HOTELS Interview: Chef heads upscale restaurant with broad appeal

Michelle Weaver has spent the past three years as executive chef at Charleston Grill, the signature restaurant at the 440-room Charleston Place in Charleston, South Carolina. The restaurant has garnered honors including the AAA Four-Diamond award and Distinguished Restaurants of North America Award, and with an average check of US$60 without liquor, the 120-seat, dinner-only venue is not inexpensive. Nevertheless, Weaver has found ways to appeal to a broad range of hotel guests — not to mention a healthy percentage of locals — with revamped menus and personal touches. She recently spoke with HOTELS about some of her best strategies as well as her most exciting plans for 2012.

HOTELS: How would you sum up what characterizes F&B at Charleston Grill?

Michelle Weaver: We really have the perfect package. We have great-quality products for food and people that are passionate and care about what they’re doing to prepare them, and then we have these great servers, and it’s a relaxed atmosphere. It’s not stuffy even though it’s a 4-star restaurant. You don’t feel like you should have to whisper. You can relax and be taken care of. It’s the entire package. We strive to make it a magical experience — not just a place to go have dinner.

HOTELS: What would you identify on the food side as highlights of that perfect package?

Weaver: A few years ago we redid the dining room, to update the look. We wanted to update our menu to be in the forefront of things again. We came up with four quadrants, four mini-menus. One side has Southern specialties — since we’re in Charleston, tourists want to have something Southern while they’re there. We also have a cosmopolitan side for our world travelers; you could find anything from south Indian curries to sashimi to ceviches, all these beautiful world flavors that we have. For the business traveler, [we have a pure menu with things like] just a simple, beautiful piece of steak. We also have lush — foie gras, caviar and these things. Within those four mini menus, there’s something for everybody. It’s almost like being four restaurants.

Being a hotel restaurant, it’s a different animal than an independent restaurant. You have a lot of people to please and a lot of targets to try to hit. Within the hotel we’ve got business travelers, luxury travelers, tourists in town, and we’ve got a great local following. To try to appease everybody and give them things they’re all looking for without it being a big mess, we played it out like this, and people love it.

HOTELS: Approximately what percentage of your restaurant patrons are locals versus hotel guests? How important is local business to you, and what are some ways you’ve tried to attract it?

Weaver: At any point during a night, I’d say it would be 40% to 60% locals, probably closer to an average of 50% on a regular basis.

We have a locals appreciation card, so to speak, a loyalty card. They get a percentage off, and they can build other incentives as they use it.

We have a big farm-to-table movement [in Charleston]. We’re not a farm-to-table-driven restaurant, but we have great farmers and fishermen that take great care of us, and for our local clientele, that means a lot to them.

HOTELS: How is what you offer in F&B at Charleston Grill both similar to and different from what is available in the broader Charleston restaurant landscape?

Weaver: We combine a lot of things to [reflect] a little bit of everybody instead of just one thing, which I think gives us more diversity. Because we are supported with the hotel, that gives us more ability and power to be able to get fresh lobster, caviar, all those things that a small independent restaurant really can’t afford to put on their menu. With that backing, it enables us to do the best job with the best products.

HOTELS: What are some of the most noteworthy broad hotel F&B trends you’ve observed recently, and how do your offerings reflect — or differ from — them?

Weaver: Hotel restaurants seem to have a stigma. I think little by little as big names take over hotel restaurants, people want to go there. I think that stigma’s pulling away a little bit, which is great.

Our hotel belongs to Orient-Express, and I think one of the best things that they allow all of us to do is that each property is left to be itself. They want the character of the community [the hotel is] in [to be reflected]. They want the diversity of flavors on their menus. They’re not telling us this is your standard menu. Each hotel and each restaurant has its own character, its own life, its own soul, which I think it wonderful.

A lot of hotel groups have a standard corporate menu, but I’m seeing more and more smaller boutique hotels especially have more individual restaurants. Each of them has a different name, they have different flavors, some are using farm-to-table, some are using molecular gastronomy — that’s nice. It takes that stigma away from the hotel restaurant.

We really don’t focus much on trends. Those come and go. We look at ourselves and say, what can we do to make our guest experience better? Coming up with little things like putting a card — handwritten by the staff — on the table because we know they’re celebrating their anniversary or their birthday or printing up the tasting menu they had so they have something to take with them — little moments to make that magic come together.

HOTELS: What are some of the most exciting plans you have for 2012?

Weaver: We’re working on a few events we’re really excited about. I’ve started what I call “Veg Stock.” It’s a vegetarian wine dinner. We do it in the summertime around the anniversary of Woodstock, and it just features all my great local farmers, and it’s a way to say thank you to all our vegetarian clientele. It grew into a two-day event last year, and we may have to do three days next year. To put vegetables at the center of the plate and then pair wines with it is a challenge for me, which I love, and our guests love it. We have people come who aren’t even vegetarian because they know it’s going to be a fun event.

We’re going to do a game dinner. It will probably be next fall or winter — all game and big red wines. We started getting teased because of Veg Stock. We had guests say, what about us carnivores?

HOTELS: What hot trends do you expect to emerge in F&B in the overall hotel industry in the coming year?

Weaver: That’s hard to say because I don’t focus too much on trends. We just focus on how we can make ourselves better. We stay involved in our community with charity events and speaking to local clubs about our local farmers and sustainable seafood and those kinds of things. I would love to see more chefs and hotels be more involved in the communities they’re in. That’s just my wish.

Michelle Weaver
Michelle Weaver