Don’t come to Harold’s Cabin in hopes of a Bill Murray sighting. Just don’t. Chances are slim to none you’ll spy Charleston’s favorite local, who is one-third of the trio responsible for opening this decidedly different restaurant. (But if you do, it’s gravy!) Instead, let a burning desire for novelty drive your trip to the corner of Congress and President. Claim the nearest on-street parking place in this low-key Westside neighborhood, then stroll on in. A warm welcome awaits you as well as a few happy surprises.
The opening of Harold’s Cabin in spring 2016 was actually a re-opening of sorts, given the storied past of the humble quarters. While quaffing the area’s most creative java drinks, take a moment to consider the history of the place, home to a bustling 20th century mercantile run by Harold Jacobs, purveyor of fine cheeses, soft drinks, soaps, kerosene and, perhaps most famously, shaved ice snow balls. Harold’s Cabin was, indeed, a hub of neighborhood commerce back in the day, before Jacobs moved the growing operation to larger digs in the 1950s.
Along with Murray, fellow co-owners Mike Veeck, Charleston RiverDogs baseball team president, and John Schumacher, former Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park food and beverage director (who you’re very likely to spot hustling in the dining rooms), set a vision for the restaurant that honored its roots. Keeping the original name was one of the most obvious ways they did this, in addition to playing up Jacob’s impressions of the building, which he likened to a deep-woods lodge.
Upon entry, you’ll find yourself in a small grab-and-go market and bar area. There are dining rooms on the first and second floors of the boxy corner store-cafe, and a modest, but robust rooftop garden that helps supply the kitchen. The decor mixes tradition and whimsy with lots of reclaimed wood, industrial iron accents, Edison lights, furnishings in moose print, plaid and leather, general store bric-a-brac, an old pot belly stove and, for good mythical measure, a mural-size jackalope looming from the first to second floor on the staircase wall.
Harold’s Cabin serves lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday, with brunch added on Saturday and Sunday. No matter the meal, Chef Trevor Smith and his capable team serve up dishes are built upon the simple goodness of locally sourced ingredients, though the results are surprisingly more complex. This is food that must be experienced to understand the concepts behind it.
The most conventional offerings are fist-size, crumbly biscuits for breakfast. But for weekend brunch, you can get one slathered with tomato and pimento cheese. Feel free to up the protein factor with a farm fresh egg for a heftier start to your day. There is a daily grits dish, usually a local heirloom variety such as Jimmy Red, that may come topped with available fresh vegetables, field peas, oysters, shrimp or chicken.
The daily menu, served for lunch and dinner, begins with “Graze & Nosh,” a shortlist of tasty trinkets such as hot, crusty hush puppies made with pickled corn, and beets with goat cheese, walnuts and grilled rye. The Harold and Lillian, a lox and latke pairing served with apple and crème fraiche, pays homage to the heritage of the former owners, with proceeds benefiting local Jewish foundations.
One of the most popular dinner lead-ins is the Forage Board, an artful arrangement of fresh vegetables served with cheese and a scattering of herbs upon a canvas of rustic wood. Share this one with good friends over cocktails and you’re likely to leave as great friends. Meaty entrees include a bison burger, venison chili and pork loin with field peas, tomato jam and pickled green pepper. Fresh clams and fish, as well as a sweet potato with eclectic accompaniments like chick pea pancake, enhance the appeal of this inventive menu.
If you’re going for something from the coffee bar (and you should!) don’t miss the Jackalope, an ambrosial blend of espresso, ginger beer, basil, raw honey and orange peel. Harold’s Cabin does amazing things with coffee, which can be brewed your way – AeroPress, Chemex or French press – and served hot, iced, smoked, spiced and/or sweetened with delectable syrups. Descriptions don’t adequately convey how well the components work together. Cocktails are just as creatively conceived, with the Salty Raccoon – Espolón tequila, rosemary simple syrup, fresh lime juice and Botany Bay smoked sea salt – quickly establishing itself as a favorite. A Bloody Mary with a blonde beer base swirled into local heirloom tomato juice is another memorable standout. Like all things Harold’s Cabin, the result is sublime, yet deliciously quirky.