In late January, Cork Bistro in North Charleston's Park Circle neighborhood closed its doors. It wasn't alarming. Plenty of restaurants take advantage of slow foot traffic in the month of January to close shop and decompress from the holidays while preparing for a tourist season that comes back to life around mid-February.
But what reopened in Cork's previous spot at 1067 East Montague Ave. was Cannon Trattoria. Eater broke the news of Cannon Trattoria's backstory, specifically that it was the product of a reality TV show called Belly Up! Led by Atlanta chef Eddie Russell, the Cooking Channel show follows Russell as he helps struggling establishment create "new, innovative, enticing bar foods that won't break the budget."
Charleston's prominence as a top destination caught the attention of reality show producers last summer when creators of Bravo's forthcoming Southern Charm began filming around town. In November, the Charleston Restaurant Association circulated a casting notice for the Belly Up! project, with casting director Danya Berman telling the Post & Courier's Hanna Raskin that, "Hopefully there is a dive bar that wants to remain a dive joint, but with a really delicious bar menu."
Cork Bistro was never a dive bar. It was a modern American restaurant that served lunch and dinner. Despite that detail, owner Tradd Gibbs and Executive Chef Heather Edwards pled their case for a spot on the show. "I received the most profoundly honest email from Cork owner Tradd Gibbs and another equally compelling one from Chef Heather asking that they be considered," says Berman.
"We had to agree to anything that they wanted, including changing the concept. They took us in a completely different direction," says Edwards, adding, "We absolutely love what they did."
True to their mission, the Belly Up! team has produced a menu that's heavy on charcuterie and small plates like pork belly crostini and grilled oysters. But some patrons had difficulty ordering off of a menu dominated by small plates in a setting where they once ordered the traditional trio of appetizer, entree, and dessert. Using local ingredients, Edwards has built a bridge between the Mediterranean menu devised with Russell and the Southern fare that was a hallmark of the former Cork Bistro. "We have short ribs, pork belly, things people are familiar with," says Edwards.
But the reality show experience has already yielded some unexpected results. On a recent visit, I couldn't get certain elements of the restaurant-makeover genre out of my head. Was the menu's big shift toward charcuterie a way of taking pressure off the kitchen? How large is the profit margin on this $12 plate of bucatini? Did the show take the staff to task for the amount of time it takes them to first greet a table? Perhaps the main issue with dining in a product of the restaurant-makeover show is that you start picking apart elements of the experience in a way you never did before, simply because of the knowledge that such a makeover has taken place.
However, Cannon Trattoria itself is missing out on perhaps the most profitable event in the life of a restaurant: its opening. The process of bringing a restaurant to life is slowly becoming an art form in Charleston. Blogs tease views of virgin kitchens and highly stylized interiors while the lucky few who attend soft opening dinners are thanked effusively via social media. Opening dates are pushed back week after week, with each new delay fanning the flames of expectation and increasing the pool of anxious patrons. Cannon Trattoria has had none of these opening staples, instead racing to establish social media accounts and explain their new identity to Cork's loyal regulars only after the Belly Up! crews had departed. The publicity expected to accompany the episode will have to wait until the episode actually runs; there is currently no set air date.
Participating in a restaurant makeover show is often a catch-22 of national attention that arrives months after a drastic image change that often leaves local patrons confused or alienated. Ultimately, only time will tell if the risk was a fruitful one for the team behind the new Cannon Trattoria.