Magnolias: Service staff shines, food disappoints at festive restaurant about to celebrate 25 years

Servers bring out food to customers at Magnolias in Charleston.

What to drink at Magnolias, a restaurant so serious about its regional allegiance that the phrase “down South” is stamped on its custom china? Surely the situation calls for a mint julep, a drink that dates back to 1770s Virginia.

I’m not sure how the first Virginians mixed their juleps, but if they were as persnickety about alcohol as their contemporaries, they likely insisted on a cocktail that was cool, brown and wet. The signature julep I was served at Magnolias satisfied on just two counts.

Boarders at the Old Kentucky Home in Asheville, where author Thomas Wolfe grew up, used to rib Wolfe’s mother about brewing coffee so thin that they could read a newspaper through it. And sure enough, it wasn’t too hard to make out the words on Magnolias’ forebodingly extensive menu through the glass of mostly simple syrup. When I asked for a redo, assuming the overtaxed bartender had skipped an essential step, I was returned an equally clear beverage consisting of club soda and not much else.

On subsequent visits, I’d sample more competent cocktails. But the blank drink stuck with me, because of the way it visually summed up the current state of the landmark restaurant, poised to celebrate its 25th anniversary next month.

The outlines of an upscale Southern restaurant are in place, from the white cloths on the tables to the pecan pie on the dessert list. The animating spirit, though, has gone missing. Dishes that once expressed Lowcountry soul are executed with detached obedience.

None of this seems to bother the tourist pack that nightly throngs Magnolias: If you’re looking to dine on a Monday night, you’ll likely be asked to eat before 5 p.m. or after 8 p.m. Heaven help the weekend visitor. The upshot is diners who make the cut bring a fun energy to the restaurant, which has the festive feel of a cruise ship dining room on embarkation day. Still, the food is so consistently disappointing that I was repeatedly seized by the urge to Pied Piper guests to a place that better represents what Charleston has to offer.

The irony, of course, is that the city’s current culinary success was first bred at Magnolias. Under chef Donald Barickman, the restaurant stoked national interest in Lowcountry cuisine, tweaked for palates accustomed to French technique. The New York Times’ Bryan Miller used the words “heavenly” and “awesome” to describe his meal there.

Barickman left the operating company in 2011 after a hugely successful run that included the publication of two cookbooks. Donald Drake, who joined Magnolias as a line cook in 1991, remains Magnolias’ executive chef. His name will grace a third cookbook coming out next month.

While Magnolias’ menu is largely unchanged from Barickman’s days, the restaurant’s interiors last year were remade with sky blue upholstery and sconces. The new touches are visible in the front half of the restaurant, but a good number of diners are led past the kitchen to a crowded back dining room where a clanging hubbub overtakes the space. It modulates slightly when servers dim the supermarket-bright lights around 8:30 p.m.

Among New York City’s food devotees, the word is you ought to start a Magnolias meal with pan-fried chicken livers. That was likely good advice when the first intrepid eater smuggled it back from Charleston, but now the thickly breaded livers, cooked long and hard in what tastes like old oil, are dependent on a sticky sweet Madeira sauce and tough flaps of country ham for flavor. Equally iconic fried green tomatoes, perched on a platform of cheesed-out grits, come across as tomatoes in shape only.

Again and again, starring ingredients at Magnolias are upstaged by a sweet or salty supporting player, such as the cold gobs of pimento cheese strewn atop a nicely cooked filet. The menu advertises chicken in the Down South egg roll, a damp bundle of ham and greens, but the plate is so saturated with spicy mustard and plum sauce that it’s impossible to precisely place the meat.

With its riot of red and yellow, the egg roll presentation is a throwback to a different, more shoulder-padded time. Yet a few of Magnolias’ most successful dishes are apparently of more recent vintage. Even if the kitchen couldn’t quite rein in the saltiness of a salad featuring country ham and feta cheese, the green goddess-dressed tumble of asparagus and arugula tasted remarkably fresh. Crisped pork belly was excellent, as were the cushioning field peas, roused by bolts of pickled hot peppers.

The same pork-and-beans serve as the foundation of a pork tenderloin entree. (And if you think that’s strange, try to explain the biscuits-and-brown gravy burrowed into mashed potatoes adjoining the fried chicken breast.) I didn’t even recognize the belly when it reappeared as a solo appetizer, since I’d been distracted by another tenderloin accompaniment: An odd cornbread pudding, which had the daunting bulk of noodle kugel; the consistency of spoonbread and the insistent egginess of spongecake.

Like the unappealingly undercooked grit cake served with an oregano-heavy gumbo (more of a half-hearted ratatouille than a reminder of Louisiana), and the heavily buttered grits surrounding the mushy shrimp ambiguously sourced from “the Atlantic,” the pudding tasted nothing like corn.

But hey, even if the crab-stuffed trout doesn’t taste like any particular fish, the surrounding creamed leeks, potatoes, peas and carrots have a totally pleasant pot pie vibe. And the desserts feel way less tired than the savory plates, thanks to endearing little fits of whimsy, such as candied pecans scattered around a peanut butter tart and beachy bits of rum-tinged roasted pineapple that help relocate coconut cake to the tropics.

Still, what’s most impressive at Magnolias is the service staff. On weekend nights, when its most senior members have the run of the floor, almost every diner is waited on by a middle-age man: My server had joined the crew more than 20 years ago.

While the massive size of the restaurant isn’t completely compatible with polished service, the collective experience shows. A server once heard my fork fall to the floor across a crowded and cacophonous room. In this silver anniversary year, perhaps the kitchen will find ways to put its long history to equally good use.