If there was ever a year to comfort eat, this was it. As a nation, we've weathered a nasty election cycle and as a city we've had to relive the horror of two high profile murder cases. Liquor sales alone should be through the roof. At least that's what I'd presume. Travis Hartong, wholesale manager at Bottles, says that while yes, his stores sales are up over 2015, he believes that has more to do with population growth than anything else.
"Overall we had growth not only in retail but class B for restaurants," says Hartong. He says Charleston's well educated drinking population plays a key role in retail sales as well. After tasting new spirits at bars, shoppers inevitably make their way to the liquor store to stock up the home bar. And, regardless of whether you were happy with the 2016 election results or not, it's of little consequence to Hartong. "We joke that liquor is a foolproof industry — people drink when they're happy and drink when they're sad. The only difference is from which shelf they're buying. Happy — Tito's. Sad — Burnett's."
But what of food? How are we not all festering in a year-long food coma? I know I've been tempted to hit Lewis Barbecue's brisket a little too hard this year. And maybe some of us did. We reached out to our resident food philosophers for their thoughts on 2016's Charleston culinary scene, both the highs and lows.
City Paper restaurant critic
Highs: I've been impressed this year with the breadth and depth of locally-sourced and house-made products, the sheer creativity and innovative ideas out there right now.
Lows: Not disappointed, per se, but I hope 2017 brings some increased ethnic options like Ethiopian, Peruvian, Burmese, or even the Hawaiian poke craze that's all over New York and Los Angeles right now.
2016 Food Epiphanies: Although there were a lot of great additions this year, my absolute favorite is Lewis Barbecue — because brisket. By the same token, if I were going to take someone for a more formal, equally memorable experience, my "best meal" would be Le Farfalle. (Where I'd order the octopus carpaccio and the whole branzino.)
- Jonathan Boncek
- City Paper contributors were smitten with Le Farfalle this year
Best Meal of 2016: Best meal is tough. I'd say a special all seafood dinner a few of us went to at Edmund's Oast. I know I'm a homer for that place but man it was fantastic.
Worst Meal of 2016: Worst is between an Italian pork sub in the Philly airport on the way to Germany. Let's just say, don't do that before an eight-hour flight. The other was these really-not-good szechuan duck tongues at this place Littler in Durham. The rest of the food was good but damn these things were a terrible weirdly sweet cartilage-filled bite of sadness. That you had to work hard for. Kinda ruined everything else for me. It's hard to pick a worst meal in Charleston. I guess I've gotten pretty lucky this year. Nothing stands out.
Biggest Restaurant Surprise: Two Boroughs closing. Maybe it was the biggest restaurant bummer and not surprise. Either way, as a customer I didn't like it. Not one bit. But glad they were able to make that change for them.
Most Worrying Trend: This is going to sound sacrilegious for me but the over proliferation of barbecue needs to go away. Don't get me wrong, I love what we have going here and I'll still haunt Home Team and stuff my fat face at Lewis and I'm planning to be first in line when Rodney opens, but if there's such a thing as a barbecue bubble, we are in it. For the most part I think we've been pretty lucky with the quality of places that have opened in Charleston, but at some point there are just too many. I'd like to see more quality ethnic/foreign joints get some of the hype.
- Jonathan Boncek
- Edmund's Oast continues to transfix Charleston diners
City Paper restaurant critic
Highs: I would say that I'm simultaneously surprised and excited about the barbecue renaissance that is gripping the city. Five years ago, Charleston paled in comparison to barbecue hotbeds like Austin, Nashville, and Eastern North Carolina. Now, we are a destination in our own right and this next year is only going to get more exciting.
Favorite New Restaurant: Hands down Luke's Craft Pizza. They didn't just open up a take-home pizza place, they changed the game for high-quality takeout cuisine in a dry market.
Best Meal of 2016: The first time I had dinner at the new Butcher & Bee. Everything was so creative and the service was so accommodating that I can't wait to go back.
2016 Hot Take: The past year was rather stagnant and boring in Charleston's restaurant scene. Even though we had some reinventions (McCrady's Tavern) and replacements (Nate Whiting with Josh Keeler at 492), there seemed to be a plethora of recycled ideas that just left diners sort of waiting for the next big thing to happen — and it never really did. Instead, some sleeper hits proved that smaller, less expensive, less pretentious might be better than big ideas, big budgets, and overblown concepts.
Best Surprise: For an example of what many frequent hardcore diners found charming this year, I give you Bar Normandy, the latest transformation of the Normandy Farms Bakery on Broad Street. These days, Chef Alex Lira (formerly of the Lot) cooks on what looks like a camp setup and serves three or four dishes a night that can be paired with some fantastic wines — all at an affordable price. How refreshing! Bar Normandy feels sustainable and organic, like a place that can grow and build loyalty by being inventive, delicious, and relatively inexpensive. It won my heart after merely one visit and I have been dying to get back there for another round.
Worst Meal of 2016: That had to be the James Beard Foundation's Taste of America dinner where Dan Barber of Blue Hill Farm teamed up with Sean Brock to give diners a lesson in food waste and reuse. Unfortunately, there weren't enough spoonfuls of sugar to help that medicine go down. Instead, the dinner felt preachy — with lengthy lectures at the beginning of each course — and the food failed to inspire anything but confusion. The first course was some sort of grain byproduct that was presented as risotto but looked like gruel and tasted like sour oatmeal. Another highlight of a noble idea gone bad was the pig blood taco/crepe creation of Brock's that reminded me of Arby's roast beef — thin, rubbery, with a hint of meat flavor. Needless to say, I absolutely hated this dinner — which cost a cool $300. After the meal, my tablemates weren't the only ones making a dash for the nearest hamburger joint. There's got to be a way that chefs can be passionate and have causes and still be able to present a delicious dinner instead of post-Civil War plates of meager offerings. #fail
Favorite Reinvention of 2016: Butcher & Bee. It seemed like everything changed when they moved from their scruffy King Street location to their sleek spot on Morrison Drive. The menu fully embraced the Israeli influence of owner Michael Shemtov. All those mezze — the whipped feta with honey, the deep-fried olives stuffed with anchovies, the creamy yogurt in all its many forms, the hummus! Oh, yes, this new B&B is amazing and the changes were rather ballsy. When B&B first opened, Shemtov touted late nights, BYOB, gourmet sandwiches, and uncomfortable community seating. Then they moved, and they weren't even open for lunch anymore. And now they've got a fabulous wine and beer list, a full cocktail menu, and a reason to come in for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Oh, and comfortable seating. Late night? Who needs you?
Trend Tipping Point: Can we please stop it with the elevation of lowbrow food? Can't we just have a simple plate of shrimp and grits. Maybe I'm feeling this way after watching a few episodes of the Top Chef Charleston, but I find elevating ingredients to be the new version of deconstructing dishes. Remember when they would present you with a deconstructed caesar salad and it was a dollop of dressing, an anchovy, a piece of crouton, and a chunk of lettuce? Yeah, that sucked. Elevating ingredients is a bit of the same thing — completely unnecessary and a way for chefs to show off. Just make it taste delicious and stop trying to impress us with how it looks.