As Park Circle’s restaurant scene has flourished, proud residents have taken to declaring that there’s hardly any reason to go downtown these days. And with the arrival on the Eastside of Baker & Brewer, a fused-together version of North Charleston favorites EVO Pizza and Holy City Brewing, downtowners can now turn the boast back on their neighbors to the north.
At least, that was the plan when the collaboration was announced. But in much the way that olives, like the ones warmed and slicked with garlicky oil for EVO’s reliable appetizer, don’t simultaneously ripen on a given tree, the bread and beer portions of the new restaurant didn’t come to fruition at once. Instead, the state withheld a liquor license while it sorted out the nature of the partnership, since South Carolina has strict rules about producers selling directly to consumers.
Rather than wait on the green light to sell beer, Baker & Brewer opened as a BYOB, explaining in a press release that “Baker & Brewer is far too awesome to remain hidden.” As sunny as that sounds, there are a million cynical reads on the decision: Can’t solder together two independent businesses without the seams showing, heh. Bet you need to sell a ton a pizza to recoup the cost of renovating the old DeSano Pizza Bakery, huh?
But you know what? There is no room for cynicism at Baker & Brewer, one of the friendliest venues to grace the peninsula in a long while (at 6,000 square feet, there’s ample room for everything else). Call me naive, but I choose to believe that the honchos at Baker & Brewer sincerely wanted to share their space, which features one of the area’s prime porches and a carefree vibe that government officials couldn’t regulate away if they tried.
Also of interest to people who get around by car, Baker & Brewer has plentiful parking (although as someone who doesn’t usually drive, I’d love to see a proper bike rack, too. Co-owner Abe Versprille assures me that's in the works, with a rack slated to be installed "within the next few weeks."). That’s important, since the project is set into a residential district beyond walking distance of most workplaces.
It’s not exactly secluded. If you’ve been stuck in eastbound traffic on the Ravenel Bridge, you may have noticed the building just beneath you to the right. Still, it’s at sufficient remove that you’re more likely to be seated alongside a young family or kickball team than tourists with a Charleston restaurant checklist.
If you spent any time at DeSano before it whittled down its local presence to an airport concession, you’re likely to be even more disoriented than folks who’ve never previously entered the industrial-looking restaurant.
That aesthetic is seemingly all that remained intact throughout the reconstruction process, which resulted in the aforementioned side porch, furnished with sturdy wooden picnic tables and an overhanging roof; a wide open and equally casual dining area, squared off by an L-shaped bar that partially overlooks the porch, and a concrete-floored room up front that serves as a bakery.
The bakery is quite possibly the best thing going at Baker & Brewer. I’m almost hesitant to say so, since I selfishly worry the situation will change once word gets out, but at least for now, a few bucks buys you a good cup of coffee and what amounts to the run of a place that’s quiet and clean. I’m on the cusp of instructing my calendar app to autofill Baker & Brewer as the location of every meeting I schedule before 11 a.m.
Plus, there’s the baked goods case to consider. In a part of town that’s shedding hardware stores and other outlets concerned with satisfying elemental needs, it’s heartening to see crusty baguettes and boules for sale. But it’s not all utilitarian: In the morning, there are flaky croissants, high-domed to hold savory fillings that presage the day’s pizzas, and tender tanned danishes larded with sugary cream cheese.
Sweets are also a strong suit of the restaurant, which recently hired Blaise Bailey as its pastry chef. Customers can order croissants, cookies or anything else offered by the bakery to their bar stool or table, but that means foregoing lemon parfait or an on-point stout brownie sundae.
Bailey’s steady ice cream concoction is the single best example of Holy City and EVO cross-pollinating, instead of just coexisting. Baker & Brewer offers a selection of cocktails with beer allusions, such as a gin-and-tonic enhanced with hop oil, but they taste like overly labored attempts at consensus. By contrast, Bailey’s sundae is just plain fun, from the dense chocolate pastry below to the chipped toffee up top.
Still, the promise of beer in a White Russian likely won’t sway most Baker & Brewer patrons from heeding the restaurant’s name and requesting a pint (or something smaller, if they wish to work their way through more of the dozen-plus house drafts). None of the beers suggested by servers over the course of three visits seem destined to upend the craft brewing scene, but they’re uniformly agreeable and cold: The Eastside, a pert Saison, would be a fine friend to make this summer.
As for the food, it mostly belongs in the same serviceable category occupied by the beer. There are menu items that don’t quite meet that mark: The small plates section, which is a deviation from what’s typically available at EVO, could use some work. For the time being, it’s probably best to just look past the bland squash pancakes; the disconcertingly tough sope, crowned with dry chorizo and a rubbery egg, and the flavor-challenged strips of beef tongue, tucked into weighty corn tortillas.
Focus instead on the salads, which almost always have an acidic component to counterbalance the kitchen’s propensity for overdressing, whether in the form of capers or pickled jalapeno rings. Crunch is also a constant, with pine nuts and toasted almonds lending welcome structure to fresh vegetables frequently chopped beyond the point of textural recognition.
In addition to salad, the go-to order at Baker & Brewer would probably involve a calzone. It’s a better showcase for the tangy house pizza dough than the signature pies, as crusts tend to get soggy beneath various sauces, cheeses and pork fats. Pizza ovens are notoriously idiosyncratic, though, so the output is bound to improve with practice.
Yet even if Baker & Brewer achieves EVO-caliber quality pizza, the Charleston area pizza scene has changed radically since EVO opened in 2005. Locals are now so accustomed to having easy access to extremely good pizza that when the owners of Luke’s Craft Pizza, hailed as the city’s best when it opened in 2016, announced this spring they were closing to devote more time to family, the response on social media — not usually a source of warmth and understanding — was genuinely supportive.
What is in short supply these days is hospitality, which is a Baker & Brewer hallmark. Servers and bartenders are so invested and kind that it makes up for most of the menu flaws. In other words, when the venue opened without alcohol, it wasn’t in fact operating at half power. By inviting patrons to bring their own drinks, it was instead demonstrating its greatest strength. Downtown Charleston ought to be impressed by it.