The Mills House Hotel was rebranded and changed its management company in March 2013. After 30 years, this Holiday Inn flagged property became The Mills House Wyndham Grand Hotel and shifted management from the Intercontinental Hotel Group to the Wyndham Hotel Group.
This rebranding, renovating and repositioning was executed by the FelCor Lodging Trust, a real estate investment trust.
Running a new brand flag up the pole is nothing new to grain merchant Otis Mills’ (1794-1869) Mills House Hotel. Built in 1853, this five-story property was outfitted with ironwork and chandeliers from Philadelphia, stoves from New York and furniture from Boston. On its opening, the Charleston Courier dedicated a full page of copy to its grandeur.
Mills leased the hotel to Thomas S. Nickerson, an “experienced hotelier” for five years.
Four years into the lease he negotiated a new contract with Joseph Purcell and in 1862 Nickerson and Purcell became “joint proprietors” of the Mills House.
At that time, the hotel had a gentleman’s dining room, a ladies’ “ordinary” with tables for 160, eight bathing rooms and a gentleman’s saloon.
The property was again sold and Cecilia Lawton, a downtown bottler and distributor of milk (Battery Dairy) renamed it the St. John Hotel in her son’s honor.
It fell into disrepair and was sold at public auction in the 1960s.
Time was not kind to the structure: It was demolished and then rebuilt with an additional two stories.
The modern Mills House Hotel received its first guests on Oct. 9, 1970.
The tables of the Mills House have been set for Stephen A. Douglas, Robert E. Lee, Theodore Roosevelt and presidents Ford, Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard used the hotel as his headquarters.
The new owners have refreshed this longstanding property, keeping it true to its tradition and history but refreshing with palate and palette in mind. The fretwork inspired by Barbadoes (the hotel uses the British spelling), the sash and jalousie windows, the vaulted ceilings and massive arches continue to imprint this property with a sense of its past.
The First Shot Lounge and the Barbadoes Room dining areas are brushed with colors that broadcast “shade”: cooling tones that provide respite from the sun and tropical temperatures of the Lowcountry.
Dining tables offer a “gracious plenty” of eating room. Rattan fans lend a West Indies spin and the refreshed hotel and dining room percolate through tradition and history with a modern face to Charleston style.
Chef Jonathan Hawks introduced a new menu this spring. Tailored to guests’ needs, it is focused on both luxury and comfort foods that integrate well with the appetites of tourists and locals.
Trained at Johnson & Wales, his work experience at resorts such as Kiawah, the Ocean Room and Brays Island Plantation, along with time in the kitchen of Med Bistro (now The Med) both tooled and schooled him well.
Travelers will find the restoring benefits of soups by the cup and by the bowl: a balanced she-crab speaking to the Lowcountry, embroidered with a salad of crab meat and sweet peppers; and a substantial wild rice soup (du jour) bringing the vegetal chewiness of this grain to a plush chicken base.
Deviled eggs, smooth, creamy and chilled, are cloaked with warm braised collard greens and tasso gravy, a protein powerhouse that can be had by the “each” and tide the road-weary until a proper meal.
Cheese and charcuterie platters, spicy boiled peanuts, corndogs made with shrimp and a hot dog more “haute” than “hot” crafted from foie gras and topped with homemade sauerkraut spill a casual ambiance onto the table for those who come for cocktails.
Hawks’ fluency in world cuisines speaks in the confident way Mornay, creme fraiche, lardons, brioche and vinaigrettes accent his menu.
He cooks in the canons of the South as he braises collards, reduces tasso gravy, laces a pot “likker” with sweet chiles and smoked ham hocks, shapes butter beans and Carolina Gold Rice into a croquette. Sweet potato tater tots with chives and Parmesan “snow,” foie gras bratwurst, lobster mac and cheese with compound butter crumbs, and potato chips with creme fraiche slather the common with couture.
His salads are balanced with texture, acid, salt and crunch. The beet salad with its pearls of “caviar” mustard seeds and the iceberg wedge with its trio of dressings satisfy the savory palate. The local strawberry salad and the Sweet Bay butter lettuce salads bring sweet fruit notes that complement the cheese platter.
The Mills House burger was recently featured by Erin Perkins on Eater Charleston’s HeatMap as a “burger not to be missed.” Ditto that: A messy mouthful of sweet tomato jam, smoky bacon, tangy beef, slippery pimento cheese and local lettuce, on a tender brioche that defies containment.
The confit of chicken is a modernist take on fried chicken. Yes, this bird spent some time in oil but not to crisp its skin but to gently cook and tenderize its flesh, which is then wrapped in its skin and served as mini-ballotines along with an airline breast that gets a flash in the pan to tone and tan its “hide.” Accompanied by a sweet corn pudding, luscious collard greens and the residual heat of jalapeno pepper barbecue sauce, Hawks scores with this dish of poultry hockey pucks.
Local mahi made for a plush fish and chips platter; I only question why hot, fried fish is plated on cold vegetable slaw?
Crab plumps the hush puppies and citrus sparks the tartar sauce. The dish is well composed and filling.
Servers were pleasant and helpful in dealing with questions. The newly released menu required a few back and forth trips to the kitchen.
The tempo of service was awkward: Servers seemed to disappear into the vacuum of the dining room. All were pleasant, just not calibrated in the Barbadoes Room’s rhythm.
Desserts did not impress. Cheesecake, pecan pie (cake-like, custard-like, pie-like, all at once — commit!) or key lime pie were the options.
The wine list is a work in progress. To coordinate that with the menu would be a welcome endeavor.
If it has been a spell since you ventured into the Barbadoes Room, now is the time. The currents of this menu run smooth and the decorating of the Wyndham have dialed in an intuitive embrace of its history.