A Table for Two
Epicurean elegance in Charleston
Like beauty, romance is in the eye of the beholder, but it’s hard to argue with the dreaminess of a dinner date. That’s because unlike just grabbing dinner, a dinner date evokes images of candles and flowers, a last sip of wine, a shared dessert and unhurried conversation. Choosing the right locale is crucial. A perfect date restaurant is alive with the gentle buzz of conversation and the strains of live music. A bar for pre-or-post dinner libations offers an easy change of venue. The type of food is less important than having it arrive with exquisite style in several courses, which extends the evening and of course delights the palate. Being out of town helps too, and with food obsessed Charleston less than two hours away by car, it seems logical to highlight three of the Holy City’s most date-friendly eateries. Here’s what makes them magical.
Peninsula Grill/ Planter’s Inn
Charleston is known for its grand gardens, so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the entrance to Peninsula Grill winds through a patchwork of green so pretty that it’s hard not to pause to take in the garden’s thoughtful details, like the wispy crape myrtles that provide height but allow the light to come through, the regimented boxwoods and the tangle of groundcover. If the weather cooperates, guests of the adjoining Planter’s Inn can enjoy breakfast in the pretty Eden while dinner is served there as well.
Dates often begin in the small but elegant champagne bar, where bartenders set the mood with glasses of bubbly and cocktails inspired by the season. Whether the order is for a classic martini or a tea-tini spiked with sweet tea, drinks arrive well crafted, cold and fresh. The real action takes place within the velvet-covered walls of the main dining room, where locals and visitors just can’t get enough of Executive Chef Graham Dailey’s painstakingly crafted yet deceptively simple creations.
Like the room itself, which is layered with subtle textures and details — rough-hewn rope accents, shiny silver, gorgeous lighting and mocha colored velvet walls — Graham’s dishes bring with them the frisson of an unexpected, but divine, taste or texture. Spiked with honeyed bourbon, the jus that accompanies the grilled Berkshire pork chop carries sweet, smoky notes; accompanied by grits upgraded with aged gouda, the dish becomes a satisfying umami bomb that’s nearly impossible to stop eating. Similarly, the natural sweetness of the blue crab that accompanies the pan-seared trout is perfectly offset by the tangy brine of the capers in the sauce. “It’s a constant balancing act,” says Graham. “There needs to be contrast, but not so much that one flavor overwhelms another.” Even filets get special treatment, where it’s marinated for 24 hours in herbs and oil, quickly seared to develop a crusty exterior, then roasted in a moderate oven. Near-constant basting with more herbed oil adds even more flavor.
Home of a justifiably famous coconut cake, Peninsula Grill is often a destination for dessert alone, but Graham suggests giving the show-stopping banana panna cotta a try as well. “It’s got chocolate, coffee and caramel — three flavors that pair beautifully with banana,” he says.
Although Graham’s favorite table in the restaurant is dead center, where he can absorb the energy from the crowd but also watch what’s going on in the open kitchen, he recommends tables around the perimeter for date nights.
“The round two-tops along the windows are lovely for a date; if you want a little more privacy, reserve one of the two back corners,” he says.
For couples who would rather dine in complete privacy, consider staying in one of the hotel’s two penthouse king rooms and ordering room service. Not only does it come from Peninsula Grill, but the penthouse kings are both set with oversized outdoor terraces that overlook busy Meeting Street with romantic gas fireplaces.
As South Carolina’s only Relais & Chateaux property, the Planter’s Inn combines gracious service with thoughtful details and gorgeous décor. Renovated just a year ago, rooms have ten-foot ceilings and are individually decorated with classic furnishings.
Charleston Grill/ Belmond Charleston Place Hotel
For couples looking to dive into the heart of the city, Charleston Grill delivers … year after year. The experience begins at the door, where Mickey Bakst, long-time general manager and award-winning maitre d’, can tell with a single, practiced glance if diners have come to the restaurant for some type of celebration — which includes date nights. “I consider myself a keeper of romance,” he notes, only half joking. “There’s nothing I love more than helping create a special evening.” Although he enjoys the challenge of creating a memorable experience on the fly, Mickey works best when he’s got a bit of warning. “Call ahead and I can reserve one of the banquettes, which are perfect for a date,” he says. “They’re cozy little alcoves that give you privacy without complete isolation. You’ll still feel the energy of the restaurant.” Mickey can also arrange to have Champagne or a favorite drink waiting when a party arrives, special flowers or even a personalized tasting menu comprising favorite dishes or flavors.
Chef Michelle Weaver’s food is as lovely as the experience. Elevated to gourmet status with the inclusion of homemade buckwheat blinis, which arrive at the table still warm from the griddle, or traditional caviar service is a grand starter. Foie gras is another decadent option, particularly in Michelle’s capable hands, where it’s paired with a rustic apple hand pie and a drift of mascarpone-infused crème fraiche, which tempers the rich sweetness.
Main dishes run the gamut from a perfectly-seared filet, rib-eye steak, lamb chops or Kurobuta pork, all of which arrive juicy and delicious, to more exotic dishes like Thai-spiced fish with grilled pineapple. If it’s on the menu — as Michelle changes things up frequently — the pappardelle pasta bathed in silky lobster-spiked uni butter is a lush and gorgeous dish. Like many menu items, it can be split and served as a first course.
Choosing a wine to go with so many varied flavors can be a challenge, but not at Charleston Grill. In addition to a top-notch team of sommeliers who love a creative challenge, the restaurant has recently started a program that offers once-in-a-lifetime bottles by the glass.
Traditionalists will also love the old-school romance of Charleston Grill’s décor. Dark wood paneling, oil paintings and large tables set a romantic atmosphere, while curtained dividers create intimacy. There’s also live jazz each night.
The Belmond Charleston Place Hotel is one of the largest in the city, but its plethora of services — a top-notch spa, a rooftop pool, workout facility and special concierge level — are those of a full-service resort. Freshly renovated rooms are done in cool shades of taupe and ice blue, while the marble bathrooms are outfitted with spa showers and fluffy piles of white towels. Many of the hotel’s graceful original details remain, including wooden floors in some rooms stenciled by a local artist, a dramatic outdoor fountain commissioned by British sculptor John Mills and a Georgian-style open-arm staircase that surrounds a hand-blown Murano glass chandelier.
Circa 1886/ Wentworth Mansion
Located in a restored 19th century carriage house tucked behind the imposing Wentworth Mansion, Circa 1886 feels like a secret discovery. The garden setting, with its alley of crape myrtle trees and hedgerows of herbs, smells as pretty as it looks and encourages lingering at one of the lantern-lit wrought-iron tables scattered about the brick courtyard.
Enter the restaurant, and it’s clear that the secret’s out. Small and intimate, the restaurant is filled with diners, many celebrating anniversaries, birthdays and other events. The soundtrack — soft laughter, ringing of wineglasses — creates a backdrop that encourages holding hands and whispering shared inside jokes.
The décor is traditional, but with a modern twist — calm neutrals paired with old brick and heart pine gives the room a vibe that’s welcoming and familiar but at the same time fresh and stylish. Similarly, Chef Marc Collins has created a menu that, though rooted in classic technique, offers an exciting kaleidoscope of colors, textures and flavors that change with the seasons.
When Marc first arrived at the restaurant, his plan was to stay true to classic southern cooking. Before long, though, accents from Africa, the Caribbean and some of the other cuisines that comprise the essence of low country fare began showing up on the menu alongside dishes that showed off Marc’s way with game. He hasn’t looked back; the ever-changing menu juxtaposes sweet with savory, cool with warm and soft with crunchy. Antelope Loin Hot N’ Cold is a perennial favorite and a good example. The loin’s earthiness is complemented by accompaniments like Caesar demi-glace and raw antelope tartar, which adds cool brightness to the dish.
Tableside preparation is a hallmark of romantic dining; at Circa 1886, Marc takes it to a different level by poaching salmon at the table. “We take salmon and pound it out thin, top it with a jasmine rice pilaf and some snow peas and garish it with thinly sliced Surryano ham and porcini mushrooms,” he explains. “Once placed in front of the guest we pour a hot Effin Vodka and cucumber broth over top, which cooks the salmon and forms a hearty rice soup.” Another old-school classic, the dessert soufflé, is given a makeover with fun flavors like peaches and cream, pear crisp and roasted banana.
Nearly all of Francis Silas Rogers’ opulent French Empire estate was preserved when it was converted into Wentworth Mansion; today light streams in through original Tiffany stained-glass panels, crystal chandeliers hang from high ceilings and ornate marble mantles surround fireplaces. The 21 rooms are large and well-appointed; most have working fireplaces. Surprises abound and include complimentary wine and sherry each evening, a full breakfast at the Circa 1886 restaurant each morning, a luxurious spa and a spiral staircase that leads to the hotel’s cupola featuring a wonderful view of the city.