Brasserie on Wentworth
Entrées: $20 and up
68 Wentworth St.

Palmetto Café
American/Eclectic – Upscale
Entrées: $15-20
205 Meeting St.

Thoroughbred Club
Entrées: $15-20
205 Meeting St.

“A high degree of sophistication, thus creating an adult dining experience. Complex food is creatively presented. An extensive wine list is offered. The service staff, often formally attired, is professionally trained. The décor is distinctive, stylish and elegant; some establishments are casual while still offering refinement or formality.” That’s what AAA says it takes to pick up a “Four Diamond” award. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t usually look to AAA for my restaurant opinions, but one can’t argue that having this accolade hanging on the wall is an indication that you’re in for a high-quality experience.

I visited three downtown restaurants last week in an effort to test the theory that four diamonds means just what they are said to mean. Happily, they do just that in all three cases.

I had a very enjoyable lunch at Palmetto Café, in the Charleston Place hotel. I told my accomplice, who had never been before, “It’s kind of a ‘ladies’ lunch’ sort of place.” I was, literally, the only male in the room. Me and 50 ladies. Service was, as one might expect, very good, although the kitchen might be a little slow for some, at least at lunch. Food was very good and expensive. The accomplice’s bigeye tuna tartare on rice cakes ($10) was fresh and delicious, while my seared scallops and peekytoe crab salad ($13) was truly excellent. She chose the Atlantic salmon and focaccia stack ($17) from the sandwich menu, while I went for chilled shrimp and endive in Thai red curry vinaigrette ($16) from the salad section. Both were generously portioned and very tasty, hers with gently crisped focaccia and flawless salmon paillards, mine a tall tube of fragile crouton filled with big hunks of shrimp and just enough endive, although “red curry” was nearly impossible to detect. We kicked back in the sunny, glassed-in, vaguely airportish dining room, sipped languidly at our Rioja and Shiraz ($9 each), and listened in on the gripping conversations at the nearby tables. It was, overall, an excellent meal.

Charleston Place has completely renovated the lobby seating area into a full-on bar and grill, calling it The Thoroughbred Club, which now serves up their classic high tea each afternoon and morphs into a tapas restaurant and bar at 4 p.m. Here, as in Palmetto Café, service is excellent, if perhaps a bit stiff, and the food is very good. Don’t let the prices of most of these small plates scare you — while many clock in at $12 and even $15, the “pick any three for $20” deal is clearly the way to go. In fact, I predict Charleston Place will be unable to offer this combo for very long — there’s just no way they can keep offering such high-quality and high-cost-ingredient-intensive food for less than seven bucks a plate.

The crabcakes were tremendous, in flavor if not in size, with a mild fig-mango compote and micro greens, while the Barbaricina prosciutto scallops were completely over the top. Three big muscles, encased in properly thin ham, surrounded by wilted spinach and diced bacon with a light garlic cream. Awesome. Just for fun, I made my third choice (against the advice of my server) the Santa Anita Wrap, and while the chicken was moist and tasty, and the black beans and roasted corn a nice garnish for the dish, it was, at the end of the day, just a wrap. Why not have lamb chops or osso bucco instead?

For dinner, we headed to Brasserie on Wentworth, the restaurant in the Renaissance Hotel, which serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I steeled myself for possible “hotel restaurant” mediocrity, but it never came. From start to finish, Brasserie was a delight.

With only two other guests in the place, we took our choice of the tables and were told Brian would be right with us, which he indeed was. We passed on the bottled water sales pitch and sat back while Brian “went over the menu for us.” I always find this to be a little annoying, but like to hear it when reviewing, as it really gives some insight into the server — both his personality and training. Brian did an excellent job, pointing out the crabcakes and a few other items, describing them briefly, and leaving us to our deliberations. We asked him for the deviled eggs ($3) as he departed.

Brasserie’s menu is not a large one, and is focused on more Lowcountry cuisine than French. Crabcakes and lamb chops, grouper and shrimp and grits. The eggs were just right — something to nibble for a paltry price. We decided on two salads, hers a Bibb creation, and mine the frisée. Both were very fresh, generously portioned (the Bibb was an entire head) and tossed with perfect amounts of dressing. We ate in both delight and near-silence.

Entrées were crabcakes ($27) for her, sauteed grouper ($19) for me, and both were truly excellent. Her crabcakes perched on a bundle of sauteed baby spinach with julienne roma tomato and onion, and were, as billed, nearly solid jumbo lump. My grouper was pleasantly browned and sat invitingly in a pond of white beans. The crab tasted fresh and the filler all but nonexistent, while the grouper was equally fresh and cooked flawlessly. I actually didn’t have a bite of the fish for several minutes, as I was drawn to the beans on the plate over and over again — cooked al dente but only just, with nuggets of ham throughout, they were a delight. Fantastic. We ordered sides ($5) — sauteed spinach for me, and pommes frites for her — and they too proved beyond reproach.

There are about 1,300 AAA Four Diamond award winners in the U.S., and less than 80 Five Diamond award winners, which hints that these awards really do mean something. The proof, however, is in the pudding, and each of these places delivered the goods. Impeccable service, beautiful surroundings, and thoughtful, delicious, and beautiful food. Each of these three takes the “hotel restaurant” paradigm and shatters it. Expensive, in all three cases, yes, but worth it.

Love Best of Charleston?

Help the Charleston City Paper keep Best of Charleston going every year with a donation. Or sign up to become a member of the Charleston City Paper club.