Slowly, but surely, we're seeing new life sprout up on King Street — Butcher & Bee, HōM, The Grocery, Mercury Bar, The Macintosh — all with their own unique characteristics like gourmet sandwiches, burgers and ping pong, or communal dining. Mercury Bar, however, is more known for bass-thumping beats and a steady flow of dancing party-goers on weekends, but it's really more than just a club.
This past year, a vacant space at 547 King St. was completely renovated into a chic and elegant bar with plush black booths, a white and gray marble bar, tile flooring, and faint neon lighting that sets the mood. Toward the back of the main room there's a dark wooden dance floor, white benches, and an elevated DJ booth with a view of the room. A narrow corridor leads to the restrooms and, farther back, a large open patio bar with a handful of tables inside a covered tiki-like hut with a few couches and tables around the perimeter. There's a hand-painted mural of a Southern garden and open sky on the wall of a building next door and a few pendant lights hanging from the ceiling. All together, the space is stunning.
In the midst of the glamorous bar is a small kitchen putting out surprisingly good food. Dinner options include a variety of tapas that are just as appealing as the decor. French fries ($5) are a mix of purple and golden fingerling potatoes cut into small wedges and fried crisp with a touch of chili and garlic for flavor. The potatoes are arranged on a plate around a square ramekin of béarnaise garnished with fresh tarragon. Lettuce wraps ($9), three in all, are lined up on a long rectangular plate and filled with duck confit, chicken, or tofu sautéed with shiitake mushrooms, carrots, and red peppers and topped with a sweet, slightly spicy Asian barbecue sauce. I had the chicken and they were quite good. A nice south-of-the-border offering is the huevos rancheros ($8). Two golden-fried tortilla shells are stuffed with a sweet black bean and corn salsa, topped with two fried eggs, and dressed with tangy chipotle sour cream.
Although the portions are small, they are slightly bigger than true bite-size tapas and more comparable to racións, which are commonly shared by small groups of two to four people. This allows groups to order more and experience the menu to the fullest. The seared ahi salad ($8) is a good starter for sharing. The long, thin strips of rare seared tuna, sitting on a mix of daikon sprouts, julienned carrots and cucumber, tomato, and crispy strips of fried wonton, burst with flavor that's highlighted by a soy ginger dressing.
Each dish was presented beautifully and cooked as expected during every visit and there were rarely any snags in the service, except for a single miscommunication between the kitchen and wait staff. The duck quesadilla ($8) with duck confit, smoked gouda, and Sambal chili aioli is an appealing option and the dish I was most excited to try. We ordered it, but out came a quesadilla with the whitest duck I've ever seen and I immediately asked the server where they get their duck from. The meat tasted strikingly similar to chicken. Sure enough, the juicy white meat was chicken, and the kitchen informed us that they were out of duck. Although I was slightly disappointed, the quesadilla was still up to par with the other dishes and promptly taken off our bill, earning the staff bonus points.
It's worth noting there are usually a few full entrée specials on any given night that aren't on the menu. During one visit we saw fish and chips ($10), a pastrami reuben with fries ($11), and a burger with Irish cheddar, bacon, and a fried egg served on foccacia with sweet potato fries. I didn't get to try the burger, but I saw one leaving the kitchen and instantly regretted not ordering it. I made a mental note to go back and try the burger.
Each time I sat down at Mercury for dinner there were no more than one to two other tables being served. This was disconcerting, so I decided to check out brunch, as everything on the menu looked fabulous, and that it was. A simple dish of ham and cheese ($9) consists of two thick slices of Texas toast, melted swiss cheese, and ham topped with a perfectly cooked sunny-side-up egg and creamy white béchamel sauce. The chef's take on french toast is sweet and delightful, causing crème brulee lovers to rejoice. Texas toast is coated with crème brulee custard and cornflakes and served with maple syrup and a side ($8).
The most impressive dish is the shrimp and grits. You heard it here folks: We have another shrimp and grits contender in the Lowcountry. Creamy, but not too runny, the grits are presented in a large plate with a small bowl molded in the center, topped with succulent local shrimp and very flavorful, slightly spicy creole sauce. It's by no means a large portion, but it's filling and very satisfying. This is the perfect dish to enjoy sitting on the back patio on a nice spring day.
I was really hoping to see a bigger brunch crowd at Mercury when I saw what the menu had to offer. Unfortunately, there was only one other table there for Sunday brunch at noon. This is very disheartening because the atmosphere is top notch, the service is respectable, and the food is spot on. It makes me wonder if people only think of Mercury Bar as a club. Perhaps they're pulling in enough people on those packed Friday and Saturday nights to be okay with downtime during dinner and brunch hours, but if people knew about what's happening in the kitchen, Mercury Bar could not only be known as a club but as a viable dining option. I'm hoping more people get in there to eat, because it truly is worth the stop. I'll be back for the shrimp and grits alone.