Thursday evening I was working a jigsaw puzzle at my dining room table when a press release landed in my email. The subject read, “Neighborhood Dining Group Updates.”
“This can’t be good news,” I thought.
It wasn’t. Back in March, the group temporarily shuttered all of its Charleston restaurants. Now it has decided that its two East Bay Street properties, McCrady’s and Minero, will not be coming back.
The decision came, NDG president David Howard explained in the release, after much exploration of “the future of our restaurant operations” and “how they will fit into the new reality we anticipate for the F&B industry.”
McCrady’s tasting-menu format and “intimate setting,” Howard writes, “will no longer be viable in this changed business environment with restrictions on seating capacity.” Minero, the casual Mexican spot on the second floor of the building adjoining McCrady’s, will be closing for good as well.
NDG will focus instead on Husk, Delaney Oyster House, and the new Johns Island location of Minero. Originally slated to open this summer, the new 4,300-square-foot setting will feature outdoor seating and support curbside pickup along with more-distanced dining.
It was one hell of a way to close out the month of April. This week, news of permanent closures — as opposed to temporary shutdowns — had already started trickling in.
Parcel 32 on King Street will be converted to an event venue, and R.B.’s Seafood — an old Shem Creek warhorse since 1979 — has been sold to an Atlanta-based developer. In an even bigger blow, word came that Nana’s Seafood & Soul — one of the last outposts of Gullah cuisine on the peninsula — will no longer be dishing out fried whiting and garlics crabs downtown.
Now we know two more downtown icons won’t be coming back.
McCrady’s opened in March 1993 on the ground floor at 2 Unity Alley, a 9,500-square-foot edifice built in 1767 that once housed Edward McCrady’s tavern. It was launched by the owners of Restaurant Million, an upscale French restaurant that originally occupied the ground floor space and moved upstairs to make room for the less-formal concept.
Jose de Anacleto was the chef for both restaurants, and his original McCrady’s menu offered a slate of internationally inspired dishes like curried chicken wings and lentil and chorizo soup.
The restaurant changed hands a few times in the years that followed. In 1999, California native Michael Kramer became executive chef, and he accepted the job on one condition: “That I don’t have to do Southern food.” Chilean sea bass and butter-poached lobster with foie gras and black truffle-riesling sauce were among the highlights of his then-acclaimed menu.
In 2006, just a few years after I moved to Charleston, Sean Brock returned to the city to take over the McCrady’s kitchen. Steeped in the deconstructivist mode of Spanish chef Ferran Adria, he transformed that kitchen into a molecular gastronomic laboratory before turning his eyes toward local fields and waters.
Other talented Charleston chefs were mining that same farm-to-table vein, but it was under Brock’s manic evangelism that it all coalesced at McCrady’s. His crew butchered pasture-raised pork and whole fish line-caught in local waters. Up on the roof, they raised herbs and edible flowers and filled a shed with pickles and vinegars. They even launched a short-lived farm out on Wadmalaw.
“Lardcore,” an energetic renewal of Southern cooking, took hold in 2011 after Brock transplanted his hyper-regional cuisine to Husk on Queen Street. But those seeds were germinated at McCrady’s.
When Minero launched in 2014, Brock’s casual taco joint seemed destined to be a flash in the pan, a side trip into the chef’s obsession of the month. It was high-concept, with heirloom corn tortillas, mismatched silverware in little drawers at each table, and long shelves of rare mezcal behind the bar.
But Minero proved to have legs, and there was no place in town quite like it. The first bite of each taco was reliably splendid and intense, delivering a punch of char from charcoaled chicken or the splendid crisp crunch of fried catfish. I was consistently enthralled by the smoky heat of the Valentina-laced chicken wings steaming up from their brown paper bag.
In 2016, Minero moved upstairs to make room for a new McCrady’s tasting room. Weary of cornbread and fried chicken, Brock poured his avant garde sensibility into a parade of meticulously-orchestrated bites: a cylinder of Ossabaw pork with red bay and sorghum, a pristine sea scallop beneath a blanket of sea-like foam, a narrow strip of 65-day-aged ribeye dusted with black truffle.
I was floored by it all. I pondered at the time whether the latest incarnation of McCrady’s might offer a path forward for Charleston dining and herald “a return to the relentless, obsessive focus on technique and ingredients while still embracing the more casual contemporary mode.”
It proved instead to be Brock’s last dance in Charleston. Not long after, he decamped to Nashville for good and parted ways with NDG. With a well-regimented kitchen, McCrady’s carried on, and it was sitting at the top of my list of restaurants to revisit and re-review before the whole pandemic thing put a stop to such exercises.
The legacy of those spaces on Unity Alley and East Bay an goes far beyond the stunning meals I’ve enjoyed there.
In the 1790s, Edward McCrady’s Long Room was the largest hall in the city, the site of countless banquets, dances, and performances. It was where George Washington, visiting Charleston during his 1791 “Southern tour,” was treated to a sumptuous feast.
I will remember historically themed banquets, rye whiskey and militia punch seminars, and welcoming new members into the Brown Water Society within those walls.
For me, the buildings were a sprawling culinary wonderland where the past and present met and inspired us to press forward into the future.
Of course, that McCrady’s was largely gone before COVID-19 struck. Last July, after years of trying to make the large McCrady’s Tavern space work, NDG closed off the 2 Unity Alley building and put it up for sale.
I can’t help but draw a contrast to April of last year, when word came that Robert Stehling had decided to close his iconic Hominy Grill. In that case we had three weeks of notice — time to make one final visit, to enjoy one last plate of shrimp and grits and give a proper farewell.
That’s not how it works in 2020. For weeks, people have been saying that the restaurant industry will look very different when it comes out on the other side. But until now, it’s been hard to see exactly how things are going to be different. Now we are getting a glimpse.
Old friends will be gone, and entire formats and categories might be, too. I am inherently an optimist, but if “the new reality we anticipate for the F&B industry”, to borrow David Howard’s words, doesn’t have room for a McCrady’s or a downtown Minero, then it’s not a reality I am looking forward to seeing.
After shooting out a few messages about the McCrady’s and Minero news, I went back to my jigsaw puzzle. I realized I had forced together a couple of pieces that didn’t actually fit, but even after correcting that, I still couldn’t make progress. The colors and the patterns were too similar, and I couldn’t see how one piece fit in with the next.
So I paused and poured a couple of ounces of Charleston Sercial in a glass. I sipped the madeira in memory of the many excellent meals and even better company enjoyed in that old, rambling complex on East Bay.
We still have Delaney Oyster House — NDG’s newest jewel on Calhoun Street — and of course Husk and the Bar at Husk. I guess that will have to do. Love Best of Charleston? Help the Charleston City Paper keep Best of Charleston going every year with a donation. Or sign up to become a member of the Charleston City Paper club.
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