Open since April, Leaf Café and Bar is a looker. It's on a small, quiet block formed by Beaufain, Market, and Archdale streets just west of King Street in the spot occupied for nearly two decades by Vickery's. Already it feels like the ideal open-air neighborhood bar, a place to hang out with friends, meet new ones, or just wile away a Saturday afternoon watching a game.
Back in the early '90s, the transformation of the former tire store into Vickery's was a big deal, earning awards and recognition for the excellence of the work. But the transformation from Vickery's to Leaf might be even more impressive. Now that the dark wooden posts have been removed, the raised areas leveled to a single floor, the windows replaced with big wooden and glass doors, and the walls painted in creamy warm hues, the potential of the space has been realized.
There might not be another spot in Charleston that so successfully blends interior and exterior spaces. When you walk through Leaf's front door, the first thing you notice is its inviting wraparound cypress and copper bar. Recycled hickory floors and cypress wainscoting add even more warmth, and the simple iron lighting fixtures lend an aura of sophistication. The interior ceilings and wood beams feel tall. Big, open French doors line the patio, opening up and folding back to blur the line between the indoor and outdoor spaces. The patio's surrounding low wall, comfortable mix of Adirondack chairs and bar tables, and umbrella-like Chinese elm tree make it feel like an outdoor room.
The service at Leaf is outstanding, too. From the good-looking hostesses, bartenders, and servers that seem to outnumber the customers at times, Leaf feels like it could come from the pages of a magazine. So what about the food? I saddled up to the bar for the first time on a recent Tuesday. My easygoing server recommended the Leaf Burger ($9), which comes with a choice of pimento, blue, feta, manchego, or house boursin cheese, plus the option to add bacon for a dollar. I went with what he said was the chef's favorite combo, boursin and bacon, then sat back and relaxed with a beer and a complimentary copy of the New York Times. Good thing I had the paper (and the beer), because it took my burger almost an hour to show up. I was surprised, too, because it was around 2 p.m., and the place was less than half full. But I was in no rush, and the bartender was apologetic. Plus, the burger was flavorful and juicy, the bacon crispy, and the boursin creamy. Lost in the burger, I quickly forgot about the wait.
My second visit was on a Sunday, and again I sat at the bar, which was busier than it had been during the week. NCAA lacrosse and baseball were on big screens at the back of the bar. The clientele was diverse: families with kids scarfed down burgers and fries, a group of guys who looked like they had been out on the field themselves relaxed with beers, older couples sat on the patio, and tables full of pretty College of Charleston girls sat beyond the open French doors. I went with another sandwich, the bocadillo ($9), a Spanish-inspired "classic melt" with Serrano ham, aged manchego, and sliced tomato. This time, comically, the sandwich came out in about four minutes. It was there so quickly I almost wished it had taken longer. But it was good. The sourdough bread had that buttery brown grilled thing going on that you want in a grilled cheese, crispy on the outside and meltingly tender inside. The combination of salty Serrano, manchego, and tomato was magically savory.
I returned on a balmy weeknight to sit outside and dine on the patio with a friend. The staff was as friendly and attentive as it had been at the bar, and we were so lulled by the recline of our chairs that we felt guilty about how many times our waitress had to ask if we were ready to order. We finally decided to start with the house frickles (fried pickles) ($5) and the asparagus with soft egg ($7). When the frickles arrived, our reaction was the same: They were a little too thin and too salty for our taste. They weren't bad, but we missed the contrast between crispy fried exterior and soft, tart interior that we like in the best fried pickles. The asparagus with soft egg ($7) was a good example of a classic combination: a few simply grilled asparagus spears topped with a soft-boiled and halved egg, shaved parmesan, and drizzled with a pale green lemon vinaigrette.
Main course-wise, the smoked salmon BLT ($10) passed muster but wasn't as good as the other sandwiches I'd had. The smoked salmon came on a brioche bun with cream cheese, house boursin, tomato, and greens. We both wished the bread had been a little fresher tasting. The meatloaf ($12), on the other hand, was succulent and flavorful and a huge portion. The Yukon gold mashed potatoes it came with were simple and good. I especially liked its texture, which was creamy and chunky at the same time. But the portabello marsala gravy on the side was a little odd. It tasted like straight-up pureed portabello mushrooms and not much else. The collard greens were pretty much the standard Southern version you'd expect, cooked until deep green and seasoned with salt, pepper, and a little vinegar.
Leaf partner Pierre Estoppey told me that in putting Leaf together, the owners aimed to focus on four things: simplicity in both food and setting, a unique indoor/outdoor feel, a comfortable vibe (whether you're wearing a business suit or flip-flops and shorts), and good value. They want, he said, for Leaf to be a great bar with good food. I would say that Leaf is on its way, but that the food has room to improve. If Leaf's cooking can live up to its setting, it might just be as long-lived a neighborhood favorite as Vickery's was.