A breeze off the water, Panama-style houses, island cuisine, reggae tunes drifting across the docks — sound like a trip to the Caribbean? Well, if the three Jamaican sisters opening The Runaway Bay in North Charleston reach their goal, it could feel that way at Riverfront Park come July.
Lileeth Kong, Linette Kong-Howes, and Donna Jeffries spend most of their days in the two-story buildings they purchased last year on the banks of the Cooper, working on renovations and plans for the Jamaican restaurant they hope to open by the Fourth of July.
They're planning to introduce Charleston to authentic Jamaican and Caribbean cuisine, and they have the heritage to back it up. Expect the usual jerk seasoning, but they'll also showcase the rest of their island's fare. Their sample menu includes ackee fruit sautéed with saltfish and vegetables and served over rice, the national dish of Jamaica. They've also got stewed oxtail, bammy (grated cassava that's formed into patties and fried), callaloo (a green native to the islands) with haddock, and escovitched (pickled) perch with Scotch bonnet pepper, all of which are main components of a traditional Jamaican menu.
"The number one misconception about Jamaican food is that it's very hot and spicy," says Lileeth. "We use a lot of fresh herbs, and there's also a lot of slow cooking and smoking."
But Runaway Bay is more than just a restaurant to the siblings. "We are guardians of a national, historic treasure that should be preserved," says Kong, referring to the historic Navy Yard. "We just happen to be in the right place at the right time to open a Jamaican, Caribbean restaurant. We want to create a true experience."
The sisters own two buildings in the old Navy shipyard. In one of them will be the restaurant with alfresco dining on the patio. Next door, they're planning a special events venue upstairs and a café downstairs, with a kids center on one of the sides. They also hope to eventually host a reggae festival, perhaps as soon as August, and are embracing their role as a haven for the Caribbean community in Charleston.
Runaway Bay is part of the larger Noisette Navy Yard development project, which promotes sustainability and conservation.
"Their concept and vision is very amazing and worthwhile," says Lileeth. "We just want to blend in. A lot of the community hasn't even been back this far," she adds, referring to the restricted access to the site when officers were housed on this part of the old Naval base.
Noisette has had serious financial troubles during its redevelopment work, including a foreclosure lawsuit filed last summer, and the neighborhood's future has become more precarious in recent months. However, the sisters are hoping Noisette can recover and that their restaurant can be a big part of the company's overall goals. They don't believe that the area has even come close to fulfilling its potential as a destination for locals and tourists.
"It's a historical place that should be enjoyed and preserved. People are discovering it more and more," says Kong.
Besides finishing up the serious renovations they're working on, getting their name out is the number one task for the Jamaican trio. The residents of North Charleston and the surrounding area are starting to trickle into Riverfront Park, where the city holds a popular Fourth of July celebration each summer.
The way things are headed, Noisette and the Navy Ship Yard just might end up as part of the Runaway Bay vision instead of the other way around.
Ackee and Saltfish —Jamaica's national dish. Ackee fruit — a large, bright red fruit that grows in Jamaica — is sautéed with saltfish (cured cod), onions, tomatoes, Scotch bonnet peppers, and fresh thyme.
Bammie — Finely ground cassava root that is marinated in milk and sauteed in butter.
Calaloo — A leafy green vegetable, known as Jamaican spinach, that's usually steamed.
Escovitched — A type of fish preparation in which perch or snapper is crisply fried (without batter) and pickled in a vinegar dressing.
Oxtail — Basically what it sounds like, although it can now refer to the tail of any cattle. It's a gelatinous meat that's usually slow-cooked.
Scotch Bonnet Peppers — The Caribbean's hot habanero pepper comes in several colors. They are cooked in dishes, dried and ground, and used in sauces.