In February of last year, the renovated storefront at 513 King St. that once housed Union Provisions became The Darling Oyster Bar. The transformation came with the kerfuffle of the Charleston Wine + Food Festival, so you’ll be forgiven if you missed it. The Holy City has its share of excellent oyster bars, but to overlook The Darling Oyster Bar, or compare it with any of the other oyster bars in town, would be a mistake. Since opening last year, The Darling anchored itself in Charleston’s extremely competitive food scene by accomplishing the most elusive of gastronomic goals: It became a beloved neighborhood hangout.
There’s no argument that Charleston has more than its share of excellent eateries worthy of impressing a date or out-of-town guests. However, finding a good restaurant that also serves as a beloved midweek oasis is much harder to find.
When I first walk into The Darling, I can’t put my finger on what’s causing such a pleasing and rapid drop in blood pressure. Owner Bobby Young lets me in on the secret, and at first I don’t believe it. “In the last renovation the entire restaurant was soundproofed,” Young says. Now that he mentions it, I notice I can see other people talking and laughing, but I can’t hear any specific conversations. I can identify that The Clash is playing overhead, but I can’t figure out what song. The soundproofing acts like a white-noise machine, and it’s difficult to overstate the soothing effect.
Then there’s the subtly nostalgic flavor of the contemporary décor. Booths are upholstered to resemble boat seats, glass light fixtures hint at lobster pot floats and the floor-to-ceiling curtains are made of sailcloth. “While we were talking about the concept for the restaurant, we came across an old photo of a Mount Pleasant fishing boat called The Darling,” Young says. “That’s how we came up with the name.” These small touches lend a decidedly local sense of place without coming off as a stunt.
The crowd on this evening is also slightly unexpected. I can see a few date-night couples, but mostly the bar, raw bar, and booths are filled with friends meeting friends. “We have a lot of regulars,” Young says. “This really is a neighborhood place.”
Part of being a neighborhood spot, and attracting regulars, has to do with being the sort of place people can afford to go regularly—at least for a drink and a nibble. To that end, The Darling hosts happy hour from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Sunday, and brunch on Sundays. During happy hour, oysters are $1 and draft cocktails and beer are $1 off.
On the advice of our server, we order a dozen mixed oysters from the raw bar to start. They are served with freshly grated horseradish, hot sauce and lemons. My husband says he can’t remember eating better oysters.
It’s too hard to decide between the appetizer choices, so we order two and split an entrée. We choose one of the house specials: the snapper ceviche with smoked tomato, jalapeños, corn and fried plantain chips. To balance out our cold dishes, we add the clam chowder, made with local clams, bacon and diced vegetables served over house-made fries.
The ceviche is light and fresh, and the plantain chips make it substantial. When we try the clam chowder fries, we agree that this is the dish our houseguests would go home talking about.
While we’re trying not to lick the plates, chef Joe DiMaio stops by for a chat. DiMaio is a graduate of the Art Institute of Charleston and has cooked at Stars, Old Village Post House and the Ocean Room at The Sanctuary. He is young, laidback and friendly—traits that translate to his cuisine and to the atmosphere of the restaurant.
Because DiMaio is a native of Calabash, North Carolina, one of the great seafood hotspots in the country, his love of seafood comes from the heart. “Fishing is something I can relate to,” he says. “Sustainability is important to me, so I enjoy getting to know local fishermen and farmers.” DiMaio describes the traditional Calabash dredging recipe, which employs cornmeal for a thin, light crust that doesn’t overpower fish. He sends out a basket of Calabash-dredged hushpuppies for us to try. They are crispy, savory and light as air.
Dinner is seared diver sea scallops on a bed of green lentils, beets, rainbow chard and Banyuls hollandaise. The scallops are sweet and delicate, the lentils are hearty, and the hollandaise is rich and tangy. Everything is cooked perfectly, and the flavors are innovative and divine. For dessert, we order the oatmeal cookie blondie, a lovely combination of oatmeal cookie, coconut ice cream, dates and caramel. It tastes like Christmas on the beach.
At the end of the evening, we are full but not stuffed, relaxed and thoroughly impressed. We discuss keeping The Darling to ourselves so we’ll always have a table, but eventually decide that special places like this are best enjoyed with friends.
Robin Howard is a full-time freelance writer in Charleston. See more of her work at robinhowardwrites.com.