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The Ones We Lost

The pandemic, shifting tastes, and industry trends took their toll on Charleston dining

No more tacos, mescal, or Valentina-laced chicken wings at Minero on East Bay Street
No more tacos, mescal, or Valentina-laced chicken wings at Minero on East Bay Street (Jonathan Boncek)

By Robert F. Moss

Newly vaccinated and with cautious optimism, I, like many others, spent the summer getting reacquainted with public dining in Charleston. It’s safe to say that things are very different.

Online ordering, outdoor patios, scanning QR codes to invoke smartphone menus—those were some of the obvious new features, but they’re not the most significant. What really defines the state of Charleston dining in the fall of 2021 is not what’s new but rather what’s missing, for a disheartening number of iconic restaurants didn’t make it through to the other side.

Some of the most notable closures were within the portfolio of the Neighborhood Dining Group. The company had already reengineered the format of McCrady’s Restaurant several times in the past, and in April 2020 they decided enough was enough. Shuttered along with McCrady’s was Minero, the casual Mexican spot in the building next door, though a new incarnation is on its way to the former Fat Hen location on James Island.

Visitors still flock to Husk Restaurant for fried chicken and pork lettuce wraps, and NDG’s newest Charleston venture, Delaney Oyster House, is still firing on all cylinders, but for now, at least, the group’s peninsula footprint is greatly reduced.

Just a block north of McCrady’s on East Bay, Blossom limped through to the end of 2020 before abruptly closing its doors in December, leaving Magnolias as the last of the Hospitality Management Group’s restaurants. (Cypress served its final meal in May 2017, and the following month HMG shuttered Artisan Meat Share, the charcuterie-centric side project of former Cypress chefs Craig Diehl and Bob Cook.)

Blossom was always the kid sister to Magnolias, but it was still part of the small contingent of restaurants that put Charleston on the culinary map in the closing years of the 20th century, when the so-called New Southern style of dining was forged. That mode of cooking, which applied French technique to Southern ingredients and served okra and country ham on white fine dining tablecloths, seems to be receding into history now.

East Bay Street, once Charleston’s prestigious restaurant row, has been steadily transformed into an Anytown USA tourist strip. Cypress’s former location at 167 East Bay is now occupied by Galpão Gaucho, one of six locations of a small chain of Brazilian steakhouses. Next door, Blossom’s old space was snatched up by the restaurant group behind the Ruby Slipper, a popular breakfast café in New Orleans. Called Ruby Sunshine, the Charleston version will offer an all-day “Big Easy-inspired brunch.” It’s the firm’s tenth location in the Southeast.

There has been a bit of turnover on East Bay,  Charleston's original Restaurant Row
There has been a bit of turnover on East Bay, Charleston's original Restaurant Row (Dispatch Staff)

Had you told me in 2019 that the last taco joint standing on East Bay would be not Minero but the Charlotte transplant RuRu’s, I would have laughed in your face. Had you told me its owner would end up buying the building that once housed McCrady’s, I might have started hyperventilating.

Long Duck Dong got the last laugh.

In many ways this just continues a shift that began long before Covid. The center of gravity of Charleston dining had migrated years ago to Upper King Street, the stretch between Calhoun and Spring. But 2020 left its mark on Upper King, too. Some of the pioneering restaurants that transformed the district into the city’s hottest dining destination are no longer with us, including Basil, which closed in January, and the Macintosh, which hung it up in March. As more leases come up for renewal at greatly increased rents, I expect we’ll see even more independent restaurants giving way to boutique retail shops and national chain eateries. (In fact, that transition is well underway, as recent King Street real estate news shows.)

It’s not just happening on East Bay and King Streets, either. The independent restaurants getting squeezed out unfortunately include many of our Gullah/Geechee icons as well as the upscale Southern-cooking destinations that once gave Charleston its unique dining character. Whether it’s the fried pork chops and lima beans at Martha Lou’s Kitchen or the shrimp and grits at Hominy Grill, the city has a lot fewer places to find the dishes that made it an internationally-acclaimed dining destination.

None of these changes were due solely to the pandemic, of course. The dining room shutdowns in 2020 only accelerated in-flight trends: shifting diner preferences, rising real estate prices, a continued tilt toward downtown hotels and the tourist trade. It’s not all doom and gloom, either. Plenty of old local favorites are still going strong, and a remarkable number of new restaurants have opened in just the past year (as well explore in other features in our Charleston Dining Guide.) But the Charleston dining scene looks very different as we head into the fall of 2021 than it did when 2020 opened.

Here’s a rundown of some of the most notable ones we lost and why they mattered.

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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.