This review starts not at Little Jack’s Tavern, the breathlessly awaited turf-based sequel to the saltwater goings-on at Leon’s Oyster Shop, but farther down King Street at The Ordinary. I went there on a late winter Saturday night with a craving for a good piece of beef, free from overwrought sauces and ostentatiously truffled potatoes, and a vague recollection that the seafood tower specialist served red meat on the weekends.
As it turns out, The Ordinary makes a fine steak. And Minnesota has nice beaches for sunbathing. What I was really seeking was a restaurant where honest chops and cold martinis were served on the regular, ideally executed with the finesse and served with the warmth that make Charleston dining special. And maybe, just like at The Ordinary, I could get rice pudding for dessert.
All of which is to say that when approaching Little Jack’s, I would have had an easier time holding on to my journalistic neutrality if it was shaved and slathered in bacon grease. Really, the next time I’m tasked with reviewing a restaurant where the door guy’s named Pasquale and the walls are hung with framed black-and-white photos of boxers and racehorses, I should probably just recuse myself. The downside of that scheme is I wouldn’t get to tell you about the burger.
There are two burgers on the Little Jack’s menu. The one plastered with mozzarella is largish and lumpy, and memorable mostly for intermittent pockets of salt. Ignore that burger. The burger you want is the slider-sized $7 tavern burger. If you’re hungry, get two. Or three. This burger is so dreamy that it reappears on the dessert list, alongside rice pudding and chocolate cake, for the benefit of customers already looking back wistfully on the first course.
The burger is half chuck, half brisket, and nearly all beef juice and crust by the time the well-proportioned patty hits the sesame seed bun. Cloaked by a protective slice of melty American cheese, the burger’s in close cahoots with sweet sunchoke relish and tangy sauce that plagiarizes brilliantly from the Big Mac. In form, though, it’s closer to regional chain burgers that lean hard on grilled onions and squishy buns — or at least the burgers those chains’ invariably eccentric owners had in mind when they sunk their fortunes into fast food.
Like almost everything else on the menu, the tavern burger is served all day long. Co-owner Brooks Reitz has insisted Little Jack’s guests won’t see a trace of Saint Alban, the short-lived European-style coffee shop that he and Tim Mink dismantled to make room for the address’ current occupant. Certainly, it’s true that the boisterous Sinatra soundtrack (and, at busy hours, dining room din to match), tucked-away television for sporting events and banquet hall-style chairs with red leather seats would have been totally at odds with Saint Alban’s prettified aesthetic.
But what remains the same is the conviction that the restaurant should keep the hours of the community around it. Unlike so many tourist-driven restaurants that stir at 5 p.m. and shut at 10 p.m., in the manner of caged parakeets uncovered and covered back up, Little Jack’s is ready to go at 11 a.m. with discounted martinis, defiantly shaken. And it just rolls on from there.
If the schedule is one clue that Little Jack’s is angling to please people again and again instead of wowing ’em once, its service style is another. Clearly, when a table wearing a green-and-white checkered cloth is set with chopped salad and a brown derby (a better choice for citrus fans than the house margarita), the clubby vibe is strong.
But the restaurant’s old-fangled embrace of locals clinches the deal. Not only was I immediately recognized at Little Jack’s, I was assigned a server who waited on me each of the four times I visited. It was brazen, but totally on theme. (Unfortunately, it also means all I know about service at Little Jack’s is that Seth does a good job.)
Another commonality with Saint Alban is the deviously healthful menu. Just as the cafe offered avocado-trimmed grain bowls to counterbalance its pastries, Little Jack’s serves an array of gorgeous salads, including a composed crab salad with bits of sweet picked meat scattered over a molded disc of mashed avocado, brightened on all sides by citrus and chopped cherry tomatoes. Farro provides a chewy base for a tumble of shrimp, fresh basil leaves and pennants of salty cheese that might carry a Mediterranean passport.
Chef John Amato, late of The Park Cafe, is the source of the vegetable know-how, which also informs a surprisingly terrific bowl of chromatic raw vegetables, clustered around a ramekin of thick dip with green goddess tendencies. Still, if the luxe chilled pea soup isn’t on the specials menu, the in-house apex of vegetable achievement is that chopped salad, a barbershop-level harmony of radishes, peas, avocado and greens, suavely tossed in a dressing that has just enough buttermilk for the menu to call it ranch.
You can happily eat around vegetables, if you choose: Skip the bar nuts, which run short on warmth and crunch, and perhaps start with the gourgeres. On one occasion, the cheese puffs were pliant and rich; on another, they were lackluster and stiff, as though improperly defrosted. Either way, you get the coveted accompanying dish of creamy boursin cheese. Along similar lines, the fantastic garlic-blessed French fries are paired with a mayonnaise sauce that tastes like black tie tartar.
Among the entrees, there’s a satisfying schnitzel, hidden beneath a tuft of arugula and fried chickpeas, and chicken worth ordering just for the crisp skin. Yet neither threatens to rob the spotlight from steak, which is offered in two versions: A straightforward fist-sized sirloin, and a “butcher’s choice,” which happened to be a rib eye the night I tried it. Tender and peppery, the steak fulfilled every wish that inspired my steak search a few months back.
Little Jack’s Tavern and Harold’s Cabin opened around the same time, and my theory is that diners tend to profoundly prefer one restaurant or the other. Both are putting out excellent dishes, but Harold’s Cabin has done everything it can to obscure its status as a restaurant: It resonates with the home cooks and the gardeners and, perhaps, the hunters and trappers. By contrast, Little Jack’s revels in the lore and romance of restaurants. It’s already doing the genre proud.