You can be forgiven if you’ve never dined at Circa 1886; the restaurant rarely receives the attention it deserves. And yet its chef, Marc Collins, is so ingrained in the rise of Charleston’s national profile—he bears credit for envisioning and promulgating Charleston Wine + Food (alongside former festival director Angel Postell). He continually innovates with steady precision at the diminutive (and recently renovated) carriage house tucked behind the Wentworth Mansion hotel. Taken as a whole, Circa 1886 represents an authentic attempt to interpret a modern South and place the Lowcountry within it. To follow Collins’ food means navigating a long thread of open exploration that asks, “What does it mean to be a quintessential Charleston restaurant?”
The chef twists ingredient and method into dishes that, in many ways, speak continentally—turning long-grain Carolina Gold into risottos that underpin fire-roasted slabs of Northwestern salmon, for instance. In the past, he experimented with lightening his menu, casting an eye towards health and deferring to simplicity. And those traits, added to the lingering influence of the now-defunct molecular gastronomy fad and a rotation of antelope within the menu (sourced from his previous haunts in Texas), serve to authenticate his exploration. For as much as Charleston is focused on looking back, Circa 1886 focuses on a cosmopolitan present.
From the finely painted panel work and tile unveiled last year to a front-of-the-house that boasts one of the best service floors in the city, the little carriage house is among Charleston’s top restaurants. But if that leads you to believe that Circa 1886 is reserved for stuffy, straight-jacketed dinner affairs, you’d be mistaken.
The front bar calls for an impromptu stop for drinks by the fire (there’s a cozy corner table for conversation and a quiet elegance to the room) before dinner in the finely upholstered dining room. There, my date and I—we were celebrating her success on a fifth-grade math test—sat amongst diners reflective of a modern, progressive Charleston: I spied a young African-American couple enjoying Carolina shrimp polpettes before moving on to bison short ribs served with a mélange of creamed corn, barley, and sautéed collard greens. Across the room, a full family of British tourists reclined in a booth; the fourth generation was accommodated at the head of the table with an old-fashioned high chair. And seated in an adjoining niche, an octogenarian pair conversed over salads of romaine, local vegetables, and a Parmesan vinaigrette punctuated with lemon-pepper popcorn.
My date seemed most interested in the “Bacon and Egg”—prepared sous vide, then nestled in a creamy bed of Anson Mills grits served with sautéed kale, lardoons of applewood-smoked bacon, and an agrodolce centered on honey and sherry.
After splitting an antelope pâté topped with fried cherries, a bacon-maple-jalapeño jam, and a sprinkling of tiny beet greens, we swooned over large, perfectly crusted sea scallops that shared their salty seafaring essence with a dollop of smoked salmon roe perched atop. (The whole arrangement was grounded in a bed of beluga lentils and butternut squash puree.) But the rainbow trout proved the culinary star of the crisp fall evening. Tender, deboned fish gave way to an interior overflowing with pecan-inflected dirty rice and blue crab. Crispy brunoises of pancetta danced around the fish with deeply roasted Brussels sprouts and a drizzle of butter sauce spiked with grapefruit.
One more course played out to the soft jazz in the background: dessert. Sorghum-glazed sweet potato donuts served with root beer and a soufflé with blueberry preserves, lemon ice cream, and crumbly streusel ended the evening on a high note. On our way out, Collins met us near the door to say goodbye. He remains the humble practitioner, always exploring—and not afraid to follow a new path wherever it may lead. And for diners at Circa 1886, that means indulging in one man’s journey to help define the modern culinary soul of the Holy City.
The Draw: Innovative fine dining in an elegant room perfect for quiet conversation
The Drawback: No valet parking
Don’t Miss: The rainbow trout
Price: $9-$36; chef’s tasting with wine: $110