Why Charleston’s Food Scene Is Stronger Than Ever Right Now
When a city falls for a chef’s cooking, it’s easy to forget the dining experience is a temporary sensation. Though chef Sean Brock’s efforts both in and out of the kitchen helped raise Charleston’s profile to that of a global dining destination, the announcement last summer that Brock was officially taking a step back—or severing ties in some cases—from his Charleston restaurants left residents of the Holy City muttering a few words you wouldn’t say in church.
Charleston’s changing of the guard isn’t just relegated to a celebrity chef’s departure. In April, chef Robert Stehling, who won a James Beard Award in 2008 at Hominy Grill, announced he was closing the beloved restaurant after 24 years in business. With the city’s reputation for hospitality firmly entrenched, two prominent ambassadors reshifting their focus might prompt the question: What will happen to the city’s food scene?
However, with crowds continuing to pour in, Charleston isn’t about to leave visitors wishing they dined somewhere else.
Not just bachelorette parties
According to Explore Charleston, a recent annual report from the College of Charleston’s Office of Tourism Analysis revealed that 7.28 million visitors descended upon the South Carolina port city in 2018.
As you might expect, food and history were the two biggest tourism draws. For a city within a county of nearly 406,000 residents, according to the last U.S. Census, it’s easy to see that the hospitality industry is powering the local economy. And with an estimated $8.13 billion tied to tourist activities in 2018, Charleston’s growing number of restaurants, bars, and hotels is crucial to keeping the spotlight shining on this city.
“If anything, the industrywide changes that have swept Charleston recently have only served to reinforce, at least within local circles, that the city is not a monolith,” says Nayda Hutson, a co-owner and general manager of Renzo.
The restaurants (and chefs) you need to seek out
Located on Huger Street (pronounced “u-Gee” street if you want to sound like a local), Renzo embodies the new wave of restaurants that make Charleston exciting. On the first floor of a charming house, on a street that you won’t discover on a horse-drawn carriage tour, chef Evan Gaudreau is still coming to terms with his James Beard Foundation nomination as a Rising Star Chef for 2019. His cuisine—think boquerones draped on top of grapefruit slices followed by a freshly made pizza covered in piquillo pepper sauce—represents the next phase of Charleston’s storied dining scene.
“My goal at Renzo has always been to buy the best ingredients and cook the most delicious food I could, but the thought never even occurred to me that we could be featured on a national platform in this way,” says Gaudreau. “I was just focused on cooking tasty food and figuring out my personal style. I’m still figuring it out.”
Chefs like Gaudreau and Josh Walker of Xiao Bao Biscuit and Tu have looked beyond the Low Country for creative inspiration, and their restaurants represent one aspect of why Charleston’s dining scene is so unique. Historic Southern culinary traditions such as Gullah Geechee cuisine and whole hog barbecue have also found an audience in Charleston, thanks to the work of chef BJ Dennis and James Beard Award–winning pitmaster Rodney Scott.
However, it’s not just eclectic menus and the preservation of historic Southern fare that are shaping the city’s new culinary reputation. Charleston is in the midst of a building boom, and luxury hotels are becoming popular gathering places for visitors and residents alike.
At the newly opened Hotel Bennett, the on-site restaurant Gabrielle is ushering in a new era of fine dining with a traditional tin of caviar, duck à l’orange, and a selection of seafood and steaks served with accompaniments like foie gras butter. “I’d like to think we’re updating traditional Low Country cooking the way Escoffier modernized cuisine in France,” says Gabrielle’s executive chef Michael Sichel.
New luxury hotels like The Dewberry provide everything from scenic rooftop bars to full-service dining rooms, making them a popular escape for anyone who’s had enough of the Charleston heat on their historic downtown walking tour. An estimated 35 hotels are expected to be finalized over the next few years in the greater Charleston area, according to a report from the commercial real estate firm CBRE, ensuring that hotel restaurants will play an even bigger role in setting the table for where guests choose to dine.
Drinks to consider (besides sweet tea)
Distilled-spirit and wine bars have also elevated Charleston’s drinking culture. High Wire Distilling, a small-batch spirits maker, is nationally recognized for its amaro made with locally foraged and sourced ingredients including Charleston black tea.
As for wine bars, Stems & Skins and Graft Wine Shop have received extensive praise for their selection and non-pretentious approach to wine service. “In the past three years, so much has changed for the better in the wine scene, and to think that we were an active part of that is pretty sweet,” says Graft Wine Shop co-owner Miles White, who, along with co-owner Femi Oyediran, was included in Food & Wine’s list of top sommeliers for 2019. “When you look at the food and wine scene in this town, for how small it is, it doesn’t make any sense,” White says. “It’s this weird paradox that works, and you get the benefit of living in a small town with big city amenities.”
Preserving facts, not myths
If the narrative of Charleston’s hospitality industry is that of a small town holding its own against big-city powerhouses, it’s thanks to a collective effort. “There’s been a lot of discussion about what Sean Brock’s departure from Charleston means for the industry as a whole,” Hutson reflects. “And while chef Brock was certainly a great ambassador for and champion of Southern foodways, it’s important that we not get so caught up in this ‘great man’ myth that we overlook the very real contributions that so many other figures have made and continue to make in our city.”
As the city works to maintain its glowing reputation, the biggest challenge might not be retaining talent, but finding a way to fit everyone. No matter what the future brings, the conversations being shaped by chefs, established and new, aren’t going to be forgotten anytime soon. After all, Charleston is known for preserving its history.
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