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With endless restaurant possibilities, Charleston always comes back for breakfast

Rise and Shine

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It's the quintessential culinary love story: bacon and eggs. They've been through thick and thin — too greasy, too runny, too crispy, too hard — and they've always come out on top. On top of patty melts, breakfast bowls, biscuits, steaks, you name it. They nourish 7 a.m. growling bellies and soothe 1 a.m. aching hearts. Sometimes they become estranged children, deviating from the norm, smothered in ketchup or drenched in syrup. But they always reunite, in the end. Because when the screamers become hoarse and the Facebookstagram firehose slows to a trickle, as we sit and stare out from our respective trenches, there's something we can all agree on: breakfast really is the most important meal of the day.

Hot topic

To say that Charleston is known around the world as a "food destination" is like warning that bachelorette parties will wreak havoc on a sidewalk before noon — we know, we know, we know.

From Southern Living to Condé Nast Traveler to Travel and Leisure, national publications have sung the praises of the Holy City's culinary scene for years, and they show no signs of stopping.

In January 2018, Sid Evans wrote for T+L: "Charleston is an international food destination now, like Paris or San Sebastian, Spain. You can't walk half a block without stumbling on some inventive new oyster bar, cafe, or barbecue joint."

Yet lately, it seems, around every corner is a new breakfast joint: Daps Breakfast & Imbibe and Millers All Day are the new kids on the block, serving breakfast, coffee, and cocktails all day, every day. John Currence's cult-followed Big Bad Breakfast is slated to open on Meeting Street in the next year, and the biscuit biz is brimming — Maple Street Biscuit, Vicious Biscuit, and Rise Biscuits Donuts are all set to open in the area over the next six months. Basic Kitchen and One Broad dabble in breakfast, Sunrise Bistro is opening a new location in the old Charleston Cafe, and even food trucks are embracing the egg, with Scram posted up on Folly Road Thursday-Sunday each week.

Made with fried chicken, cheddar cheese, and sausage gravy, the Charleston Nasty is a beast. - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Made with fried chicken, cheddar cheese, and sausage gravy, the Charleston Nasty is a beast.

So with a seemingly infinite supply of restaurant concepts available in this culinary capital of the world — from the poké craze to the pizza boom to a new take on the "barbecue joint" — why do restaurateurs keep choosing breakfast, a basic niche that will probably earn you more nods from hungover tourists than the James Beard Foundation. And why are they serving it all day?

"I think breakfast has always had a big appeal for people," says Robert Stehling, owner of OG breakfast mecca Hominy Grill. Stehling opened Hominy in 1996, which in the turn and burn restaurant industry, is equivalent to forever and a day.

When Stehling gifted the Hominy breakfast to Charleston, his was one of the only games in town. Sure, there were hotels offering the morning meal, and Marina Variety Store, he recalls, but not the deluge of pancake-stacks we see today. "I came to breakfast when I worked in Manhattan for eight to 10 years, I worked at a couple of places there that really woke me up as a young professional to the potential of breakfast," says Stehling. "Sarahbeth's was this small chain and they'd do a breakfast all day thing ... it was a crazy mob there at brunches and I'd come in on Saturday the place would be packed, dinner would be kind of quiet."

Robert Stehling digs into Hominy Grill's iconic Charleston nasty biscuit - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Robert Stehling digs into Hominy Grill's iconic Charleston nasty biscuit

Big city mobs clamoring for eggs over easy and bacon extra crispy are nothing new, and serving or consuming a breakfast sandwich at 3 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon is not some revolutionary feat in 2018, nor was it 22 years ago. IHOP and Waffle House were founded in the '50s, and hordes of munchie-ridden, red-eyed teens, and the over-60 set have been filing into sticky booths for plates of the good stuff scattered, smothered, and covered for decades. But, according to an NPD Group report cited by Eater in 2016, the consumption of breakfast food is on the rise: "NPD estimates breakfast consumption (both in and away from home) will grow by five percent through 2019 — ahead of the expected population growth of four percent." Sounds like Millers and company might be onto something.

Greasing the pan

Twenty-two years and thousands of Charleston Nasty Biscuits later, Stehling's Rutledge Avenue charmer is still on every tourist "must" list, and a favorite of locals alike (nothing like grabbing a bloody out of the tiny order window). In October 2017, Stehling announced that after 21 years, Hominy would no longer be offering dinner service, which meant new menu items and more focus on the most important meal of the day. "The costs are so much better," Stehling explains. "Putting a $15 [breakfast] plate together is more fun, and easier. We turn every seat every hour all day long, so before 3 o'clock we've seen 600 people. Breakfast involves less labor ... the last few years we've been so hamstrung by the labor situation, breakfast just made it easier."

Park Cafe operating partner xan mclaughlin says his love of breakfast stems from childhood - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Park Cafe operating partner xan mclaughlin says his love of breakfast stems from childhood

Stehling is not the only one to abandon the dinner ship. In June 2017, Park Cafe operating partner Xan McLaughlin announced that the cafe's last dinner service would be June 24. They transitioned to just breakfast and lunch and started offering breakfast all day about six months ago. "It's been a huge success," says McLaughlin. "I never thought we'd be selling pancakes at 3 p.m. but we crush through pancakes. We also have the lunch menu all day so you can also get a cheeseburger at 7 a.m. My move is to get a fried egg sandwich add a burger, if you had a long night the night before, you're good to go. We do a fun breakfast patty melt with sausage instead of a burger. The response has been fantastic."

Kimana Littleflower, owner of The Junction Kitchen & Provisions, says that when she and her husband first opened the Spruill Avenue restaurant in 2015, they served only breakfast and lunch, adding dinner a few months down the road. Ten months ago, Junction ditched dinner, joining the ranks of other breakfast aficionados and doubling down on their original mission: make the food you really want. "We had lived in Park Circle for 10 years and there wasn't anything like it," says Littleflower. "[When you open a restaurant] you try to think of competitors and also it was something we really wanted. We used to go to IHOP all the time. We're veteran food and bev people — you wake up at noon and you go get breakfast at 2 p.m., it was a no-brainer, plus Park Circle has a ton of food and bev workers. The breakfast concept just evolved from our wanting to have one and living in Charleston, I didn't want to have to go to a chain."

Lower costs, fun for the customer and owners, and, according to Currence, not rocket science. Having a skilled sous chef who can whip up a mean coq au vin? Not an easy task. Mastering the perfect poached egg — doable. Currence writes in his 2016 cookbook Big Bad Breakfast: The Most Important Book of the Day: "In all fairness, cooking eggs is not that hard in the grand scheme of things. What it requires is thoughtfulness, care, respect, and patience."

But it's not all fun and games when it comes to opening a breakfast-centric restaurant. If you're a thoughtful restaurateur, the kind who doesn't just spit out buzzwords like 'experience' but lives and breathes the moments of your youth when you felt most alive every day you enter the freshly bleached kitchen, a breakfast restaurant isn't just a smart business move. It's your lifelong dream, finally fulfilled.

True Grits

Park Cafe's grain bowl with poached egg and avocado - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Park Cafe's grain bowl with poached egg and avocado

Currence perhaps waxes most poetic when remembering the greasy spoons and lunch counters of his circa 1960s New Orleans youth. In the introduction to Big Bad Breakfast, Currence writes: "I grew up in the last days ... of guys in crisp short-sleeved white work shirts and folded paper hats and perfectly coiffed waitresses. Allgood's on the downtown/river corner of Prytania and Delachaise was my absolute favorite ... Like many of the breakfast spots and old-line lunch counters, it had a chair-height bar that stretched down half of the room and offered a bird's eye view of all of the cooking activity. Its Formica expanse was dotted like a minefield with sticky spots of syrup, jelly, and juice."

It was the Cezanne-like landscape — simple and true and there — of those sticky counters that stuck with Currence even after he'd opened City Grocery in 1992, a restaurant that would earn him the James Beard: Best Chef in the South award in 2009. It was the sights and the sounds and the tastes, but more than that, it was the way it made you feel.

"I was fortunate enough to grow up in a household where we never went out to eat," says Millers All Day co-owner Nathan Thurston. "We'd have a family style breakfast with scrambled eggs, chipped beef ... sitting around that table is a very fond memory for me. I wanted to bring that experience to a restaurant."

Greg Johnsman and Nathan Thurston feast on Millers All Day waffles and a millers plate - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Greg Johnsman and Nathan Thurston feast on Millers All Day waffles and a millers plate
RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith

Thurston met grit whisperer Greg Johnsman about 12 years ago when he was a chef at the Ocean Room. "Greg got me on grits and cornmeal and we developed a really good relationship and talked about doing a restaurant that included a mill, that showcased a mill downtown. Grits are so prevalent here in Charleston, but not enough people know the process."

The two are working to educate the grit guzzlers at Millers. The restaurant has a 172-year old heirloom mill displayed in the front window, and serves up daily grit bowls crafted by creative executive chef Madison Tessener using the grits milled from that ancient machinery. "The farmer/restaurant, 'farm to table' relationship has been happening for 20 years or so," says Thurston. "But we wanted to really showcase that. And grits are the perfect vessel."

A vessel for eggs, country ham, corn, or, perhaps, the sweet, aching memories of Sundays past. "When I was a kid we'd have breakfast [food] on Sunday nights," recalls Stehling. McLaughlin grins, explaining his love of the food group, "I think that stems from childhood, you know. My favorite dinner was scrambled eggs."

Scram sausage egg bun (left), Melanie Durant in front of her truck - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Scram sausage egg bun (left), Melanie Durant in front of her truck

Former FIG pastry chef Melanie Durant, who has been successfully operating breakfast food truck Scram in a parking lot off of Folly Road for a little over a year — and straight killing the Instagram game, seriously check it out — says she's always been a morning person. Setting up precious baby blue patio chairs and tables in a corner of the empty lot at 7 a.m. on a Friday morning, Durant says she's been pleasantly surprised by the number of regulars, though anyone who has consumed one of her egg puffs or milk buns would tell you there's nothing surprising about her mobile success. With her extensive baking background, Durant says focusing on breakfast foods came naturally, "Breakfast you use bread, you make sweets. Breakfast was always my favorite thing to make for everyone, I like to get the day started early and go. I would always get up and go to the bodega and get a sandwich and find a place to sit and eat it before work. Here it is, this is my bodega."

From the childhood dining table to the beloved neighborhood bodega, there's something about breakfast food that tugs at the heartstrings. As simple as a plate piled with scrambled eggs, hashbrowns, sausage, and slightly soggy thin white toast or as complicated as a daily grit bowl, breakfast is a visceral experience, one that breakfast-loving chefs never forget. As Currence writes, "And the noises that accompanied the experience were universal, too: the barking of orders, the low hum of conversation, clatter of plastic plates and cups dropping into bus tubs, and constant dinging of a bell signaling what was ready to 'walk.' Those memories — moments of joy fascination, mystery, and excitement — seared into my eight-year old brain." Keep whipping up those perfectly poached eggs, Charleston. We'll be lined up outside the door.

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