Cuisine: Southern home cooking
representative dish: Fried chicken
Address: 251 Meeting St.
Bar: Beer and wine
Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Tues.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sun. Closed Mondays
Food: 1 1/2
Costs: Appetizers, $3.95-$6.95; entrees, $9.95-$15.50; desserts, $5.95
Vegetarian Options: Yes
Wheelchair Accessible: Yes
Home cooking would now be in the midst of a heyday, if the practice had ever really gone away. But for all the hand-wringing of food activists, the habit was never seriously imperiled, even when women entered the professional workforce and burger chains invented value meals.
Americans today may devote a bigger chunk of their eating budgets to restaurant meals than their parents did, but they still know how to boil spaghetti and heat up tomato sauce (Yes, that counts.).
According to recent studies, most Americans make their own meals at least five nights a week.
The persistence of home cooking is a happy story, largely because the phrase “home-cooked” conjures up images of hearty, filling dishes which excite the cranny of the brain that’s untouched by the Food Network.
Home cooking is supposed to be simple and satisfying, which is surely why tourist magnet Jestine’s Kitchen made the concept a cornerstone of its business plan.
Yet as anyone who’s ever eaten in someone else’s home knows, home cooking is more frequently lackluster and forgettable. Unfortunately, that’s the kind of home cooking on offer at Jestine’s.
There’s nothing horribly wrong with the deep-fried menu of classic Southern dishes that’s impelled countless Charleston visitors to wait 45 minutes for a table. But Jestine’s food is unremittingly bland: Over the course of two lunches and one dinner, I supped on middling home cooking which, to be fair, wouldn’t distract from a dinner party, although guests might briefly wonder how many times they could politely say “pass the salt.”
Dana Berlin Strange in 1996 opened Jestine’s as an homage to her longtime family housekeeper, garnering acclaim from national media outlets, which breathlessly reported on Southernisms such as fried green tomatoes and Coca-Cola cake.
Locals didn’t pay it as much mind until August, when Strange abruptly closed the restaurant during lunch service, declaring Jestine’s would never reopen.
But days after the outburst, the restaurant’s windows were covered over with butcher paper on which the oddly spelled phrase “closed for re-molding” was handwritten.
Jestine’s reopened on Oct. 1 with nothing visibly changed but the staff. New manager Michael Pendleton, who’s supervised dining rooms, including Carolina’s and Il Cortile del Re, rustled up a fresh corps of servers from his Rolodex.
The servers are highly aware of the restaurant’s appeal to tourists: They’re apparently trained to iron out the separate check situation before even taking drink orders, and their ears are sharpened for clues to patrons’ hometowns. On a recent Sunday night, our server misinterpreted a stray conversational nugget to mean we’d all just rolled in from Missouri, which he used as an excuse for SEC banter.
Jestine’s decor is as casual as its service. Diners are seated at thickset wooden tables, set with silverware rolled in fuzzy green dishtowels. The boxy room, furnished with working refrigerators meant to denote downhomeness, feels stuffy in the stale air, not starched tablecloth, sense. Walls covered in framed press clippings and kitchen bric-a-brac probably contribute to the sensation of being stuck at grandma’s house.
And just like at grandma’s, the menu is eccentric. Jestine’s serves a shell of iceberg lettuce with a carelessly filled plastic ramekin of mayonnaise. The dish is presented as a salad, but it’s really just a lonely plate of burger fixings. Still, the lettuce was fresh, as were the celery stalks, cucumber rings and carrot wedges populating a green salad served with an achingly sweet balsamic dressing.
Far less fresh were the startlingly mushy crab cakes, which didn’t have any discernible crab flavor. Whiting, coated with pecans and vigorously fried, was also off-puttingly droopy.
A few other dishes were fatally flawed, including the unforgiveable shrimp-and-grits, built on a base of gloopy, Cream of Wheat-ish grits and slathered with the same oniony gravy that Jestine’s pours over its meatloaf. The limp meatloaf tasted as though it had spent too long cozying up to a grill coated with residue from previous orders.
On another visit, a fried pork chop tasted of frying oil that hadn’t been changed out recently.
But what’s more common at Jestine’s is a complete lack of flavor. Dry fried chicken, fried chicken livers, okra soup, green beans, mashed potatoes and intermediary collards (either cooked too much or too little, depending on how you take your greens) were severely undersalted. Mac-and-cheese, red rice and fried oysters were as characterless as dental office music.
By a good margin, the best savories on the menu are the pert, thinly battered fried shrimp and the crisp, vinegar-forward icebox pickles, which arrive soon after you sit down. But Jestine’s clear forte is dessert: The adjoining Jestine’s Sweet Shop, which stayed open during the restaurant’s closure, daily makes cobblers, cakes and pies, including a stupendous coconut cream pie with a flaky crust that probably flusters blue ribbon-winning bakers who consider their recipes perfected. The filling isn’t overly sweet, and a generous garnish of toasted coconut provides appealing texture.
There’s surely no better way to experience Jestine’s than dropping in for a slice — after first home-cooking your dinner.
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.