McCrady's, Million, and the Age of Anxiety

Use the right fork and try not to look cheap!

By Robert F. Moss

Fine Dining in the 1980s Was Exactly  Like This
Fine Dining in the 1980s Was Exactly Like This

For this week’s Charleston City Paper, I wrote a farewell to McCrady’s Tavern and Minero, which the Neighborhood Dining Group just announced would not be reopening after the general COVID-19 shutdown ends.

In the piece, I discuss many of the ways in which McCrady’s helped shape the Charleston dining scene during its 27-year run, but I didn’t touch upon how the restaurant bridged an older world of stuffy fine dining with our current more-relaxed era.

McCrady’s Restaurant was launched in 1993 by the owners of Restaurant Million, a classical French restaurant that at the time was Charleston’s most formal and upscale by far. While going back through newspaper archives, I came across some old reviews of Restaurant Million that reminded me once again of the severe inferiority complex that plagued many Americans in the late 20th century when it came to dining in restaurants.

In 1991, Jane Kronsberg of the Post & Courier reviewed Restaurant Million. Her opening declares in no uncertain terms that it “is a first-rate establishment,” but the very next paragraph warns that a visit “could be daunting for some.”

Why? Because the atmosphere was “formal and reserved,” the dress code strict, and the prices “rather dear.” Even worse, the menu was in French, though Kronsberg notes that the “merciful” establishment provided English translations.

When Kronsberg asks about the $25 set meal the restaurant had been advertising, she records that her husband “tried to become invisible. Restaurant Million is not a place where you want to appear cheap.” The waiter, though, explains the offering quite pleasantly and the meal gets underway.

The rest of the review walks step by step through a series of enjoyable courses, but that lurking unease reemerges at the end. When presented with petit fours after coffee, Kronsberg writes, “I made my final faux pas for the evening and asked if I could get them to go.”

That review echoes themes I’ve noticed in many other restaurant reviews in local newspapers back in the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. The same notes are rife in pop-culture depictions of “fancy” restaurant dining, too, including that classic of cinéma vérité, The Muppet Movie (1979).

It’s a world of strict, byzantine rules, of imperious headwaiters and snobby sommeliers just itching to expose diners as bumpkins in disguise. Don’t look cheap, don’t be gauche, don’t use the wrong fork. And for Pete’s sake don’t say, “please pass the jelly” when asking for the Polaner All-Fruit. (From Perrier to Grey Poupon, marketers realized they could tap into that timorous yearning for status to move all sorts of gussied up products.)

Over the course of the 1990s, though, something changed. In some ways restaurateurs began to ease up on formality and relax traditional dining conventions. At the same time, diners seemed to gain a little more confidence in their sophistication and self-worth.

McCrady’s in many ways embodied that transition. In 1993, McCrady’s literally took the place of Restaurant Million when the owners moved their French restaurant upstairs and replaced it with a more downscale operation. McCrady’s would still be European in character—the Post & Courier reported that it was “reminiscent of restaurants off storied alleys in European cities”—but the owners promised a “much more relaxed, comfortable atmosphere.”

Jose de Ancleto, who served double duty as chef for both Million and McCrady’s, assembled an opening menu that was international in character but far less formal than what he served in the tony French restaurant upstairs. It included lentil salad with grilled chicken, chilled pepper tuna medallions with arugula and parmesan, baked mussels with spinach and country ham, and curried chicken wings with sour cream and herbs.

Things were getting a bit more relaxed upstairs, too. When Jane Kronsberg returned to re-review in 1995, she noted that “Million has always been our most formal restaurant, and while it still has that air, the ambiance is reflecting a bit of a relaxed mood.” Chef de Anacleto’s previous menu was “intimidating both in size and content,” but the new one is much smaller and “doesn’t take itself as seriously.” (She also notes that de Anacleto was using less butter and cream than he would like, since so many diners were watching calories and cholesterol.)

Kronsberg urges those who found Restaurant Million to be “stiff” in the past to give it another shot. She doesn’t find a single fault in the meal (“Everything is perfection,” she gushes,) and she doesn’t betray a hint of insecurity on her part, either.

Within a few years, Million and McCrady’s were collapsed into a single restaurant that kept the latter’s name and became increasingly upscale and avante garde in its cuisine. Under the leadership first of chef Michael Kramer and then Sean Brock it helped lead Charleston dining into the 21st century.

And that means no more ties or loaner sports coats, and no more cowering under the withering gaze of headwaiters and sommeliers. That server in jeans with a neck tattoo might roll her eyes when you ask what “vadouvan” is, but I think that’s progress.

And, boy, am I ready to sit down in an actual dining room and order from a proper menu again.

About the Author

Robert F. Moss

Robert F. Moss is the Contributing Barbecue Editor for Southern Living magazine, Restaurant Critic for the Post & Courier, and the author of numerous books on Southern food and drink, including The Lost Southern Chefs, Barbecue: The History of an American Institution, Southern Spirits: 400 Years of Drinking in the American South, and Barbecue Lovers: The Carolinas. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina.