The farro salad should have been a tipoff.
Of all the dishes I ordered at Barony Tavern — the latest endeavor from the phoenix-like Bob Carter, who since leaving Peninsula Grill in 2011 has launched Rutledge Cab Co. and Carter’s Kitchen (RIP) — the salad was the stunner.
Consisting mostly of nutty farro with as much elastic bounce as a Wham-O Super Ball, the dish vaulted checkoff construction into the realm of brilliance. The familiar Hellenic saltiness of feta parried the debonair sweetness of red grapes, roasted until their skins wrinkled and popped. Pretty leaves of red radicchio and emerald green chimed in with bitterness, while a red wine vinaigrette soaked up by the grains supplied the needed acid. In these days of uni (sea urchin gonads) and bone marrow, such a clean salad is pure critic’s bait.
It’s also a kooky outlier at Barony Tavern, which set out to marry Southern cooking with hunt club elegance. In other words, the 2-month-old Renaissance Charleston Historic District Hotel restaurant is where you’re supposed to head for a pork roast and whiskey. Nothing on the menu or in the restaurant’s promotional materials whispers “healthy snack.” If you’re looking for a brainteaser, try reconciling a superb salad that belongs in the company of avocado toast and chia seed granola with the deer heads in triplicate over the fireplace.
Or skip all of the cerebral contortions, and take the salad’s hint: Come for lunch. Barony Tavern is at its best at midday, when sunlight streams through the open windows and the staff is relatively perky. That’s great news for downtowners who want to lengthen their list of sit-down lunch options. Maybe you’ll like the burger; the shrimp curled around crawfish orzo stuffing; or the toast rounds topped with spicy, chunky pimento cheese, served very hot and flourished with Old Bay-dusted grilled shrimp.
By evening, though, a day of service that began at 6:30 a.m. has taken its toll, and the least appealing attributes of hotel restaurants are on full display. “Mommy, daddy, it’s nine o’clock!,” a very young and exasperated diner at a nearby table screamed toward the end of my second meal at Barony. From the taste of my plates, the kitchen was well aware of the time.
At that point in the night, the safe bet at Barony Tavern is probably the bar, which has the right dimensions for the clubby decor. If more than six or seven people are trying to grab a drink, a few seats are bound to spill into the lobby. But when faced head-on, the bar, framed by a pair of dark wooden-cased openings, is an attractive mix of warm ighting and taxidermy. The adjoining seating area, with its planked floors and red leather armchairs, is equally inviting.
Trouble begins in the dining room, where I was seated on two of my three visits. All of the horned wall hangings and shelved tchotchkes can’t compete with the bigness of it. And the situation isn’t helped by very bright lights, the total absence of music and scattershot use of tablecloths, which makes the room appear as though it’s perpetually being broken down for the next meal. (To be fair, more customers would surely lessen the sensation.)
The dinner menu is unsurprisingly meaty: Other than that first-rate farro salad, the only full-fledged dish cleared for vegetarians is the house salad. A plant-based meal could perhaps be strung together from the side dishes, which include steamed asparagus, squash casserole and caramelized asparagus finished with truffle oil, but that menu section is something of a salt hangout. Soupy grits and onion spätzle, nested in oily spinach, tasted of nothing but.
As the sides imply, more than half of the entrée options are straight-up grilled fish and steaks. A hunk of swordfish, while egregiously overcooked, sported stylish grill marks. But a whitish fish on a plain white plate with a white ramekin of butter sauce needs more than a couple of spinach leaves and a lemon quarter to get the gastric juices jitterbugging.
The rib-eye presentation was similarly discouraging. The grayish cut had grill marks and cracked black pepper in all of the right places, but the badly wilted microgreens and an inexplicable roasted head of garlic added nothing to the visuals. Although the salty steak lacked beefy flavor, it was cooked correctly. And it came with Bearnaise sauce, which is probably a hit with fans of Carter’s famous coconut cake.
Carter’s other signature item is crab cakes, which are swamped with a tad too much mayonnaise.
Other starters include quail perched on grits, which were blasted with a mushroom sauce, thick and brown as Chinese takeout, and a chorus line of fried oysters, interspersed with bits of bacon and shriveled kale.
Frying isn’t the kitchen’s forte. The server’s response to my unfinished fried lamb chops, encircling a desolate caved-in pot pie with just a few mushrooms for innards, was telling: “Would you like to take that to a dog or cat?,” he asked brightly.
My favorite dinner item was prepared far from the fryer (unless you count the little pennants of hard-cooked bacon): A salad of iceberg lettuce, half an egg and split cherry tomatoes, doused with tangy Thousand Island dressing. The concept is so overtly square that the lettuce is actually cut into a cube, but the results are terrific: It’s the kind of cool, refreshing salad that’s ideal for Charleston in July.
On colder days, I’d gravitate toward the rich tomato bisque. It doesn’t need its plop of ice-cold crab salad so much as it needs a grilled cheese sandwich, which is about the highest compliment a simple tomato-based soup can receive.
Come dessert time, servers (notable mostly for disappearing for very long stretches) are apt to push the coconut cake. It’s as buttercreamy as ever, so wise to pair a slice with coffee. Except that Barony Tavern doesn’t stock decaf, which is an after-dinner must for many restaurant-goers. But it’s largely a non-issue by the light of day. So go for lunch. And order the farro salad.