RESTAURANT REVIEW: Charleston Bistro 

Courting the masses with a big buffet

Charleston Bistro
American/Eclectic – Casual
2467 Savannah Hwy.
West Ashley
852-9600
Serving Lunch Mon.-Fri

People aren't exactly huddled in the sparse environs of the Charleston Bistro, but the industrial location, $6.99 buffet, and steady stream of workmen and day laborers that enjoy their lunches there certainly place it outside the upper crust of local cuisine. It's like one of those webpages that you find on the web, half-finished and with a little blinking reminder that this place is still "under construction." It's not bad at all — quite the contrary — but the name, and the marketing of it, create a different expectation. In fact, if the Charleston Bistro's claims to upscale food "without the hoity-toity nonsense you find at other places" weren't so misleading, the shock of instant mashed potatoes would be an easier sell.

The building itself lacks distinction. A small leased unit in a long, prefabricated metal building of no character, it stretches back from Highway 17 South among the industrial scrap that borders the edge of town. Inside, the single large banquet room envelops you in dark brown hues penetrated by the gleaming, polished steel of several custom food bars. The metal refracts the light in bright, iridescent swirls. If not for the rising steam, one might think the patrons weren't comfortable leaving their shiny new truck boxes out in the parking lot (even if the trucks sit six feet off the ground).

A plethora of dishes crown the metal structures — baked chicken, fried clam strips, and cold macaroni salad. One whole bar is dedicated to salad; a bowl of limp iceberg stands beside little buckets of bacon bits, dressings, and other chopped accoutrements. Beside all of this is the crowning jewel of the place — a guy shucking fresh oysters onto a bed of ice. Cold, salty, and all-you-can-eat on the half-shell for 7 bucks? That's a good deal anywhere (and I gobbled up at least $8 worth).

The rest of the hot food provides for some solid, if not especially distinctive grub. Fried chicken breasts, gently pounded and breaded in a peppery crust, are not the dry, shoe-leathery flops that the heat lamps might suggest. Even at the end of the lunch rush, they still retain a moist interior, juicy and deliciously simplistic. On another bar they come topped with tomatoes and cheese, a sort of deconstructed chicken parmesan, equally good. Big buckets of sizzling fried clam strips are regularly refreshed at the steaming table and they are first-rate, as far as fried clam strips go.

The pasta is unspeakably bad. Vegetables are decent. They have collards and very good potato salad, chunky and biting with the sharp tang of onions. The corn, dunked in a bucket of milk and herbs, would be better with fresh product. The starchy, sunken kernels of a frozen, prefabricated, corn nibbler just don't give the milk preparation due credit. Desserts also get their own table, with chocolate fudge brownies and a multitude of cookies to sugar down the gullet, and the ubiquitous coffee urn.

The knock on Charleston Bistro seems to lie in inflated expectations. They tell the world that they are going to serve great, gourmet food at a dirt-cheap price by eliminating the "hoity-toity," but in reality create a small-scale "super-bar" worthy of a steakhouse chain. They do this not merely by throwing out the fine linen, but by lowering food costs and charging $1.50 if you want to swill down a coke with your meal. If an iced tea costs 22 percent of the meal ticket, what does that say about your restaurant?

That doesn't mean the place deserves a bad rap. The oysters are great, the food is well-prepared, and the price is right, but people should go with the knowledge of what to expect (and perhaps a thermos). After all, fried clam strips and instant mashed potatoes are American classics. If you drink coffee, it comes with the meal.

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