Coastal winds of change
West African restaurants across the South reenergize bistro format
Over the last 10 years or so, a caboose-sized clapboard box in downtown Charleston’s otherwise residential Eastside neighborhood has housed a jerk chicken shop, bagel counter, and breakfast burrito joint. But a few weeks after school let out in 2023, up-tempo tunes animated by steel strings and accordions started wafting through the little building’s screened windows.
Maybe passers-by who heard the music from the quadrant of Africa formerly colonized by France guessed that the chef now in charge of the kitchen was working with peanuts and palm oil. Perhaps the lyrics in Arabic and French made them think of slow-cooked lamb nestled in couscous, or fried fish abreast tomato-stained rice.
So far, so good. But if neighbors assumed the chef and her music came straight from Senegal, they were mistaken. Bintou N’Daw was born in Dakar to a family with roots in Saint-Louis, the one-time capital further up the Atlantic coast, but spent childhood summers with a grandmother in Normandy, France. In her late teens, N’Daw studied baking there for a couple of years, then in 2000 moved to New York City, where she eventually carved out a career as a personal chef for artists.
But first, she worked as an account manager for Putumayo World Music, which is how albums such as “North African Groove” and “Congo to Cuba” entered her music-to-cook-by rotation.
N’Daw’s tiny restaurant, Bintu Atelier, is emblematic of the new wave of west African restaurants emerging in the Lowcountry and along the Gulf Coast, places where the acidic soil and muggy summers mirror west African conditions so closely that the same crops thrive. “Cassava flour, I had to find, but I can go to Joseph Fields Farm and get my okra,” N’Daw said of her buying trips to Black-owned land on Johns Island, 30 minutes from the Charleston peninsula.
Created by longtime culinary professionals with experience in all kinds of kitchens, restaurants such as Bintu Atelier in Charleston, Ǫkàn in Bluffton, South Carolina, and Dakar NOLA in New Orleans aren’t designed to make guests feel as though they’ve suddenly surfaced on another continent. Instead, they emphasize dishes that draw on native African and French colonial traditions, events that promote community, and open-hearted service.
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