By Peg Moore

The food revolution has created a generation of foodies and a see-and-be-seen crowd so obsessed with the newest restaurants that they will put up with difficulty getting a reservation, uncomfortable seating, rude service and noise — all at high prices.
Many new restaurants are modeled after the gastropub trend, which began in 1991 in London.

The word is obviously derived from gastronomy and pub. Essentially it is a bar with better food than you’d expect from the ambience. In France, upscale food in a casual ambience was begun in 1992 by Yves Camdeborde, (chef/owner of Le Comptoir de Relais), but there is no noisy bar, and tablecloths come out for dinner.

Fine dining became so pretentious that there was a certain charm in finding tasty food in modest surroundings. However, as with all trends, they do not go on forever. There may be a number of gastropubs opening in Charleston, but there are also clear signs, both in New York and here, that diners wish for more graciousness in restaurants — not a return to pretentiousness, but for an ambience that nurtures.

Much has been said about the importance of supporting locally-owned businesses and eating local ingredients. The savviest restaurateurs realize that celebrating residents who are local is important, too. Quality ingredients do cost more, but they deserve a quality ambience.
Restaurateur Danny Meyer excels at nurturing diners in New York. In Charleston, the restaurants owned by Hank Holliday (Hank’s, Peninsula Grill) and Dick Elliott (SNOB, High Cotton) are consistently praised by locals and stay packed even during January; others are equally good with locals.

Hospitality is expected in Charleston
Computers make it possible for restaurants to welcome warmly the repeat diners. Staffs can be trained to consult the computer. This savvy use of the computer always impresses me when I dine at Danny Meyer’s restaurants in New York. One night at the Union Square Cafe, the receptionist noticed that we were from Charleston and gave us news of the James Beard awards of the night before.

Regulars like to be recognized, to feel like family. Here in Charleston, locals report that a restaurant hired so many new people, they were not recognized by anyone and felt like visitors. There are still regrets about the loss of Joseph’s, where regulars would be told to come in even when there was a crowd of tourists waiting — the technique was, “Oh yes, your reserved table is this way.”

The Marina Variety Store nurtures a faithful clientele, popular for business breakfasts and lunches. It is locally owned and has a low turnover in staff. Many locals have to have a “fried shrimp fix” at least once a week. The restaurant itself may be casual, but the setting is sublime — very Charleston to eat by the water.

Some chefs send out special treats to locals. Maverick Kitchens (SNOB, High Cotton, Charleston Cooks) offer the Maverick card, which has a discount after you’ve spent a certain amount. Indigo Road (Oak, Oku, The Macintosh) has just begun a similar program.
At La Fourchette, owner Perig Goulet greets regulars with a kiss. Someone who went there for the first time said she felt ignored. La Fourchette is casual, but still has tablecloths and keeps music, usually French vocalists, down low. Susan and Peter Brandt are addicted to the steak frites there.

Fair prices and noise control

Overpriced wines, noisy bars, intrusive music are major complaints. Some restaurants with excellent food ignore high noise levels. This suggests the restaurant is interested in attracting tourists or those who care more about the trendiness of a restaurant than the ambience. Prices are often higher than you’d expect in an uncomfortable ambience.

Carolina’s has one of the best happy hour bargains. You are likely to see Ann and Dan Whisenhunt, along with myself there, feasting on local fish. Oak’s happy hour bar menu includes wine for $7 and a $10 burger. Fulton Five has a wine special for $7. Peninsula Grill has excellent wine under $40 a bottle, glasses $10 or less.

At Muse, there are bargains all the time. Owner Beth Ann Crane says, “We consider ourselves an alternative to the expensive see-and-be-seen restaurants that lack diversity, that all serve bone marrow and pork belly. I looked for the right building a long time. The whole purpose was to create something hidden away. I wanted it to be for locals. I know 50 percent of the people who eat here.” Impeccable Mediterranean décor, delicious menu — I struggle not to order the branzino every time. The small rooms, lavish use of fabric keeps noise low.

Martine and Frederick Dulles are regulars at Fish, and they praise the food of French chef Nico Romo. Maureen Ginty is a fan of Anson — “They keep noise under control, have wonderful fried oysters.” Barbara and Bob DeMarco put High Cotton, Sermet’s (“since they redecorated”) Peninsula Grill, FIG high on their list for ambience and food.

Annelise and Jack Simmons recently feasted at Danny Meyer’s Gramercy Tavern in New York — “We sat in the back where they have tablecloths. The ramp pudding was incredible. I don’t usually eat dessert, but I did there, and they sent us off with treats.” In Charleston their favorites are Carolina’s, Charleston Grill and Peninsula Grill.

Cru Café offers the comfortable ambience of a Charleston single house, reasonable prices and a menu including many small plate options. The Thai seafood risotto, Chinese chicken salad and the grilled shrimp are so popular they have been on the menu for years. Bon appétit!

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

Anson — 12 Anson Street. 577-0551.
Carolina’s — 10 Exchange Street. 724-3800.
Charleston Grill — 224 King Street. 577-4522.
Cru Café — 18 Pinckney Street. 534-2434.
Fish — 442 King Street. 722-3474.
Fulton Five — 5 Fulton Street. 853-5555.
Hank’s — 10 Hayne Street. 723-3474.
High Cotton — 199 East Bay Street. 724-3815.
La Fourchette — 432 King Street. 722-6261.
Marina Variety Store — 17 Lockwood Drive. 723-6325.
Muse — 82 Society Street. 577-1102.
Oak Steakhouse — 17 Broad Street. 722-4220.
Peninsula Grill — 112 North Market Street. 723-0700.
Sermet’s — 276 King Street. 853-7775.
SNOB — 192 East Bay Street. 723-3424.

Mercury newspapers can be found at the following locations:


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The Meeting Street Inn (Rack)

Clair's Service Station, Folly Rd. (Rack)

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