WHERE EVERYBODY KNOWS YOUR NAME

by WENDY SWAT SNYDER / photography by HOLGER OBENAUS

Set in a renovated historical home, Muse offers dining for gatherings both friendly and romantic. Here, a Romeo and Juliet balcony.

An off-the-menu favorite is the ahi tuna.

 

TUCKED AWAY ON RESIDENTIAL SOCIETY STREET, is a place regulars have affectionately dubbed the “Charleston Cheers.” Slide onto a stool at the cozy bar inside Muse Restaurant and Wine Bar, and it’s not long before you’re shaking hands and on a first-name basis with most of the happy hour crowd. Veteran bartender Donnie holds center stage, doling out craft cocktails and regaling customers with friendly, sometimes raucous, conversation. Packed with personality, Muse has something for everyone. Set in a renovated historical home, Muse offers dining for gatherings both friendly and romantic, inspired Mediterranean cuisine and a place where (almost) everybody knows your name.

The owner drew from famous works, such as The Lady and the Unicorn, to inspire color palettes and décor throughout the two-story property. The Lady and the Unicorn dining room reflects the owner’s love of all things classical. Inside, ancient history comes to life through an eclectic collection of artwork and use of color.

The meze platter, with hummus, baba gannoush, cucumber, feta, onion salad, Castrelvetrano olives, pepperoncini and flatbread, is just one of the many appetizers offered.

 

“The one thing we are and always will be is full of personality,” says owner Beth Anne Crane. “Donnie has been with us for over 10 years—he’s an old-school bartender you can share a laugh with or your problems. It’s authentic. That’s what I lament about the restaurant business in Charleston now. I see a heightening focus on technicalities—it’s not coming from the heart.”

A fourth-generation restaurateur, Crane opened her first restaurant, Crane’s Tavern and Steakhouse, with her father in Hilton Head Island almost 20 years ago.

The lamb chops entrée is grilled and served with brocolli, carrots, couscous and a rosemary demi.

 

“I’ve worked in my family’s restaurants since I was 14,” she notes. “I’m very fortunate to have that background. I grew up in the bar business, and I know that people come for a certain level of comfort. I don’t need to reinvent the wheel.”

Crane bolstered her hands-on know-how with a crash course for owners and operators at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. But it was graduate degree work in Pompeii, Italy, and studies of Roman viticulture that helped set the stage for a future restaurant of her own in Charleston.

“Crane’s is more reflective of my father and grandfather. I wanted a restaurant that reflected my interests,” notes Crane. Among those interests are a fascination with Pompeii in its heyday—prior to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius—its artistic scene and intensive wine culture. The wine supply was so prolific, she notes, that it provided wine for at least a third of the entire Roman Empire. The Old World is well represented in the wine list at Muse, with over 250 varietals, 75 of which are available by the glass.

The heirloom and burrata salad is on the appetizer menu and includes locally grown heirloom tomatoes drizzled with olive oil, balsamic and fresh basil.

 

When 5 o’clock rolls around, food and libations, including a happy hour and late-night menu, can also be enjoyed on a cozy street-level porch, perfect for watching the world pass on a lazy Lowcountry evening. The gracious Charleston Single House reflects Crane’s love of all things classical. Inside, ancient history comes to life through an eclectic collection of artwork and use of color, especially an intense crimson hue she found in Pompeii.

Researching the doomed city led Crane—one of few female sole proprietors in Charleston—to showcase famous women in history as a focal point for the restaurant. She drew from famous works such as The Lady and the Unicorn, circa 1500, for muses to inspire color palettes and décor throughout the two-story property. “Each room represents a different muse,” she explains.

A geometric pattern of large black diamonds painted on the bar top tells a story as well—one that Donnie or Crane will happily relate, as we found when my guest and I dropped into Muse on a recent summer evening. Lively chatter bounced from sports talk to the retelling of last year’s spontaneous sing-along of “Africa” with visiting Toto keyboardist Dominique “Xavier” Taplin. And everything in between.

Muse offers an array of desserts. Here, roasted peach panna cotta.

 

Crane’s vision for Muse is a place for locals to enjoy a variety of dining experiences, but she adds that “the tourists who find us are the ones who ask the locals where to go.”

We eventually pulled ourselves away for dinner in a second-floor dining room, graciously outfitted with white linens and a grand piano. Crane had told us about her new executive chef, Eric Meyers, and we were eager to check out his take on a menu filled with longtime favorites.

“I’m very into a simplistic style of cooking,” says Meyers, whose culinary career began at Boars Head Inn in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he honed his French technique. “I want people to see and taste the ingredient—locally sourced, clean food treated correctly—not something transformed to look like something else.”

Meyers’ first stint in Charleston was in the kitchen of Sean Brock’s Minero, where he broadened his understanding of heritage vegetable breeds and worked with chef de cuisine Wesley Grubbs to expand on traditional Mexican fare with a fusion of Spanish cuisine.

Ricotta and herb gnocchi features local shrimp, handmade pasta pillows tossed with locally sourced cherry tomatoes, zucchini, squash and peas in a Parmesan brodo.

After a year at High Cotton, he stepped up to the executive chef position at Muse, with the intention of adding his touch to menu favorites and exploring new sustainable breeds of fish to supplement the kitchen’s locally sourced ingredients.

We started with the grilled duck breast appetizer. A Muse standard, the dish was beautifully flavored with sumac rub, Madeira onions and the sweetness of pomegranate molasses.

Our entrée, an ultralight sea bass, is a standard that, along with a few others like the house-made North African merguez sausage, Crane says will probably never be dropped from the menu. The sea

bass is a milder Branzino, flash-fried to a crisp—the whole fish presented beautifully atop Greek white rice with a black olive dressing. We paired it with a bright, citrusy arugula salad, another crave-worthy favorite garnished with pistachios and crispy fried Manchego cheese.

We finished with the house-made boca negra: a decadently rich dark chocolate torte with a tangy strawberry-rhubarb sauce. Crave-worthy as well.

Eclectic and endearing, Muse has established itself as a dining destination. Drop into this neighborhood gem, share a meal and feel the warm embrace of

Charleston’s very own Cheers.

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Wendy Swat Snyder is a Charleston-based freelance writer.