Downtown. 112 N. Market St. 723-0700
The concept is simple. Serve great food. Appeal to locals. Maintain the highest standards. And do it seven nights a week. The execution of such a concept, however, isn't so simple. Consider the landscape littered with failed restaurants. It's not an easy business, and it's not a business Hank Holliday was much interested in pursuing. After borrowing $100 million, developing Wild Dunes, and then selling it off six months before Hugo blew through town, Holliday had hightailed it to Key West for some R&R. There he happened upon the 24-year-old Robert Carter, a Johnson & Wales grad who had left Charleston with the ultimate goal of one day returning to open his own restaurant. Carter was working as an executive chef at Café Marquessa in Key West and must have recognized Holliday for being a gambler with a big bankroll, because he set about charming Holliday into working with him.
"I told him, 'you need to open a restaurant with me,'" remembers Carter.
"He told me, 'I'll make you rich. I'll make you famous,'" says Holliday, who also recalls the young chef calling him up early for a breakfast meeting in an attempt to persuade him to get into a business that he was wary of. "I told him I have no interest in being in the restaurant business -- ever."
So much for that. Carter's enthusiasm and determination must have been very persuasive. Holliday eventually bought the property at the corner of Market and Meeting streets.
"I got hold of Planters Inn 13 years ago at the bottom of the real estate market," says Holliday. An alleyway and a lean-to next door were also purchased, cleaned up, and made part of the Planters Inn property.
With their location secure, Holliday and Carter spent several years conceptualizing and planning a restaurant that would serve a menu of classic haute cuisine with a contemporary sensibility. They both agreed on the feel of the restaurant -- swanky and stylish -- and Peninsula Grill finally opened on Feb. 12, 1997. The reception was immediate. In the late '80s, Carter had made a name for himself in Charleston as a young Johnson & Wales student who hired himself out as a literal "Rent-A-Chef," cooking in some of society's most aristocratic kitchens. Upon his return, old clients flocked to the restaurant, quickly establishing Peninsula as the preferred choice for sophisticated diners.
In March of 1998, the City Paper held its first Best of Charleston readers poll and Peninsula Grill won Best Restaurant, Best Restaurant When Someone Else is Paying, and Best New Restaurant. We didn't yet have a category for Best Chef, or else Carter probably would have won that, too. In the ensuing years, they've won Best Restaurant all but once. This year will mark their 10th as the Best Restaurant When Someone Else is Paying, an apt honor for a restaurant that everyone wants to be taken to.
They've racked up accolades from a host of other national newspapers, magazines, and organizations, including the prestigious Relais and Chateaux, but they are particularly proud of winning the Best of Charleston. "Our biggest joy is this award," says Holliday, "this is a local paper. These are locals voting for us."
Each year, the competition grows more and more fierce in the area's culinary scene -- new restaurants and new concepts crowd into downtown, great chefs blaze new trails in the suburbs, and the attention splinters from the more established restaurants. What's a gal to do to keep herself fresh? One thing Holliday and Carter won't do is dress her up in the latest fashions. "This cuisine is timeless," says Holliday rather pointedly when asked about competing with some of the newer trends in town. "This was good 10 years ago, it's good today, and it will be good in 10 years."
Carter agrees. "We're running a timeless classic. The biggest thing we've learned is to listen to our customers."
As a chef, Carter has found a good balance -- he's made his restaurant a business success as well as a critical darling, and he's done that by giving the people what they want. "It's hard as a chef not to change the menu daily," he says, but at Peninsula he keeps 75 percent of the menu year-round and changes 25 percent of it seasonally. Classic dishes like pork osso bucco and rack of lamb will always have a spot, because they're well loved by customers who keep coming back for their favorites.
As the self-proclaimed prostitute of Peninsula Grill, Carter works ceaselessly to keep his restaurant in the game. "We don't rest on our laurels," he says. "We're not complacent. We identify ways to improve every single day." Carter may not like to see himself as one of the older, established chefs in town, but it's clear that his kitchen has been an important training ground. Chefs like Jacques Larson of Mercato and Sean Brock of McCrady's got their start working with him, and Carter says it's gratifying to see how many of his former cooks are now working in four- and five-star kitchens.
You can tell Carter's got a competitive streak, and he'd probably admit to having a little bit of an ego, but it's that edge that drives him. He's a busy guy, organizing the annual Lowcountry Food Bank Chefs' Feast, the Dine Around for the Food + Wine Fest, and planning the North American Delegation's Relais and Chateaux meeting in 2008, which will bring heavy hitters of the international hospitality industry to Charleston for a week of events. Carter really likes winning this Best Chef category and remembers very well the first time we had the best chef designation, which Louis Osteen won in 1999. "Louis got it and I was mad," he remembers, "I said, I gotta win this." And he has, again and again, becoming Charleston's chef to beat.