The century-old warehouse glows in the cool spring night, its fresh stucco, dark French doors, gas lanterns and weathered stone steps inviting you in. It is a happy sight to see this property in Charleston’s historic City Market alive again with soft lights, music and hungry folks. In the two-plus years it took for Anson Restaurant to recover from a Christmas Eve fire, some wondered if the longtime Southern favorite would ever make a comeback. Back it is, and better than ever.
The damage to the building was more than originally thought, but the owners brought the place back to life with bricks and beams spared from the flames—and sheer determination. The project unfolded with a vision to resurrect the Anson brand of Southern hospitality and reclaim its place on the national culinary map.
A pioneer of innovative Lowcountry cuisine, Anson helped define the cuisine for which the city would become famous. Gourmet magazine was prompted to write: “Charleston’s heritage is an inspiration; and it helps explain why the restaurant called Anson is so successful serving food that mixes tradition with culinary fashion … a meal of historic respect as well as bold invention.”
“When we first opened, our vision was to present classic food in a beautiful setting,” says co-owner and native Charlestonian Donna Balish Moeckel, whose family got its start in hospitality in 1978 with the acquisition of Garibaldi Cafe. The group now operates eateries in both Charleston and Columbia, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia.
Now as then, locally sourced ingredients inspire seasonal dishes that reflect a variety of influences. Moeckel explains that they rotate around a core of “Anson classics,” dishes such as shrimp ‘n’ grits, crispy flounder, fried pork chop, and she-crab soup that have been on the menu since the restaurant first opened in 1992.
“In the early days,” she continues, “she-crab soup couldn’t be found in highend restaurants.” Anson was also among the first to serve house-ground grits. “We have our own mill— we grind them fresh every day,” she adds.
Moeckel laughs off the challenges she faced during the rebuild, declaring, “It’s been fun!” She explains that it’s all about the people—on both sides of the table. “I work with people who have been with us a long time,” she says. “We have a ‘cult’ of hospitality centered around pleasing the guest. The staff knows what we’re trying to achieve, and they believe in it.”
Anson executive chef Jeremy Holst stayed busy during the rebuilding project working on menu ideas and rotating among the Balish family’s stable of restaurants. He assisted with the design of a lunch program at Cola’s in Columbia and has been active in the planning of Farmer and Exchange, a restaurant concept to be launched soon on East Bay Street in Charleston.
“We were very fortunate that they owned other properties and were able to take care of so many of their employees,” says Holst.
A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, the Mount Pleasant native did a stint at the Four Seasons Resort Lanai and gained exposure to the different flavor profiles—Korean, Philippine, Japanese—and high quality fish Hawaii offers. He moved on to the renowned Pano’s & Paul’s in Atlanta before connecting with the Balish group in 2010.
“Jeremy is so talented,” says Moeckel. “We really enjoy working with him.” She notes that Holst took Kevin Johnson’s place, following a long line of prominent back-of-house staff that includes celebrity chef Tyler Florence, Mike Lata of FIG, and Glenn Roberts, a close family friend and owner of Columbiabased Anson Mills.
This spring will be the first the restaurant has enjoyed since it was shuttered in 2013, and Holst—like many Lowcountry chefs—is looking forward to “seeing everything come to life.” Local farms will double and triple their produce harvest in coming months and his menu will reflect that.
“In the last five years I’ve really fallen into my own rhythm,” notes Holst. He adds that he likes to undersell the menu with dishes that may sound simple, but really pack a “wow” factor.
The shrimp ‘n’ grits entrée I tasted was a refined dish in which the tender local shrimp truly starred. The smoked tomato sauce had great depth of flavor—balanced and happily absent the distracting chunks of sausage found in so many others. The she-crab soup was silky and rich, with a flavorful base full of sweet crab meat.
Tender New Bedford scallops were perfectly seared and beautifully plated with tangerine butter, vanilla parsnip puree and beet puree. Sweet roasted winter vegetables complemented a smoky, salty confit pork. The interplay of colors, textures and tastes was nothing less than artful.
The pecan tart with salted caramel ice cream was a sophisticated play on the eatery’s classic pecan pie—a longtime menu favorite. Served hot, the reimagined version contained pecans that were finely chopped and set on a single crust, producing a lighter dessert.
“We like to have an atmosphere that encourages creativity,” Moeckel points out, and these were as good examples as any.
The restaurant’s interior spaces are a visual feast, blending contemporary styling and period classics in a lively bistro atmosphere. Moeckel worked closely with Michael Deloach of Deloach Design & Decoration to produce a warm patina of color and comfort throughout the restaurant.
“We have a long relationship,” says Moeckel, recalling that it was her mother who had discovered his work years ago. “She liked his aesthetic—he knows antiques, the South, that’s been his life.”
Starburst chandeliers light the way into a first floor dining room anchored by a live-edge wood bar constructed of North Carolina oak. Lush leather banquettes and white clothed tables set the tone. A rustic backdrop of cypress wall paneling runs throughout the two-story venue.
The gracious dining rooms on the second floor are perfect for private events. The larger room is lit by stunning crystal chandeliers found in a 19thcentury Savannah hotel. Southern artist Stuart Coleman Budd was commissioned to paint the ethereal landscapes suspended on the walls.
In the smaller room, the graceful lines of an antique French fanlight door provide a romantic backdrop for an intimate table for two. The family’s love of horses is expressed on both floors through references to polo and riding in photographs and sculptures. Moeckel’s sister, Kiara Balish Barnett, painted a series of dramatic equestrian-themed portraits herself. All the dining rooms are warmed by fireplaces.
“That is the reason they are successful,” notes Deloach. “The Balish family likes to project a residential feeling, unlike the more commercial designs found in most restaurants. And Donna is so about detail, beyond anyone I have ever worked with—a focus—in order to make everything right.”
Welcome back, Anson.
Wendy Swat Snyder is a Charleston-based freelance writer and marketing consultant.