Almost immediately after the final dinner service at the restaurant that Charlestonians for a decade had known as McCrady’s, the demo crew showed up. The plan was to purge the room of the ponderous touches which signaled that it was a Very Serious Place to Eat. Reinvented as McCrady’s Tavern, the restaurant would have more air, more light and chandeliers that didn’t look as though they were wrested from a Bavarian smithy.
If all went well, guests would be so diverted by the new color scheme (and classic rock soundtrack devised to accompany it), they wouldn’t think to pine for the retired McCrady’s. But the minor renovation project didn’t exactly wall off the past: Rather, it made room for executive chef Sean Brock to bat around history like a chew toy.
Almost everyone who dines at McCrady’s Tavern flashes back to another era: It’s the involuntary response to a menu listing dressed lettuces and ladies’ cabbage. Yet the joy and genius of the Tavern lies in its utter refusal to be tethered to any specific time period. Prior to visiting the restaurant for the first time, I was told by a previous customer that it was oddly reminiscent of the 1980s. Someone else said the 1920s. In another conversation, the 1890s came up. And those dizzy pin-the-date-on-the-concept attempts occurred despite the menu identifying its take on macaroni as “circa 1802.”
Purely through its awesome dishes (in the 1802 sense of the adjective), McCrady’s Tavern has captured America at its brashest, most hustling, pleasure-bound best. Like blues couplets and baseball games, it is of then and now and forever, somehow all at once. Also in the way of those domestic arts, the restaurant comes across as a whole lot of fun: Escargot is tucked into a hollowed-out marrow bone stood up like a Doric column. Caviar is served with tater tots. You won’t get more wit for your dollar anywhere else in town.
Nor is this kind of technique usually priced so cheaply. There is no checkbox on a food distributor’s order sheet for magenta-bright beets convincingly disguised as beef tenderloin: It takes an inventive mind and steady hand to perfectly shape, baste and sear a brawny hunk of pressure-cooked root vegetable. Sophistication shows too in its glassy au poivre sauce, a particularly lithe expression of butterfat, and the contrasting bite of adjacent watercress leaves, nonchalantly piled in the precise right proportion. It’s ludicrous that this dish costs $11. At lesser restaurants, the ingots of blue cheese atop the faux steak alone would command a buck or two.
To be clear, McCrady’s Tavern isn’t a restaurant you’d want to seek out if you’re scrimping between paychecks. The majority of listed cocktails -- conjugated in the present tense, although sherry and Madeira brush up against the buzzier ingredients in two instances -- cost more than that dazzling beet. The smart wine selection isn’t bursting with bargains either.
Dinner for two can blow past the $100 mark without much trouble. Still, the notion that customers could swing by at lunchtime for a $13 bearnaise-topped burger was central to the restaurant’s remake. (For a time, the bearnaise was sealed within the patty, but there were incidents that resulted in calls to dry cleaners.)
That message hasn’t reached the masses, though. I visited McCrady’s Tavern three times under normal conditions, meaning a mandatory hurricane evacuation order wasn’t about to take effect, and only once did the room qualify as sort of busy. For whatever reason, people aren’t flocking to the restaurant.
One possible reason is the room itself. Longtime McCrady’s patrons will be attuned to every naked tabletop and softer ray of light. But to diners who had only a passing acquaintance with the dining room, it looks pretty much the same. Which is to say the tourists seated near me all felt compelled to order steak, because that seemed like the upscale, tasteful thing to do.
It’s an attractive space, to be sure, but I wish the changeover had been as radical as the background music shift: It would have been very cool to encounter so much refined cooking in a thoroughly raw setting. Or the Tavern’s decor could have gone in a swanky direction, flirting with the same near-campy sensibility that lurks in its most memorable dishes. Right now, the room feels stuck in the mushy middle.
Service still tends toward the higher end. I don’t have anything approaching anonymity at McCrady’s, so service was probably a little more anxious and a little more adept in my vicinity, but the interactions I observed at other tables were handled with a high degree of professionalism.
Ah, the food, though. McCrady’s Tavern has the advantage of working with a ton of creamy yolks and meat grease, but its rampant deliciousness can be explained in other ways, such as a deep understanding of complementary flavors. That’s illustrated by the properly chewy strands of spaghetti alla chitarra, glanced with chili flakes and ornamented with a plop of rich burrata -- oiled at the center so it resembles a soft-cooked egg -- torn basil and cherry tomatoes, whisked away from heat just short of their popping point.
Or maybe the explanation lies with the pasta’s shrimp, cooked with supreme care. Control is critical to dishes such as the veal blanquette, perhaps the most elegant country fried steak this side of the Brazos. A lively cream sauce pebbled with peas and ham blots the salty, featherweight batter surrounding the meat, creating a dish that’s more big shot farmers’ table than farm-to-table.
Composure also rules the tavern steak a la royale, which would probably get along fine even without the royale, an ornate sauce of veal stock, chicken stock, oysters, red wine and Benton's bacon. The slices of Denver cut steak, treated with salt koji, a fermented rice sauce, and seaweed oil, are mesmerizingly tender and beautifully crusted. (What they could use is a heftier knife on the side.)
Ultimately, the culinary splendors rise directly from Brock’s idiosyncratic interpretation of America and its cuisine. If the food ever wobbles, it’s at the peripheries of his vision: Under the “sides” heading, for instance. Desserts from the tremendously talented Katy Keefe are lovely, but chocolate souffle and Lady Baltimore cake just aren’t as audacious as the fantastical savories concocted by Brock and his team.
Among the standouts in that category is the calf’s head soup, attributed to an 1885 cookbook. A server described it as a “sleeper,” presumably because the dish’s name suggests a snout floating in broth. Instead, it’s a bowlful of melty beef essence and Madeira cream, trimmed with a preserved egg yolk and rich offal cake. This sleeper has dreamed about it.
Finally and always, the oeufs en gelee, an apparent French interloper plated on vintage floral china. The traditional aspic is an oval encasement of a single runny-yolk egg, its consomme haze visually set off here by glossy orange trout eggs alongside. It’s an eloquent defense of decadence.
More striking is how formality and exuberance harmonize: Bits of green herbs and red pepper are chopped so they look like playing card suits. Clubs and diamonds hover just beneath the gelatin’s surface, once again evoking a grand American gamble (and again, all at the low, low price of $13.) Without question, McCrady’s Tavern has wagered and won.