The restaurant business is always tough sledding, even during good times. Hard choices must be made in the face of the worst market declines in a century, and the time to shuffle and redefine the culinary landscape is now. Those that refuse will not survive. It can be no other way. Fewer dollars in the hands of diners will mean a return to basics, a reinvigoration of the true skills of a restaurateur — to welcome people with passionate cooking and, perhaps more importantly, provide the warmth and hospitality of a comfortable and inviting atmosphere.
Restaurateurs and chefs must take stock of what works, what the people demand, and what might keep them afloat in an uncertain world. Forget elaborate marketing; people want substance. When jobs evaporate and belts tighten, people cling to what comforts them most. When people hurt, they relish the memories of those warm meals with family and friends and recollections of more cheerful times. And in that long winter, they remember the abundance of springtime and hope for
Already we’ve seen glimpses of a simpler, more authentic haute cuisine in the city. You will find no more foams or extravagant cotton candies at McCrady’s. For the past year, Chef Sean Brock has been on the farm, raising his own pigs, growing his own tomatoes, serving French breakfast radishes with only sea salt and butter. Craig Deihl at Cypress sources grassfed beef from MiBeck Farms in rural South Carolina. Anthony Gray breaks down whole pigs at High Cotton and uses everything but the squeal. This is a new cuisine, except it’s not so new. Almost every great cuisine traces its roots to the necessities of poverty, to the use and reuse of scarcity. The Lowcountry’s food culture certainly owes its beginnings to the humble pots of the downtrodden.
All across town, as winter has descended, we’ve witnessed a seasonal examination of the table’s roots, surly foods of poverty that dwell at the bottom of the pantry and wait for lean times to be transformed into hearty meals, or are gathered from the roadsides and riverbanks. In this economic calamity, these themes of rustic self-sufficiency will continue to color the top kitchens in town. Local has finally transplanted the organic fad, and many chefs and foodies alike are rediscovering their own backyard. The simple wisdom of Mike Lata’s ingredient-driven cuisine at FIG seems especially relevant today. This is the approach that more expensive establishments must take to continue attracting pocketbooks frozen in an economic blizzard.
More importantly, we will see an emphasis on authentic service, the art of the restaurateur. In good times, it’s easy to forget the real reason people go out to eat, and restaurateurs will no longer have the liberty of ignoring diners’ desires. Places predicated on serving people en masse, to the detriment of personal attention and warm, knowledgeable service, will find themselves out in the cold. Satisfying throngs of anonymous diners will give way to the luring of regular patrons, who want to open the door to a crackling fire, people who know their name, and a favorite seat that they come back to every year on vacation, or every week when they take their significant other out to get away from the kids. From little bistros tucked away on the barrier islands, to downtown divas sporting million dollar facades, service comes down to the people they employ and their ability to connect personally with the clientele.
Ken Vedrinski seems to sense this. He opened Trattoria Lucca, a small, intimate dining room in a transitional neighborhood, where he began serving Sunday dinner, family style, just like his great-great grandma in southern Italy did. Oak Steakhouse expanded next door to serve little pizzas, simple, hearty fare like a fisherman’s stew, and Sunday dinner too.
But I can think of no better example than Mickey Bakst, Charleston Grill’s warm frontman, who gets much less credit than he deserves. He pushed to reposition Charleston Grill way ahead of the curve with a new menu and an updated decor, with the intent of creating a more personal experience and local following. For a consummate arbiter of the art of hospitality, this was an innate instinct. For the rest of Charleston’s food and beverage crowd, it should be a lesson. Innovate, or people will stop coming to eat.
The prosperity of the last few years allowed local chefs the unparalleled freedom to experiment with and reinvent the notion of Charleston’s cuisine. Shrimp and grits no longer define our white tablecloth restaurants. We now offer a dynamic culinary scene that explores the forefront of our regional cuisine, and this makes for a promising future.
The horrible aftermath of Hurricane Katrina shifted the national focus of southern food in our direction, and Charleston carries more weight in the world of food than ever before, but we have an important lesson to learn from the Crescent City. In a town that prides itself on hospitality, voted as friendly or “most inviting” time after time, Charleston doesn’t know much about service — not compared to New Orleans, which essentially defined the art. Its best restaurants exude a style and custom that we frankly haven’t yet approached. What we lack most are time-honored traditions that haven’t become ballyhooed marketing campaigns (Grand-Ma shots aside).
Some restaurants will use this downturn to trim staff, or replace professionals with temporary workers from local universities. They will find it hard to create the skilled service environment that personifies a place like Charleston Grill, stocked with professional waiters who understand the art of the table. These are people who carry (or, rather, use) a table crumber, bartenders who approached the free pour revolution as an invitation to learn everything possible about the lost art of mixing cocktails, and hosts and hostesses who have something to add to a dining room besides their good looks.
Successful restaurants will not so much downsize this winter as retool. They will use these conditions as an opportunity to transform, to create sustainable models that employ people over the long term, with benefits and profit-sharing that results in an even more dedicated culinary community than before — one that makes dining an experience in exemplary service by full-time professionals who have reason to care. They will cultivate staff and view training as a capital investment rather than a discretionary expense. In doing so, we might reinvent what it means to eat in downtown Charleston. This is what I hope will happen, at least in a few places, because they will plant the seeds for an even greater spring yet to come.