even more attractive: Folly Beach and Shem Creek both gained terrific new venues this year, contradicting the conventional wisdom that good food and drink can’t exist a stone’s throw from a good view. Lowlife on Folly and Saltwater Cowboys on Shem Creek both raised the bar for leisure seekers’ expectations.