For many chefs, the opening of a first restaurant marks a sort of culinary rite of passage. For the first time, they have the ability to assert total control and speak with their own culinary voice, not that of someone else.
But that’s not exactly the story of Chef Damon Wise’s first restaurant venture. Wise was formerly the executive chef at Tom Colicchio’s Craft empire, but just opened a trio of his own restaurants called Scarecrow & Co. in Charleston.
“I kind of don’t feel that way, because I’ve treated Tom’s businesses like they were mine as well,” Wise says. “Opening restaurants is second nature. This will be my 15th, 16th, and 17th restaurants.”
Wise’s new restaurants are located in a former train depot building, which had been at risk of demolition, he says, before a developer restored it.
“The building was completely empty,” Wise says. “It was just one long corridor broken up by brick walls, which kind of led us into the three-restaurant format.”
The three restaurants range from a laid-back barbecue joint to a fine-dining spot with an open-fire kitchen. Collectively, he views his restaurants as part of a larger transformation of Charleston’s food scene.
“This town is changing so quickly,” Wise says. “There are a lot of seafood places coming in, a lot of cool bars, a lot of great cocktail places. There are a lot of restaurants moving away from the low-country movement, which is fine because there are still plenty here. So it’s kind of a cool mix.”
With the fast-casual Wise-Buck Smoked Meats, Wise sought to offer a different take on barbecue. The fruitwood-smoked meat isn’t drenched in sticky, sweet sauce. His method uses unrefined sugars and a heavy dose of spices. And instead of the standard coleslaw and baked beans, the restaurant offers a more interesting take on side dishes: a charred cauliflower salad and smoked corn on the cob with chili powder, for example.
Feathertop fills the center of the building, offering a veggie-centric menu of small plates. Wise describes the concept as “light and bright,” with lots of vinegars and healthy pastas on the menu.
Scarecrow is Wise’s flagship restaurant. It features more robust flavors, thanks in large part to an open kitchen centered on a wood-flamed grill.
“I’ve always wanted to do a restaurant that was in the open because I’ve been behind closed doors for so many years,” says the French-trained Wise. “I don’t want to use the word theatrical, but I am. Everything is open.”
The menu will center on primary cuts of meat processed at the in-house butcher station, as well as a selection of local vegetables and fish. Wise says his most expensive restaurant will tout a “sky’s the limit” wine list.
As for the décor, crews are restoring the depot’s old turret into a wine cellar and a display case in the dining room will show off many of the ingredients used in the kitchen.
“I feel like when you go to a restaurant to eat, you don’t always see what you’re eating,” he says. “It’s always denoted on the menu but it’s not necessarily in your face. So I wanted to give the customer that experience.”
While the first two concepts have already opened, Wise doesn’t expect Scarecrow to launch until the end of July. With all three restaurants, he’s keeping his options open to make changes along the way.
“I’m not a celebrity. Every restaurant that I opened with Tom [Colicchio], there was a line out the door to get in,” Wise says. “This is a little bit different. This was an easy open because we didn’t have huge crowds. So we have time to tweak it, which I’m really into.”
At Craft, Wise shepherded the openings of Craftbar in New York and Craft locations in Atlanta, Dallas, and Los Angeles, as well as oversawthe transition of New York’s Craftsteak to Colicchio & Sons. But Wise was ready for a change from New York.
When he began searching for a location for a new restaurant, he knew he wanted to be near the water for access to great seafood. Naturally, he considered Los Angeles. But his business partner, Jonathan Buckley, urged him to check out Charleston.
Buckley fell in love with Charleston in the 1990s while attending school in North Carolina. He’s owned a home in Charleston for the last six years and had been hunting for an investment property there.
“When I stumbled upon the city-owned train depot in the center of town, I knew I had found something special that could provide a unique experience,” says Buckley, the founder and managing partner of Brand Innovation Partners. “So it wasn’t an accident, Charleston was the only market I had been searching for space.”
Buckley said opening a restaurant in a city of Charleston’s size brought some unique advantages and challenges (Charleston’s population is about 130,000, though the metropolitan area is home to some 750,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau). Construction was slow, with resources strained by a local building boom.
“There is no question we have taken a big risk with this project, but Charleston has a passion for food and is recognized as a destination for foodies, so we are in this for the long haul, with the goal of building an enduring experience that will stand the test of time,” Buckley says. “We’ve had great feedback since opening and are seeing guests come in for brunch and back later that night for dinner. That’s about as good as one can hope for.”