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The first time you visit Craftsmen, you’ll need to take a tour. Head to the back—that’s the best way I know to direct you through this labyrinthine space in all its fermented glory.
By the time you reach the last right-hand turn, you’ll marvel at the gleaming copper wall framing the selections of the “Pale Room” up front, 48 taps of beer in every conceivable style will jut out of the barroom walls, and the aged brick of a sequestered patio will mark itself down as your next place to enjoy the fine fall weather with a glass of suds. Dark wood inlayed with nautical detail will glint with the refraction of a hundred vintage lighting filaments, and you’ll realize before you even get halfway to the rear of the space that David Thompson should rightfully be considered the best restaurant architect in Charleston.
The only real question at Craftsmen is whether you’re here for the beer or the food. Your answer certainly determines how you view the place.
Belly up to the “Pale Room” bar. Strike up a conversation with the barkeep. If you’re even slightly interested in beer, you’ll be here all night, entertained by the stories of various brews on-hand, styles of every conceivable notion that could become beer. You can spend hours sipping through dark porters spiked with enough vanilla that they beg for gingerbread. Handcrafted pale ales hopping with a citrusy bitterness can tipple in at alcohol levels approaching some wines. Rare beers are offered in large format bottles, some with equal heft in price. Even if you don’t particularly enjoy much of the craft beer that has become so popular today, the diversity of the Craftsmen can tempt your tongue.
Go for a meal with the family, and you’ll most likely be relegated to a booth by the front door. Sadly, the expert knowledge and guidance so engaging at the bar seems absent from the servers on the floor.
A dual-section menu offers regular items and a daily selection of dishes. The “bar classics” list maintains the soon-to-be-famous and highly addictive General Tso’s chicken wings. When not overly salted, they present a perfect lacquered glaze with just a bit of red chili spice and enough syrupy stickiness to haunt your fingernails for days. People rave about the “Crunchy Dame”—a tempting stack of dry toast, pork belly, and cherry jam topped with a fried egg, but when I sampled it, it was rather bland. There’s a somewhat forgettable pâté, but the pickled beets and crunchy apple served alongside are enough of a revelation that they could easily stand on their own.
“Daily features” truly change each day. One evening you’re munching a delicious bowl of salt and vinegar boiled peanuts, trying to understand why something so simply grand hasn’t already been syndicated to the RiverDogs down at The Joe. The next you dive into shimmering corned beef and stone-ground mustard splayed across a wooden board before disappointedly reaching for a knife. (Corned beef should be fork-tender.) Order a “24-hour pork shoulder” and you receive a modernist slab of generous proportion, shredded and reformed into a tidy rectangular shape—a barbecue and meatloaf redux, smashed together before being slathered with brown gravy glaze and popped under the broiler for good measure. “It’s impressive! How does the chef make this?” you ask the waitress, and she stumbles through an impromptu explanation that includes braising, pulling, shaping—and then brining—before “doing a lot of other stuff to it.” It is delicious.
But what should you drink alongside? Should it be a dark, surly milk stout or maybe a smoked märzen? And what exactly does a “smoked märzen” taste like? The menu holds no clue, with its beer awkwardly sectioned into IPA, Local, Session, and The Mash. If the Craftsmen is to hold true to its name, shouldn’t the person waiting on your table be as knowledgeable as the bartenders? Servers are reportedly required to pass the Cicerone exam—the brewing world’s equivalent of a sommelier exam. At the least, the menu might suggest an ideal pairing for the food.
Until then, I recommend a seat at one of the bars and a steady diet of the city’s best beer on tap. Save room for dessert, because the ice cream sandwiches—scoops of peanut butter and key lime wedged between homemade cookies—should not be missed. Ask your barkeep for a half pour. He’ll have just the thing to wash it down.
The Draw: Forty-eight craft beer taps serves as a compendium of the modern brewing world.
The Drawback: Eating dinner in a bar can underwhelm high expectations.
Don’t Miss: The encyclopedic beer knowledge of the barkeeps
12 Cumberland St.,