Meet some of the indispensable people keeping the city’s restaurants afloat
February 25, 2015: By Kinsey Gidick , Stratton Lawrence and Allston McCrady
According to the Charleston Regional Development Alliance, 30,480 people work in the food service industry in Charleston. That’s 10.3 percent of the working population cutting, frying, greeting, sweeping, and serving this city’s limitless appetite. And yet, even with the pages upon pages of copy dedicated to reporting on the Holy City’s culinary scene, the supporting staffers often get little more than a footnote. So we decided to talk to five food and bev veterans on what life is like making a living in one of the city’s biggest industries.
Meet the man who kept Rue de Jean’s bar patrons happy for 15 years
Nights of revelry blanketed in thick layers of cigarette smoke, the sounds of boozy merriment spilling onto Upper King. Hearing the description, one might think Stephen Smoak was reminiscing about a recent night at A.C.’s. But no, he’s talking about 39 Rue de Jean at a time when John Street was the wild west of the peninsula. An era when Rue was like a Roaring ’20s brasserie filled with Friends haircuts. At least that’s how Smoak remembers it. He’d know, he’s been tending bar there since 2000.
“It was crazy,” Smoak recalls with a mischievous grin. “Yes, ma’am, I could tell you a lot of stories.”
Sitting at Kudu on a breezy December day, those years of late-night mayhem seem a distant dream, especially in light of the hour. It’s 9 a.m. and Smoak has just dropped off his daughter at Buist Elementary School. Yes, long gone are the post-shift ragers, like that time his buddy decided to play human Frogger on King Street and lept onto the roof of an unmanned car. “Oh, he flattened it,” Smoak says laughing. His years of wild behavior are probably why Smoak is so confused by this interview.
“When you contacted me for this article, you said it was about unsung heroes, but I thought, unsung heroes? More like unsung outlaws,” he says.
As it turns out, Smoak is a little bit of both — a hero and an outlaw; a fly fisherman, a bartender, and a father too. He’s also about as Lowcountry as they come with sirs and ma’ams rolling off his tongue with such a thick drawl you’d think his vocal chords had been cured in pluff mud; he’s one of those folks you hear about from time to time, but rarely ever see. You know, a real local.
“Back in the day we were all from Charleston, be it Summerville or West Ashley,” Smoak says. “Now everybody’s started coming in and you have your J.I.s and Folly Beach and Mt. Pleasant. It’s all changed a lot. Snee Farms used to seem like a long way away.”
Smoak grew up in Park Circle, but after high school he moved downtown. “I lived on Cannon Street when you didn’t live on Cannon Street,” he says. That’s when he first began working at Mesa Grill, a restaurant that used to be on the Market
In his younger years Smoak navigated a handful of local restaurant jobs. “I worked at Mesa, then moved to Columbia and opened Mr. Friendly’s Cafe,” he says. But it wasn’t long before the Atlantic drew him home. A friend told him about a new French place way up on King that was looking for a bar manager. Smoak got the job.
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