Here at the City Paper, we’ve long had a category of restaurants called “Neighborhood Favorites.” Much less pricey than “Upscale Fine Dining” and not quite as ambitious as “Casual Fine Dining,” these are rarely the places you would drive all the way across town for, and they typically don’t make anyone’s list of the city’s 10 “must visit” restaurants.
But the food at those spots is solid — sometimes even superb — and the atmosphere is appealing. It’s the type of restaurant that, if you live nearby, you might find yourself ducking into on a regular basis and ordering the same favorite dishes every time.
Our enumeration of Neighborhood Favorites in the Dish Dining Guide has ballooned over the past decade. It used to be rare to find a place serving, say, slow-braised lamb shanks or a savory paella outside of downtown, but over the years a plentitude of worthy mid-level restaurants has popped up in the boroughs on the peninsula and along the main arteries across the rivers.
The Glass Onion in West Ashley, which opened on Savannah Highway in 2008, was an early leader in this march of good food out into the neighborhoods. Indeed, it bills itself as “one of Charleston’s original home grown neighborhood-based, locally focused, all natural restaurants.”
There have been some changes at the Glass Onion in the decade or so since its founding. Of the three founding partners, only one — Chris Stewart — remains, and he’s now the sole owner. In terms of food and approach, though, much remains the same.
A meal still starts with a complimentary slice of sweet cornbread made even sweeter with a generous drizzle of honey, setting the stage for a Southern-themed meal. Stewart is a native of Birmingham, and his food is a bit of a Southern melange, blending the home cooking of his native Alabama with dishes and styles he absorbed while working in fine dining kitchens first in New Orleans and then in Charleston.
Jenny Ruth’s deviled eggs (75 cents per) are named in honor of Stewart’s grandmother, Jenny Ruth Haley, whose garden Stewart credits with teaching him to value fresh local produce. They’re classic Southern deviled eggs, with a smooth, creamy filling whose consistent yellow color is broken only by a few bits of red pepper relish.
The New Orleans notes include a splendid bowl of gumbo ($7) — warm, hearty, and brimming with spice. Though chicken gets top billing, there’s a lot more okra and sliced sausage than poultry shreds down amid the savory greenish brown broth, and that’s just fine, for they really carry the bowl.
The shrimp toast ($2) is of the dim sum variety, a thick wedge of bread layered with herb-laced shrimp paste then deep fried. You get a crisp, grease-infused bite from the fried bread, then a creamy, savory burst from the gooey shrimp mixture. The minced red pepper relish on top adds a modest dose of sweetness to an unexpectedly complex morsel.
Even more impressive is the okra beignet ($2), which doesn’t look like much at first, just a lumpy, golden brown blob resting in a pool of orange-pink remoulade. But enrobed in the crisp batter are bright green slices of okra, and their smooth, viscous character somehow impart the mouthfeel of a crabcake — an effect heightened by the spicy tang of the remoulade.
One should note that the appetizer prices at the Glass Onion are downright reasonable. Six dollars for crispy Brussels sprouts or a bowl of shells and cheese won’t break the bank, and few other places offer two-buck bites like the okra beignets or the shrimp toast — much less ones that are so delicious.
A quick survey of deviled eggs on local menus reveals that the standard order ranges from three to six deviled eggs at a rate of $1.40 to $2 each. (Accounting note: In my definition, one hardboiled egg yields two deviled eggs.) At the Glass Onion you can order them onesy twosy for just 75 cents apiece — blissfully free of smoked salmon or truffle oil, I might add.
The larger plates follow through on the expectations set by the opening rounds. The pan roasted flounder ($25) couldn’t be cooked any better. The overall plate — golden-seared fish positioned on a lattice of braised green beans atop a mound of thick, cream-laden mashed potatoes — is hearty if unadventurous, but the pure, fresh flavor of the flounder carries the dish.
That flounder is fresh from North Carolina waters, and the commitment to using seafood and produce from local purveyors really set the Glass Onion apart from other neighborhood restaurants back in the early days. Stewart came to Charleston to attend culinary school at Johnson & Wales, and he mentored under the city’s first generation of New Southern chefs — Donald Drake at Magnolia’s and Frank Lee at S.N.O.B. — and then under Mike Lata at FIG.
In 2008, he teamed up with another FIG cook, Charles Vincent, and Sarah O’Kelley, a New Orleans kitchen veteran, to take that downtown fine dining sensibility across the Ashley River to a workaday building that formerly housed a used book store. At the time, there were still only a few white tablecloth spots buying their seafood, meats, and produce from local fishermen and suppliers, and the practice was hardly heard of outside of downtown.
When I first reviewed the Glass Onion in 2008, I declared that it “under-promises and over-delivers” and termed its food “good, honest cooking” that “the town needs more of.” Looking back, I’m not sure who was dishing out all the bad, dishonest cooking that I was contrasting theirs to, but something about what they were offering struck a chord.
Before pivoting to the food, I made a big deal about the “hardly upscale” decor, noting the painted cinderblock wall, corkboard ceilings, and the restroom painted “a color that can only be described as Play-Doh blue.” (This was four months before Lehman Brothers collapsed and almost took the entire financial system with it — the gap between fine dining and simple comfort was broad.)
Not so these days. Not even white tablecloth restaurants still have white tablecloths. A chalkboard menu is no longer significant enough to mention, even if it lists shrimp pilau with Benton’s bacon or braised pork shank.
O’Kelley departed in 2014 to pursue a career in wine (now the wine director at Edmund’s Oast), and Vincent returned to New Orleans for gigs in the kitchens at Peche and La Petite Grocery. Stewart’s wife, Suzanne, recently became head baker and now makes all of the restaurant’s pastries.
The ceiling now has its beams exposed and painted black, and the walls of the restroom, I can gladly report, have been painted a warm cream color above corrugated metal wainscoting. But there are still paper napkins, and a square of brown paper still lines the table. Fundamentally, the ethos and the quality of the food seems unchanged.
Neighborhood restaurants have always walked a fine line, balancing price against quality, formality against comfort, and novelty against the familiar. The Glass Onion, to me, still strikes that balance just right.
The menu has settled into a comfortable pattern of standards — gumbo, shells and cheese, fries and bearnaise for starters, shrimp and grits and buttermilk fried quail for mains. Stewart tried to take the deviled eggs off the menu in 2017, but the regulars howled in protest
That consistency lets Stewart take a few steps outside the usual neighborhood comfort zone. The recently-added bison carpaccio ($13) offers rounds of deep red, thin-sliced raw bison (from Dr. King’s Farms in North Carolina) topped with housemade potato chips and a generous layer of parmesan wisps.
Each bite of the rabbit ragout ($19) delivers a rich mouthful, with deeply ridged gnocchi tossed with shreds of tender rabbit in a dark, well-spiced sauce that brims with tomato, parsley, carrots, and more. There’s a lot going on in that sauce, and all of it is delicious.
For me, Glass Onion exemplifies the idea of a Neighborhood Favorite and it’s even exceeded the bounds of that category, making a few of the city’s “must visit” restaurants (including Sean Brock’s, who placed it among his five selections in his “Guide to Charleston” for Lucky Peach in 2016.)
It’s comfort food for sure, but not too comfortable, and thanks to a highly personal blend of Alabama, New Orleans, and Lowcountry elements, it has its own characteristic style, too.
I only wish it were in my neighborhood.