In a culinary scene as competitive as Charleston's, Chris Hyatt wants to offer tourists and locals fine-dining accompanied by a window into the black Charleston experience.
How does he do this?
He cooks and serves meals in his unassuming home in Union Heights.
Hyatt, 40, is a professional chef who recently stepped down as head chef at Republic Garden & Lounge on King Street. He was approached by Airbnb earlier this year to help with a new service called Airbnb Experiences.
The experience Hyatt markets is called "Feast Upon Charleston," an authentic fine dining dinner inspired by traditional recipes. The dinner costs $100, and the chef has bookings through March.
Union Heights was once a bustling neighborhood for its African-American residents, said Ernest Pinckney, Hyatt's landlord and the owner of the downstairs laundromat at the corner of Spruill and Joppa avenues. Barbershops, fish markets, beauty salons and nightclubs were all within walking distance.
Today, Union Heights suffers from an image of high crime and boarded up businesses. Even though the neighborhood sits snugly between ever evolving Park Circle in North Charleston and downtown Charleston, attempts to restore basic needs, such as a grocery store, have failed.
Poverty rates landed Union Heights inside an "Opportunity Zone," a federally recognized ZIP code where developers will now receive tax cuts as an incentive for development. Such was the brainchild of U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who grew up nearby.
When Uber drivers drop off Hyatt's dinner guests, they're often warned they're in a "bad area."
"I like the fact that I'm here, in this 'part of town' that nobody wants anything to do with," he said. "It's fun. I don't feel like it's a bad place. This is a very, very important place."
Guests overwhelmingly agree.
In an Airbnb review on the Feast Upon Charleston event page, Kimberly of South Carolina wrote: "The company was wonderful and the food was incredible! ... The event took place in an urban area that happened to be above a laundromat. Yes, a laundromat!!"
Claire of Washington, D.C., shared, "Christopher filled us in on history in Charleston which led to lively conversation on current events, and it was nice to meet/bond with the other couple there dining with us, as the experience attracted an open minded, fun crowd!"
Colin offered a local testimony, when he said, "I have lived in Charleston for nearly 30 years and have NEVER had a dining experience as satisfying as what Christopher exposed my wife and I to last night. At first, the location fools and confuses you, but the instant you step into his environment, the transformation begins."
The evenings begin at 7:30 p.m. with a craft cocktail, rose and frankincense essential oils, and smooth jazz. Guests walk from room to room, admiring Hyatt's floor-to-ceiling eclectic collection of antiques and art.
The dark wood baby grand piano in the living room, for example, was gifted to Hyatt from the black-founded YWCA after the group left its location on Coming Street.
The bright red leather chairs in the two dining rooms were once used by the Marriott Hotel downtown. The “Mezz Jazz Hall” — one of Hyatt’s favorite King Street hangouts in the 1990s — needed a home for a vintage Fender Rhodes electric piano.
All this ties into Hyatt’s primary entrepreneurial goal, which goes beyond filling stomachs.
In order to limit his workload, Hyatt appoints a guest to be a “wine steward” for the evening.
“That’s what I try to do, right there,” he said. “I try to make it a little more authentic, not so commercial feeling, eager-to-please.”
Dinner is a surprise four-course meal during which Hyatt shares stories about his grandmother, Inez Simpson. She graduated from segregated Burke High School in 1947. Back then, black-owned businesses flourished in Union Heights, primarily because the neighborhood’s residents weren’t allowed to eat or shop in many other parts of town.
Simpson worked as a seamstress and was famous for her okra soup. Her kitchen on Jacksonville Road was where Hyatt learned to cook. It was also where he heard stories of the Civil Rights Movement and the Jim Crow-era.
On extra special nights, local artists such as Ann Caldwell and Fletcher Williams join the table to share their memories of Charleston. Even members of Hyatt’s family have made appearances.
Guests arrive at Hyatt's house as strangers but often leave as friends, exchanging cellphone numbers and friending each other on Facebook before departing.
In a world where so much time is spent online, Hyatt said, people — white or black, rich or poor — crave true human connection.
Perhaps that’s what he’s really selling.
“When you sit down and get rid of all the (expletive) and start talking, you realize we’re just people, connecting,” he said.