5Church Charleston is located in a former church, as Mad River Bar & Grill was before it, but the restaurant’s done a fine job of fumigating any lingering messages of humility and selfless compassion: There’s a giant mockup of a five-dollar bill posted beneath the arched Gothic window at the back of the main dining room, and the entirety of Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” has been painstakingly transcribed on the scissor-trussed ceiling.
According to a server, it took the artist three months to write out every word. “If you look closely,” he said, leaning in conspiratorially, “You can find Dale Earnhardt’s name.”
That’s a tough punchline to pull off in the Lowcountry. But I suspect it goes over big in Charlotte, where 5Church originated in 2012. Charleston is the restaurant’s first stab at expansion, although an Atlanta location is scheduled to open within months.
Comedy isn’t the only thing that 5Church brought direct from the Queen City. It also hauled in its menu, more or less intact, and its name, which is an understandable source of confusion for customers and cab drivers (unless your driver is a fool for food news, asking for 5 Church will land you at an art gallery one mile away.) The ambiance, too, is pure Charlotte: Like a NASCAR race, the restaurant is slick, loud and feels like it was focus-grouped to thrill crowds.
The small number of Charleston diners who care whether a restaurant reflects its surroundings probably won’t care much for 5Church, or for the fledgling chain using its newest address to build up the brand’s reputation. As owner Patrick Whalen said in a statement announcing the restaurant’s opening, “We chose Charleston because we want 5Church to be counted amongst the culinary elite, and for anyone living in the Southeast, Charleston is the stronghold for great restaurants.”
That’s to be expected from a restaurant where “The Art of War” isn’t just wall decor: It doubles as the company’s mission statement. Still, 5Church is bound to be popular with oodles of eaters, partly for its striking room, outfitted with black leather banquettes and frilly chandeliers, and partly for its cheerful servers. But also, if there’s any justice in this world, for its lamb burger.
On a menu with 18 other entrees, the burger doesn’t necessarily stand out, unless you’re browsing on a budget: It’s priced at $14, which means it costs about half of what most of the main plates do.
Yet value is just one of the sandwich’s excellent attributes. Seated on a sesame bun, the burger tastes as though it was beefed up with, well, beef, giving it more satisfying brawn than the usual over-herbed gyro offshoot. The component lamb adds an engaging grassy flavor without disrupting the burger’s trophy-level juiciness. A manager who dropped by my table told me she’d eaten 200 of them over the past three years.
Sweet red onion jam, arugula leaves and a housemade whip of cream and gorgonzola, which keeps time with the burger’s funkier beats, completes the package. (There are also ingots of fried potato and a ramekin of curried honey mustard dressing alongside, but I’d swap out the weighty cakes for fries.) My only complaint was that the burger was oversalted, considering the brash saltiness of the blue cheese spread.
Taking things a little too far is a recurrent problem at 5Church, where even the butter served with the complimentary bread comes speckled with jalapeno bits. The jalapeno flavor isn’t especially strong, but there are just enough peppers to be bothersome to someone who shrinks from spice, or perhaps appreciates the taste of unadulterated butter. I’m not sure what possessed chef Jamie Lynch to approve of coating beautifully elastic tagliatelle with a glug of white truffle oil, but the robustness of the Bolognese sauce just makes the situation sadder.
Cheap tricks like truffle oil fall a few notches below this city’s uncommonly high level of food savviness. I was reminded of Charlestonians’ comfort with restaurant conventions when a server presented a pair of broiled oysters nestled in a bed of rock salt. He rushed to warn us that the salt wasn’t meant to be eaten. “The oysters are already salted,” he explained.
Not just salted, but ornamented with a clump of dried-out yellow grits and the better part of a quail egg. The idea of putting an oyster in breakfast attire is fun, but the egg was tough and the oyster was still too wriggly to fully play along. It would have been a better dish if the textures were reversed.
With a menu that ranges from chilled crab ramen to roast chicken-and-mashed potatoes, the existence of a few all-out clunkers isn’t shocking. Over the course of three visits, I encountered a lifeless crab cake that couldn’t be resuscitated by a smear of green onion mayonnaise and sweet tomato jam; gnocchi dressed with bacon and porcini oil that added up to a greasy muddle; and a strip steak that showed up cold, tough and unevenly trimmed.
Yet when the kitchen scales back the rococo flourishes, the results are generally solid. I probably wouldn’t have thought to go to 5Church for black bean hummus or chickpea salad, here sold as snacks, but both tasted fresh and remarkably well balanced. A beet salad capped with a hulking wheel of goat cheese was equally lovely.
While the bar seemed to struggle when asked to stray from its list of six signature cocktails, three of which are made with flavored spirits, there are lots of undemanding new world wines available by the glass. Although I couldn’t find anything sufficiently acidic to pair with the mussels, submerged in a thickish broth that’s pleasantly reminiscent of cream of tomato soup, a young woman at a nearby table was so taken with her pinot noir that she popped into my table’s conversation to recommend it.
Another clear diner favorite is the dessert list, which includes a brownie with a bouffant of marshmallow cream and a drippy interpretation of a Snickers bar. The 5Churchiest of the lot is a rock-hard scoop of lemongrass mousse, centered on a plate adorned with little buttons of meringue, raspberries, violets and a handful of Fruity Pebbles. Because apparently whether you’re waging a military campaign or running a restaurant in Charlotte, the way to victory isn’t subtlety.