The first time I ate at Rutledge Cab Company, I waited about 20 minutes in the pouring rain, huddled with a dozen other aspiring guests under the big canopy at the front door. Out in the parking lot, a young man with an orange safety vest and golf umbrella guided even more arriving diners as they slotted their cars at creative angles into the overflowing parking lot.
Bob Carter seems to be on to something here, I thought.
Carter made a name for himself with flashy high-end cooking, most notably as the executive chef at Peninsula Grill, steering it for more than a decade at the forefront of Charleston's fine-dining restaurants. Since striking out on his own, Carter has taken a more casual tack, first with Carter's Kitchen in Mt. Pleasant's I'On neighborhood and now with Rutledge Cab Co. in downtown's Wagener Terrace.
The restaurant occupies an old gas station on Rutledge Avenue. Originally, it was going to be called simply "Rutledge Grill" but at the last minute, inspired by an old picture of a 1920s Edsel cab, Carter and managing partner Brad Creger switched the name to Rutledge Cab Co. That little substitution makes all the difference, creating not only a more interesting name but also a whole mood and style for the restaurant.
It's a concept rooted firmly in the Rutledge Avenue locale, and it invokes a bygone era, too. Servers wear black shirts with yellow lapels reminiscent of a cabbie's. That photo of the eponymous cab, blown up to enormous size, adorns the back wall of the restaurant, and an actual yellow cab door, emblazoned with the restaurant's logo, hangs a few yards away.
The building's gas station pedigree is echoed in clever high-low mashups like the "filling station charcuterie" plate ($12), which includes fried bologna, potted meat, country ham, and pepper-jelly-mustard. The words "D's Liquor Bar" are painted in script letters over the big bar that anchors the restaurant, echoes of the location's later stint as D's Grocery.
The menu is right in line with these stylish backwards glances. Its heart offers sandwiches, burgers, and a small "from the grill" section. Many of the sandwiches are familiar warhorses — a reuben ($10), a chicken club ($10.50), a BLT ($9) — but there's also roasted lamb topped with havarti and pickled cabbage ($11.50) and a shrimp cake topped with tomato relish and a ginger remoulade ($11).
A thick pork chop can be a snoozer if it's just grilled and flopped on a plate. Carter's version ($19.50), which he calls a "ham" chop, is smoked and coated with a barbecue glaze. The chop is tender and infused with a sharp smoky flavor. I'm not quite sure what to make of the cup of peach relish that comes on one side, since its sweetness and hint of heat from minced chilis doesn't quite meld with the pork. But the mound of sauteed spinach on the other side is just right: a tender but still taut texture, studded with tiny bits of garlic, infused with a pleasantly salty broth.
The chicken wings ($9.50) are not fried but charcoal grilled. That kiss of flame leaves them smoky and slightly charred and transforms their coating of buffalo sauce into a welcome dry layer of spice instead of a messy slick of sauce. The beer-poached spiced shrimp ($10.50) are milder in flavor than the name suggests, but they're accompanied by a delightful pile of bright pink pickled onions and a little ramekin of chile aioli. The aioli's perfect balance of creaminess, tanginess, and spice moved our table to unanimously waive all double-dipping rules, and it will probably do the same for yours.
A dozen breakfast items are served all day, including a trio of benedicts (traditional $10, shrimp $12, and BLT $12) and a slate of omelets. In the shrimp omelet ($12.50), roasted tomatoes add the essential touch, their bright acidity perfectly balancing the richness of the shrimp and creaminess of melted feta. I'm not sure what puts the charm in the "charm grits," but they are thick, fluffy, and a charming companion for the omelet.
Small details ennoble more than just the food. The flatware is basic but hefty, with a slight stylish curve at the end of the knife handle. The simple white cloth napkins with maroon-striped borders look sharp, and they can actually absorb liquid, too, unlike those wretched poly-blends that plague too many casual eateries.
Carter and company have wrapped the old gas station with a broad patio that, thanks to a thick vinyl enclosure and ample space heaters, was quite comfortable during the last cool weeks of winter, and it promises to be a splendid place to dine during those two golden months — April and October — that bookend our torpid Lowcountry summers. Surrounding the big deck is an even more valuable asset for a downtown restaurant: a spacious parking lot.
That such a big lot needs a flagman to guide cars in and out during the Saturday lunch rush is an indisputable testament to this: Carter's latest incarnation works. The style is right and the food is right. It's just the kind of place the Wagener Terrace neighborhood has been waiting for.