After two decades of enlightening the taste buds of Charleston diners, Cru Cafe has more dishes to conquer. | Photos by Ruta Smith

Executive chef and owner of Cru Catering and Cru Cafe John Zucker came into the Charleston culinary landscape around 2000, when he opened Cru Catering, becoming one of the city’s top caterers in City Paper’s Best of Charleston awards since 2001. 

Then, in 2002, following the swift success of Cru Catering, Zucker opened Cru Cafe on 18 Pinckney St. Twenty years later, the cafe has become a Charleston culinary landmark, serving innovative and international-inspired cuisine that, in its initial inception, was new to Charlestonian taste buds. 

Before he came to Charleston, Zucker graduated top of his class at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, followed by a career working with celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck at Spago in Las Vegas, then he became the sous chef at Canoe in Atlanta, which was nominated as Best New Restaurant by the James Beard Foundation in 1996. 

In honor of the cafe’s milestone, City Paper caught up with Zucker for Cru Cafe’s 20th anniversary to reflect on the two decades of being one of Charleston’s top establishments and the changes in the city’s evolving culinary scene since opening Cru. 

Zucker

“I always felt lucky that what I like to eat is typically what a larger percentage of what the public likes to eat, so I just followed my personal likes and put those things on the menu,” Zucker said about Cru Cafe’s key to longevity. “Typically, we get a great response because what you’re really trying to do is get out there and hit as many people as you can and make as many people happy with the food you’re putting out and not limiting yourself.

“And back then, [Charleston cuisine] was very limited,” he added. “I helped open up a restaurant called Sonoma … and that restaurant had a really eclectic menu. Then when we opened up [Cru Cafe], my background was this mix of French and Californian cuisine, and I carried that theme from Sonoma over to the cafe, and there was really nothing in town like that at all, nothing that was eclectic or bringing additional flavors to the table that I felt Charleston really needed.” 

With an ongoing staffing crisis in the food and beverage industry, tacked on with the COVID-19 pandemic the past two years, Cru Cafe has managed to weather the storms to reach its two-decade milestone. And it’s all thanks to the dedication of its staff, Zucker said.

“I feel like if any one of my employees were to leave, it would be very difficult to replace them,” he added. “I’m fortunate that I’ve had people with me for over 10 years. I know other restaurants say this, but we truly take care of our employees because they’re the key to our success. If one were to leave, it would just change everything in a heartbeat.” 

With over two decades of being part of the Charleston culinary community, Zucker has witnessed the changing landscape of the city’s restaurants, consulting with some like McCrady’s and 39 Rue de Jean, and experiencing firsthand the rising increase in different international cuisines. 

According to Zucker, it was initially hard to educate Charlestonian diners to the new types of ethnic cuisines he brought to their tables when he first opened Cru Cafe. Nevertheless, with places like Johnson & Wales University in the early 2000s (JWU closed its Charleston campus in 2006), Zucker noticed a rising increase in chefs who were hungry for more. The desire for education was there, just hidden amongst the young chefs. 

“There was a level of people who were wanting to learn, and we had a bunch of people come through that really wanted to learn to eventually open their own restaurant and that was kind of a rare scene,” he said.

In the past 20 years, that population has boomed, changing the city’s once-limited culinary landscape.

“Now, you’re seeing all these people that went through that process of learning and they’re all so talented. You can’t name one that’s not. Back then, it was just a handful of people trying to do things as a family. The choices were just not there.

“And now, how do you even decide where to go?”

Even with the city’s ever-changing scope, Cru Cafe still offers some “day one” menu items, showcasing the restaurant’s timeless meals with items like its Four Cheese Macaroni, Thai Seafood Risotto, Chicken Club and Chinese Chicken Salad. And though Zucker wishes he can make changes to the menu, Cru Cafe’s loyal customer base makes it difficult.

“It’s great that we’re able to keep some dishes on there for so long,” he said. “I have a guy who comes in three times a week for that chicken club and he’s been coming for 15 years. I saw him the other day and asked, ‘Hey, what if I took this sandwich off the menu? What would you do?’

“He laughed and said, ‘Better not have been ordering that for 15 years for you to take it off.’”