There are diners who love Halls Chophouse: The owners want to shake your hand! You can bathe your steak in black truffle butter! There’s lobster in the mac-and-cheese! There are diners who hate Halls Chophouse: The owners want to shake your hand! You can bathe your steak in black truffle butter! There’s lobster in the mac-and-cheese! But there are no diners who are agnostic on the topic of Halls, which is the surest sign of a success screaming out for replication.
Since purchasing Maverick Southern Kitchens in 2015, the Hall family has had the chance to try out its signature brand in various settings, in much the way that Bob Hope and Bing Crosby took their shtick to Singapore, Bali and Morocco, too. Although the acquired Charleston restaurants’ names remain the same, it’s entirely fair these days to think of the Old Village Post House as Country Halls and High Cotton as City Halls, with a bit more seafood all around. And then there’s Slightly North of Broad, which has been mercifully left alone.
Concept shifts aside, though, the essential question is whether Halls has upheld Maverick’s reputation for quality and consistency at the properties it took over. I visited each restaurant twice to find out.
Old Village Post House
The ground floor of Old Village Post House is divided into a front dining room and a back bar, which is furnished to imply a toasty Currier & Ives-approved tavern. But the image parts course with reality somewhere around the thermostat, which is set uncomfortably low. The Post House’s Mount Pleasant home is big and old, and surely not easy to heat, but I spent one of my meals in my winter coat.
Come summer, that situation ought to resolve itself. But the clearest sign that the Halls Management Group’s hospitality instincts didn’t quite make it over the bridge is that’s the staff’s attitude too. Nobody ever asked me if being surrounded by down and fake fur was enhancing my experience, let alone offer to honor my reservation at one of the empty tables in the main room. When another shivering patron approached the bar, asking what she could order to warm herself up, the disinterested bartender suggested an espresso martini.
With just six guestrooms, the Old Village Post House isn’t exactly a hotel. But some of its cooking is powerfully reminiscent of the food associated with those institutions. A green salad garnished with heavy clouds of blue cheese, dried cherries, sugared pecans and a torrent of pomegranate vinaigrette might make you inwardly brace for a rap on a glass and a long-winded speech. A practiced caterer, though, probably wouldn’t have dribbled dressing all over the plate’s rim.
Since former chef Forrest Parker’s departure, the Old Village Post House menu has been stripped of its zaniest heirloom ingredient-inspired veneer; there’s pirlou served alongside the grouper and a grit cake with the shrimp, but the dishes are otherwise unmoored. The remaining “chef specialties,” listed separately from the steak selection, are crab cakes, crab-crusted salmon, lobster, chicken breast and gnocchi stuffed with sweet potato and goat cheese.
Still, the biggest problems with the food aren’t directly the fault of head chef Robyn Guisto. Instead, dish after dish suffers from inattention on the line: There are bits of shell in the broiled oysters, way too much salt on the chopped salad and unrendered fat on undercooked lamb chops, mysteriously served in a bowl.
To cap that off, there’s a rubbery chocolate pie that poses a serious challenge to disciplined diners’ resolve not to play with their food. Sadly, there aren’t any heated desserts on the menu.
After a visit to High Cotton, you may find yourself humming a love song to other Charleston restaurants that begins with the line, “Where was the music?” While most local restaurants count on conversation to provide their dining rooms’ soundtracks, High Cotton books classy jazz combos and energetic bluegrass bands.
Music contributes to the lively feel of the restaurant, along with big parties of happy visitors and an unbeatable location at Cumberland and East Bay streets (nab a window seat if you can.) The room’s outsized proportions work to its advantage, underscoring the cosmopolitan ambiance. Between the audio and the visuals, High Cotton is an excellent venue for a competent cocktail.
High Cotton’s wine list is short on thrills, but service makes up for what’s missing by the bottle. On both of my visits, every staff member who approached my table was good-humored and, appropriately enough for a restaurant with a pocket-sized performance space, attuned to the rhythms of the restaurant.
At this point, I fear you might be tempted to stay for dinner. It’s a strategy that could work for one course: The appetizers are fairly pedestrian, but the world has bigger problems than an overabundance of crab-stuffed mushrooms and shrimp cocktail. The prices are a tad more problematic: $18 seems steep for three scrawny king crab leg splits, broiled and served with field peas in countable quantity. And I’m still not sure how pomegranate sneaked onto that plate.
Perhaps opt instead for the seared tuna, which looks as if it was constructed for a culinary school final exam. The column of miso-soaked farro with mushrooms and carrots is saucy and salty, but works just the same. And while the splotch of emulsified pineapple beneath the fish is a bit much, the crushed peanuts atop it make sense for texture’s sake.
Unfortunately, everything else I tried at High Cotton was less like that thoughtful dish, and more like the cold, bland complimentary bread that seems almost designed to bring down expectations. A sloppily-butchered rib eye with a pretty, peppery crust was tangled up in fat, while a buttered-up flounder stuffed with red rice sagged from overcooking. A halfhearted attempt at pastry, sold as cobbler, tasted of nutmeg, brown sugar and grit. Worse still, it was cold in the middle. But even as the meal faltered, the music remained upbeat.
One of these restaurants is not like the others, and not just because of its legendary local status, its enormous influence on the way Charleston eats now and its justly beloved lunch service. Although it’s generally of little importance next to those attributes, it matters in the context of this review that SNOB is the only Halls restaurant where I’m openly recognized and warmly greeted. That’s because it’s a restaurant I patronize on my own time, which probably counts for something too.
There are a few signals that SNOB dates back to an earlier era. For instance, the bulk of the room is devoted to actual dining, rather than a raw bar or tall tables at which to drink multi-ingredient cocktails. And every meal starts with warm squares of sunshine-yellow cornbread, arrayed in a linen-lined basket.
Still, nobody would guess from executive chef Russ Moore’s menu that the restaurant’s been at it for 24 years. Other restaurants should aspire to age this way: When a kitchen with this much experience adds bok choy and salsa verde to its initial Southern repertoire, that’s something like an octogenarian registering for CrossFit classes.
On a recent weekday, SNOB’s daily $13.95 lunch special (which comprises an entree, soup or salad and coffee or iced tea) was a plateful of gnocchi, pudding soft at the center and bronzed on the outside. Tender hunks of rich oxtail and cubes of root vegetables also were part of an equation that produced a terrifically vibrant take on traditional beef stew. The purposeful muddle was strewn with bright green onions and microgreens, because acknowledging the winter blues is part of seasonal cooking too.
Those vegetables might have been background players, except they were so meticulously diced, much like the carrots in a preceding red pea soup that was vocally smoky. Care emanates unmistakably from SNOB’s kitchen, which only sends out perfectly matched slices of rosy red duck breast with an airy hoecake, smeared with sweet potato and crowned with a nest of cooked red cabbage. Henceforth, I always want to eat duck this way.
But SNOB has a knack for definitive dishes, most of which seem to be the result of cooks taking real pleasure in ingredients. Tuna probably has a long career ahead of it without the help of cornmeal-encrusted oysters and a mustard barbecue glaze, but who wouldn’t want to try fish prepared that way? SNOB remains a gem.