2007 DISH Spring Dining Guide » Features

The New Old South

OK, so we've got great food — what's next?

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The light and tasty Grit Soufflé at Charleston Grill, reflects the overhauled menu and dining room - LESLIE MCKELLAR
  • Leslie McKellar
  • The light and tasty Grit Soufflé at Charleston Grill, reflects the overhauled menu and dining room

As much as Charleston sells its history and architecture, no one writes a travel article about the Holy City without mentioning the food. A walk down the Market on a brisk spring afternoon will find the storefronts crowded with restaurants offering myriad takes on what it means to cook and eat in the Lowcountry. People hobble to and fro, their distended bellies filled with our most celebrated fare, a bowl of shrimp and grits, some local steamed oysters, a crumble of benne cracker dotting their mouths, perhaps a slug of muscadine wine from Irvin-House Vineyards, and a cute hat for the kids from Bubba Gump's. Food is an integral part of the Lowcountry experience.

In a strange way, Charlestonians live in an elaborate stage production, a modern Disneyland preserving the vestiges of a legacy that, without the saving grace of tourism, might have vanished altogether. Pioneering restaurateurs plied our new visitors with an updated version of authentic Southern cuisine. With the help of grits and hog grease, chefs like Louis Osteen, Frank Lee, and Donald Barickman took dishes from the Southern buffet of the past and whipped up an upscale Southern food scene. Sure, places like Perdita's plied the craft for many years before, but after Charleston Grill and Magnolias opened, shrimp and grits no longer just meant breakfast for a scrappy longshoreman. It came with all sorts of exotic accoutrements as a main course in an expensive evening meal. From collards to cornbread, traditional dishes of the Lowcountry were plucked from their impoverished roots and prettied up for the crowds.

Dishes like pan-seared swordfish with ginger carrot puree, local peas, local spring onions, and a shrimp tarragon reduction keep S.N.O.B. fresh
  • Dishes like pan-seared swordfish with ginger carrot puree, local peas, local spring onions, and a shrimp tarragon reduction keep S.N.O.B. fresh

As the city grew, so did the prominence of its distinctive regional cuisine — one that now generates certain expectations from visitors. Peruse any internet message board on the subject and travelers planning a trip to Charleston will discuss at length the best place to dine on "local" delicacies. Never mind that no self-respecting Southern boy ever really thought of his shrimp and grits as anything but breakfast. Like afternoon cappuccinos in Rome, taste trumps tradition when money is on the line. In a tourist-driven economy, the gypsies run the palace and they get whatever they ask for — even an Italian version of shrimp and grits at Mercato.

Ironically, the success of the city's food scene might also threaten its legitimacy. Charleston is now in a period of development where "innovative" dishes of yesteryear have become "classic" examples sought out by every visitor. Restaurants and the chefs who create these dishes must now negotiate a difficult pact between the lure of profound commercial success and a further refinement and articulation of what Lowcountry cuisine is and should become.

Shrimp and grits benefit from a spicy twist at Magnolias
  • Shrimp and grits benefit from a spicy twist at Magnolias

Our fine dining scene, a relative youngster, has never been asked to transform. It's remained relatively static over the years, content to explore variations within a somewhat tight band of celebrated "classics," but shrimp and grits can get, well, boring. Recently there's been a new urge to innovate, pushed along by the same force that put us on the map — the tourist dollar. The key will be to push ahead while avoiding the pitfalls of mediocrity that have already befallen certain restaurants in town once considered leaders in the scene.

Charleston Grill responded to the challenge by closing for a full month and overhauling both the dining space and the menu — its success yet to be determined. Magnolias and S.N.O.B. now anchor corporate strategies for a profusion of upscale eateries of all shapes and sizes. Peninsula Grill dedicates itself to the finest service and execution and Chef Robert Carter embraces the classics of Southern cuisine, putting forth perfectly prepared regional fare.

These different moves indicate jockeying for position in a market on the cusp of greatness. Avoiding stagnation will require vigilance and a dedication to excellence, but that's what made places like the Peninsula and Charleston Grills great restaurants in the first place. With any luck, the dining rooms that put us on the map will remain some of our favorite places to eat in the next stage of the game.

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