Mercury Bar never quite fit in with the rest of King Street, with its dub-step DJs blaring music for tippling college kids and a kitschy red block letter sign that mystified Charlestonians accustomed to a difficult-to-please Board of Architectural Review. Despite its look and sound, Mercury Bar gained a reputation, whispered at first and eventually accepted as fact, as a solid destination to enjoy a meal on the increasingly crowded stretch of Upper King. When the owners shut down Mercury Bar and new ones came in with a new concept, many observers wondered if the kitchen would experience a similar shuffling.
Today, with Mercury Bar but a fog-machine memory, its replacement Prohibition succeeds solely because Stephen Thompson was kept in the kitchen, which also received a renovation to make it more functional. The menu is a mixed bag of reliable bar fare and gutsier dishes that show off Thompson's skill at saucing and seasoning. The mushroom focaccia ($9) is a simple appetizer of goat cheese and garlic-adorned focaccia bread topped with not nearly enough Mepkin Abbey oyster mushrooms. By the end of the dish we wished for a few more spoonfuls of the delicately salted mushrooms. The Lowcountry Dim Sum ($8), a starter of half-moon steamed dumplings filled with shrimp, cilantro, and ginger, was beautifully presented on a butcher board dotted with daikon radish and a ginger soy sauce for dipping. The béarnaise fries ($6) are a collection of fingerling, red, and purple potatoes that get dusted with a spicy mix of chili powder and dried mustard and served with a side of béarnaise. Coupled with the sriracha hollandaise that comes on several dishes, Thompson's béarnaise shows he has a knack for the classic butter and egg emulsion sauces. Both are good enough to drink. The brown butter and ginger peach glaze combination on Molly Pitcher's Pork Chop Skillet ($15) is just as remarkable and elevates the tender chop to extraordinary.
At brunch, Thompson's famous Duck Hash ($13) anchors the menu, with tender duck confit perched atop a potato, onion, and bell pepper hash with fried eggs and a generous drizzle of sriracha hollandaise. The yolks are just runny enough to swamp the hash in a mess of yellow, while the sriracha adds a hit of heat that has you reaching for a mimosa. The Capone Burger ($12) is a reliable option of free-range beef, boursin cheese, and bacon with a dash of hot sauce on a brioche bun. The smoky shrimp and grits ($12) are set off by smoky gouda cheese incorporated into creamy Adluh grits, a rich note that resists being overpowered by the spicy creole sauce that accompanies it.
The cocktail program at Prohibition shows real promise. Made with Templeton Rye and a splash of Grand Marnier, the 547 Manhattan ($11) was surprisingly good, its sweetness is tempered by the bitter Punt E Mes vermouth. But the King Street Cobbler ($9) was a too-sweet combination of blackberry liquor, lemon, and simple syrup, with the berry garnish plopped unceremoniously into the glass. A neat arrangement on a toothpick would've done wonders for the look and drinkability of the cocktail. The beers on draft include local breweries like Holy City Brewing and regional favorites like Sweetwater Brewing and Terrapin Beer.
The Roaring 20s theme might exhaust you before you step foot in the place. F. Scott Fitzgerald quotes and photos of flappers pepper their website, while the menu contains several nods to the era, like the aforementioned Capone Burger or the Bootlegger Wings. Thankfully, the theme is hardly felt inside the restaurant. The black walls of Mercury Bar have been covered up with reclaimed wood, and the ceiling has been covered with tin ceiling tiles. Caged Edison bulbs hang over the bar, where the back wall's focus has shifted to aged bottles of craft bourbon rather than the large television sets of the past. The DJ booth at the back of the space sits empty most nights during dinner service. No one seems to mind the absence. On a recent Friday, the restaurant was crowded with young professionals and nary a college kid in sight. At brunch, the back patio, which has both covered and exposed portions, was a sun-washed refuge where we enjoyed our burgers and eggs.
At Prohibition, you might be tempted to sit at the bar and grab a bite, but you'll be better served by securing a table and enjoying the undivided attention of your server. On a Sunday afternoon, our patio table was attended to by a congenial and attentive server who kept a watchful eye on our party. During a Friday night dinner at the bar we had an experience at the other end of the spectrum, as a bartender begrudgingly waited on us with little knowledge of their draft beer selection and even less enthusiasm for their cocktail list. The poor service was unfortunate. Thompson's food is quite good and matching service would make Prohibition a must-try experience. But for some, a chef's food is only as good as the people serving it, and on that mark, Prohibition could stand to improve.