Damon Wise brings trio of restaurants to Charleston

Local produce, explosive growth help a renowned chef choose east over west.

On the left, a picture of the building at 23 Ann Street in Charleston, shortly after it was purchased by chef Damon Wise and business partner Jonathan Buckley. On the right, and interior shot of the Feathertop Cafe.   Photos courtesy Scarecrow & Co.

When chef Damon Wise prepared to move out of New York to start his own restaurant, there were only two places that met his criteria: Los Angeles and Charleston, South Carolina.

“I wanted to be close to a coast, and I also look at the growing season for vegetables and whatnot,” Wise told Palmetto Business Daily. “Charleston has some of the best produce ever.”

Wise and business partner Jonathan Buckley ultimately chose Charleston for the site of three new restaurant, two of which have launched with a third planned for opening in the fall. The two grabbed a narrow building at 23 Ann St. that, when purchased, didn’t have running water or electricity, according to an interview Wise gave to the Charleston Eater. Wise said that the reception from the city has been positive, with more success in the dinner hour than with lunch.

“Lunch business is always hard to build. We’re doing that, but it’s been slow,” Wise said. “But dinner has been great.”

Though a chef by trade, Wise said the transition from employee to owner has been easy, building on prior stints at restaurants in Philadelphia, France, West Virginia and New York. He was recruited from a reimaginging of New York’s The Monkey Bar restaurant to oversee the opening of Lafayette — a 200-seat, all-day eatery in New York. His work there  earned him praise from The New York Times.

“In the past I’ve always treated it as my own business, even though it wasn't. It’s just the way I was raised — to work hard and take pride in stuff that I was doing,” Wise said “I’m big into systems and making sure things are consistent, and I’ve created that whole thing here.”

He admitted, however, that being the part owner of the restaurant has changed some things. Instead of focusing his efforts exclusively to the kitchen, Wise said he’s learning to get himself in front of customers, particularly to hear feedback.

“I have come to terms with the fact that I have to spend more time in the dining room, instead of behind closed doors,” he said with a laugh. “I’m not really that graceful, that’s why I work in kitchens, but I’m learning.”

That has been his experience for the opening of two of the planned three restaurants this year. The first, Feathertop, offers dinner and lunch entrees ranging from $14 on up. Wise-Buck Smoked Meats, meanwhile, offers a more down-home experience with a rotating menu of simpler meats with sides and a selection of canned beers.

A week after Labor Day, Wise said, the company plans to open Scarecrow, a dinner-only offering in the same building as the other two that promises an upscale experience.

Though he admits New York was a city that could “talk real chef,” that doesn’t mean there’s a lack of food culture in his new home. While Wise-Bucks Smoked Meats was opened as a nod to Charleston more traditional food scene, he said he’s since made some adjustments to how he describes and presents the entrees to better reflect a Charleston restaurant audience. Charleston’s explosive growth, however, is fueling a new generation of eaters.

“Here it's a little bit different. People just want good food to eat, so you have to explain it very concisely and focused,” Wise said. “There’s been some growing pains for me, but there’s definitely a food culture here.

At the end of the day, being in Charleston seems more about Wise merging his world-class training with his childhood watching his grandmother cooking locally sourced meals with a catch-of-the-day and local produce.

“I’m not a big New York chef coming down here to fluff my feathers” he said. “I’m trying to make a good restaurant where everybody can come eat. I’m happy to be here.”

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