The Charleston Grill opened its doors earlier this month for the first time since the onset of the pandemic without Mickey Bakst, the legendary general manager who brought palpable energy to the restaurant’s dining room for more than 15 years. Everyone says Bakst will be missed — and they’re right — but what made working with him so special?
In 2009, Graft Wine Shop co-owners Miles White and Femi Oyediran, Vintage Lounge co-owner Nathan Wheeler and Darling Oyster Bar co-owner Bobby Young were all working at The Charleston Grill under Bakst, who’s known around town as the “Unofficial Mayor of Charleston.” We asked for their take on how Bakst earned that moniker and why the Charleston restaurant industry won’t be the same without him.
City Paper: Do you remember your first interaction with Bakst?
Miles White: Femi and I got hired around the same time to run food — I was 19 and Femi was 21. I walked in [for my interview] in shorts and a polo, and the first thing he said to me was, “You really should have dressed nicer for this.” I think he was kind of messing with me, and I eventually got hired.
Nathan Wheeler: I got hired as a food runner and a server assistant. He could put you at ease by making jokes, asking about your family and where you grew up. I just remember him going out of his way to make me feel comfortable in a new environment.
CP: What made Mickey different from other restaurant GMs?
Femi Oyediran: The way he approaches hospitality is really unique. He had a respect for the hospitality industry in a way that was akin to an ancient respected skill set. I think everyone that steps away from that restaurant wants to emulate that energy in a way. It’s funny because that’s a very real thing. For a lot of us, Mickey really showed us how to handle all situations.
Bobby Young: For Mickey, hospitality doesn’t stop in the dining room — it’s a way of life. His affability and gratitude is infectious. Mickey has a charisma that is unmatched in the hospitality field, and the joy that he brings to the dining room is unmistakable.
CP: What was dinner service like with Mickey?
FO: If you’ve ever had the pleasure of sitting for a lineup with Mickey, it’s never traditional. It’s the huddle before dinner. He comes in singing, he has an opening statement, sometimes he’ll tell a story or talk about a restaurant experience he had. Lineup with Mickey is like Sunday service for me.
NW: There’s a different energy in the room when he’s in it. You’re going to see a show when you’re going to The Charleston Grill. There’s that service mentality of dinner and a show, but it’s all right there. He is the show.
CP: What did Mickey teach you about the food and beverage industry?
MW: He took two people that were super green and had never stepped in a restaurant setting before and managed to not make us totally screw up. It’s a bigger restaurant with a bigger staff, but they do a good job of making it feel like a family. It was pretty quick after that that I realized this was what I wanted to do.
NW: What I’ve learned the most from him is customer service. The business is about customer service — that’s the heart of it. I’ve seen him take a situation where a customer was furious about something and at the end of the meal the couple is walking out saying it was the best dining experience they’ve ever had. I never saw him freak out once in the six years I was there.
CP: Mickey Bakst will be most remembered for…
FO: He connected with everyone. He remembers everyone’s name. Mickey can get you feeling like you’ve known him for years within five minutes of conversation. That’s a skillset that a lot of people don’t have.
MW: He is what I think of when I think of hospitality. It’s not old school, it’s not new school. It’s genuine.