At his South Charleston restaurant this week, Michael Jarrouj is doing something he’s never done before: taking dinner reservations.
“We’ve had quite a few, actually,” he said from the kitchen of The Olive Tree Cafe. He walked as he talked, checking a dish here, grabbing an ingredient there, busily gearing up for Savor South Charleston, the city’s first ever restaurant week.
With nine participating restaurants, it kicked off on Monday and runs through Saturday — designed, he said, not to compete with but to compliment the seventh annual Charleston Restaurant Week, which is also taking place this week less than 10 minutes away in the capital city.
“A lot of people would say, ‘You guys should do something, because we can’t even get into the restaurants in Charleston,’” Jarrouj said.
That’s what drew Pilar Obenza and Erlee Abad into the bustling Olive Tree on Monday night.
“We actually tried to get to a restaurant in Charleston and I had read in the paper that it was South Charleston, too, so I called and said, ‘Do I need a reservation?’ And they said, ‘No, come on in,’” Obenza said.
“We tried Hale House. We called at exactly 3 and they were already booked until Monday,” Abad said. “And Edgewood is closed today.”
Kadin Jarrouj, the owner’s son, listed the restaurant week specials for them, including a “fire-roasted Mediterranean mahi with a mango pineapple salsa. Has a little bit of heat to it, served with a rice with roasted orzo, a side Greek salad, your choice of hummus or baba ganoush and of course the roasted peppers and onions that go with that, and baklava for dessert.”
The two women glanced at each other and smiled.
“I love the food here,” Obenza said.
Jarrouj knew the final week of January was the ideal time. Right in the middle of a dead zone for most restaurants, it is traditionally the slowest week of the year. He’d been mulling the idea for a while — and didn’t want to change the dates or wait until next year to pull it off.
He met with the South Charleston Convention & Visitors Bureau, and found “they were very, very, very supportive.”
“We’re really excited. We think as reservations fill up in Charleston we’ll get that overflow,” said Vicki Vaughan, the bureau’s executive director.
“In South Charleston we’re kind of known for international dining. We have the Mediterranean, we have the Italian, we have the Mexican, we have the Asian, and then Cafe Appalachia is farm-to-table, so we have a little bit of everything,” she added.
But by the time they agreed to go for it, there wasn’t much time to pull it all together.
“I pretty much went door to door to get some of these restaurants involved and it was really a nice experience,” Jarrouj said.
“A lot of us have similar menus. But we sat down and what we did was, we traded off: ‘You do this and I’ll do that. You do that and I’ll do this.’ We all got really excited about it,” he said.
Jay Harris, the co-owner of Sumthin’ Good Soul Food, was one of those Jarrouj reached out to.
“He asked me if I would like to participate and I thought it was a great idea for us to try to pull South Charleston together and pull some people in and let them know that South Charleston has a lot of great restaurants and a lot of other great businesses here — and, if you wanted to start a business, South Charleston is the place to come.”
Harris rattles off a special menu he hopes will attract new customers and draw in the regulars as well.
“You get a half a slab of ribs, which are just falling off the bone, and you also get two large sides and two pieces of cornbread and that could feed two people, and you can definitely get a hearty meal out of that,” he said.
Mostly, though, he hopes Savor South Charleston will allow his city to highlight its culinary skills.
New business for one restaurant is good for all businesses in the city, Jarrouj said.
“We are really excited about it. The more people we bring down here, the better for everyone,” he said.