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The Friends’ Table

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The Friends’ Table
Written by Emily Storrow | Photos by Andrew Cebulka

Charleston’s Park Cafe hosts a fresh take on Turkey Day

There’s the turkey. The stuffing. The cranberry sauce. The wine. It’s a familiar scene, one that unfolds around just about any American table this time of year.

But at this one—at the Park Cafe in Charleston, South Carolina—the tableau tweaks tradition. Beneath a rough-hewn chandelier of intertwined branches, a family of friends gathers around a table for an easy evening of good food, wine, and company.

Ask any sane American about the downfalls of Thanksgiving and you’ll likely get a long groan about the indignities of holiday travel or a horror story about the time someone brought up the Mexican border wall at the table. It comes as no surprise that Friendsgiving, the easygoing take on Thanksgiving that calls for celebrating the makeshift family in your life, is on the rise.

Challah stuffing-filled turkey with spiced cranberry sauce.

In the Park Cafe’s sun-bathed dining room, Joshua Walker, owner of local shop Wine & Company, emerges brandishing a bottle of bubbly. A toast is made, the sunlight illuminating glasses filled with vintage rosé Champagne. It’s one of four wines that will flow that evening to accompany a Thanksgiving dinner that’s a fresh take on the traditional spread.

In lieu of the usual starch suspects, there’s a velvety roasted carrot farro. Folded with a carrot puree, the grains take on a natural sweetness that plays well with the woody perfume of rosemary. The big bird receives a welcomed update: it’s deboned and brined before being wrapped with challah bread stuffing and sous-vide for a roulade that’s moist and tender (and promises the perfect meat-to-stuffing ratio every time). The cranberry sauce is a little tart and a little sweet thanks to the addition of golden raisins, and a bright kale salad studded with dates and pickled red onions cuts through the richness of the meal with each bite.

It’s at once elegant and approachable, a menu made for the age of Friendsgivings. Though anchored by familiar flavors, the meal is anything but predictable.

Even the wine holds a few surprises. Walker’s choice for white is Arbe Garbe 2014, a blend that belongs in Friuli, Italy—but this bottle was made with grapes grown in Sonoma. The result? A wine with Old World heritage and New World ripeness, a playful reminder that tradition need not be set in stone.

In a city with a food scene at fever pitch, even the neighborhood joints are a cut above. Enter the Park Cafe, a former garage-turned-local-favorite in Wagener Terrace, a residential corner of downtown Charleston. Its name a nod to nearby Hampton Park, the peninsula’s largest green space, the eatery has had loyal regulars since local restaurateur Karalee Nielsen Fallert opened it in 2014.

The kitchen is helmed by Executive Chef Pat Gottschall, a homegrown talent who started as a server at the restaurant before earning his way up the back-of-house ranks. “We knew Pat was going to be the chef here not long after he stepped into the kitchen,” Fallert says.

Managing the day-to-day operations is Xan McLaughlin. On the team since day one, McLaughlin shared Fallert’s vision for the Park Cafe. “We both agreed Charleston didn’t need another cocktail bar or trendy Asian-fusion place,” he says. “We wanted to do food that’s good and comfortable.”

And so it does. Open for breakfast and lunch, the restaurant has that cozy place-around-the-corner vibe, albeit among plates of avocado toast, curried egg scrambles, and Danish popovers. But the Park Cafe’s calling card is its insistence that no one is a stranger. “I want you to walk in and everyone knows you,” McLaughlin says. “It’s all about the people; they’re not just guests. That’s what keeps driving us.”

As the evening passes and shades of wine darken to deep burgundy, the telltale signs of a successful dinner party emerge: people sneaking final bites of favorite dishes straight from their platters, a table littered with a sea of empty glasses, and the carefree camaraderie that comes from a few hours of uninterrupted company. Someone makes room on the table for an apple crumble. It’s a sweet ending to the meal; a reminder that another holiday has passed, and with it, one more year of celebrations, challenges, and growing in one another’s company.

Kale Salad with Pickled Red Onion and Dates

Farro with Carrot Puree and Roasted Carrots

Boneless Stuffed Turkey Breast

Cranberry Sauce with Golden Raisins

Apple Crumble