Some four million visitors flock to Charleston, South Carolina every year. Charleston is the beguiling Southern charmer, a siren which lures guests with its storied history, artistic communities, architectural styles (which range from antebellum to art-deco), pristine beaches (on ninety miles of coastline) and, of course, incomparable Lowcountry cuisine. Known as the “Holy City” because of the prevalence of churches on the city skyline, the sub-sobriquet “foodies’ heaven” is fitting; however, as songster Steve Miller reminds us in his hit tune Jet Liner, “You know you got to go through hell before you get to heaven.”
A great number of Charleston’s very best restaurants are clustered around the historic district, an area several times larger and much more crowded than the Santa Fe Plaza. Getting there is akin to being on a parade route, one with dozens of stop lights. Arriving is only half the challenge. Finding an empty parking spot is comparable to finding a car with working eight-track player. You’ll drive around in circles for a while before finally wandering further out. When you finally locate that elusive parking spot, you now have to traipse that much further on uneven cobblestone walkways to the restaurant while heat and humidity (or often the case, rain) sap you of energy and enthusiasm. A restaurant had better be good for what it puts diners through to get there.
Located in the very heart of the historic district and situated in the site of the original customs house, Magnolias is worth the frustration and the trek. Open since 1990, it is one of the South’s most revered destinations for upscale Southern cuisine, a culinary approach it calls “Uptown/Down South.” Magnolias is credited widely with helping spur the creative use of fresh seasonal bounty that sparked a revolution in Lowcountry cuisine. Roadfood founder Michael Stern says it best: “…this restaurant has set standards of classic down south food served with uptown panache.”
A classically elegant fine dining restaurant combining true Southern flair with Charleston charm, Magnolias lives up to its name. Though too early in the year to imbibe the sweet fragrance of blossoming magnolias, I could still appreciate the glossy leaves someone else would have to rake when they fall. Freshly cut magnolia branches in clear vases festoon the main dining room and large paintings of magnolias hang on the wall. An elevated horseshoe-shaped bar with tall stools provides the best vantage point if you’re into people-watching. The most obvious observation may be that everyone is dressed better than you are. South Carolinians are remarkably fastidious and ridiculously thin considering almost everything they eat is made with cream and butter. Hmm, can their svelte physiques possibly be attributed to walking long distances from parking spots to restaurants?
The nattily attired wait staff is professional and on-the-spot with recommendations based on your taste preferences. While you’re contemplating the menu and the day’s specials, a small loaf of sourdough bread with a housemade whipped butter arrive, nestled in a white linen napkin. The sourdough is crusty on the outside and soft on the inside. Because it’s such an excellent bread, it may be a challenge to save a slice or two for dredging up some of the wonderful sauces that will soon decorate your plates.
In that my stay in the Palmetto State was so relatively short (one week), I made it a point to consume as much blue crab bisque as possible. Yeah, that’s the reason. It has nothing to do with the fact that blue crab is one of nature’s perfect foods (just ask Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate). Magnolias version of blue crab bisque may be the best I’ve had. It’s served steaming hot and has a rich creaminess redolent with delicious crab meat. Larry will probably attribute their deliciousness to the fact that these blue crabs migrated from Maryland.
Perhaps the most famous (featured even on Southwest Airlines Spirit magazine) appetizer on Magnolias menu is the Down South Egg Roll, a crispy egg roll engorged with spicy tasso (a smoked ham), minced chicken and collard greens served with a moderately piquant red pepper puree, spicy ground mustard and topped with a sweet peach chutney. These egg rolls have replaced the fabulous duck egg rolls at Zinc Wine Bar & Bistro as my very favorite. The key to maximizing their enjoyment is to ensure every sauce is represented on every bite though these egg rolls are fabulous even sans sauce.
Magnolias is open seven days a week and serves lunch every day but Sunday from 11:30AM to 3:45PM. Brunch is served on Sundays. There are significant commonalities between the lunch and dinner menus–not only in the starters, salads and soup menus, but even among the Down South Entrees. This is a very welcome departure from fine-dining restaurants who demote lunch to overly expensive sandwiches. One traditionally Southern entree which should be served for every meal (and even snacks) is fried chicken. Magnolias is among the very best I’ve ever had, on par with Stroud’s in Kansas City.
To honor my Kim, I ordered her very favorite foods, all served on one entree. Picture a cold December day as the Dallas Cowboys are squandering yet seemingly insurmountable lead to lose another game. My solace is buttermilk fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, biscuits and creamed corn. These comforting foods are all available in one plate at Magnolias. The buttermilk fried chicken breast is absolute perfection, a large de-boned chicken breast marinated overnight in buttermilk then deep-fried to a golden hue. The mashed potatoes are partially covered (not submerged as is my preference) with a sausage-herb gravy. Two cracked pepper biscuits, creamed corn and collard greens round out this plate (and my belly). This is comfort food at its very finest.
Dessert (which I ordered only as a public service should you ever need to know what to have) is limited to six items plus a number of ice creams. Being limited in number is certainly not synonymous with lacking in deliciousness. The Southern Pecan Pie is fantastic courtesy of South Carolina grown pecans, a bourbon caramel sauce and a topping of vanilla bean ice cream. As with most pecan pies, this one is almost preternaturally rich, but so addictive, you can’t stop eating it.
In 2010, Charleston was named America’s “Friendliest City” by Travel & Leisure Magazine Two years later, it garnered the magazine’s number one spot for “Fine Dining Restaurants.” Magnolias ranks with the very best restaurants in Charleston, serving memorable meals that beckon for a return visit someday soon.
185 East Bay Street
Charleston, South Carolina
LATEST VISIT: 15 April 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Blue Crab Bisque, Southern Pecan Pie, Buttermilk Fried Chicken Breast, Down South Egg Roll