L.I.F.E Bar was by far the most unique establishment on King Street. The white-hued space with curved, perforated ceilings felt like an intergalactic tunnel. It was the closest thing Charlestonians had to visiting the Jetsons‘ Skypad apartment. The small, narrow bar would glow at night, causing passersby to gaze and wonder if they were in Las Vegas or New York City. It was supposed to be the place for traveling musicians to hang out, and on many days it was, but the futuristic theme just never caught on. It lasted two years.
This fall some of the original owners decided it was time for a change — perhaps something not as futuristic — so what was once a distant dream became a reality. Owner Peter Evans and his daughter and chef Paris have a love for old-school motorcycles, so they decided the space should be transformed into a more vintage-style bar showcasing ’60s and ’70s racer pictures, a couple bikes (including a Ducati parked in the center of space), and plenty of biking accessories. It’s called Motobar. There’s a hodgepodge of painted brick, wooden beams, and recycled sheet metal. A long wall of banquet seating displays an array of mismatched patterns and vinyl covers, and the ever-popular Edison light bulbs hang above the bar. Restroom walls are outfitted with clippings from retro issues of Playboy, and there’s a vintage cigarette vending machine in the back.
It’s a dive bar, but one that serves cocktails like the Tunnel of Trees — Fernet, tangerine, lemon, and ginger beer — and The Outstanding — Beefeater gin, lemon, and Earl Grey tea. Forget the PBR, the go-to beer is Natty Boh (National Bohemian) for $2.
What makes Motobar really unique is the food. It’s the first, and only, vegan motorcycle-themed bar in Charleston. It’s not like most biker bars. There are no designated parking spots for bikes, and you won’t see leather-laden riders nestled up to the bar. There’s no beef, bacon, or eggs, but there is a decent portabello burger loaded with greens, tomato, sprouts, caramelized onions, and peanut sauce ($7) and a bowl of sesame chili Brussels sprouts that could serve as an acceptable snack at any hour.
But it all goes downhill with the “Croque Monsieur” ($9). The open-faced faux ham and cheese sandwich doesn’t offer the slightest bit of temptation, as the fake meat resembles thin pieces of pale pink silicone and the vegan cheese looks like white Play-Doh run through a potato ricer over and over again. It certainly doesn’t taste any better than it looks either. It’s bland, off-putting, and nearly inedible. A small accompanying salad of spinach, tomatoes, and radishes isn’t exactly special, but it is the only upside of the plate.
When it comes to the macaroni and cheese ($4), the egg-less pasta tubes (similar to ditali) and vegan cheese would be tasteless if it weren’t for the generous dusting of Old Bay, but the overall flavor and texture doesn’t offer any sense of comfort like the traditional dish does.
For brunch, a bowl of loaded grits would do just fine without the bland veggie sausage, as the medley of sweet potatoes, beans, zucchini, and spinach really shine ($6). Scrambled eggs get replaced with tofu and the role of cream gets played by coconut milk. The acai bowl acts as a deconstructed smoothie with a frozen blend of acai berries topped with slices of fresh banana, granola, and chia seeds — refreshing and tolerable.
As one could expect, Motobar does offer freshly squeezed juice and an array of smoothies. A cold blend of almond milk, papaya, peach, banana, and coconut make for a quality smoothie ($6.50) and a 10-ounce fresh glass of orange juice is just $3.
Vegan food doesn’t have to be bad, and it shouldn’t be something that makes people immediately think of tofu and soy-based substitutes. In a town that’s surrounded by farms providing amazing produce, there’s really no reason to resort to “faux this” and “faux that.” One could argue that some of the best bites around town contain no animal products and consist of only the finest local produce. Something as simple as a carrot can be transformed into a memorable bite by simply roasting it or poaching it in its own juices. Motobar is better deemed a dive bar that serves mediocre vegan food than a vegan restaurant with a motorcycle theme.