Stepping off of Upper King into Midtown Bar & Grill isn't going to leave you with a wondrous glint in your eye. You're not going to find yourself gawking at cutting-edge style. This is not the fashion-forward flatbread gathering down the street at Monza, nor a dark-wood, upscale scotch bar and steakhouse like Halls. In fact, you'll be more apt to go to Midtown for snacks and six beers than a full-blown meal, but it's worth a visit.
It's what you get when four buddies not so far removed from college fraternity parties open a dive bar on the margins of gentrification. Except this dive bar is rather nice. They've totally restored an utterly defunct building in a more-than-responsible manner. Old floors and beams that couldn't be salvaged have been transformed into tables and a bar; pressed tin hangs from the ceiling. It's a bar that any young adult would find appealing from here to Greenville, but it's also a bar that serves food.
The bar and grill concept is nothing new to our town, but Midtown isn't pining for the upper-end gastropub effect that permeates the landscape. They're going for something older, closer to the heart of Carolina. There's a certain nostalgia contained in their straightforward approach, and even a thirtysomething like myself can find comfort in it, if only by living vicariously through the younger crowd that packs the place on weekend nights.
This is the place for girls in summer dresses and boys in khakis with Croakies hung 'round their necks. They have a blue palmetto logo strangely similar to the old Barton and Burwell fishing store and a catering company going by the name Maybank. Everything here has the aesthetic of South Carolina pop culture, like a more masculine version of Carolina Girls with beer and wings. After glancing through the offerings, I half expected to see Matt and Ted Lee's shining faces on the menu.
Perhaps the most distinctive dish is boiled peanut hummus ($6.95), which as far as boiled peanut hummus goes tastes pretty good. It's the only boiled peanut hummus I've ever eaten. Creamy, satisfying, rich: it coats the supplied pita chips amply and packs the punch of something a bit more savory than bean dip, but with all of the down-home goodness. I think they should top it with white cheese and serve it with saltines rather than pita chips, but I also think that a place like Midtown should offer sardines in tins of mustard. Perhaps I'm just caught up in the decor.
These guys also put out some acceptable barbecue. It comes on buns, in the form of sliders ($5.95/3; $8.95/6), a sandwich ($7.95), or even a "pulled pork bbq cobb salad" ($8.95). They have decent slaw and fries, and plenty of cold beer — making the 'cue good enough for a Saturday night snack, but it's not exactly hundred-mile pig.
They do turkey and avocado wraps and homemade chili ($2.95/$4.95), and a very nice looking Sunday brunch, but we will be going for burgers. They do seven kinds ($6.95-$8.95) — six beef, one shrimp — with everything from the plain ol' "classic," to the obligatory pimiento cheese. They have bacon, egg, and cheese, and a mushroom swiss. It's classic, hot, fast, and perfect for the setting with no frou-frou pretense. They're cooked to order, aren't dressed up with weirdness, and they deliver the goods — charred, juicy, basic.
The key to enjoying the place lies in the expectations. If you go expecting a fine dining experience, you will be sorely disappointed. This is not the spot to sip whiskey and play the ponies. It's not an underground hipster cave with abstract art on the walls, nor an appropriate place to take your favorite food snob. There are college kids, but it's not a college bar selling New York style to Charleston wannabes. It's Upper King's splendid version of Salty Mike's.
Midtown Bar and Grill is a perfect addition to the area. In a place geared toward a diverse range of diners, they give us an establishment focused on classic Southern, if not specifically Sandlapper, fare. They draw that kind of crowd, and they serve them well. If the critical measure of an establishment is whether it accomplishes what it sets out to do, and I believe it is, then Midtown hits the mark. It won't be everyone's scene, and I know plenty who will find complaint, but judging from the line out the door on Saturday nights, these boys don't really need to care.