What is it like to open a restaurant in a well-known location? In a space that holds a lot of memories for a large portion of your clientele? How do you create something new and attract younger customers while not alienating the “neighborhood crowd”?
Chef Russell Jones knows more than a little bit about that.
Jones opened his restaurant, Tallulah, in January in the space that was once the popular Dianne’s on Devine Street. From the start, it’s been a bit of a give-and-take with customers.
“The younger generation seems to think we’re an extension of Dianne’s and the older generation sees us as the usurpers,” Jones said with a smile. “I have to convince both crowds that what we’re doing here is something different and it’s worth coming to.”
The inspiration for Tallulah was born out of Jones’ training and admiration of French cuisine. He attended L’Academie de Cuisine in Washington D.C. and worked as chef at Le Paradou, Restaurant Eve and Jack Rose Dining Saloon in the nation’s capital. From these experiences, Jones wanted to develop a restaurant that reflected fine dining techniques – the use of seasonal ingredients, made-from-scratch recipes and attention to detail in preparation and service – in a more casual atmosphere.
In Washington, the Columbia native and his wife Monica found themselves trying to decide whether to stay there – Jones had an offer to sign a long-term contract with a restaurant group – or return with their newborn son Henry to South Carolina, where the couple could be closer to family.
The offer from Dianne Light to rent the space on Devine Street made the decision easier for Jones. Light has known the Jones family since Russell’s father worked for one of her restaurants. As Henry had turned 2 months old, the timing seemed perfect for Jones to make the move.
Remodeling of Dianne’s began last summer and Tallulah went through a soft opening dinner series before the official Jan. 14 opening.
Jones doesn’t want Tallulah to be perceived as fine dining because “I don’t want people to think they have to wear a coat or get dressed up to spend $100 a person on dinner. If you want WANT to come by and spend money on a 52-ounce ribeye and a $100 bottle of wine, please do! But if you want to come and just get a snack at the bar and a drink, we want to be very approachable, too.”
‘It’s been a growing process’
Jones admits to having some challenges since opening.
“The original Tallulah menu was divided by the four regions of South Carolina. Each region focused on a certain type of food – poultry, meat and game (Sandhills), seafood (Lowcountry), vegetables (Piedmont) or methods of preservation (Appalachia),” Jones said. It was designed around how Jones and his wife ate when they went out – multiple smaller-portioned dishes were ordered until they became full.
“The idea was that the diner would order a small-plate selection from two or more regions to make a complete meal.
“Customers found the menu confusing – it took a lot of explaining.”
So adjustments were made.
People wanted to see the more traditional breakdown of appetizers and entrees, so the menu was revamped in early April to reflect diners’ wishes.
Customers also were telling Jones that there was nowhere on that side of Columbia that offered a great steak. “So... we provided a supplemental steak menu (as a test) that did really really well,” he said. So well, in fact, that there is now a permanent selection of steaks – from a 12-ounce New York strip to a 28-ounce Delmonico ribeye (you can request a 52-ounce steak).
Jones said fans of the original small plate menu can still get those items, but now Tallulah’s features entree portions of steak and other proteins.
One of the big sellers on the revised menu is the fresh whole fish. But again, Jones has had to respond to diners who ask “can you make it like Garibaldi’s (a now-closed restaurant in Five Points)?” Jones uses the freshest fish available daily and his own recipes. A recent dinner menu featured a whole crispy black bass with garlic, Jones’ Thai-inspired signature sauce, cilantro and baby carrots.
Tuesday through Saturday lunch service at Tallulah began in April. Jones admits that it’s “an effort to get people in to try the food at lunch ... and maybe come back for dinner.” There is some overlap in the lunch and dinner menus, with additional sandwiches and salads available for lunch.
For those diners who want to try something a bit different, Jones offers a chef’s five-course tasting menu during dinner. Since tasting menus are composed of a series of small dishes offering just a few bites of each course, some courses may feature variations of what is on the dinner menu while others may be last minute creations by the chef.
Tasting menus are designed to show off the skills and talent of the kitchen staff – and Tallulah’s kitchen is overflowing with talent.
In addition to Jones, on a recent afternoon chef Blake Fairies (formerly of Saluda’s and Nonnah’s/Sea+Salt) was turning out fresh pasta and pastry chef Charley Scruggs (Oak Table and Rise Bakeshop) was preparing benne seed biscuits.
The creativity shown in the approach to the food at Tallulah extends from the lunch and dinner menus to the bar snacks and desserts. Prefer just a snack and a beverage in the afternoon or after work? Then an item from the snacks menu – Szechuan-style crispy skins, raw oysters and fried olives are among the selections – and a cold beer or craft cocktail might suffice.
Alongside the more traditional Coca-Cola cake on the dessert menu, you also can find chocolate bone marrow ice cream with whey caramel, hazelnut and Vidri dark chocolate.
“It’s been a growing process,” Jones said. “I’ve been really happy with what we’ve been doing. I feel that Columbia is still figuring us out ... and we’re figuring out Columbia.”
WHERE: 2400 Devine St.
WHEN: Tuesday-Saturday: Lunch, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; snacks, 2:30-5 p.m.; dinner, 5-10 p.m.; late night snacks, 10-11 p.m.
INFO: (803) 400-2300, www.tallulahsc.com