by Susan Cohen
As of 9 p.m. last Saturday, the Rarebit is officially open on Upper King, bringing some early-to-mid-’60s style to the neighborhood — and all-day breakfast. That’s right. You can now get breakfast food in downtown Charleston until the Rarebit’s kitchen closes a little after 1 a.m.
“I set out to open something in this area that was very non-pretentious, very approachable,” owner John Adamson says. And it’s certainly that. The Rarebit feels timeless without being kitschy, modern without being ostentatious.
Adamson — who’s been the owner of a number of restaurants outside of Charleston, including burger joint Boylan Heights in Charlottesville, Va. — wanted a space that was as interesting as the menu. “Good food and a good atmosphere aren’t enough to excite me, I guess,” he adds. “It’s easier to design when you have some parameters. I have always really loved that early ’60s to mid ’60s time period. I own two 1965 Fords, so I’m just big into that era.”
Originally, the concept started out closer to a mid-century Hollywood diner, but it’s since morphed into more of a Hollywood club, especially considering the quality of their cocktail menu. The interior is gorgeous; there is artwork of Steve McQueen, a faux rock wall (and not in the climbing sense) that just screams L.A. diner, mid-century modern furniture, and even an Art-O-Matic machine. (If you’re not familiar with what that is, read the story we wrote about the one in the Halsey a few years ago).
Brent Sweatman, who won raves as the bartender at Granville’s back when that place still existed, is in charge of the bar here. He’s making all of his own bitters. The juices are freshly squeezed, and the sodas (ginger beer, root beer, and tonic) are all made in-house. The cocktail menu is dedicated to classics, from the Manhattan to the Singapore Sling. The Moscow Mule (Smirnoff vodka, limeade, and Sweatman’s ginger beer), served traditionally in a copper mug, was so popular on opening night it accounted for 20 percent of the evening’s sales. I’m not a vodka fan whatsoever, but the flavors are so perfectly balanced that I found myself gulping down the sweet cocktail.
There’s also a special section just for mint juleps, made with bourbon, rum, tequila, and gin, and even a Douglas Dasher (root, sage, mint, absinthe, bitters, Sweatman’s herbal tonic, and ginger beer).
Adamson was quick to praise his staff, and he says the food is exactly what he wants it to be. He calls the menu back-to-basics “cheffed-up diner food” that’s good without being as complicated as you’d find at a fine-dining place. Diners can order a bowl of chicken noodle soup, grilled cheese, a daily blue plate special, country fried steak, or even a vegan burger. And that all-day breakfast menu? It’s got huevos rancheros, steak and eggs, and Adamson’s favorite, chicken and waffles.
Prices range from $5 for soup to $16 for a N.Y. strip entree, but many items average at under $10. Sides (including old-school sauteed spinach, onion rings, grits, and more) cost extra, unless they come with your entrée.
“It’s really great to see how people respond to the space,” Adamson says. “In designing the place and being there for the past six months doing that, I’m almost too close to it, you know? So it’s been really nice to see the response that people have had to it and the food, beyond the atmosphere.”