The Charleston Food + Wine Festival, which kicks off March 4, has not only become the preeminent gastronomic event in the Southeast, but it also shows off this coastal city’s vibrant restaurant scene to all the top names in the American food world.
People around the country think of Charleston as the Southern restaurant town. What about Atlanta? How do the two cities compare, and how have they marketed themselves differently? This was the subject of yesterday’s Sunday Column.
FESTIVAL INSPIRES A DINING DEBATE
Have you ever had the experience of telling someone you like a certain restaurant and they give you that “oh, -I-thought-you-knew-something-about-food” response?
That happened to me a couple of years ago when I was talking to a friend from Charleston soon after I had returned from a vacation there and made enthusiastic comments about a popular Italian restaurant in town. “We had a really nice meal at Al di La, ” I said, adding, “It’s always such a pleasure going out to eat in Charleston.”
I expected her to cluck approvingly and say, “Yes, that is a fun place.” Instead, she was nearly aghast.
“Have you even been to Italy?” she asked. How could I possibly praise that red-sauce menu at Al Di La when we have Sotto Sotto in Atlanta? She was sick of Charleston restaurants. Too many tourist traps. Too much pandering to conservative tastes. So few chefs doing anything new.
Yes, I countered, but Charleston has that pleasurable human scale to it. Restaurants like Al di La are true storefront bistros in neighborhoods where people walk to dinner. They thrive because they give their guests the food and service they want at a fair price. I really don’t remember what I ate at Al di La, but I recall that the lighting was just right, and the worn wooden table was the kind of furniture I feel good putting my elbows on.
My friend countered with a list of a dozen places she always wants to eat at whenever she comes to Atlanta. “It’s just a much better restaurant town in every way, ” she concluded.
That may be. But ask any avid restaurant-goer in the country, and they’ll tell you Charleston has Atlanta beat hands down. This may be largely due to the BB+T Charleston Wine + Food Festival, which every year grows bigger, bolder and more important, and every year attracts the food world to this lovely coastal city. Through this festival — which takes place this year March 4-7 — Charleston lays claim to being the dining capital of the South.
The city comes alive for the event with grand tasting tents, a wine stroll along the shops of King Street, winemaker dinners in private homes, culinary competitions, excursions to sites outside the city and a big, Southern barbecue to bring the weekend to a close.
But for many attendees, the best events are the dine-arounds in which local chefs host national culinary stars to create five-course collaborative meals. Headliners include Atlantans Linton Hopkins from Restaurant Eugene, Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison from Bacchanalia and Kevin Gillespie from Woodfire Grill.
Yet it is easy to fall in love with the Charleston food scene. Attendees experience both the intrinsic character of local Low country foodways as well as an energetic federation of restaurants that work together to promote a vision of local dining culture. It is a complete package in every way.
The coastal seafood is fantastic, and it is hard to tire of shrimp and grits or she-crab soup no matter how touristy these dishes may have become. Charleston’s top chefs such as Mike Lata (FIG), Robert Stehling (Hominy Grill) and Sean Brock (McCrady’s) are as accomplished as chefs anywhere.
I’ve dined enough in Charleston to know that once you get past that top tier, the dining choices don’t compare well to Atlanta. I always love having a salade nicoise at the pretty bistro called 39 Rue de Jean, but it isn’t as French a French restaurant as Anis, Atmosphere or a host of other choices around Atlanta. Charleston’s Raval is a fun wine bar, but you’ll get better serrano ham and more interesting wines at Krog Bar.
Being the fiend for Asian cuisines that I am, I don’t think I could survive living in Charleston for long before I had to make a five-hour Buford Highway run.
All the same, the city is packed with little spots you don’t think too hard about — you just pop into because they fit your mood and make your day go better.
I think Atlanta has a lot to learn from Charleston about how dining fits into the fabric of a city. It also has a lot to learn about how a bodacious food festival can advance a regional cooking style. Thanks to the Charlestonians and Atlantans uniting that weekend, it will truly be the capital of Southern cooking.