Chef Richard Barlion is bringing his four-star experience to bear at the humble Starfish Grille on James Island, reinventing the classic seafood shack into a more modern venue that focuses on fresh, seasonal, Southern fare. As the culinary scene shifts, older restaurants are having to either keep up with current demands or bow out of the competition. Restaurateur Kerry Gionis has been in the business for 30 years, and it seems he has no intention of giving up. He's brought in a talented chef who's worked in upscale kitchens — most recently at Circa 1886 for the last four years as executive sous chef — to help focus the menu and reposition Starfish Grille as a destination for James Islanders looking for Southern seafood.
For Barlion, a reformed Ohioan, it's an opportunity to stay in Charleston, a place he loves, and get out on his own a bit. "The high-end positions at places like Tristan, they rarely open up," he says.
The Johnson & Wales-trained chef says the trick is to transform Starfish Grille from a tourist spot to a locals-only kind of place. The 15-year-old Starfish began its life as a cute little seafood shack on the Folly Beach pier but relocated several years ago to the Publix shopping center on Folly Road. Since the move, it's been trying to find its niche, and the food world has changed quite a bit too. Diners want craft beers; they want to know where the food was grown and by whom, and they want to know the restaurant they choose is serious about providing good food.
Barlion says he's been at Starfish for two months, and he's making the changes as fast as he can. Currently, they're working through the current inventory of beer, but he says he hopes to bring in taps for the likes of Terrapin, Ranger, and Sweetwater beer. "Baby steps," he says.
The menu has been streamlined. Barlion cut some old dishes, but he kept favorites like the shrimp and grits, crediting his boss with having the first shrimp and grits on the menu in the 20th century. We haven't verified that fact, but it could very well be true since Gionis had a restaurant in the market back in the day.
Barlion has added some new items including roasted flounder and pickled shrimp, two quintessential local ingredients. Despite the new focus, entrée prices have been kept below $20.
In addition to the new menu, Barlion says they'll be working on revamping the interior space as well. "We've got an old boat in the corner that we're going to turn into a community table," he promises.
It sounds like a good strategy for attracting local foodies to Starfish. Indeed, this James Islander is seriously planning a visit.