Granville's has gone through the wringer the past few years, struggling to strike the right balance for its Wagener Terrace neighborhood. Over a four-year stretch, it made several transformations, but consistently earned praise for the quality of the food. The trouble was finding the right balance for its unpretentious neighborhood setting.
At first it was a fine dining café — with triggerfish plates and racks of lamb in that big-night-out $25 range. In 2008, the restaurant closed for nine months, reopened briefly with an altered format, closed again, and re-emerged in 2010 with a more modestly-priced but still ambitious slate of food, including small plates like truffled deviled eggs and seared pork belly, plus bistro-style entrées like linguine with clams and a massive pork chop.
After briefly shutting its doors earlier this year, the restaurant is back once again. It's still owned by Trae Wilson, who has kept his successful Granville's catering operation chugging along, though now it has a new name — Biggie's Southern Gastropub —and a whole new format.
Gastropub may be a bit of a misnomer, for it conjures up a bar with lots of craft beers and good food to go along with it. Biggie's does have these, including a respectable lineup of high gravity ales, kölschs, and stouts, but more than anything it's a serious cocktail bar, something that's much rarer around town and, frankly, a whole heck of a lot more interesting.
At Biggie's, they infuse their own liquors, soaking pecans in bourbon and lavender in gin, and they make their own bitters, too. Not familiar with the "Sweatman's" brand of tonic and ginger beer that's used in the Herbal Remedy and the Johns Island Mule? That's because it's the house brand from Brent Sweatman, who oversees the bar and makes it from scratch.
This sort of attention to detail results in brilliant cocktails. The Hampton Park Sour ($8) has Russell's Reserve rye with lemon juice and honey, but the best part is the unusual float of red Malbec wine across the top, which creates a brilliant two-tone red-on-yellow color and adds a great dark bite. You might be suspicious of a drink named the Cozy Storm ($7), especially when you see that it mixes lime juice, ginger beer, and chamomile-infused Appleton rum. But this is no flowery grandma drink. The herbal aroma of the chamomile blends with the sharp spice of the ginger beer to create a cocktail that is complex and perfectly balanced.
These drinks are every bit the peer of the ones served at the craft cocktail joints down on King and East Bay streets, and with prices ranging from just $6 to $8 a piece, they are two-thirds the cost. Recent cocktail specials have included compelling farm-to-table experiments (bourbon with beet juice, honey, lemon, and allspice) as well as old-school classics like the Tom and Jerry, a hot blend of cognac, rum, egg-based broth, and spices that dates back to the Antebellum era.
The cocktails have taken Biggie's in a very different direction from the old Granville's, and the new menu is quite a shift, too. It's been scaled back — way back — to a single compact page with just 11 items.
Half of these are $5 starter-sized offerings. Pimento cheese and a lobster-crab dip are both served with buttered crostini. The mac and cheese is made with fontina and mushrooms, and the lone salad tosses romaine with bacon, tomato, cheese, and herb croutons.
Biggie's homemade potato chips ($5) are possibly the best bar snack in town. The chips are sliced ultrathin and fried brown and extra crispy. They're served in a big white bowl with just enough white cheddar melted over them to make things rich but not too goopy, and the small squares of Eden Farms bacon add a wonderfully rich, smoky accent.
The butter bean salad is simple and addictive. The pale green beans are tender but not mushy, and they're served cold, tossed in a tangy white balsamic vinegar with a few bits of sweet roasted red peppers. My only balk is at the price, which at the same $5 as the other starters seems a bit steep for a small bowl of beans.
The sandwich selection has five familiar classics, each with an upscale twist. The "perfect" grilled cheese ($6) has fontina, basil, and tomatoes inside, while the B in the BLT ($7.50) is the good Eden Farms stuff and the T is of the fried green variety. The fried catfish ($9) is topped not with tartar sauce but with lemon caper aioli, while the beef on the burger ($8) is house-ground.
The pulled pork sandwich ($9) comes topped with blue cheese slaw and a sweet brown barbecue sauce. It's served not on a bun or thick Texas toast but rather on thin white bread that's toasted very crisp. The pork itself has a nice smoky flavor, though the whole assemblage — bread, meat, and even the slaw — comes across as a little too dry. The hand-cut fries, spiced up with an herb/salt blend, are pretty good, though.
On Monday nights, Biggie's offers one of the best bargains anywhere in Charleston: the $5 Monday meatloaf special. It's really good meatloaf too — a big, thick slab that's savory with spices, its sides coated with a thick red tomato glaze. It's served over a bed of luxuriously creamy mashed potatoes with a brown tomato-mushroom ragout that is thick and hearty.
On other nights, the burgers and sandwiches are supplemented with a larger plate or two that are reminiscent of the old Granville's menus. Recent examples have ranged from down-home classics like baby back ribs with collards to more upscale fare like beef bourguignon and fresh tagliatelle with bolognese sauce.
My biggest quibble with Biggie's is the inconsistent pricing. What the dirt-cheap meatloaf special giveth, the side items taketh away, since it will run you $2.50 to swap in coleslaw or sautéed squash for the chips on one of the sandwich plates.
But between the top-notch cocktails and the above-average food, Biggie's has all the makings of a great neighborhood hangout. They've largely avoided the perils of both the gastropub and the neighborhood bistro: that insidious compulsion to make the commonplace fancy just for the sake of being fancy. The food is refreshingly free of truffle oil drizzles, and there's none of the cognitive dissonance of shelling out 22 bucks for an entrée that you eat in a barroom settings.
All told, it's the kind of neighborhood bar that I wish was in my neighborhood. Let's hope the folks in Wagener Terrace agree.