When a restaurant has dominated a corner overlooking two of Charleston’s busiest streets for nearly two decades, it’s doing something right. Set in the heart of the historic shopping district where King and Wentworth streets meet, Sermet’s Downtown caters to customers with a host of experiences, including fine casual dining, lunch and weekend brunch, and a live music venue that sets it apart from every other restaurant in town. A beautiful renovation opened up the space—and the experience— in this see-and-be-seen eatery, and that’s where the story begins.
Hospitality veteran John David Madison was approached by original owner Sermet Aslan, to lead the renovation project, which got underway in 2012. After its completion, Madison became involved in day-to-day operations, and when Aslan decided to sell, he stepped up to the plate.
“Sermet set a standard for Mediterranean cuisine in Charleston using Southern ingredients and Mideast flair,” says Madison, who learned to appreciate “extremely good food” at fine dining restaurants with parents he says “spoiled” him. “I love food—getting the opportunity to be involved with that aspect of the business has been a great learning experience for me.”
The change freed Aslan for other projects on his agenda, and after ensuring the transition was right, he cut back his involvement in daily operations of the restaurant. “I taste the specials and maintain open communication with the chef and kitchen crew,” he says, adding with a laugh, “they say nothing grows under a big tree.”
“What we really want to focus on is taking the absolute best he does,” says Madison, “his passionate dishes and unusual ingredients, and refine the presentation.”
The transformation of the interior space was the first step in the process. Madison, who says he has designed and renovated everything from small homes to condos and spas, also worked in the sales division at the Mills House, a hotel in Charleston’s historic district, bringing his foundation in hospitality full circle.
His design plan opened the space with large windows facing the street, flooding the restaurant with light. He used a color palette of whites in seating upholstery, long draperies, tablecloths and dramatic columns throughout the dining area. The crisp neutrals showcase soft old-world brick walls, pine flooring and blond cypress ceilings.
“The bar is built entirely around and under the stairwell, bringing to mind a bar on a yacht,” Madison notes. “The dining room has a fun vibe, and it has two very distinct personalities—by day and by night.”
He adds that a big part of Sermet’s is its identity—elegant and sophisticated without being forced or stuffy. “It’s a great environment to come into and have a wonderful dinner.”
Carrying the energy from the first floor to the second is a long stairway layered to convey “stepping up” with open visuals of the dining room and a landing at its midpoint.
Upstairs, The Mezz, a live music venue, showcases Madison’s background in entertainment. “It was a long time ago,” he muses. “We produced Women with Attitude, a song and dance show, booked the Cavallaro [a former Charleston night club] and put on live performances there.”
Doors open at 6:00 p.m. for dinner seating; show starts at 7:30 p.m. Doors reopen at 9:30 for late-night cocktails, conversation and dancing, featuring live music at 10 p.m.
To celebrate Jazz Appreciation Month, Sermet’s Downtown is featuring an eclectic lineup showcasing some of the many permutations of the jazz genre. Check The Mezz schedule online at mezzdowntown.com for an expanded calendar of performances that run Thursdays through Sundays all month. Musical styles include Ragtime, Dixieland jazz, Bawdy Blues, ’40s-style Bebop jazz, Big Bands and, of course, the Mezz Jazz Trio.
Originally focusing mainly on jazz, The Mezz has incorporated additional musical genres into the evening lineup, including big band and swing. And the concert-style setting has given way to a dance floor, making Sermet’s Downtown the only restaurant in town where guests may dine and dance.
“I’m very old fashioned about dinner and music,” says Madison. “The Mezz is a throwback in time—as you’re finishing your champagne you’re putting on your dancing shoes.”
The full dinner menu is available during the early show performance, and a late night menu during the second. Start with a lively appetizer such as sautéed calamari tossed with capers, orange zest, tomatoes, basil pesto and fennel, or lobster bisque accented with crawfish and bacon.
Specialty pastas include sautéed wild mushroom ragout and tortellini with a white truffle cream sauce. The chicken sautéed with smoked bacon, mushrooms and apples in Marsala Parmesan sauce served over butternut squash ravioli has been on the menu since the restaurant opened, according to chef de cuisine Justin Hummon. The North Carolina native received his degree through the culinary program at Asheville-Buncombe Tech Community College and learned the seasonal approach to cooking at Grovewood Cafe in Asheville, North Carolina.
Hummon says he’s really enjoying the availability of fresh, local produce in the Lowcountry. “Asheville has a lot of smaller farms, with smaller output, so it’s very competitive,” he notes. “Here it’s so easy to get anything you want.”
Asked if has a favorite or signature dish, he points to the sesame-encrusted tuna. “It’s very light—we leave the tuna alone, so its flavor really comes through.”
Other offerings from the grill include a salmon dish served over sautéed vegetables with a yogurt dill sauce.
New menus that rotate throughout the seasons are routine at Sermet’s notes general manager Jennifer Russell. “John David is one of the most fun and gregarious people (and bosses) you will ever meet. In the same breath, he knows what he wants and he expects that we will deliver that level of quality and service consistently and graciously.”
Madison’s penchant for over-the-top hospitality has become a hallmark of Sermet’s, so much so that it landed him and the eatery a place on Bravo’s television series, Southern Charm. “They thought I was a fun guy,” he says with a laugh, “and approached me about a supporting role—they wanted to shoot the behind-the-scenes preparation for some of our big parties.”
Their famous Carolina Day party, held in June, is a blacktie sellout. Sermet’s Downtown is definitely doing something right.
Wendy Swat Snyder is a freelance writer and public relations consultant based in Charleston. Email Wendy at email@example.com.