RISING STAR

BY WENDY SWAT SNYDER | PHOTOGRAPHY BY HOLGER OBENAUS

It was a good day for all the food-obsessed folks residing East of the Cooper when Dianne and Cecil Crowley changed their minds about retiring. Over the next two decades, the couple amassed a string of successful eateries in the Southeast and opened the latest in their cadre of businesses: the spanking new Tavern & Table on popular Shem Creek. Along the way, they learned everything they didn’t know about operating a restaurant, crossed paths with celebrity chefs and found new ways to express their individual creativity.

It was the early 1990s, and the Atlantabased entrepreneurs had just sold their first two business ventures—Cecil had founded one of the city’s first courier services, and Dianne had parlayed her years of television promotion experience into a full-service advertising agency.

“We had always planned to retire at 40, and we thought it was the right time to let the businesses go,” explains Dianne, adding with a chuckle, “But after a couple of days of doing nothing, we looked at each other and knew it wasn’t for us.” Ready for the next adventure, the Crowleys moved to Hilton Head Island and jumped at an opportunity to get into the restaurant business.

“We were naive, we thought it would be fun,” recalls Dianne. “I said, ‘we have these chicken wings everyone always likes at our Superbowl parties’—otherwise we had no idea what we were doing.”

The couple opened a casual eatery they called Wild Wing Cafe in Coligny Plaza—an instant hit. “It was huge—we ran out of food,” says Dianne, acknowledging that, while unprepared for the crowd, they knew immediately that it was the right fit for them.

The Crowleys had become friends with another Hilton Head restaurant owner, Robert Irvine, host of Food Network’s Restaurant Impossible. “He used to shake his head and say, ‘What are you thinking?’” says Dianne, laughing. “We had two options: sink or swim.” They quickly hired a consultant who “taught us everything.”

The Crowleys’ foray into the food arena led to Wild Wing Cafe locations throughout the South. “When we sold most of the operation in 2012, our core staff had been with us 15 to 20 years—we were family. We never would have achieved what we did without them. Andy Palmer, who directs operations for all of our restaurants, started out as a bartender and worked his way up to franchise director for Wild Wing Cafe.”

With a foothold in Mount Pleasant’s Shem Creek—the couple owned a waterfront property they operated as an event venue—they decided their next move would be to fill a niche they had identified there. The Crowleys partnered with Palmer and together they planned the opening of a casual fine-dining establishment: Tavern & Table.

Referring to the 10,000-square-foot building as “a big white canvas,” Dianne called on another Restaurant Impossible friend, Taniya Nayak, who leads the show’s redesigns of failing restaurants, to conceptualize the interior design.

“Taniya came down from Boston, and we sat on the deck looking out at the water for a while,” recalls Dianne, “and she said, ‘I got it.’”

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With rugged trawling boats and the creek’s natural beauty for inspiration, a plan developed around a theme of casual elegance. The color palette for the sprawling interior mimics the greens and blues of the water, and earthy elements in the décor and finishes keep the look comfortably casual.

“Taniya took my thoughts to fruition,” notes Dianne. “We’ve had design classes come here to study what we did using glass, brick, reclaimed wood— it’s very textural.”

Huge windows bathe the dining area in light, with open spaces defined by the bordering bar, wood-burning oven and dockside patio. The ambience is more or less casual depending on the area in which you choose to be seated, and almost every table has a water view. Not wanting guests “to feel rushed out,” Dianne says they took their time finding the best and most comfortable chairs. An assortment of funky lighting fixtures includes chandeliers constructed with wood and metal for a rustic feel.

Observing that both Nayak and Tavern & Table executive chef Katie Lorenzen-Smith are new to South Carolina, Dianne says they had to get acclimated to a very different thought process.

“The Lowcountry,” she notes, “it’s a culture.”

Accessible, visually striking, innovative—these design attributes are shared by the menu as well, a collaboration between chef and owners. Lorenzen-Smith was hired by the Crowleys based on the recommendation of their friend, celebrity chef Beau MacMillan, with whom she spent eight years as sous chef.

“I was very fortunate to work at Elements right out of school,” says Lorenzen-Smith, referring to the restaurant at top-rated Arizona resort Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain. “The president of Food Network came in one day and invited us to compete on Iron Chef America. We went up against Bobby Flay and won!”

While sourcing fresh product from local farmers and fishermen, Lorenzen-Smith takes a global approach to familiar dishes. “I like to take a dish people are comfortable with,” she says, “and bring unexpected ingredients into the mix to create something new and different.” Her repertory is also driven by an affinity for Asian flavors.

The menus—lunch, dinner, dockside—include familiar Southern snacks such as pimento cheese and fried green tomatoes that are given a surge of flavor with a bacony jam and candy, respectively. Shrimp toast is stuffed with water chestnuts and cilantro and spiked with sriracha aioli.

The kitchen’s charcuterie program produces fresh sausage and pâté, and the Tavern & Table house-ground burger is a blend of certified Angus chuck, brisket and short rib.

Small plates for passing include fire-roasted oysters, pork belly poutine and okonomiyaki— a Japanese savory pancake. Flatbreads such as prosciutto and fig are wood-fired, and a creative list of salads and soups—the green gazpacho is a must-have—are perfect portions for lighter appetites.

The day’s fresh catch, roasted chicken with duck fat fries, seared scallops, and short rib pho are a few selections from the entrée list. Georgia peach is, currently, the seasonal pie rotating through the dessert list.

“We wanted to offer something not available on Shem Creek,” notes Lorenzen-Smith. “We’re so fortunate to work with local farmers.”

“Hopefully we’re doing a good job,” adds Dianne.

Wendy Swat Snyder is a freelance writer and public relations consultant based in Charleston. Email Wendy at wendyswatsnyder@gmail.com.