Since 1982, 82 Queen has been a quintessential Lowcountry restaurant, proudly holding court in three different buildings on the historic site of the former Schenckingh Square, once part of the original walled city of Charles Towne. There are 11 intimate dining rooms and a bar, all anchored by a peaceful outdoor courtyard beneath a stately magnolia tree. The food is Southern — Lowcountry — and influenced by the Carolina rice kitchen, best documented today in historic cookbooks like Charleston Receipts.
In September of last year, Stephen Lusby took the helm as head chef after six years as sous chef. He has hung on to many, if not all, of the standard, classic dishes that have been 82 Queen's bread and butter for so many years, dishes like the acclaimed she-crab soup, barbecue shrimp and grits, lump crab cake, and frogmore stew. Lusby hints that 82 Queen's owners insisted on it. And why wouldn't they, with throngs of visitors dutifully filing in every year for a taste of Lowcountry history?
Indeed, 82 Queen fits pretty neatly into a category of restaurants catering to the insatiable tourist's desire to experience ye olde plantation life in Charleston, complete with fried, creamed, and buttered Lowcountry fare, a celebration of richness laced with French style and Southern hospitality. It might even define the genre (which is a lot better than imitating it). Lusby appreciates that tourism is a big part of their business but says they'd like to bring in more locals. Still, he admits, "It's the perfect place to try Lowcountry food if it's your first time in Charleston. The history, the different dining rooms — it brings an authentic feel to the dining."
There's plenty of good eating to be had at 82 Queen. The buttermilk fried okra ($8) is outstanding. Thick, round okra slices are dredged in a combination of seasoned cornmeal and flour, fried until impressively light, crisp, and deeply flavorful. They're plopped right down on top of the sauce, a red pepper orange marmalade that brings an addictive combination of heat, fruitiness, acidity, and sweetness to the okra. The setup works well as long as you don't let the okra sink too deeply into the sauce.
The combination of sweet and savory is also employed for the barbecue shrimp and grits, but less successfully. Fresh shrimp are enrobed in a barbecue sauce that tends toward ketchup-y, set atop creamy, buttery grits and topped with a little bacon and cheddar. The dish is executed well, but I don't think the barbecue sauce has enough interest to carry the dish. Maybe only because the sweet and savory okra was on our table at the same time, but I missed the more traditional shrimp and grits gravy. But it must be a popular dish. It's offered as an appetizer ($9) and as a main at both lunch ($13) and dinner ($23).
The award-winning she-crab soup (cup $6, bowl $7) is a magical combination of crab, heavy cream, crab roe, and sherry. It's a very good version of a dish that epitomizes its Lowcountry roots, both rustic and elegant at the same time. Whether or not it lives up to its iconic status you'll have to decide for yourself, but it's definitely a creamy, crabby, and heady start to a meal.
Speaking of crab, when you cut through the crackling crisp brown crust of 82 Queen's pan-fried lump crab cake (lunch $16, dinner $27), the scallion-flecked crab-filled interior is so light the other side of the crab cake rises off the plate like it might fly away. It's mostly fresh lump crab meat, blended with just enough mayonnaise, Tabasco, lemon juice, zest, breadcrumbs, and scallions to keep it together. The crab flavor is ocean clean, just salty enough and not the least bit heavy. It's served along with purloo rice, prosciutto, green beans, and remoulade. The crab cake plays a starring role in the Lowcountry Crab Benedict ($16) at brunch, too.
If you're pondering one of 82 Queen's specialty sandwiches for lunch, you could do a lot worse than the fried oyster po' boy ($13). A nod to New Orleans, it's a generous handful of Tabasco and buttermilk-fried oysters, remoulade, bacon, lettuce, tomato, and onion on a hoagie roll from Saffron bakery. That'll fill you up. There's also a pulled pork sandwich ($11), a prime beef burger ($12), and a roasted turkey breast and corned beef sandwich ($10).
A recent dinner special, pan-fried rainbow trout with grits and grilled asparagus, was good too: the freshest trout, lightly breaded in salt and pepper flour, pan-seared, and topped with a citrus almond butter — Lusby's take on almandine. Like most of the other dishes at 82 Queen, it was deftly seasoned, cooked just until done, and doubly rich with the almond butter and bed of grits.
So, why not take 82 Queen up on its effort to court more locals? In the end, what you think about 82 Queen will depend on the things your opinion of a restaurant usually depends on: your prior dining experience, your expectations, the setting, and even your mood. I admittedly haven't checked out all of the other spots in the Charleston Receipts genre, but I was pleasantly surprised by the cooking at 82 Queen. There's a reason it's been here so long.