Today, we visit an art gallery that showcases the works of a diverse group of local artists. Not only can you admire these creations, but you can purchase them at affordable prices after sitting down to a mammoth plate of chicken and waffles. Chicken, waffles, and art? Yes, but that is only the beginning.
Say hello to the Early Bird Diner, a local dining favorite that is also part ice cream parlor, library, and game room. On weekends you will see a line of eager patrons queued up outside the front door, a mash-up of white- and blue-collar workers, kids, and those of the senior variety. The weekdays still see a bit of action, but not as fierce as the brunch crowd. People come here for comfort food, and that's exactly what they get.
At first glance, the Early Bird is what you expect from a diner, with comfy booths, a tile floor, and stools at the counter. In addition to the art on the walls, shelves are filled with books and games. Paging through an old book or playing a game of checkers enhances the comfortable, at-home ambiance.
In true diner fashion, if the Early Bird is open, they're serving breakfast. Standard fare is well-represented with a selection of omelets, steak and eggs, and biscuits and gravy. For something a little more unique, try the Corn Cakes Benedict ($9). Two poached eggs, so perfectly done that they resemble small piles of whipped cream, rest on top of sweet, pancake-like corn cakes punctuated with savory bacon and bright, citrusy hollandaise. The grits are not too runny and not too pasty. In other words, they're right on point, good as a side or entrée. A big bowl of grits ($5) can be ordered unadorned or topped with your choice of various cheeses, veggies, and meats.
At 11 a.m., the menu expands to include lunch, with sandwiches, fried pickles, homemade soups, and sides. The fried pickles ($5.50) come out piping hot. The thick-cut pickle is tasty, but on a recent visit the breading was dry and crumbled apart when it met the fork, leaving a very hot pickle without any crunch. Sides of fried okra had the same problem, but off-days happen, and the okra was all crispy goodness on my next visit.
The Schnitzel Hoagie ($8) features a meltingly tender piece of pork. Pounded thin, breaded, and fried, it lands on a soft roll and is loaded up with baby Swiss, earthy mushrooms, and an interesting sage gravy. The Fancy Grilled Cheese ($5.50) is anything but, unless you've never moved beyond white bread and Velveeta. However, the Swiss and white cheddar melted between two slices of Tuscan bread and "fancified" with a fresh slice of tomato is both well-executed and delicious.
The menu swells again at 5 p.m. when the dinner entrées are added to the already long list of choices. A large country fried steak ($10) with thick and creamy pepper gravy comes with two sides, and it's the sides that make a statement. The mac 'n' cheese is as good as it gets, and the orange-hued mashed potatoes scream with cheese. Porked-up collard greens, savory butter beans, and fried green tomatoes are just some of the other traditional sides available. An off-the-menu special, chicken and waffles ($9) is a treat that is sweet, salty, and altogether lusty. You taste the sparkle of cinnamon when you bite into the thick Belgian waffle doused in warm, perfectly sweet maple syrup. On top, two succulent pieces of chicken breast have been coated in ground pecans and fried to golden brown deliciousness before being drizzled with honey mustard.
Early Bird's ice cream is made in-house and is so good it's worth stopping in just for a scoop or three. And at $3.50 for a large, tall glass full of homemade ice cream, it's a steal. Pumpkin cheesecake is just what you'd expect, and the cinnamon and nutmeg flavors linger enticingly. The Key lime pie is creamily sweet and tart at the same time, containing shards of flaky crust. And oh, the banana pudding, which transforms banana, 'Nilla wafers, and custard into the perfect frozen scoop. Flavors change often, which is a good excuse for repeat visits.
Well-prepared comfort food, out-of-this-world ice cream, and the homey feel bring people back to the Early Bird Diner again and again. Guy Fieri, the Food Network star of Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives who stopped by the diner on a recent visit to Charleston, would surely agree. And don't think that the art on the walls will stay there. I witnessed a couple purchase a framed piece after finishing up with dinner. And who knows, maybe Fieri purchased a painting after clearing his plate of chicken and waffles.