Lexington County’s James Beard Award nominees talk impact of prestigious recognition

Posted 1/31/24

The James Beard Awards have been given out annually by their namesake foundation since 1990. The prestigious honors are often likened to being the Oscars of the dining world.

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Subscribe to continue reading. Already a subscriber? Sign in

Get 50% of all subscriptions for a limited time. Subscribe today.

You can cancel anytime.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Lexington County’s James Beard Award nominees talk impact of prestigious recognition


“I'm over here cooking some shoulders, midweek cook,” local pitmaster Robbie Robinson says, recalling when he got the news last week. “Pulled it up on the website, saw the release and started shaking.”

That’s how the chef and owner of City Limits Q describes learning that his restaurant is one of two in Lexington County to be nominated for a 2024 James Beard Award, as both he and Kitwanda “Kiki” Cyrus and Tyrone Cyrus, who operate locations of the soul food restaurant Kiki’s Chicken and Waffles in the Harbison area and in northeast Columbia, have been named semi-finalists for Best Chef: Southeast, an award that goes to a standout chef from Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee or West Virginia.

Robinson, who built a dedicated local following with a popular food truck, opened his first brick-and-mortar location in West Columbia last year.

The James Beard Awards have been given out annually by their namesake foundation since 1990. The prestigious honors are often likened to being the Oscars of the dining world.

The Lexington County nominations continue a run of recent James Beard success for the Columbia area. Downtown Columbia’s Lula Drake Wine Parlour, which broke through last year as a finalist for Outstanding Hospitality, is a 2024 semi-finalist for Outstanding Wine and Other Beverages Program, making this the second-straight year that the area has seen three restaurants recognized as semi-finalists.

Last year, Lula Drake and Columbia’s City Grit Hospitality Group (nominated for Outstanding Restaurateur) became the area’s first restaurants to make the cut from semi-finalists to finalists. 

So far, no area restaurant has won a James Beard Award.

But the nominations, even at the semi-finalist stage, mean a lot, affirm this year’s Lexington County recipients.

“Receiving the James Beard nomination means so much to me,” Kitwanda “Kiki” Cyrus told the Chronicle. “It’s like receiving the ‘Oscars of the Food World.’ My staff, husband, and I have worked so hard building our two restaurants ensuring that we provide good soul food and service to our customers. We do it because we love what we do. We never expect any award or nomination behind it, so when we received the nomination it was a big shocker.”

In operation since 2012, Kiki’s specializes in soul food, with a menu centered on its titular protein-and-carb specialty, with waffle options ranging from wheat to sweet potato to red velvet.

Kiki enthused that the honor should have tangible impacts for her business.

“I believe it will boost sales,” she said. “After receiving the nomination, we have had new customers from different areas of South Carolina. I met customers who traveled from the Newberry area just to try our food out. We love to see it.”

For City Limits, the nomination arrives at a point that is both advantageous and tricky. Always putting an emphasis on quality that leads to higher prices than some might expect for smoked meats and which can lead to long lines and food supplies that are frequently exhausted before the scheduled end of the restaurant’s weekly services on Saturday and Sunday, Robinson is in the midst of upgrading his West Columbia location to better keep up with demand and to better keep his customers comfortable.

With its dining room still a work in progress, the restaurant is pushing through the winter with mostly outdoor seating, and the chef talked with the Chronicle about how he’s still adding equipment to increase his capacity for cooking (he specifically talked about adding fridges so that he can once again offer his popular pastrami twist on his signature smoked brisket).

But while these factors make riding the wave of James Beard-driven interest tricky, as he looks to make sure he can provide an experience that will live up to elevated expectations, the nomination provides an opportunity to galvanize his young brick-and-mortar.

“Part of the shaking, I think was that instantaneous thing of like, ‘Oh my gosh, am I in over my head?’” Robinson said of how the news hit him. “Because people are going see this and they're going to come up here expecting mind-blowing barbecue, life-changing barbecue. And, you know, when I take a deep breath, and it settles in, having the recognition gives me the confidence to start transitioning the lack of confidence — ‘I hope it's good. If it's not, you get back in touch with me, I'll make it right.’ I think this gives credibility, hearing from my friends, hearing from other chefs, hearing from other Beard-nominated friends that we serve really good food.”

Turning to how it can help the business in the short term, he was thankful for the boost during the year’s colder months.

“It's painful going through these winter months, to say it lightly,” Robinson said. “And I was looking, you know, kind of like the Merle Haggard song ‘If We Make It Through December’ — what I'm seeing in my mind is if we can make it to spring, and let's make sure that we're we're in a position that once it warms up, that we can handle the trickle of exposure that's coming in. And this [nomination] is a shot in the arm in a really good way that we don't have to worry about the weather as much.”

Both Kiki and Robinson said their own nominations and the recent James Beard success of other area restaurants make them feel good about their decision to invest in the local dining scene.

“The Columbia area's dining scene has grown so much since we opened our doors 12 years ago,” Kiki said. “People are moving here from other states because of the housing market here, so having great restaurants in the area is important. Restaurateurs in Columbia have worked hard to grow our food scene and this year's and last year's semi-finalists show just that.”

2024 James Beard finalists are set to be revealed April 30, with the James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards Ceremony scheduled to take place June 10 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

james beard award, lexington county restaurant, city limits q, kiki's chicken and waffles, west columbia barbecue, harbison dining


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here