Those who frequented Nimbo Pizza before its October 2019 closure will be pleasantly surprised the next time they walk by 161 Rutledge Ave., which has been transformed into a refined eatery with bright lights, street-facing bar seats and Texas white oak floors.
The reimagined interior, designed and renovated by veteran Charleston chef Trae Wilson, is now home to Laurel, a joint venture between Wilson and Joe Thomas serving Spanish and Portuguese inspired fare starting Thursday.
Wilson, known for previous establishments like Granville’s Cafe & Catering and Grand Rooster Restaurant, first visited the space shortly after the onset of the pandemic, he told the City Paper.
“We came down here at about 7 o’clock on a Friday night,” Wilson recalled. “I’ve been in Charleston, downtown, for 35 years, and the vibe was just right.”
It’s true, the chef does know his way around the streets of downtown Charleston. After first opening Granville’s on Beaufain Street in 1992, Wilson relocated the cafe and catering business to Wagener Terrace where it remained a staple for 11 years in the building now occupied by Park Cafe.
Wilson doesn’t think he’ll ever retire. “I’m past that mark,” he said. But the restaurant veteran seems invigorated by Laurel, which will serve small plates (pinxtos), medium plates (tapas) and main dishes cooked in a 935-pound Josper charcoal grill Wilson installed himself — he has the scar on his forehead to prove it.
“I’ve handled double convection ovens, and they only come out to 600 pounds or so,” said Wilson, who hit his head on the grill’s pry bar while bringing it into the kitchen. “It was a stressful afternoon — 935 pounds is really, really heavy.”
The chef completed nearly 100% of the construction on the property himself, adding in a new bar, floors, tables and lighting, finishing the space with special touches like prints from local artist Jill Hooper. The restaurant’s design mimics that of restaurants found in Europe, Wilson said, and the dinner menu will touch parts of Spain and Portugal with dishes like piri piri chicken, octopus with romesco sauce, lamb meatballs, marinated mussels and more.
“A good friend of mine lived in Madrid, so I was in Spain a lot and I just fell in love with it,” Wilson said. “We’ll go from Galicia to Madrid to Barcelona — I love it all.”
Most of Wilson’s menu will utilize the charcoal oven, a Spanish-hybrid product that can get up to 550 degrees.
“When you combine an oven and a grill, you get the best of both worlds,” Wilson said. “Romesco will be one of the main sauces, and we’re finding more and more that everything can be done in there, whether you’re doing cast iron or you actually grill it, the flavor is incredible.”
Laurel will offer classic Spanish-style beverages to pair with Wilson’s menu. Look for a curated wine list, sangria on tap and cocktails made with mixers from Brent Sweatman of Sweatman’s All Natural, who installed kegs of his tonic, ginger beer and pear juice behind the bar.
The restaurant will open Thursday, March 4, serving dinner Tuesday through Friday and lunch and dinner on Saturday. Moving forward, Wilson and Thomas plan to make takeout a big part of Laurel’s offering by serving bocadillos — traditional Spanish sandwiches — daily for lunch.
“Long term, we’re going to add a second concept, and it will be bocadillos, all to-go,” Wilson said. “I think we can do a tremendous amount of to-go for (the Medical University of South Carolina), and it won’t tax the restaurant. I think it will service MUSC really well because they don’t have a lot of time anyway.”
The man who has spent nearly four decades in the food and beverage industry has learned a lot over the years, lessons he’s bringing to Laurel, where he’s built a team of passionate individuals.
“We’re trying to build a family. It’s just such a taxing business and it just wears you down,” Wilson said. “You work all the time, so you have to have that family element to make it work.”