Robbie Caponetto

Last week, at 3:10 on a Thursday afternoon, Robert Stehling poured a short glass of draft beer and sat down at a corner table in the dining room of Hominy Grill. He had earned a cold one, having just pulled a double shift on the line.

A few days earlier, Stehling had announced that he was closing his iconic Charleston restaurant for good on Sunday, April 28th. For many locals like me, the news came out of the blue and triggered a sharp pang of guilt. Hominy is sort of like the beach—an essential feature of the city, but somewhere we don’t go nearly as often as we should. It’s way too crowded (all those tourists!), and, besides, it will always be there whenever we need it, right?

Not after April 28th. “It’s just time,” Stehling explains. If it wasn’t for Charleston’s climate, he might have stuck it out until October, when the restaurant would celebrate its 24th anniversary. “I don’t want to work all summer,” he admits. “It’s so hot, and we get super crowded.”

When Hominy opened in 1996, Charleston’s dining scene was very different than today. The action was limited to a handful of white tablecloth restaurants clustered on East Bay Street, just a few blocks up from the old mansions on the famed Rainbow Row.

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The North Carolina-born Stehling, fresh off a decade-long stint in Manhattan kitchens, had something different in mind. His wife, Nunally Kersh, had just accepted a position producing the Spoleto Festival, and he found what he thought a likely spot in the Cannonborough neighborhood, a good two miles from Restaurant Row.

The Medical University of South Carolina was two blocks away, and the only nearby restaurant was a franchised sub shop.  “I figured the hospital people needed somewhere else to go,” Stehling says. “My business plan was to get 100 customers for lunch and go from there.” Go from there he did. It wasn’t lunch but breakfast that turned out to be the key. National travel writers were starting to visit Charleston, and their articles all had little sidebars with “Where to Stay” and “Where to Eat.” They invariably highlighted the grits and biscuits at Hominy Grill. “We were one of the only places serving breakfast,” Stehling says. “It put our name out there.”

It was Stehling’s rendition of a seasonal local specialty—sauteed shad roe with scrambled eggs—that wowed R. W. Apple of the New York Times. “At the Hominy Grill,” he declared in 2000, “breakfast is no gastronomic stepchild. It is cooked as carefully as if it were a banquet.” (Southern Living’s readers agreed, and over the years have regularly picked it as one of the South’s Best Breakfast Spots. 

Soon Stehling’s lunch and dinner dishes were earning rave reviews, too, and many have gone on to become menu fixtures. Hominy’s shrimp and grits are an iconic representation of Charleston’s signature dish. Equally beloved is the Country Captain, which smothers sautéed chicken in a rich curry sauce that’s laced with green peppers, currants and slivers of toasted almonds, a scoop of jasmine rice rising like an island above the reddish-orange pool of curry.

Hominy’s food is rooted in the past, but it’s a past that is still vivid in many customers’ memories. Much of the cooking looks to the middle decades of the 20th Century, with recipes inspired by Charleston Receipts, the spiral-bound Junior League cookbook first published in 1950. But those preparations are made with fresh local ingredients and the sensibility of a fine dining chef. That balance has been the essence of Hominy Grill. It’s not a country cooking restaurant, but neither is it fine dining. It’s always been somewhere in between.

It took Stehling a couple of years to find the right balance. “I listened to the customers,” he recalls. Hominy may have been a Southern restaurant, but diners weren’t coming in for everyday fare like fried pork chops. “With Hominy’s kind of cooking,” Stehling notes, “you’re going up against people’s grandmas. You’re being compared to the familiar.”

The trick was not to replicate those grandmothers’ recipes in every detail. Instead, it was about listening to his customers’ memories—their memories of the pimento cheese at family gatherings, of sitting down for a fancy dinner and eating Country Captain—and then creating a dish that invoked all those memories but still seemed fresh and new.

In the late 1990s, Charleston needed a restaurant like Hominy Grill. Over on Restaurant Row, the initial wave of “New Southern” chefs had had the audacity to put Southern ingredients like grits and collards on fine dining menus. Those ingredients, though, often just added a Southern accent to conventional European-inspired cuisine: Beluga caviar accompanied by fried green tomatoes, racks of lamb encrusted in benne seed. At Hominy, Stehling not only embraced indigenous ingredients but made classic Southern dishes the anchor. The hand and sensibility of the fine dining chef was still there, but it was subtle and in the background. The dishes themselves were the star.

When Stehling was awarded the prestigious James Beard Award for Best Chef Southeast in 2008, it raised a lot of eyebrows. At the time, Hominy wasn’t even offering dinner service (Stehling had dropped it the year before). Previously, it would have been unthinkable for a chef who cooked just breakfast and lunch to win a Beard. But diners and critics across the country were ready to take Southern comfort food seriously, and Stehling was cooking serious Southern comfort food.

Ultimately, it’s not the awards or any individual dish that Stehling sees as Hominy’s legacy. “I’ve wanted this restaurant to help to create a sense of place,” Stehling says. “Charleston is such a unique city with its own culinary traditions. I wanted to highlight that and make it part of people’s lives, like a living cuisine.” That he has undoubtedly done. Sitting down at a table at Hominy Grill, you feel like you are in a very specific place, and a very special one. This is a Charleston restaurant, and it’s not something you can find in Atlanta or Nashville or Dallas. 

Hominy’s exit comes as Charleston navigates through its next generational change. Gleaming new hotels sprout seemingly on every corner, welcoming ever more visitors from around the country and around the globe. They are coming in large part because Charleston’s iconic restaurants—including Hominy Grill—have put the city on the international culinary map.  Those visitors certainly won’t go hungry after April 28th, but their breakfast prospects will be diminished. As for what’s next, Stehling isn’t sure. “I do this 120%,” he says, gesturing around the rapidly-emptying dining room. “So it’s hard to get focused on something else.”  I think it’s fair to give him a long, hot summer to think it over.

 

 

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