Robert Carter is a meat and potatoes guy. He loves iceberg lettuce and a well-seasoned, expertly cooked steak. He loves tall chef hats and starched coats and classic fine dining experiences. All of these loves added up to a concept that he and restaurateur Hank Holliday hit upon 15 years ago — a new Southern classic in the model of Commander's Palace in New Orleans or Bern's Steak House in Tampa. They called it Peninsula Grill and it opened in February 1997.
From the start, Peninsula Grill was a bastion of fine dining in the South. Its unapologetically decadent menu served up a burly rib-eye with foie gras, expensive caviar, and the tallest coconut cake anybody'd ever seen. It still does, even though caviar has reached $175 an ounce these days. Over the years, Carter was rarely photographed without his tall toque, and he liked to present an air of serious professionalism. Every night that he was at the restaurant, he worked the line, checked every scallop that came in the back door, got on his hands and knees to make sure the floor was swept properly, and personally insured that every dish that came out of that kitchen was up to Peninsula Grill's standards.
"Back then, I was into setting the world on fire from a culinary standpoint," says Carter as he digs into a pork tamale at North Charleston's bastion of casual Mexican dining, La Norteña. "But I've never been trendy. I was always into the pomp and circumstance of what fine dining was."
He remembers that Peninsula received tons of press and lots of attention from the start. The success was immediate.
Carter was one of the first chefs I ever photographed or interviewed in Charleston. Peninsula Grill was the place my business partners and I went to celebrate after we closed the deal on buying this newspaper. (We charged more than $1,000 on our credit card and it took us probably a year to pay it off, but, boy, was it worth it.) On the City Paper's first anniversary, Carter and crew sent us over an entire coconut cake to celebrate and even let us publish the recipe to it (we might let you come check out our print archives and make a copy, for a fee, of course). When some newspaper buyers came to town to woo us early in our career, they took us to Peninsula and impressed us by paying the inordinate bill we had racked up. For years, the bar was a regular stop at the end of the night for a big slice of coconut cake. My kids came to expect the sweet remnants for their breakfast the next morning. It's been a big part of our experience in Charleston, as it has for many other people in town. So it was quite shocking when Carter and Holliday parted ways in May 2011.
Today, Carter seems happy with how things turned out. He's actually relieved to take the tall chef's hat off and put on a new one as restaurateur. He's already opened one new restaurant — Carter's Kitchen in I'On — and he's hard at work on his second, Rutledge Grill and D's Liquor Bar, which is slated for a mid-October opening date.
"I feel like so many people are judging me for not being in the kitchen every night," he muses. "But I deserve a different perspective on the business. I don't have to be in the kitchen at 50 years old slinging hash."
Part of his goal with his new career as a restaurant owner is to mentor and nurture young talents, sharing wisdom gleaned from his 22 years on the line. "I want to give young chefs an opportunity. These aren't going to be Chef Carter's restaurants, these are going to be Bob Carter's restaurants, and I'll give a chef charge of the kitchen, with my oversight."
Some of that wisdom he's gained in his 15 years in the business in Charleston: 1) You're not there for the media, you're there for your customers. 2) Don't listen to people's advice if they've never been in your restaurant (you'd be surprised). And, 3) Don't knock Sean Brock, who has done more for Charleston on a national and international scale than anyone else ever ("He's been on Charlie Rose for crying out loud!" Carter points out).
Carter may not have been on Charlie Rose, but he's no doubt played an important role in the culinary scene over the years, and his legacy at Peninsula lives on. You can taste it every night.