Muse Restaurant & Wine Bar is a celebration of Mediterranean foods and wine—and so much more. At this cozy Charleston eatery, Greek myths, Roman legends and storied women of the past leap from history page to dining room, where they play out in a rich tapestry of artwork and décor. Tucked into a narrow space on Society Street, this hidden gem is an expression of culture and cuisine unlike any on the downtown dining scene.
To take a closer look at its connections with present and past, I returned to Muse recently for a tour led by owner Beth Anne Crane. Ushering me through each of five dining rooms, she points out specific features of the restaurant’s interior and describes their significance. She tells me about her years spent in Italy as a student doing research for a master’s degree and how that immersion inspired her restaurant.
“I did a lot of research on Roman viticulture,” explains Crane, a fourth-generation restaurateur whose intellectual interests are centered on history and wine. “As a result, I learned that wine was Pompeii’s main industry before it was destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.”
Exploring the ruins of Pompeii brought to light surprising discoveries. She was intrigued by the story behind the Villa of Mysteries, an estate excavated in 1908 from the volcanic eruption’s debris. The story involved powerful women who lived during Pompeii’s most progressive years. A seed was planted that would eventually evolve into a theme for her restaurant. She would focus on famous women from different periods of history, letting each room celebrate a different historical “muse.”
When Crane was ready, in 2006, to open a place of her own in Charleston, she had a two-pronged strategy that paired her love of the classical past with a desire to carve out a neighborhood niche for Muse.
“I purposely built outside the restaurant zone,” she explains, noting that she is a sole female owner/operator of a restaurant, unusual not only in Charleston but all over the world. “I wanted people to embrace Muse as their own.” Accessible and inviting, Muse has evolved into a favorite for neighbors and visitors alike.
Works such as the famous Flemish tapestries The Lady and the Unicorn inspire the color palette and décor throughout the two-story property. A cobalt blue dining room takes its decorative cues from the story of Narcissus and Echo. Jewel tones typical of Mediterranean majolica pottery enliven handcrafted plates. A crimson color called “Pompeii Red” flows through many parts of the restaurant, including the intimate and well-attended bar. Its centerpiece, an outsized painting by Karl Beckwith Smith, focuses on Lady Hamilton, Lord Nelson’s mistress and a muse of the court of Naples.
Crane designed the menu to reflect the eclectic spirit of Pompeii’s cultural past, filling it with dishes representative of the Mediterranean region. She and executive chef Joaquin Bustos share a rapport that results in straightforward, authentic presentations built around seasonal, top-quality products. An alumnus of the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in the heart of Napa Valley, California, Bustos says the West Coast school was expanding in new directions, like farm-totable, while others were still teaching only the classics.
Bustos, whose credentials include cooking a sold-out dinner for the James Beard House while working for a Kansas City restaurant group, credits Chef Rob Uyemura, formerly of Eau in St. Louis, for influencing his culinary approach.
“His style was Japanese-French fusion,” recalls Bustos. “His approach was to focus on a single ingredient and let it shine.” Muse’s classic Mediterranean concept resonates with Bustos, who brings his own family’s Italian and Mexican heritage into the mix. For the cooler months he offers a soul-satisfying traditional osso buco, which features a smaller, hence more tender, lamb shank. The sauce is enhanced with a touch of cinnamon and “a lot of wine.” Fig jam and mustard greens provide bittersweet notes.
The ultra light sea bass is a standard that, along with the house-made North African merguez sausage and the arugula salad with fried Manchego cheese, Crane says will probably never be dropped from the menu. The sea bass is actually a milder branzino, flash-fried until crispy and presented atop a cauliflower puree with romesco sauce.
A classic bouillabaisse—a longtime favorite—brims with shellfish and fish and is tossed with saffron and wine and served over orzo.
Pasta is made in-house as are all breads. Desserts created by the kitchen staff include a boca negra, a decadent dark chocolate torte with a tangy strawberry rhubarb sauce. A light, delicate cheesecake, made with ricotta, is drizzled with a blueberry gastrique.
The Muse wine collection—Crane’s pièce de résistance—represents many small European producers and offers 75 bottles by the glass.
“Guests appreciate the opportunity to try a few different wines over the course of an evening and not have to invest in a whole bottle,” notes Crane. “These producers tell their story through their product, just as I do—in a style that is very Old World.”
Wendy Swat Snyder is a Charleston-based freelance writer and marketing consultant.