Back in January, when I was first approached by the City Paper with the opportunity to write about food, I was intrigued, to say the least. I am an academic, an educator and historian, rather than a chef, and my time spent studying the rich history of Charleston’s cuisine instilled a deep reverence for the traditions and customs that our diverse legacy passed down to the present day. Charleston is a gem of a restaurant city. Its cuisine embodies the souls of a myriad of cooks, free and enslaved, who contributed their cultural intellect to form what we now call Lowcountry cuisine. Being the type of guy who prefers to make his own pasta, link his own sausages, and devote all-nighters to a smoldering barbecue pit, the opportunity to investigate and share the exploration of our wonderful culinary environment was too great to pass up. How could any self-respecting foodie not jump at the chance?
As most food writers will tell you, however, the job requires more than an inquisitive mind, a knowledge of foodways, and a desire to share your experiences with others. It also requires, at times, an iron gut and a willingness to put aside personal preferences and approach food from a democratic perspective. Not all people enjoy the same tastes and a critic must master the difficult task of expressing the soul of an establishment, rather than a laundry list of individual proclivities. The last few months have provided an interesting education, but one thing is for sure; if I ever get to heaven, I will surely be ejected once they realize just how gluttonous a life I have led. When it came time to develop this bi-annual dining guide two months ago, an iron gut and an open mind were the only defense against a grueling onslaught of food that has left me 15 pounds heavier and immensely more aware of the culinary ebb and flow of Charleston’s food world. But I found that my experiences changed many of the preconceptions that only occasional dining in the cities’ restaurants bestowed. It is a dog-eat-dog world out there — and my editor makes me eat them all.
At a casual glance, the food scene appears almost static. A few places come and go, but the flow remains somewhat constant. This, it seems, is a grand illusion. There exists a tremendous focus on innovation and brutal competition in a town that supports one of the highest per-capita ratios of restaurants-to-inhabitants in the world. Such a race for excellence produces a fine crop of eateries in our city, showcasing some of the best food in the country, but it is always in flux.
This dining guide represents only a passing snapshot of the culinary landscape as it exists today — for it will most certainly change in the coming weeks and years. The forces that drive our society reflect greatly on our food, and the restaurant industry responds with new concepts and the weaning of aged ones. We have seen tremendous change in the last year. An explosion of small plates and a renewed focus on wine bars with small pours further democratized the fine dining scene — and we lost some good friends. The recent closing of Binh Minh, an established favorite, and the abrupt retirement of Mo Sussman took some great food off the proverbial table.
But we also see glints of greater changes to come. The waves of immigration that are changing the cultural landscape, especially in the North area, also bring delicious morsels from exotic realms. Latin Americans have arrived with the flavors of a different world. Brazilians, Mexicans, Dominicans, Guatemalans, Nicaraguans, and others all bring to the table an innate sensibility of how food should taste and this influence will ultimately spread. In fact, it already has.
Taco Boy, the latest Folly Beach addition, promises a more authentic expression of the quintessential Mexican street food, and places like Amazon Grill, La Norteña, and La Playita are now attracting droves of gringos keen on exploring the nuances of regionalism in a cuisine that previously languished in the mediocrity of watered-down Tex-Mex. It is a welcome change, one that will enhance the future legacies of Creolization in the Lowcountry.
Other forces, cosmopolitan ones driven by a different type of immigrant, also push today’s Charleston in new culinary directions. The arrival of new chefs — Sean Brock of McCrady’s and David Szlam and Cory Elliot of Cordavi — is breathing fresh life into the high-end scene. It seems that the exaggerated reinterpretation of Lowcountry cooking that began in earnest after Hurricane Hugo may be passing into the realm of Disneyfied tourism.
The days of topping creamy grits with expensive extravagances are being challenged by the influx of an entirely new approach to food — one in which Charleston shows that it can ride the cutting edge. Some call it “molecular gastronomy,” some call it “playing around with food,” and undoubtedly some will decry it as a weird attempt to attract attention. No one will deny its innovative nature. These chefs, following the lead of some of the most celebrated restaurateurs in the world, use the science of chemistry to turn cooking on its head. They explore the interactions of exotic substances and hypercontrolled cooking environments with luxury foods, creating juxtapositions of texture and flavor available in only the most cosmopolitan of cities. If successful, their work represents the current that will shape the future of innovation in Charleston’s haute cuisine.
And so they keep coming and going — and we keep bringing you the latest on who is doing it right, who is just prying at your wallet, and everything in between. But it remains the realm of the readers to decidedly choose the future. Your dollars are what bring it all to fruition and influence the change that keeps Charleston the most delicious city in America.