By Peg Moore
Charleston has been a leader in the Slow Food movement by celebrating local and heirloom ingredients decades before “locavorism” was even an accepted word. How we consume those ingredients matters, too. Charleston has a historic tradition that has been ignored in our fast-paced time — the three o’clock dinner, memorialized in Josephine Pinckney’s eponymous novel.
Plantation lifestyles made it practical to work before the heat of the day. The mid-afternoon meal was likely also based on custom. Many settlers came from France, where the lengthy midday meal was (and still is) popular. The best restaurants in southern Europe tend not to open for dinner before 8 p.m., so it makes sense to have a substantial lunch.
“The big mid-afternoon meal feels exotic these days, but it’s so practical,” says local cookbook author Matt Lee. “If it took place earlier in the day, everyone would be starving by bedtime. If we did it any later, we’d have to eat something substantial around midday. And it leaves you with a nice set of leftovers to demolish at eight.”
For serious white-tablecloth nurturing, there is always SNOB, Grill 225 and Palmetto Café. New restaurants seem to pride themselves on serving tasty food in scruffy and noisy surroundings. Best go for lunch before the serious bar crowd shows up.
Lunch is a smart time to try new restaurants
Many new restaurants open around 11 a.m. and do not close for dinner. The hours make it possible to enjoy our three o’clock dinner tradition.
CO, which means “feast” in Vietnamese, is a delicious choice. The cuisine features rice and noodle dishes, addictive dumplings and delicious curry shrimp. Outside CO just looks like a bar: upstairs are tables. A convenient break in the middle of a shopping spree, CO is likely to be noisy at night.
An old garage is the unlikely venue of Leon’s — not gracious, but the food is delicious. There are tables in the courtyard, a good place to sit and savor not just oysters but also a creative slaw of carrots and celery root. Check out the excellent fried chicken, hush puppies and memorable fish sandwiches.
Xiao Bao Biscuit serves Asian fusion in a former gas station. It is fun to eat here with friends and share a wide variety of dishes. Our favorites were the okonomiyaki cabbage pancake, Jian Zi pork wontons and the Bahn He.
The vegetable plate is having its day in the sun. Local veggies are being treated with great respect, with chefs plating them with the precision of an artist and emphasizing flavors instead of muffling them with heat.
Savor an authentic Lebanese veggie plate at Leyla, owned by Dolly Awkar, a teacher of Arabic at The College. There’s a Royal mezza with a yummy sampling. We found the hummus, baba ghannouj and tabbouleh especially delicious.
It is well worth the trip to Hampton Park to feast at the Park Café, which prides itself on farm-to-table sophistication. They serve excellent seafood, addictive avocado toasts, herby farrotto and vegetable soup. However, it is their vegetable plate causing the most enthusiastic buzz.
The healthy benefits of a leisurely lunch
A leisurely lunch is a delicious way to revive the pleasure of face-to-face contact lost in a social media world. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on a book club that calls itself the “Slow Reading Club.” They meet in a café, turn off their cell phones and read silently for an hour. They have found their ability to concentrate has improved and they feel less stress. The Journal noted this is another example of the resurgence of such “old-fashioned” pleasures as reading and cooking.
Old favorites you might have forgotten
Charlestonians such as Judy Obstbaum have fond memories of Swamp Fox and tipped me off to the current culinary excellence there. Carpeting keeps noise under control. The menu is focused on Lowcountry classics. Architect Randolph Martz is a regular and enjoys the bargain market dinners.
The Marina Variety Store is another survivor of many years, still featuring favorite dishes at reasonable prices.
Lunching in the French Huguenot tradition
Mireille Guiliano, author of French Women Don’t Get Fat, points out that French women eat three meals a day and do not snack between them. Forget calories: Savor a three o’clock dinner with authentic French food at Brasserie Gigi. Chef Frank McMahon has been cooking by Escoffier since he was a teenager helping out in his parents’ restaurant. Frank’s expertise was sharpened as sous chef of the acclaimed Le Bernardin in New York. Gigi is open from 11:30 a.m. on. Bon appetit!
Peg Moore is the chief culinary correspondent for the Charleston Mercury and may be reached at email@example.com.
Brasserie Gigi — 102 North Market St. 722-6393.
CO — 340 King St. 720-3631.
Leyla — 298 King St. 501-7500
Leon’s — 698 King St. 531-6500
Marina Variety Store — 17 Lockwood Blvd. 723-6325.
Park Café — 730 Rutledge Av. 410-1070.
Swamp Fox — 387 King St. 724-8888.
Xiao Bao Biscuit — 224 Rutledge Ave.