Charleston can be a fickle place. While restaurants helmed by James Beard Award-winning chefs open to great fanfare and national praise, nightlife concepts are almost uniformly panned. Whether the format is a dance club or lounge, detractors usually claim that Charleston doesn't need the same type of DJ-driven, dress code-enforcing pretension common in places like New York City and Miami.
As if painfully aware of this, Republic Reign has taken careful steps to create an upscale lounge environment with a strong cocktail program and respectable menu. The lounge opened in March under the watchful eye of Evan Powell, previously of Market Pavilion and Fish, with a menu created by executive chef Benjamin Harris, formerly of Poogan's Porch.
A recent after-work trip began while the sun was still out, casting a sad glare on the as-yet unfinished patio. (It should open in "a couple weeks," said Powell.) We settled into our seats on the blue banquette that lines three walls opposite the illuminated amber bar. Above the bar hangs a rectangular chandelier of tear-drop icicles. The back wall is adorned with a multi-paneled tapestry depicting a well-dressed woman lying across a formally set table, strongly reminiscent of the style of last year's adverts for the new Cosmopolitan hotel in Las Vegas. A DJ booth sat empty in the back of the room, but we didn't miss his presence. The music on our afternoon outing was generic house music kept at a respectable decibel, perfect for gossiping. The space inside the blue banquettes is broken into sections by two rectangular settees and a scattering of small cocktail tables. Those who would decry Republic Reign as a dance club should take note of this furniture arrangement. The space isn't large enough for dancing (although we're told it happens later in the night). It is, however, ideal for posting up with a cocktail while surveying your fellow beautiful people.
The cocktail menu features classic drinks made with carefully sourced ingredients like the Vertigo, which consists of Averna Amaro and Blenheim Hot Ginger Ale. The Blenheim imparted a strong herbal taste that may have benefited from a splash of soda. Republic Reign also premixes two concoctions, a Manhattan and a Negroni, and serve them as signature drafts. The Manhattan was made in the style of a Perfect Manhattan, which blends sweet and dry vermouth, but by using Chambord instead of sweet vermouth, the drink was too intensely infused with a medicinal cherry flavor. The real winners were to be found in the Spritz section, which features carafes of champagne, brut, and prosecco cocktails. Our favorite was the St. Germain Cocktail, a simple marriage of St. Germain, brut, soda, and lemon that was refreshing and well-balanced.
So often a group orders a variety of drinks and trades sips of each cocktail, debating the merit of the bitters used in this one or the brand of Mezcal featured in that. These bubbly carafes allow a group to ditch the exhaustive taste testing inherent in today's mixologist-crazed culture and instead dig into conversation or dinner. As the night continues on, the carafes afford even the most modest budgets the major benefit of bottle service — not having to track down a cocktail server for each round — at a fraction of the cost.
Another complaint common at nightlife spots downtown is that the service is awful and the prices far steeper than necessary. We found Republic Reign to be a welcome departure on both accounts. The servers were attentive, helpful, and knowledgeable about the menu and cocktail lists. On a separate visit, the bartenders were equally patient and personable. Powell himself is a well-trained host — he stopped by to say hello but graciously made himself scarce after our meal had arrived. The prices on food and drink were fair, especially during happy hour, which offers $4 appetizers, half-priced bottles of wine, and $2 off cocktails.
The food menu was divided into "Contemporary Barfare," "Greens and Small Plates," and "Sweet Somethings." Perhaps the strangest item on the menu was the pork belly corn dogs, served with a trio of sauces that included pickled mustard seeds, a powerful caviar-like condiment. The pork belly interior was dry and lacked flavor, while the Holy City Porter batter had a lingering sweetness that did no favors to the lackluster protein. The potato skins, which didn't seem to promise much excitement, were the surprise favorite of the course. The petite yellow potatoes were filled with duck confit, gruyere, and chives in harmonious proportions that managed to be slightly salty and rich. The fried chicken satays had a lightly fried exterior that concealed a juicy and flavorful interior. Served with buttermilk and herb dressing, they avoided any comparisons to chicken nuggets. The lettuce wraps with duck confit, kimchi, and ponzu were well portioned on a delicate leaf of lettuce that added a fresh contrast to the savory filling. The hummus two-ways, with a red curry hummus and edamame smoked sea salt hummus, were unique interpretations of a basic snack, although the accompanying crispy chick peas were slightly over-seasoned.
At our server's suggestion, we selected the Boston Bibb wedge from the greens section of the menu. Adorned with cambozola cheese, preserved tomatoes, and a delicate prosciutto tuile, the salad was a surprising culinary triumph in what we initially judged to be a drink-focused lounge. The Wagyu sliders, two to a plate on ever-so-slightly grilled buns, were cooked medium well and topped with cambozola, bourbon shallots, and grilled radicchio. We ate them in one-half increments in a futile attempt to extend their time on our plate. But disappear they did, and it's a good thing, because we had — by pure chance — saved the best for last.
The risotto with grilled pork belly was so good that we craved it the following day. Topped with microgreens and expertly complemented by a mustard grain jus, the pork belly featured in this dish bore no similarities to the lackluster version encountered earlier in the corn dogs. It had enough fat to impart flavor but was tender enough to partition with the side of a spoon.
Some aspects of a late-night trip to Republic Reign may conjure up the old stereotypes common to Charleston nightlife spots, chief among them a roaming photographer, but it clearly has much more to offer. Their happy hour is quickly becoming a popular after-office stop, but once the patio opens, it's poised to become one of the hottest venues on King Street. Start frequenting this spot before the glitterati claim it for themselves.