434 King St., Downtown
Prices: Very Expensive
You won't make it far past the door at Halls Chophouse before shaking Bill Hall's hand. The tall, gregarious frontman flashes a wide smile and personally greets every customer — and often chats up passersby on the street. He keeps a keen eye on the bar and stands ready to intercede at the slightest hint of need. When they insist it's a family endeavor, they mean it, and Bill's brother and father, who work alongside, reinforce the notion that no matter what it takes, they intend that every customer leave fat and happy. You'll meet them all, probably before you finish your aperitif, and you'll practically feel like part of the family before you finish your last frosty sip of the most delicious grown-up milkshake in town.
To say that the Halls merely transformed the old Artist and Craftsman Supply store on Upper King into one of the most impressive fine dining spaces in the city would do a disservice to its incredible metamorphosis. Simple schoolhouse lights highlight dark panels of wood. Downstairs, a full-length bar serves one hell of a custom Manhattan and flourishes with a bar scene of older patrons (relative to the youngsters who frequent this part of town). At night, the joint is packed with a lively crowd, imbued with a neighborly vibe that belies the newness of the establishment. Halls has quickly become the place to be seen around town, a final, succinct indicator of the complete gentrification of the Upper King corridor, but it fits in as if it's been there forever.
There is no way around a fancy dinner here. Two people enjoying a three-course meal with wine will find it hard to get out the door for under $200. But considering the price points of Charleston's finest kitchens, the only question that remains is whether or not Halls lives up to the hype. We found a mixed bag.
They certainly have the potential to be one of the best restaurants in town, with the menu establishing a classic steakhouse theme. A strong showing of appetizers, soups, and salads is headlined by the best Caesar salad we have ever eaten in Charleston ($8). Two quartered sections of romaine, spears really, come dressed with shards of grated cheese and delicate white anchovies. Ice cold and shatteringly crisp, the lettuce is dressed with the most delicious dressing; I want the recipe.
They also serve a mean bowl of roasted corn and crab bisque ($9), creamy, but not cloyingly thick, and rich with large lumps of backfin crabmeat hiding beneath the silky puree. There is the requisite wedge of iceberg with blue cheese and bacon ($9), gussied up with slices of avocado. And decent quality beefsteak tomato slices layered with vinegary onions and basil can be had even in the early days of May.
Raw plates of oysters (market price) are generally quality specimens, cold and briny Blue Points on our visits, and the "Jumbo Shrimp Cocktail" ($15) also deserves a prize, given that we've never tasted shrimp so large that tasted so good — no doubt owing to their perfectly cooked texture. Perhaps a bit more horseradish could spice up the sauce, but I'll never leave Halls again without sampling the cold seafood on tap.
As good as the appetizers can be, the steaks claim center stage, and rightfully so. They serve three different variations on the New York Strip alone. Meats are Prime grade, and judging from the intense marbling evident on the lavish display tray brought to every table and the silkiness of fat within the finished product, Halls spares little expense in the acquisition of quality provisions.
First chair belongs to the $49 "Dry Aged New York Steak." It's worth every penny. Dark and stormy in its pure essence, it displays the deep, mahogany flavor of real, quality aged beef. From petit filets ($31), to prime porterhouses ($48) that threaten to topple over the edge of a dinner plate, and alternative cuts like the exemplary "Strauss Veal Chop," Hall's makes its name on what it does well: meat.
All of this can come with handsome accoutrements: baked potatoes as big as your head (topped with mounds of classic sour cream and crisp bacon for $8); enticing piles of hand-cut frites sprinkled with cheese and truffle oil ($8); delicious sautéed mushrooms ($8) and silky mashed potatoes ($8) that the server scoops onto waiting plates until you say uncle.
But that's not to say Halls can be considered perfect. Despite the best efforts of the proprietors, you still might leave underwhelmed by your experience. They have plenty to improve. On the busiest nights, like many new places, it seems overwhelmed by the volume of demand. Those wonderful steaks can come out overcooked. The cold briny oysters become a sloppy mess, mangled by a careless knife with bits of shell haphazardly strewn amongst burst livers. Dishes arrive unevenly from the kitchen and out of order, or not at the same time — one diner awaited an entrée while her partner's plate chilled under a romantic moonlit window. What do you do in that situation? Go ahead and eat, or sit and wait while your food goes cold?
And this is surprising, because the Halls themselves seem so dedicated to their craft. They work the room like few others, and although we would never complain during a meal, one gets the feeling that they would bend over backward to accommodate even the most trivial of concerns. Judging from the level of table service, I expect they've been getting a workout. It simply doesn't shoot par. Besides having to get over the fact that you're not likely to score a wine produced outside of the United States from the extensive and expensive list, it will pain even the most amateur wine drinker to be served warm, room-temperature reds — especially considering the high alcohol content that wafts from the darker selections. Despite this, we marveled at the delicious Pinot Noir that the waitress chilled down a bit for us (even if we had to remind her twice).
Other small things mar the experience. Sometimes you get a little fork with your half-shells, sometimes no. Sometimes the server's demeanor will be polished and professional, sometimes they'll talk and act like a 19-year-old college kid, complete with informal lingo and a general lack of knowledge concerning cuisine. It's the luck of the draw.
Most of this would probably be passable if the Hall family wasn't aiming to be one of the best (and most expensive) places in town to have dinner. But at that level, picky things count. Service can be friendly, of course, but it must also be professional, wine included. Dishes should arrive with precision and with the knowledge of who ordered what without having to ask. When a $70 bottle of red wine arrives erroneously while a guest enjoys the delicious cold seafood and salads, the servers should know better than to "sit it on the window sill until you are ready."