Shuai Wang of Jackrabbit Filly is considered by many big names in Charleston's food and bev scene to be one of the chefs leading the younger generation | Ruta Smith file photo

Remember the glorious foodie days in Charleston? Sean Brock helmed Husk, Anthony Bourdain came to visit and we pretended to bemoan the fact that Charleston was at or near the top of any list that judged us for our food and hospitality.

 But Brock fled to Nashville and some of the city’s largest restaurateurs are opening doors not in Charleston, but in Nashville, Asheville and Greenville. With the threat of a recession, it matters how much you spend to dine out, and a recent poll by NerdWallet for cost-conscious foodies puts Charleston way down at No. 19.

Has Charleston (gasp!) lost its Southern foodie charm?

Shemtov

Local restaurateurs say no, but admit the food and the charm are both changing.

 “Has the biggest wave passed? Maybe,” said Michael Shemtov of Butcher & Bee and The Daily. “Back in the day, we had [Mike] Lata (FIG and the Ordinary) finding his groove. We had Brock, [Jason] Stanhope (FIG) was starting out. Maybe we will look back and that WAS the wave. But I think there are plenty of exciting, if smaller, waves coming. 

“I think there’s this whole slightly-under-the-radar group, and I would put Nikko [Cagalanan] from Mansueta’s at the top of that list. He’s planning and working and looking for spaces. We had Short Grain [food truck] that’s now Jackrabbit Filly, and they gave us something new to be excited about. I think the folks behind Chubby Fish are tempted to do something else in the future. It may not be a different concept, but the exciting things for locals will be things like that.”

Palmer

 Steve Palmer, CEO of Indigo Road Hospitality, added, “I think we are going through a transition. “I don’t think it’s a negative transition. You have my graduating class, with Kevin Johnson (the Grocery), Mike Lata, Jacques Larson (Obstinate Daughter, Wild Olive). I think it’s safe to say we are the old guard. We are still doing relevant things, but we’re seeing a brand-new generation.”

 For example, there’s James London of Chubby Fish and Shuai Wang at Jackrabbit Filly, Palmer said.

 “It’s a generation that did not cook in traditional kitchens the way my generation did,” he said.

But do chefs still want to come to Charleston?

Cuajunco

 “Yes and no,” said Tony Cuajunco, director of operations for Holy City Hospitality. “If you have a successful restaurant in Charleston, you don’t even have to do the interview in a new city, they just ask you to come based on Charleston’s reputation. 

“Nashville is a hot city right now for that. But Charleston is still a great place to be. I hear chefs from New York who say they want to come to Charleston because we aren’t known for big corporate restaurant groups. I think you’re going to see more mom-and-pop style restaurants coming to our city.”

 Palmer, whose company has opened restaurants throughout the country since it originated in the Holy City, added, “I think there has been a period of three to five years where places like Nashville and Asheville have been getting more attention than Charleston. We were basking in the golden sunlight for many years, but then other cities developed their own food scenes.”

Cohen

Other places are growing up

Susan Cohen, president and CEO of the South Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association, said restaurants are opening in other cities not because chefs are fleeing Charleston, but because other cities such as Raleigh, Greenville and Columbia are growing into food destinations as well.

 “I don’t think Charleston is ever going to peak, but some restaurants that have already proven their concept there may want to expand and that is why you would see a change,” she said.

Fallert

That’s what Karalee Fallert has done as she prepares to open the latest Taco Boy in Asheville, N.C.

 “Our desire to grow outside of Charleston comes from a desire to grow our brand. The older brands, like mine, are institutions and where are the opportunities for institutions to grow? It’s why we look outside for fresh opportunities. At the same time, we don’t feel jaded about what we have here,” Fallert said, adding that she’s still hoping to expand in the Charleston area, but it likely won’t be on the peninsula. She said she is exploring the Mount Pleasant area.

 “I think if I had a crystal ball, I would say that I think we are going to see a real changing of the mainstays,” she said. “I think we are going to see expanding outside of the peninsula. People are going to be surprised by what happens in North Charleston.”

 Although Charleston may not have peaked, it has “reached an interesting saturation point,” Fallert said. “There are many more operators here than there have ever been. Charleston has a unique brand of Southern charm that pairs well with the convivial nature of what we do [in the restaurant industry]. It has a beautiful magic, and more people have come here to be a part of it. If there was a Golden Age, maybe that was the time we were a small pond with a handful of big fish.”


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