This was a momentous year, at least for me — 2018 is the year I transitioned from City Paper’s roaming staff writer to official cuisine editor, taking over a section once manned by the inimitable Kinsey Gidick. I went from writing primarily about local arts (a beloved beat), some news lite, and an array of events happening around town to helming an entire section devoted to food and bev in the city. I’ve dipped my toes in cuisine stories over the almost two years I’ve been working at CP, and I paid my dues as a downtown Charleston server for two years when I first moved to the Lowcountry, but I would not then, nor would I now, classify myself as a foodie, epicurean, cuisine cavalier — whatever you dub those who know their way around a dish. We have a food critic whose job it is to delve deep into the inner workings of a restaurant, to deem whether a place is nailing it, or maybe needs some polishing.
My job, at least in my eyes, is to find the people behind the plates, the bartenders and servers and sous chefs and GMs and sommeliers and mixologists and that guy elbow-deep in the dish pit. In the past six months while on the job I’ve eaten hot dogs in blazing parking lots and Yuzu-glazed lobster prepared by Vinson Petrillo. I’ve sipped on more rum-based cocktails than I can count and more sour beer than I ever thought my palate could handle (I still want more). I’ve talked to men and women about their passion for hospitality, their passion for ice cream, their passion for getting their hands dirty. There have been plenty of highs and lows in the Charleston food scene this year, and if we had time, we’d happily dissect it all — meet me at Doar Bros. for a Gibson if you want my dissertation. For now, though, I’ve compiled some of the top cuisine stories of 2018.
Writer D.R.E James knows food, and he also happens to know all the right questions to ask about food. In his Q&A series he started this year, SouthernGrubalysticFriedBanter, James asks area chefs everything from “What’s the last thing you fried?” to either/or questions like “mortadella or hog head cheese?” and “redeye gravy or sawmill gravy?” The results are a no holds barred conversation between two people geeking out over quirky dishes and particular techniques. Needless to say, it’s way more fun than your typical stilted Q&A. I mean, how else would we know that pastry chef extraordinaire and ice cream maven Cynthia Wong loves a good Waffle House patty melt? “…back in my college days at the University of South Alabama we’d have a good time at the World Famous Floribama Lounge in Pensacola, Fla. and head to the Waffle House across the street. Things used to get pretty wild in there for sure. I always get the Patty Melt, there’s nothing better.”
In December 2017, our cover story, “You, Too?” explored the ways in which the Me Too movement had affected the day-to-day operations of Charleston’s F&B industry, especially in the wake of the allegations surfacing against celebrity chef John Besh. A little less than three months after this story was published, P&C‘s Hanna Raskin dropped news that “influential Charleston restaurateur Randall Goldman accused of misconduct by former employees.” According to her report, “eight former Patrick Properties employees accused Goldman of being a chronic trespasser of social boundaries, prone to doling out backrubs, planting kisses and sending unseemly late-night text messages against recipients’ wishes.” Within days Goldman was removed from the Charleston Wine + Food board, the James Beard National Advisory Board, and resigned from his position as Patrick Properties CEO. There are, as we know, so many stories like this — according to a February police report, restaurateur Sam Mustafa allegedly “grabbed” a woman “by the hair causing her to bend over while forcing her face toward the ground” as she yelled “please stop, please stop.” Mustafa was arrested and charged with assault in May. In October, Normandy Farms/One Broad restaurant owner Mike Ray was arrested and charged with indecent exposure after he pulled his pants down at a launch party celebrating women owned businesses. It’s exhausting, but more women are talking openly about this kind of too-long accepted behavior. And we’re listening.
Tiki on the rise
Perhaps my favorite (self-assigned) feature this year was exploring the uptick in tiki bars in Charleston. We really homed in on traditional tiki bar, South Seas Oasis (our cover girl drink), but also caught up with Cane Rhum Bar to get the low down on rum and its complicated history in the Lowcountry. At the time “Paradise Found” was printed, Wiki Wiki Sandbar on Folly was not yet open. That behemoth of a restaurant opened this December, though; after one visit to the bar and a few sips of the One Two Punch, I was instantly transported. We can’t wait to spend the summer there, channeling Don the Beachcomber as we drift away to another, simpler world. As I wrote in August, “Born out of a need for mid-century Americans to escape for a bit from the confines of morality and conformity, the fear of the great unknown, tiki bars were carefully curated, ever-evolving experiments dedicated to achieving ultimate relaxation. Today, we harken back to those subterranean oases craving that moment of pause where everything feels alright. And it doesn’t have to be the spot, just a spot.”
Eye of the storm
When Florence the-hurricane-that-wasn’t threatened to tear Charleston a new one this September, we reached out to several local establishments to get their take on why they were or were not keeping the lights on. Codfather, Lowlife, and Wine & Company got back to us, all agreeing that they would stay open for the folks sticking around town. Lowlife felt comfortable, even being on Folly, with their generator: “Lowlife Bar is on a high point in Folly Beach and we are made out of concrete with 150 mph hurricane rated doors and windows, so game on!” Wine & Co. owner Josh Walker said that the Elan Midtown building that the bar is in “is well suited for these storms with hurricane windows and excess power generators,” plus he felt compelled to be there with vino and “smiles for our community.” Codfather’s Adam Randall put it simply, “we got fish to sell and beers to drink.” Randall and Walker ended up on CNN shortly after we published our article, and we’re not saying it’s because of this that they were shot to national news stardom, but maybe.
We started a weekly “What’s Poppin'” series of blog updates this year, a fun little roundup of sojourning chefs who bring their equipment, ingredients, and loyal following to breweries and restaurants around town. Short Grain has been at Edmund’s Oast Brewing Co. every Tuesday for most of the year, serving up their famous O.G. bowls and dishes like bone marrow and potato wontons and hot and sour fish. 2Nixons was popping up with hot noods all over town before finding a home at Proof on Fridays and Saturdays (and Second State Coffee during the week). Chef Brannon Florie brings brunch and more to Commonhouse Aleworks every week, Vik Patel lights up his Green Egg and grills some real deal Indian food at Workshop once a month (give or take), Workshop alum Spanglish Cuban Kitchen is now at The Daily — the list goes on. Perhaps the most exciting pop-up story this year is Kwei Fei, David Schuttenberg’s Sichuan concept that crushed at The Daily every weekend until moving into the space formerly occupied by The Lot on James Island. Food critic Vanessa Wolf writes of Kwei Fei’s offerings, “the music is loud, the food is loud, and even the cocktails are spicy. You’re on Schuttenberg’s turf now, and one can only hope the multi-cuisine-capable chef stays interested in providing Zen-shattering delights for a good, long while.”
The hard goodbyes
A lot of restaurants closed this year. We think, by our latest calculations, that more restaurants opened, or changed direction, than closed, but close to 20 we can easily find said adios for good. Some shutterings were surprising, others felt inevitable. Perhaps the hardest goodbye was Spero, the beloved neighborhood small plates joint where everyone who visited felt at home. In 2015 Eric Doksa wrote that Spero may be “the best under the radar restaurant in town.” Doksa penned an ode to the restaurant within days of its sudden closing this July: ” I don’t blame Rob and RJ for the decision they made. I’ve been there. But every now and then I get that itch, and just like I’m writing this right now, I hope that they get the itch to serve us again. Today, my message is no different than it was three years ago: Spero is where you should eat right now.” You can catch Rob and RJ Tues. Jan 1 2019 at Charles Towne Fermentory for a red sauce night with their friends Leila and Italo Marino of Embers and Ashes. Also RIP to Upper Deck and Bar Normandy. We miss y’all.
Charleston’s craft beer scene continues to grow, as hop heads nerd out over small batch brews and casual beer drinkers realize that a six pack of a good, locally brewed pilsner is always going to beat standard domestics. We were happy to see that as of September, more than a dozen local breweries had adopted the Brewers Association for Small and Independent Craft Brewers independent craft seal. Commonhouse Aleworks proprietor Hank Hanna explained why the Park Circle brewery stamped that little seal on all of their products: “As craft brewers it’s interesting … for the most part we’re all a motley crew. We’re all fiercely independent — the art of brewing craft beer makes us stand apart.” Hanna went on to say that the symbol allows indie craft brewers with relatively paltry marketing budgets to distinguish themselves from larger industrial operations. “Just because it looks and smells like a craft beer, that doesn’t mean it is,” warned Hanna. This year also saw the creation of the Upper Peninsula’s “brewery district.” In February, writer Jessie Hazard wrote that, “A number of these beermakers are handily clumped together on the Upper Peninsula, perfectly situated for the tourist who doesn’t want to stray from downtown and the local who doesn’t want to spend half the day parking. Breweries like Revelry, Cooper River, Fatty’s, Edmund’s Oast Brewing Company, Munkle, Tradesman, and Lo-Fi can all be found in a stretch a little under two and a half miles long. This conglomerate has led to the area being informally dubbed the ‘Brewery District’ … In this spirit of togetherness, the beermakers of the Brewery District have begun the first in what will be a series of collaborative brews.” We love seeing that level of camaraderie. And, last but certainly not least, perhaps the most exciting brew news of the year was the opening of Revelry’s The Hold, the brewery’s sour and wild-aged beer facility, located a few blocks from Revelry. Where Revelry is always buzzin’ with kickball leagues and dogs and live music, The Hold is a cozy corner with dark walls and weird beer. Grab a bottle or a pour and chat up the bartender about the science behind sours. Revelry co-owner Ryan Coker told us his goal with The Hold is: “What we would like to see happen — and it depends how the market steers us — we’d like for this to be a catchall for when people come to the original brewery. They find out about this place, they have a passion and desire for this type of beer, and they mosey on over.”
Off the vine
This was a big year for Graft Wine Shop, which only opened this past March. In August, writer D.R.E. James sat down with Graft co-owners Femi Oyediran and Miles White to discuss vino, musical inspiration, and how to make “vintage Bordeaux seem as casual as a bottle of strawberry Yoo-Hoo” in our cover story, “Holy Grail.” The shop was named to Vine Pair’s “10 Best Wine Shops Nationwide 2018” and was Eater Charleston’s editor’s choice for bar of the year. In April, Graft was a staff pick at CP for Best of Charleston 2018, earning the title, “Best news for insatiable wine drinkers.” Awards aside, we’re just happy that approachable wine is finally trending, brought to us by Femi and Miles as well as the teams at Monarch, Vintage Lounge, Wine & Co., Stems & Skins, Edmund’s Oast Exchange, and more. Also big ups to Stems & Skins for introducing us to our favorite/most memorable wine of the past six months: the Feints 2017 Cuvée Zero made by Ruth Lewandowski vineyards in Utah. “They ship the grapes in from California, but yeah, they live in Utah,” Stems’ owner Matt Tunstall told us. The wine is 38 percent Arneis, 32 percent Dolcetto, and equal parts Barbera and Nebbiolo. It’s funky and light and almost sour, with a rich iridescent auburn hue. Trust us, you won’t find this at the Teeter.