Where should we go out to eat tonight?” With the area’s bounty of restaurant openings, this question is starting to elicit a palpable excitement rather than a feeling of “the same old.” From a downtown hotspot to barbecue on the Hill to fine dining in North Augusta, this new crop of restaurateurs and chefs is setting the scene—and the table—for Augusta’s restaurant revolution.
When restaurateur Mike Agostino, managing partner of Sole—a hybrid sushi bar-sports bar-contemporary American eatery—wanted to expand the concept outside of his hometown of Clemson, S.C., he cast a wide net and looked at such places as Rock Hill, S.C.; Fort Mill, S.C.; Nashville, Tenn.; and Charleston, S.C. But he and his partners kept coming back to Augusta. “We felt like it had potential and that downtown had potential to do some great things. We wanted to be on the ground floor.”
We felt like…downtown had potential to do some great things.We wanted to be on the ground floor.
While Agostino’s strategy has always been to build the business from dinner service, there was no denying the appeal of annual events like the Masters, Arts in the Heart of Augusta and Border Bash, or what he likes to call “bonus weeks.” There was also Augusta’s growing young professional crowd to consider. “We knew that if we could come in and execute our style, we could capitalize on all that Augusta has to offer…the dental schools, medical schools, Augusta University.”
Augusta locals George Claussen and Brian Brittingham, co-owners of Southbound Smokehouse, also adopted an “outside looking in” and “get in early” approach. After spending three years in Charleston, they decided to return home to make their restaurant debut. Brittingham says, “Augusta is on the cuff of something great. We knew we wanted to get in on the ground floor of something that was about to take off.” With “fine dining on lock in Richmond County,” Claussen and Brittingham felt that the time was right to do a fun, community-driven restaurant that would appeal to a wider demographic. While barbecue can be a controversial food genre (everyone’s got an opinion on how it should be done), the pair hired a full-time pit master to tend to the menu of smoked ribs, pork and chicken, freeing them up develop their concept—a place to grab a cold beer, hang out, listen to live music or watch the game. “Most [barbecue] places around here are not conducive to that. You’re not going to watch a game; you’ll have lunch or a quick dinner, sweet tea and head out the door. It’s a different concept for the area.”
…Collins honed his skills in the United Kingdom, Rhode Island and Florida before returning to Augusta to cook…
For Jeremy Collins, opening his first restaurant, DeNovo (Latin for anew) is a dream come true. After earning his bachelors’ degree from the prestigious culinary school Johnson & Wales, Collins honed his skills in the United Kingdom, Rhode Island and Florida before returning to Augusta to cook at Augusta National, Taste, Frog Hollow and Craft & Vine. His decision to open his farm-to-table restaurant in North Augusta was based on giving back to his hometown. “Yes, I live here, but I wanted to give the community something. Most of the good restaurants are in Augusta or Aiken, and I thought, ‘We could use more of this,’” he explains. Hand-in-hand with his community-minded approach is Collins’s passion for working with farmers and cooking with locally grown ingredients—absolutely nothing out of a box or a can. Ninety-eight percent of his menu is locally sourced and his refined, creative scratch cuisine has earned him a loyal following, many of whom travel from Augusta, Evans and Aiken to dine on signature seasonal creations like hand cut pastas and slow-cooked pork shoulder with bourbon-sorghum glaze.
Agostino has also picked up on Augusta residents’ discerning palates. “For a smaller town with a lot of large chain restaurants, the community really appreciates the down-home local, house-made stuff.” On Sole’s menu, which truly has something for everybody—from sushi to maple-glazed salmon to burgers—approximately 90 percent of the dining options are made from scratch. “Augusta is actually a big foodie and drink town. People want to come out [to eat] and they have high standards,” Agostino enthuses.
But because of the deeply entrenched chain-restaurant and fast-food culture, they all agree it can be challenging to shift some local perspectives. At DeNovo, Collins acknowledges that seasonality can be a hurdle. “I’ve had to explain why we don’t have green tomatoes on the menu in the winter when other restaurants do.” And because there aren’t many upscale restaurants in North Augusta, there is a different price mind-set, so it is taking time to instill the value of from-scratch, locally-sourced cooking. Being a fine dining restaurant located in a strip mall presents another challenge, but all it takes is one bite of melt-in-your-mouth heritage breed pork shoulder to make you forget the location.
While location is certainly a boon for places like Sole, the notion of “downtown” Augusta isn’t without its prejudices. “There’s an outdated mentality that downtown is not safe or somewhere your parents want you to come down to,” says Agostino. At the same time he’s quick to point out that the city cares about its downtown flourishing. “Before we came here we sat down with city council members, the downtown association, the chief of police…we wanted to understand what they want to do to help bring about some of this change.”
There’s a sense that the restaurant community wants to see Augusta succeed too. “Downtown Augusta is not a stage for cutthroat competition—it’s welcoming because they want to draw people here,” Agostino explains. He has visions of building downtown into a destination for all age groups where people can spend time and make a night of it. “Maybe they’re going to Craft and Vine to get a cocktail, coming for dinner at Sole and then finishing the evening at the Bee’s Knees,” he says.
Our restaurant community friends have helped us with everything…
That sense of camaraderie was another reason why Claussen and Brittingham were drawn back to Augusta to open a restaurant, particularly as first-time restaurateurs. “Our restaurant community friends have helped us with everything, from food and labor costs to bailing us out when we ran out of an ingredient. That’s what’s so great about the Augusta community; it’s not just ‘good luck,’” says Claussen.
All three businesses understand the importance of a restaurant’s value to the community beyond just a place to eat, whether it’s a gathering place or a harbinger of social change. Claussen, whose career as a music promoter and founder of Friends with Benefits, a local music organization that promotes social awareness and gives back to charity, is focused on Southbound as a music venue. There’s live music five days a week, which helps to provide a platform for local musicians as well as entertainment. “We want to be able to draw the community and have other restaurants open around here. We’re looking at the big vision with where the university is going, the medical school and student housing being built in the area…we’re happy that we can be a place that they can call their little hang out.”
Sole’s outdoor patio is also a prime real estate for hosting community events. “We try to stay in touch with the community,” says Agostino. “We do ‘night at the improv’ on t
he third Thursday of every month; the first Thursday we partner with PRM for vinyl night; and Friday and Saturday are for live music.”
For his part, Collins is using his dedication to local food to strengthen the community, both through his relationships with local farmers as well as his diners’ relationship to food. “I have stayed true to farm-to-table, from-scratch…I’m trying to help people with their health and demonstrate the importance of eating healthfully—sustainable, locally grown, non-GMO and preservative free.” It’s a win-win that promotes reinvesting dollars in the local economy, from table back
to farm, while nurturing the idea that restaurants are
much more than a place to eat.
These restaurateurs and chefs are turning the question, “Where should we go out to eat tonight?” into a delicious dilemma, but it’s their belief and investment in the city’s development that’s really giving Augustans something to cheer about. “I’m worried in 10 years when there’s restaurants all up and down this road,” says Agostino, of Sole’s Broad Street location. “Right now it’s awesome that everyone can capitalize on the opportunity.”
While it’s just the beginning, we are all the better—and very well fed—because of it.
This article appears in the February-March 2016 issue of Augusta Magazine.