By Holly Herrick
Prior to the recent arrival of Virginia’s on King, downtown Charleston (despite her historically seeped Southern roots) had just a scant pair or so of truly Southern style (soul kitchen’s excluded) sit-down restaurants. Jestine’s Kitchen and Hominy Grill, both fabulous in their own right, immediately come to mind since they’re perceived as homey, are hugely popular with locals, and are delicious hot spots for moderately priced, exclusively Southern meals (especially lunch and breakfast).
Virginia’s has all of that going on, too, but it’s got more, and it’s something this city has needed for a long time. It’s distinctly Charleston. It oozes native, old school Charleston/Lowcountry, familial charm. Eating in the coolly sophisticated country-goes-cosmopolitan space (formerly the cluttered Uptown Diner) feels just like sitting down to a Sunday-best supper on a languid afternoon. The effect, combined with the belly-aching good food, is remarkably authentic and heartwarming.
Bringing Charleston to life with such spot-on authenticity is no small task. In lesser hands, dining in another restaurant with similar goals that were weakly executed, would risk coming off as a cliche, caricature of our lovely Holy City, her food history/culture, and her people. Ah, but we can thank the good people of Holy City Hospitality, the corporation that master-minded 39 Rue de Jean, COAST Bar and Grill and Good Food Catering, for getting it exactly right.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt one iota that one of the partners of Holy City Hospitality, Michael Bennett, is also one of Virginia’s six children, Virginia being the namesake and inspiration for the restaurant. The story (as presented on the restaurant’s website) goes that Charleston natives Virginia and her husband, Warren J. Bennett , were firm believers in attending church on Sunday, followed by a traditional Sunday dinner. Like with other Southern families, the tradition included “good company, conversation, and the familiar dishes prepared from family recipes, collected and passed down through the years.” As the family grew to include grandchildren and the business and responsibility of adulthood, Sunday dinners became difficult, so the clan commenced a Thursday family dinner tradition, which they continue to this day with a weekly noon “supper.” They sup on Virginia’s food, which stems from “a collection of family recipes, fresh ingredients, and Southern cooking traditions.”
Virginia conspired with gifted executive chef Jason Murphy, sharing her kitchen prowess and family recipe file, to create one of the most compelling and authentic Lowcountry menus anywhere. Thank goodness they decided to share the love. I’ve eaten here twice and I haven’t even come close to sampling a single lemon. Even the dishes I haven’t tried looked and smelled delicious as they were carried past by the young, energetic and friendly staff. Fortunately, they have the good sense to pace things evenly, not too fast and not too slow. You just can’t rush huge plates of fried chicken and mashed potatoes or brown sugar glazed ham and mac ‘n cheese, but it’s agonizing sitting around too long waiting for it to arrive.
Quieter and dressier than both Jestine’s and Hominy, unlike these always-delicious dining hot spots, Virginia’s would be equally appropriate for a business lunch, romantic dinner, or a dressed-up, down-home brunch. Soothing jazz music and high-backed booths provides a gentle buffer from background banter, while dim lighting from a gorgeous and eclectic array of old-world lanterns and breathtaking paintings by local artists cast a gentle glow against the old brick and paneled walls. The handiwork of local interior designer Emily Woollcott, the space has never looked better.
Petit four-sized squares of Virginia’s broccoli cornbread kick-off every meal at no added cost. Their surprising moistness secret (cottage cheese) ensures a yielding, savory pound cake-like texture that is so appealing you’ll be hard-pressed not to ask for more. And if you do, it will come with a smile.
The fried okra ($5.95) and deviled crab ($8.95) appetizers tasted like the south as she used to be and still is; that is, if you know the right place to find it. Unlike the ubiquitous frozen version, Virginia’s fried okra came hand battered in a crunchy, tempura-like batter with a zippy, lemony house made aioli for dipping. The deviled crab is served in the shell and was packed with fresh, Lowcountry flavor and sweet shards of local crab. Speaking of crabs, you won’t touch a better rendition of she-crab soup ($7.95) anywhere. The delicate, creamy broth is layered with gentle heat and milky sweetness of crab and bits of pink roe. Sherry, of course, runs throughout the soup’s impeccable flavor veins.
Save room for the Southern Fried Chicken ($5.95), Chicken and Dumplings (small, $9.95, large, $13.95), and Meatloaf ($16.95). You’ll be glad you did – at least until you step on the scale the next day. All three were absolutely beyond reproach.
The chicken, an absolute Southern bellwether, will sing sweetly to you, heart and soul. A buttermilk batter, enhanced with “Virgiania’s Seasoning” was fried at perfect temperature, yielding extra crunch on the outside and a tenderness that ran down to the bone of both the breast and leg. It was served with buttery smashed potatoes and a stellar brown pan-gravy and sweet, peppery collard greens. The chicken and dumplings were dappled with gentility; boasting fat shards of slowly braised chicken swimming in a savory poaching broth, thin discs of tender carrots and celery, and pillowy puffs of dumplings. Two thick slices of meatloaf prepared with ground veal and chicken livers and liberally seasoned with sage and rosemary was a show-stopper. Just grand, it was served with a giant square of oven baked macaroni and oodles of cheddar cheese, butter beans slow-cooked with smoked pork and another smashing gravy, this one prepared with brown sugar.
You have more than sweet tea to choose from to wash it all down. Virginia’s has a full bar – which reminded me a bit of Rue’s – and a nicely balanced wine list. Desserts include the usual Southern goodness suspects like Pineapple Upside Down Cake ($6), but there is nothing common about this winner.
From every angle, Virginia’s shines. Charleston’s lucky to be graced with her fabulous restaurant self. You go girl