Welcome to Lifers, a feature in which Eater interviews the men and women who have worked in the restaurant and bar industry for over a decade. For the 20th anniversary of Slightly North of Broad, Eater tracked down Dick Elliott, who is the founding partner of the restaurant.
[left: Dick Elliott, right: The Original Interior of Slightly North of Broad/Photos Provided ]
Dick Elliott began his restaurant career when he purchased the Colony House in 1989. The property was located on Prioleau Street, where the Harbour Club stands now. Elliott would go on to open Slightly North of Broad, known to many as SNOB, in December of 1993. Today, the local cuisine-inspired eatery still packs in a busy lunch crowd and draws in dinner visitors from near and far to see what chef Frank Lee is cooking up. The Lowcountry has been through a lot of changes since Elliott started here and, with the big anniversary this month, Eater thought to interview him. He talks with us about what Charleston's food scene looked like two decades ago, the regulars in his restaurant and why chef Lee refuses to ever make another seafood tortellini.
What was the environment surrounding East Bay Street, where Slightly North of Broad is located, 20 years ago?
I think what was happening at that point were the beginnings. We started Slightly North of Broad in 1993. The hot restaurants were Carolina's and Magnolias. One of the favorites was Marianne's. It was on the corner of Hasell Street and Meeting Street near the hotel. Those were the true fine dining places. I define fine dining as a place that is cuisine driven. At the same time, Charleston Place opened Charleston Grill.
Charleston was nothing, culinarily, until Spoleto came along, and that goes back to the mid-1970s. It was a slow building process, and the people that were attracted here from the Spoleto arts festival were from larger cities, where they had more dining options, and they had an appreciation of a bit more fining dining than you got in the cafeteria those days. So, basically during the early to mid-1980s, things began to jell. In the early 1990s, there were just a handful of restaurants and we caught the first wave of that.
When you started, did you foresee that Charleston was starting to turn over?
No, I don't think anybody did. We all thought it was growing, we had no idea how much it was growing. There were some good chefs at that point: Donald Barickman at Magnolia's, Lou Osteen, José de Anacleto at Restaurant Million. Million was where McCrady's is now. It was French to the nth degree and Charleston's most upscale restaurant. Everybody in that group saw things growing, but nobody would have predicted where we are today. I know I didn't.
Speaking of other chefs that have moved on to other projects, how did you snag chef Frank Lee and hold on to him for twenty years?
Well, when I first contemplated buying the Colony House, I knew Louis Osteen from his restaurant in Pawleys Island, and he said the only restaurant he would think of buying was the Colony House, and he said he would try to hire Frank Lee, which I did. At that point, Frank was working with José de Anacleto and had some other things in the fire at that point. Then David Marconi came along, and we opened Colony House in 1990. Frank became available in 1992, and we opened Slightly North of Broad. I gave them shares in the place, and over the years that grew. They haven't invested, other than brains and a lot of hard work, but that's how we became joint owners together. We have a mutual respect and an appreciation for what each of us does not know.
I think Frank Lee contributed an amazing culinary knowledge. He was mostly self-taught and never went to school, but he worked for and studied under some really great French chefs, and he has a really great Southern sensibility, executed with French technique. More than anything else, he has an amazing appreciation of food. It's something you try to let speak for itself. You prepare it in such a way to let the ingredient speak for itself and you don't waste any of it. David Marconi came to us with a background on the service side, and brought an understanding of how a restaurant really works. He's our go-to guy on the training, point of sales and finances. I bring an entrepreneurial sense and an appreciation of dining. I brought the perspective of the consumer.
Do you remember what the first year was like?
Very interestingly, it was a little unusual. It's a small restaurant. Just under 3000 feet. I remember distinctly Frank Lee looking at me and saying there was no way in Hell he could cook in that space. He became the ballet dancer, pirouetting from one piece of equipment to the next. When we opened, we hoped to be a neighborhood restaurant. We weren't looking to win national awards. We wanted to be comfortable—we just wanted to feel good. It slowly built. The forewarning was delivered in the first month, as a woman leaving said, "This just feels good." Ever since then, a large part of our company philosophy is the guest feels like that when they walk out the door.
Have you had any regulars for the entire 20 years?
Oh, yes. We started a program in 2000, Maverick Collections, a customer loyalty program. Most people pushed back, but those are our best customers now. Andy Savage has something like 5,000 points now, and he will tell you he is saving his points and will walk in one day and demand I give him a Mercedes. The regulars fall into two categories: one is the people who fall in love with one particular thing on the menu and then then people that come in a couple of times a month. We have people that come in every single day too. The lunch crowd is 75% locals. It's a place for lunch where you can expect to see a lot of people you know. Lawyers, bankers, real estate agents, and ladies who lunch—I want to be one of those ladies [laughs]. And dinner is slightly different, we have more visitors from out of town.
How has the cuisine evolved?
This is one of my favorite subjects. The first time I saw Frank Lee, he had parked his white Ford pickup truck in front of the Colony House and my office overlooked the parking lot. I saw him pick up an armload of greens and walk to Million, and that was my picture of Frank. When we got together in 1992, I realized the knowledge he had of what was grown in this area and the passion he had for it. He saw the connectedness of it. These were individual farmers, not doing industrial farming, but harvesting small quantities that he got to sell to him for his restaurant. Frank Lee was doing farm-to-table or locavore in 1992 and has been doing it ever since. That was a principal driving thought behind the menu, and second, it was Southern. Thirdly, it was tinged with French tones and French preparation.
There was always something a little odd on the menu—that's why we called it Maverick [Elliot is referencing the name of his restaurant group, Maverick Southern Kitchens.]. There was a dish called seafood tortellini that was cooked in a dish with tortellini, cheese, shrimp, scallops, and it sold like crazy. When we put it on the menu, it was $12.95. It kept selling, and we had to raise the price to $19.95 after six years. Frank finally said he would never cook a seafood tortellini in his kitchen again. Another interesting thing was the pad Thai. There was a woman from Thailand living in North Charleston with a little Thai restaurant, and in 1993 there wasn't a large demand, but Frank loved it. He convinced her to come work for us, and she did, and we still have that dish today. The most important aspect is that Frank has developed an incredible staff that find ways to refine what we do. Frank agrees that the food today is the best it's ever been, and he's not in the kitchen as much, because he's over at the Post House. And he can do that, because of the incredible team we have here.
Do you have any plans for the future of Slightly North of Broad?
We are committed to doing whatever it takes to keep it doing what it's doing for the next twenty years. Frank says, "I'm not going to be cooking for the next twenty years," and I won't be either, well not cooking, maybe I can sit on a barstool and watch. We think there's a lot of room in the Charleston culinary scene for what we do. It's not new and trendy, or it hasn't grabbed hold of some hot new concept—its mission is to continue to deliver food of the region as freshly as we can and with as much hospitality as we can.
· Slightly North of Broad [Official]