By Peg Moore

During the recent fast casual craze, it was feared that fine dining was over. Charleston did lose some cherished restaurants — Carolina’s, La Fourchette, and Il Cortile del Re. However, we also gained delicious new dining options — Vincent Chicco’s, Michael’s on the Alley, Barony Tavern and Le Farfalle, for example.

The best restaurants recognize the importance of the whole experience and strive for excellence in every detail. Service, ambience, tablecloths, comfortable seating and volume control are as crucial as tasty food and celebrity chefs.

Charleston still has many fine dining stars. Two that played a major role in Charleston’s culinary renaissance are Charleston Grill and Magnolia’s.

Charleston Grill

Charleston Grill has been a celebratory destination since the day it opened in 1979 in the then-Omni Charleston Place (now part of the Belmond company) and was called Louis’s Charleston Grill. Louis Osteen attracted national media attention when he dared to serve Lowcountry breakfast foods like grits in a fine dining setting. Louis opened other Lowcountry restaurants and received the “Best Chef Southeast” award from the James Beard Foundation in 2004.

Bob Waggoner became chef of Charleston Grill in 1997. He was nominated as a “Best Chef Southeast” several times. His sous chef Michelle Weaver became executive chef in 2010.

Ingredients matter to Michelle as they did to Bob. She uses local ones as much as possible — from sources like St. Jude’s Farm, Crosby’s, Ambrose Farms and GrowFood Carolina members.

Michelle organized the menu into four sections featuring lush options (think French), pure (basic ingredients such as branzino are enhanced simply), cosmopolitan (exotic and globally inspired) and Southern. The most popular dish on the menu is the crab cake — “If we ever tried to take the crab cake off the menu, people might burn down the restaurant,” says Michelle.

Charleston Grill participates in the annual “Autumn Affair” given by Les Dames d’Escoffier. “The money we raise,” says Michelle, “goes to local aspiring women in the hospitality industry. Last year we gave away $19,000 in scholarships. Women supporting women!”

“In the past I’ve made cauliflower soup with truffle brioche croutons, crab cakes and a selection of passed hors d’oeurvres,” says Michelle. The Affair will be held on September 29 at Lowndes Grove Plantation.

Service at Charleston Grill ranks with such new fine dining restaurants as New York’s Brunauer Bistro, which has been acclaimed for its Old World etiquette.

The restaurant does not keep track of whether diners are visitors or locals. In the beginning locals went mostly for celebratory dinners, but now many have become regulars. The elegant bar area is popular with those who want smallish perfect dinners. Mickey says he see more locals all the time. “I like to think that the word of mouth from our local guests is overwhelmingly strong and having a great effect on our local business,” he says.

Magnolias

It’s easy to take Magnolias for granted. It has been here for so long and has never tried to get media attention with weird décor or flavor combinations. It is comforting to know we will always be greeted with white tablecloths, comfortable seating, soothing décor and reliable comfort food such as meat loaf, fried chicken and those addictive housemade potato chips.

The late Thomas Parsell opened Magnolias in 1990. Donald Barickman, who had worked at The Wine Cellar and Carolina’s, was executive chef. Donald Drake, who is now culinary arts director, became sous chef of Magnolias in 1991.

Drake trained under Barry Wine at the four-star Quilted Giraffe in New York. “When I had a break from culinary school, you name it, I did it. I worked the cold larder station a lot, still enjoy working that station … My last summer there Mr. Wine took over the daily chef duties. It changed a lot, going from a Julia Child kind of place to a full blown French bistro.”

The Quilted Giraffe has been acclaimed as a “restaurant that defined an entire era and forever changed how America eats — the buzz is as strong as ever.” That statement appeared in 2013 in Town and Country. Notably, The Quilted Giraffe had closed two decades earlier.

The Quilted Giraffe ruled the culinary world during the 1980s, serving luxurious food to such notables as Woody Allen, Andy Warhol, Jackie Onassis, Henry Kissinger and Andy Rooney.

The restaurant was noted for creativity, picking up ideas from abroad, introducing wine by the glass and special wine dinners. Chef/owner Barry Wine was inspired by Japan, creating fusion and focusing on local food long before fusion and locavorism became popular. The Wines grew produce for the restaurant in their suburban garden.

Magnolias may not be serving high-profile celebrities (naturally, they don’t tell when they do have such visitors), but it has been packed with locals and visitors since it opened. Local ingredients and creativity have always been important. Service excels.

Just as the Quilted Giraffe defined dining during the 1980’s, Magnolias defined Charleston dining in the 1990s, leading our culinary renaissance when the city became a mecca for “new southern” food.

Donald sees a parallel between the restaurants owners and their successes — “Both Mr. Wine, Tom and TJ (Parsell, who owns Magnolias) looked at this business from the outside in, instead of from the inside out. All three already had careers in other fields and came to have a love of good food. The technique is like common sense and is difficult to teach.”

Magnolias continues to understand what is right for Charleston. The hours (from 11a.m. on) make it convenient for the traditional 3 o’clock dinner and also for those attending cultural events and need food at odd hours.

The menu does not change dramatically. Those collard green egg rolls, fried chicken and boiled peanut hummus have been on it from the beginning. There are always seasonal surprises, too. At the moment there’s an herbed grilled chicken salad with sweet corn relish. Bon appetit!

 

Peg Moore may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

  

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