Despite its proximity to the hip downtown Charleston food scene and some of the richest Lowcountry farms, Sweeney’s finds no reason to advertise its nearness to either. Opened in August, the restaurant keeps its head down and focuses on quality rather than hype. The vibe here is laid-back but sophisticated, a perfect match for the swelling ranks of former downtown residents who’ve been retreating to Johns Island since Charleston’s first Travel + Leisure accolade.
Sweeney’s makes effective use of its space, with a separate dining room and bar area that remains open and airy. In the dining room, oxblood banquettes are adorned with the occasional throw pillow and presided over by silver distressed mirrors. The dark walnut furniture adds to the upscale bistro feel, while a blue chandelier commands attention in the center of the dining room. It’s horribly out of place, but that’s the point, a reminder that things are done a little bit differently out on the island. Across the room, a few high-top tables provide a casual dinner spot for diners looking to take in a game along with dinner, and Sweeney’s has three televisions near the bar to indulge them.
Ranging from subtle to seasonally decadent, the cocktail menu features drinks like the Pumpkin Pie ($10) made with Three Olives Whipped Cream vodka and pumpkin spice with cream and a graham cracker rim. A favorite was the Season’s Change ($9) with Farmer’s Gin, St. Germain, peach, and rosemary — a crisp yet sweet choice. A handful of draft beers are available along with a bottled beer selection that ranges from lowbrow domestics to craft beer favorites from breweries like Westbrook and Allagash.
The menu reads like a standard selection of American dishes with few surprises. And menu items that threaten to be misses, like the mushroom toast appetizer ($7), are quickly revealed to be anything but. At a place like the Fat Radish in New York City, a vegetable and toast dish could be nothing more than a spread of avocado on a piece of bread with a $12 price tag. At Sweeney’s, their snack is a heaping pile of sautéed mushrooms in a beer cream and herb sauce that will have you contemplating a second order. The small plates offer seasonal salads, like the roasted red beets and arugula ($8) that are common on many fall menus. The kale and shaved brussels sprouts salad ($9) with sweet apples, tangy blue cheese crumbles, and a creamy citrus vinaigrette, was especially good with its acidic bite. The caramelized apple and onion tart ($12) was as decadent as dessert but a welcome autumn starter. Shreds of onion and apple are slowly reduced to a sweet brown filling inside of a light brown puff pastry crust. The mussels and fries ($12) made for a visually unappealing dish in a high brimmed, somewhat narrow bowl. A puddle of liquid steamed at the bottom of a pile of mollusks awkwardly topped with butternut squash and shoestring fries. The sum of its parts may not have been a winner, but individually the mussels were plump, the fries lightly salted and crisp, and the squash roasted and soft. A requested plate of bread for sopping up the savory sauce absolved the dish of its sins.
On the sandwich side of the menu, the lobster roll ($19) was an honest interpretation of the classic New England staple, with a generous heap of celery- and onion-laced lobster salad inside a lightly buttered and toasted roll. The bacon American cheeseburger ($11) was piled high with lettuce, tomato, and red onion on a brioche bun.
The entrées aren’t sexy or inventive, but they make up for their familiarity with reliable execution. The creamy oyster penne ($19) is probably the most out of-the-box option, and it works well as the brininess of oysters are met with salty pieces of bacon in a rich white cream sauce. The grilled maple pork chop ($25) was a generous portion of slightly pink protein accompanied by glazed apples and roasted butternut squash, with a sweetness that mercifully came from the apples and not an overly generous hint of maple notes. A special deconstructed ribeye ($31), deboned and trimmed of its exterior fatty gristle, was tender and precisely medium, but one pinch too many of salt was apparent in each bite.
Executive chef Jared Secor is quite talented at executing traditional dishes using local ingredients, the kind of steady quality that was demanded of him at Manzo in Mario Batali’s Eataly emporium in Manhattan. The relaxed yet sophisticated atmosphere is reinforced by owner Jim Sweeney, a food and beverage veteran who unassumingly checks on diners with a genuine interest in their satisfaction.