A lot has happened in the Charleston dining world since last summer. Of course, one could make that statement every year. Old restaurants close their doors and new ventures take their places. One chef gets tossed out of a noted kitchen, and another is lured away from a rival to fill the vacancy. This time around, though, it's more than just the usual turnover in an ever-changing industry. Something fundamental has shifted in local dining, and we've entered a new phase of our city's modern culinary history.
We might as well call it the post-Husk era.
When Husk opened its doors just before Christmas in 2010, it was the most anticipated and celebrated launch of any restaurant in our city's history. By now we all know the story: heirloom varieties, a celebration of purveyors, no ingredients produced outside the South, and lots and lots of pork fat. The buzz created a multi-week wait for reservations, and it transported Sean Brock into the high firmament of celebrity chef.
Husk's intensity created a thunderclap that is still reverberating through the local restaurant industry. In breathless pieces exploring the new lardcore thing, visiting writers passed over without even a mention of many of the restaurants that once routinely topped the lists of Charleston's best. Long-time chefs parted ways with established downtown restaurants, each for an individual set of reasons, but all involving a perceived need for change.
In this post-Husk era, dining has entered a new mode, one in which elegance and service take a backseat to the food — the bigger and bolder, the better. Smoke and flame are the order of the day with wood-fired ovens, grills, and rotisseries letting chefs cook in a big, elemental way. From soft-shell crabs to hog snapper, the seafood served on downtown tables has never been fresher. There's a laser-focus on the ingredients — fresh, local, and heirloom preferred — and an embrace of traditional smoking, salting, and pickling to further concentrate the already-intense flavors.
A steady tide is rolling up King Street, wiping away the boarded-up furniture stores and menswear shops and leaving in its wake fantastically gleaming new restaurants. Kevin Johnson made a splash with The Grocery, where his wood-fired oven kicks out a dazzling array of dishes, ranging from tiny bites of beets to a whole roasted snapper for the table to share. Just one block south, Nathan Thurston is on the verge of opening Stars, where a custom-made wood-fired grill and rotisserie will be the centerpiece of the kitchen. The pending arrival of The Ordinary, an oyster bar from FIG's Mike Lata and Adam Nemirow, has local foodies buzzing months in advance of its scheduled fall opening.
As if that's not enough, I'm told by folks with the inside scoop that we ain't seen nothing yet. Outside capital is pouring in to fund a range of even loftier and more extravagant ventures, so expect a continuing parade of big-ticket restaurant launches in the year to come.
And that raises an important question about the future of this flourishing dining scene. Not too long ago, I was drinking cocktails at the Belmont with a couple of guys from New Orleans, and we were talking about Charleston dining and all the recent restaurant openings. Finally, one of them paused over his Tiger Paw Sour and asked the pertinent question. "Charleston really isn't that big of a town," he said. "Who's eating at all these new places?"
Tourists, was my immediate answer, noting that events like Spoleto and the Southeastern Wildlife Expo pack our restaurants with out-of-towners. Plus, the coastal charms attract empty-nesters and retirees from far off with plenty of money to spend on fine dining. But even as I said it, the explanation didn't quite ring true.
Last year was a good one for tourism, rebounding from the recession dip with surging hotel occupancy rates. But according to figures from the College of Charleston's Office of Tourism Analysis, hotel occupancy was down 2.6 percent this May over last year, suggesting that the flow of tourism dollars won't be ever-rising. Our population has increased a little — about 15 percent over the past decade — but it's hardly a boomtown expansion.
Will there be enough of a market to support this surge of new high-end restaurants, or will it spark a Darwinian battle where an increasing number of competitors vie for the same limited resources?
There's something more than economics to be wary of. I keep getting glimpses of a warning light blinking somewhere off in the distance. Or, to put it a little differently, despite all the heat of our booming restaurant scene, there's still something that leaves me a little cold.
It's a matter of culinary identity. What is it that makes Charleston special? What do you get when you dine out here that you can't find in, say, Atlanta or Raleigh or Nashville? Are all these lardcore trappings nothing more than window dressing, the style of the moment?
The real risk is that Lowcountry cuisine is giving way to a more pan-Southern type of food. After all, the real innovation of Husk was not to be hyper-local — that hundred-mile radius thing — but rather hyper-regional in focus.
When outsiders look at Charleston these days, they see not the Lowcountry but the South. "Why all the fuss about Southern American cooking?" Jeffrey Steingarten asked in a recent glowing profile of Brock and Husk in Vogue. "It is simply the finest that America has ever produced."
In the new pan-Southern cooking, anything with a Dixie twang is given equal billing. Thus you get cornbread, bacon, shrimp, collards, grits, Carolina Gold Rice, Sea Island peas, pickled ramps, pimento cheese, and fried green tomatoes all lumped together and labeled a cuisine.
But the cooking of the Lowcountry was very different from that of, say, south Georgia or the rural western counties of Virginia. When the Works Progress Administration's Guide to the Palmetto State described Lowcountry cookery in 1941, it talked about shrimp, oyster, crab, "hop-in John," red rice, wild duck, okra and tomato pilau, syllabub, and benne-seed brittle. It didn't mention peanuts or country ham.
Like its accents and dialects, the South's cuisine is multifaceted. And yet today, the menus at our city's most lauded restaurants look almost identical to those of Atlanta, Nashville, or Birmingham.
Here's a fun test. The items below were selected from the menus of four different restaurants, each of which has a chef who has won or been nominated for Best Chef South or Best Chef Southeast by the James Beard Foundation. Each dish, in fact, is the first item to appear on the menu under the entrée section. Can you guess which of the four is from Charleston? (It's from Husk, by the way):
1) Fudge Farms pork confit and housemade sausage with rattlesnake beans, pink-eyed peas, and new potatoes
2) North Carolina guinea hen terrine with English peas, turnips, baby carrots, and roasted garlic mushroom broth
3) Sorghum glazed pork belly, carrot, cabbage, field peas, radishes, peanuts, mustard greens, pickled ramps
4) Duo of Border Springs lamb with Anson Mills Hominy, heirloom carrots, corn nuts, lamb bacon jus
No. 1 is from the Highland Bar & Grill in Birmingham, No. 3 from Restaurant Eugene in Atlanta, and No. 4 from the Capitol Grille in Nashville. The Husk entrée is No. 2.
There's some virtue in the similarities. Our tight-knit Southern chefs share ideas, inspiration, and ingredients, and there's nothing wrong with that. It's led to a vibrant rebirth of Southern cooking, one that has taken us beyond the stereotypes and clichés and found a new depth and intensity in the produce and preparations of our native soil. In some ways, perhaps, we first had to rediscover the South as a whole before we could rediscover our own little corner of it.
But now it's time to turn our focus back to that little corner. If not, we'll be in danger of losing what once made the cuisine of each subregion of the South so distinctive.
This is not a call to return to the past and limit ourselves by it. We can't stop time at some arbitrary point and preserve it in amber, and it would be futile even if we could. The regional cuisines of earlier centuries were as dynamic as ours is today, a cookery created from the intersection of multiple cultures in a particular time and place with a particular set of ingredients on hand to adopt and adapt.
So this isn't a plea to stay static. Instead, it's a plea to continue evolving but to do so in a more tightly localized way.
When I went to Louisiana for vacation over the Christmas holidays, I was struck by the sheer vibrancy of restaurants and dishes that you can find only in New Orleans. Tempting as they looked, we skipped past a lot of hot new restaurants like August and Stella! and Herbsaint, and we missed Cure and Bar Tonique at cocktail hour, too. Why? Because we could get the same kind of meals here at home at the Macintosh or the Grocery, and similar craft cocktails at the Gin Joint. Instead, we ate debris po-boys at Mother's, gulf oysters at Acme, and high Creole at Antoine's and Galatoire's. Happy hour found us sipping Sazeracs at the Sazerac Bar and Vieux Carres at the Carousel. And when I go back I'll do it again.
Amid the pan-Southern welter, there are some encouraging signs. One of the areas where we are already getting it right is with our seafood. Nothing could be more distinctively Charleston than white shrimp straight from the trawler net or line-caught fish fresh off the Bump.
In fact, I need to make a confession. In my "pick the local dish" quiz above, I cheated. I actually picked not the first entrée from each restaurant's menu but the first non-fish entrée. I had to, because the fish give it away. Highlands Bar & Grill's grilled redfish or the Capitol Grille's pan-fried red mountain trout aren't going to be mistaken for a Charleston dish, and no chef in Raleigh or Atlanta is having deep-sea fishermen deliver them stuff that was caught fresh that morning.
Our local cooks have so much more to work with than pork fat and bacon. After years of avoiding them as a tourist cliché, some of our best chefs have reclaimed shrimp and grits, putting their own deft spins on an old local staple. She-crab soup is long overdue for a similar treatment, for it's a genuine but long-suffering Lowcountry creation with the potential for elegance and grace.
My hope is that this wild flourish of creative energy — and the influx of investment capital that's making it a reality — comes more tightly into focus. The elements are all here: unique local ingredients, a long and rich culinary history, and a close-knit community of chefs working together and sharing ideas and inspiration. These may well converge to create a mode of dining that is unique to our particular place and time. And then, as they arrive in town for their annual treks, our nation's food writers will rave not about the wonders of Southern cooking but rather about the splendid Lowcountry cuisine that can be found only here in Charleston.
But no matter what happens, it's going to be an exciting summer and fall for local diners. As we watch this third wave of Charleston dining wash over us, we're in for a tasty ride.