Carolina Dine Around - December 17, 2021

Restaurateurs rising

Durham's Saint James Seafood will be reopening (again) in January 2022
Durham's Saint James Seafood will be reopening (again) in January 2022 (Anna Routh Barzin)

By Robert F. Moss

It’s time once again for the Carolina Dine Around, our weekly digest of food and beverage news from around the Carolinas.

So let’s dig in.

The Rise of the Restaurateur

Back in 2014, in a review of the then-new Edmund’s Oast in Charleston, I noted how the restaurant’s many elements—from the kitchen to the bar to the decor—came together in an orchestrated way. That led me to voice what I termed “a radical thought . . . might Edmund’s Oast be a sign that we are returning to the era of the restaurateur and not the chef?”

Fast forward seven years and that thought doesn’t seem radical at all, for we are fully in the throes of the restaurateur era.

Witness the news out of Raleigh this week that its most prolific restaurateur, Giorgios Bakatsias, has not one but two more restaurants in the works for 2022 in the Park & Market Building in the North Hills development. Las Ramblas will be a Spanish-style tapas bar (the name is taken from the boulevard in Barcelona known for its cafés and markets), while Giorgio Pizza Bar will feature—can you guess?—pizza, and it will be the hand-tossed, thin-crust variety. (Most intriguing detail from the announcement: the pizza bar will also feature “pasta dishes slow cooked in earthen clay pots.”)

Giorgios Bakatsias of Giorgios Hospitality Group
Giorgios Bakatsias of Giorgios Hospitality Group (Shannon Kelly)

This pair comes on top of two other pending Bakatsias restaurants already announced, East End Bistro in Raleigh and Krill’s in Durham, and will bring the total number of Triangle-area restaurants operated by the Giorgios Hospitality Group to 14.

The Raleigh developments come fast on the heels of another prominent Carolina restaurant group, Indigo Road, adding two more Charleston restaurants to it stable, the Mexican-themed Maya on upper King Street in September and Brasserie La Banque on Broad Street last month. Indigo Road now has 27 restaurants under its increasingly-broad umbrella, spanning a region from Jacksonville to Washington, D.C.

Many factors are driving the shift from kitchen to corporate office—the fading appeal of the swaggering “rock star” chef, the increasing importance of restaurants’ having a formal human resources function. I’ll explore those elements some other time. One factor that I’ve not seen discussed much, though, is the Covid-era real estate market.

When I interviewed Steve Palmer, the founder of Indigo Road, in October about his recent expansion, he told me that one reason his group was opening so many restaurants was that opportunities kept falling in his lap. The first few months of the pandemic were a time of dark existential crisis for the industry, and it was feared that 80% of American restaurants would go out of business. But then summer arrived and dining rooms slowly reopened.

“80% of restaurants didn’t fail, and we had these new opportunities,” Palmer said, and those came in the form of new or newly-vacated real estate whose owners needed tenants. “Developers were saying, look we don’t need any money from you. We need you creating, and we want to do a restaurant with you.”

Steve Palmer of Indigo Road
Steve Palmer of Indigo Road (Andrew Cebulka)

For many years the standard restaurant origin narrative started with an ambitious chef who had a vision for a new restaurant then went out and found investors to back the dream and a suitable location to house it. Increasingly, it seems, the story starts with the location itself, which suggests a particular concept to the restaurateur, who then finds a chef able to execute it.

That’s certainly been the case with the new arrivals from Indigo Road. Palmer used to walk by the brownstone building at 1 Broad Street and think, this should be a French brasserie. When One Broad came on the market, he recruited a chef, Jeb Aldrich, with a deep resume in French kitchens. Ditto with Maya. The more casual taco-and-tequila format seemed a good fit for the evolving upper King market, so Indigo Road went out and hired Brett Riley, who brings a long track record at upscale Mexican restaurants in New York City.

Notably, the press release announcing Bakatsias’s two new restaurants in Raleigh makes no mention of who will be leading the kitchens. The chefs will be announced prior to opening, but it seems the vision for the spaces came first.

Restaurateurs have been there all along, of course, but a decade ago they tended to stay in the background as the business guys and let the tattoo-sleeved chefs get all the publicity. In last week’s Dine Around I wrote about Home Team BBQ taking over the building on Highway 17 in Mount Pleasant that once housed a restaurant called 17 North. I remembered well that Brett McKee, a larger-than-life personality who once led the kitchen at Oak Steakhouse, was the chef at that short-lived roadside restaurant.

What I didn’t remember—at least not until I pulled up some old articles from 2010 to verify the timeline of the restaurant’s opening and closing—was the name of the lead partner in McKee’s 17 North venture. Back then, no one much cared about who was signing the checks, but it was Steve Palmer of the then-nascent Indigo Road.


The Somm Also Rises

The large dining groups are not the only ones opening new restaurants in Charleston these days. Sommeliers are getting in on the action, too.

Justin Croxall and Matt Tunstall, co-owners of the Park Circle wine bar Stems & Skins (which just our Short List of 20 Must-Visit Charleston restaurants), have taken over the recently-closed Mexican restaurant on the opposite side of Montague Avenue and created a seafood restaurant called Three Sirens, which opened for service last week. Stems & Skins chef Julian Lippe has created a European-inflected menu with dishes like smoked fish dip croquettes, Parisian gnocchi, and charbroiled oysters with Calabrian chili.

Michael Pham of the Charleston City Paper got the inside scoop on how sommelier Matt Conway and his fiancée Carissa Hernandez, two New York transplants, stumbled across the space on Coming Street for their newly opened Tippling House. It was previously occupied by the Tapio bubble tea shop and will be transformed into a wine bar with a snack menu created by Alex Yellan, who was formerly the executive chef of the now-shuttered Minero.

The Rise of Smoked Mullet (I Hope)

The Post & Courier totally buried the lede in Parker Milner’s Wednesday feature on how Charleston restaurants are making use of seasonal winter ingredients. Yeah, sure, chefs are doing creative things these days with pumpkin, sweet potatoes, and sunchokes. . . yawn. But what about this nugget: Shaun Brian, chef and co-owner of CudaCo on Folly Road, is curing fresh mullet roe to make bottarga! And it takes so much mullet to harvest the roe that the fish are piling up and Brian has started selling smoked mullet!

“Local Chef Brings Smoked Mullet to Folly Road”: now that would be a headline.


Openings, Reopenings, and Re-Reopenings

Not all of the new restaurants coming to the Triangle are being opened by the Giorgios Hospitality Group. IndyWeek reports that another restaurant is on the way to the American Tobacco Campus. To be called Seraphine, it’s a "Louisiana-inspired restaurant and bar" that brothers Brad and Graham Weddington, the duo behind NanaSteak, plan to open by mid-2022.

Not all of the pending openings will be for new restaurants, either. News came this week of two long-shuttered establishments that will be reopening in the upcoming year.

Almost two years after closing its dining room in March 2020, Littler, the 36-seat bistro in Durham, announced that it will be resuming dine-in service in early 2022 with a new chef at the helm. North Carolina native Elizabeth Murray, whose resume includes a stint with Daniel Patterson at Coi in San Francisco, will lead the kitchen, but the owners promise that many of the restaurant’s most popular dishes will be back, including the lamb burger, shrimp and spoonbread, and the latkes Benedict with smoked trout and a poached egg atop a crisp potato latke.

If that’s not enough, Saint James Seafood, also in Durham, will be attempting the feat of re-opening not once or twice but three times. In April 2019, chef/owner Matt Kelly’s restaurant in the Bright Leaf district was forced to close after debris from a natural gas explosion on nearby Duke Street damaged its exhaust system. It reopened on January 23, 2020 and made it all of 39 days before the pandemic shuttered its dining room again.

Starting in July 2020, Kelly ran a take-out operation called Jimmy’s Dockside out of the Saint James building but suspended that after five months. Finally, though, at the end of January 2022, he aims to resume service as Saint James Seafood, with the same Calabash-style fried seafood platters, steamed seafood, and raw bar offering. I’m not going to say anything to jinx it.

Cooler Heads in Clayton

Lena Geller of Indy Week visited Scott Crawford’s newest restaurant, Crawford Cookshop, in the Raleigh suburb of Clayton, and she describes it as “born out of the pandemic”—and in more ways than one. Its menu is based on comfort and suitability for take-out, for instance, while the setting is a little more casual with a spacious outdoor patio.

But Geller’s real scoop is uncovering another pandemic-era factor that prompted the chef/restaurateur to seek a smaller, more welcoming location like Clayton: fatigue with escalating hostility from a small fraction of short-fused customers. Read Geller’s piece for all the gory details.


Remembering Catherine Rabb

Finally, some sad news out of Charlotte. Chef, restaurateur, and sommelier Catherine Rabb, co-owner of the long-running restaurant Fenwick in Myers Park, passed away last week from cancer. Kathleen Purvis wrote a personal remembrance for the Unpretentious Palate of the remarkable, unflappable, and influential culinary pioneer.

Bite of the Week

I thought I’d try something new to wrap up the Dine Around this week: a brief appreciation for the most memorable or impressive thing I sampled while dining around in the Carolinas.

Farro and chicken from the Obstinate Daughter
Farro and chicken from the Obstinate Daughter

This week, it’s the farro with chicken from the Obstinate Daughter on Sullivan’s Island. The hearty grains are tossed with slightly-charred chunks of chicken, Brussels sprouts, and cippolini onions and garnished with peanuts and black truffle—a rich, earthy, and utterly delicious plate.

About the Author

Robert F. Moss

Robert F. Moss is the Contributing Barbecue Editor for Southern Living magazine, Restaurant Critic for the Post & Courier, and the author of numerous books on Southern food and drink, including The Lost Southern Chefs, Barbecue: The History of an American Institution, Southern Spirits: 400 Years of Drinking in the American South, and Barbecue Lovers: The Carolinas. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina.