When I was a kid, I dreamt of going to Disney World and riding Space Mountain. The idea of ricocheting through dark tunnels at 32 m.p.h. was captivating. The day finally came when we packed our bags and set off for Orlando. After 17 hours, we made it to the Magic Kingdom, marched straight down Main Street, U.S.A. into Tomorrowland and found Space Mountain. My excitement level had never been so high — that is, until I found out I wasn't tall enough to travel through space. That letdown sure wasn't the roller coaster ride I'd been waiting for.
That was initially how I felt about the highly anticipated opening of Craftsmen Kitchen & Tap House. When I first heard that the old Johnson's space would be transformed into a craft beer paradise in April of 2012, I got really excited. Beer and food-related tweets started popping up under the Craftsmen's Twitter handle, and construction photos of the space became a regular part of Facebook timelines. My eagerness knew no bounds. We got ready for a July opening, then fall, then 12-12-12, and eventually even I stopped speculating. Last January we got a sneak peek at the Craftsmen and some of the food, but it wasn't until late April that it finally opened its doors. In typical fashion, we gave them a month to get into the groove and we're happy to report good results. The Craftsmen is stunning. Architect David Thompson transformed the grimy old bar into a craft beer spectacle — from the stained bar top made of boat plywood to the glamorous copper backsplashes.
The Craftsmen's two bars are magical. The "Pale Room" holds 12 taps dispensing various pale ales and IPAs, while the main bar boasts another 36 handles, which adds up to 48 — yes 48 — different beers on draught, and every single one is available in a full (16 oz.) or half pour. Beers are served in modified shaker glasses, though I spotted some tulips. However, I've come close to sampling every style on tap to see if the glassware would change, full pour or not, and I always got the same curved tumbler glasses. Is this preferred? No, but the important thing is that the glassware is always clean. Too many times I've been served beers in a glass caked with residual soaps or lipstick stains, but never at the Craftsmen. In fact I've seen a bartender hold a glass to the light, determine it unacceptable, and grab a clean glass before pouring. That's professional.
The impressive beer list is separated into four sections: IPA (though it should be called Pale), Local SC (12 last I checked), Session, and The Mash. There haven't been many rarities on tap (is it safe to call Westbrook Mexican Cake a rarity yet?), but the staples are there, and there's a little something for everyone. Sometimes their wide availability makes me forget about some top-tier brews, like the New Belgium Rampant IPA, Stone Ruination, or the mouth-puckering Rodenbach Grand Cru.
Beer prices are fairly good too, especially considering the Craftsmen is located in the heart of the pricey French Quarter. A full 16-ounce pour of Westbrook IPA goes for $6, while the Rodenbach Grand Cru will set you back eight bucks — not bad for a world-class sour. There are some decent bottles too, like Westbrook's The Raver ($19) and a massive Stone Vertical Epic 12.12.12 3L ($125).
The heart of the Craftsmen is how well the menu items pair with many of the 50-plus beers. One side of the menu lists bar classics like duck ham with giardinara and spiced pecans ($8) and sweet and salty General Tso's chicken wings ($6) that pair well with Holy City Pluff Mud Porter. The Scotch Egg was a big hit — a soft boiled egg wrapped in sausage and breading and then deep fried, served with green apple kraut and a bold mustard made with 90 Minute IPA ($5).
The menu is simple and to the point, but execution falters at times. On paper, the Crunchy Dame makes your mouth water and it looks good too. Creamy Butterkäse cheese and cherry jam cozy up to slabs of barbecue pork belly nestled between toasted bread and a sunny side egg. As I picked the sandwich up to take a bite, a server walked by, laughed, and said, "That's bold." Rethinking the situation, I put it down and set to it with fork and knife. The flavor is there, but as I continued to eat I became disenchanted with the dry pork belly and dry bread, but the discs of fried potatoes on the side were crisp and tasty with the house aioli ($9).
The fish and chips ($10) also fell a bit short. Two big pieces of catfish get a dose of batter before being deep-fried a crispy golden brown, then plated with way too much grease.
Encouragingly, Executive Chef Todd Garrigan keeps the menu fresh with ever-changing daily features, and so far, he's been knocking these out of the park. On one visit, a wooden cutting board came to the table with a glistening slab of glazed barbecue brisket, juices flowing every which way. Opposite the huge brisket was a small cast iron skillet filled with creamy cheddar mac and cheese studded with chunks of ham ($15). On another visit we were wowed by a long, narrow plate of crispy bacon fritters and an incredible bowl of creamy corn chowder ($7) that made me wonder if the dish was inspired by the rainy day.
Every visit exemplified stellar service. The beer knowledge is still getting up to par, but the quality of people they have working there speaks volumes. I never had to wait for a refill, clean silverware and fresh plates arrive at the table before each course, and the professionalism and friendliness is top notch.
So, was it worth the wait? Yes. The Craftsmen is a welcome addition to the ever-growing Charleston craft beer scene. The kitchen needs to work on consistency, but they're doing a lot more right than wrong. With competitive pricing, simple, good eats, and a vast beer selection, they'll do just fine. I still have yet to make it to Space Mountain, but I'm hoping that payoff will be as satisfying as The Craftsmen's.