David Schuttenberg and Tina Heath-Schuttenberg, the team behind James Island’s Kwei Fei, are known for bringing the fiery flavors of China’s Sichuan Province to the Lowcountry. In August, they launched their second project downtown on Columbus Street, Beautiful South, which focuses on cusine from southeastern China.
The warehouse space that Beautiful South calls home is decorated in shades of blue. A gorgeous bar with shining navy tiles takes center stage while ceramic art pieces in white and cobalt nod to Chinese tradition and depict contemporary themes. A commissioned work by the Florida-based ceramic artist Catalina Cheng, for example, features a blue-and-white painted tiger with a speech bubble that reads, “The future is gay.”
Most Beautiful South diners will sit at tables with banquette seating — Heath-Schuttenberg hopes folks will “tuck in to their table and not go anywhere for a couple of hours because they’re just having so much fun.” She used luxe velour and tweed fabrics on the back of the seating “so people feel like they’re being spoiled a bit,” she said.
“I wanted the space to be sexy. I wanted it to be different from something that you have seen in town.”
Low-hanging fixtures above the tables spotlight dishes, an effort to keep diners feeling beautiful in dim light and focused on the textures and colors in front of them.
“When you get the food from David and his team, it all comes out on these really vibrant plates and in these organic shapes,” Heath-Schuttenberg said.
The main art piece in the dining room, an installation from local artist Becca Barnett, embeds rice beads, local sand and indigo-dyed twine to create a topographical effect which shows reverence for Charleston water and its related traditions.
Heath-Schuttenberg, who brings a background in retail, fashion and creative direction, said she designed the space with the waterways of both the Lowcountry and the Pearl Delta River region of southeastern China in mind.
Schuttenberg and Heath-Schuttenberg, who have been together for more than 27 years, said working together has cultivated a sense of creative freedom for their ability to divide and conquer: She handles front-of-house issues, including the business side, marketing and social media, while he oversees all things culinary.
The secret to balancing working together and loving each other, they said with a laugh, comes from “staying in your lane.”
“Anything that happens through that threshold into the kitchen, that’s David,” Heath-Schuttenberg said.
Meanwhile Schuttenberg gives his wife credit for knowing their customers’ needs down to the smallest details.
“She is the person who understands how the lights should hit the tables, how the space should look,” he said. “When it comes to those details, it’s time for me to back out of the way. Her retail background and her consumer knowledge is invaluable to us.”
Proof of concept
The Chinese-American cultural amalgamation reflected in the decor is exactly what’s reflected on the menu.
“It’s kind of a layered approach,” Schuttenberg said. “The American- Chinese takeout-style food that everybody knows — beef and broccoli, General Tso’s — was developed by Chinese immigrants to the United States who were predominantly from the region of what used to be called Canton.
“Certainly my belief growing up eating it all the time was, that’s Cantonese. More recently, it’s been given its own term as American-Chinese, which I think is more appropriate. It is a completely legitimate style of Chinese cooking that was developed abroad in this country, which I think is fascinating.”
When the couple first started testing the Beautiful South concept under the name “Lady Xian” at Kwei Fei in 2018, Schuttenberg said the American-style takeout Chinese classics were an instant hit with their customers.
“We were thinking, what are we going to do during the slow months?” Schuttenberg said. “And then we were both like, General Tso’s, who’s not going to show up for that? And after three rounds of doing that, it became pretty clear that this is something people wanted.”
That’s when Schuttenberg became curious about the cuisine of the region formerly known as Canton. He decided to add dishes from the southeastern shores of China, served alongside Chinese-American takeout classics on the Beautiful South menu.
While the beef and broccoli option is one of the most popular dishes on the Beautiful South menu, Schuttenberg said that many customers are excited about those southeastern Chinese specialties — including street foods popular in Shanghai and Hong Kong. There are also plans to serve whole-roasted duck and dim sum in the future. Currently, Beautiful South is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, but the goal is to be open seven days a week once the back-of-house is fully staffed.
The cornerstone dish of the menu is the General Tso’s chicken, though the menu also offers a plethora of vegan options, like scallion oil noodles, bok choy and shiitake mushrooms with vegan oyster sauce. Many menu offerings can also be made vegan upon request.
Folks who know and love Kwei Fei will recognize a similar family-style format at Beautiful South as well as a rotating bar program and service that is both intentional and convivial.
“David and I look at our team as an extension of us. The service style is definitely something we care a lot about,” Heath-Schuttenberg said.
Schuttenberg added, “With this shiny new space, the goal for us was to not lose our identity, so to have a more casual laid back vibe, louder music. All of those things that we became known for at Kwei Fei we didn’t want to lose here.”
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