Just inside the iron gates of Zero George stands a small enclave of timeworn structures, cobbled together into the city’s most charming little inn. With its brick paths and pretty foliage, the courtyard feels like a secret garden—one of those rare, cloistered spaces that locals favor and few visitors ever discover. By the time you venture into the reception area that also serves as the 110-square-foot kitchen from which chef Vinson Petrillo spins the entire Zero Café + Bar menu, the boutique scale of the operation comes into view.
A graduate of Johnson and Wales, Petrillo began his career in Charleston and returned here after a stint in New York and successful appearances on Food Network’s Chopped, a popular reality show involving a cooking competition. And he’s poised to continue that winning streak: Although a newcomer, Zero George has already been named one of the “top five foodie hotels in the world” by Condé Nast Traveler. Given the limited menu, that may be something of a stretch, but there is certainly much to love here. On a fall afternoon, the second-floor drawing room reveals itself to be a real hidden gem. Just up the stairs, the classically appointed space and adjoining piazza offer the idle luxury of an old Charleston mansion for the price of a good beer. It’s the perfect place to impress a first date, conduct an informal business chat in the waning afternoon, or simply relax with a craft cocktail prior to dinner.
The bar slings a stout Manhattan, perfect in the chill of winter, not just for its warm bourbon kick, but the generous splash of smoked maple syrup that resonates in the background. An ample wine list focused largely on boutique pours provides a selection of bright, approachable bottles and glasses while avoiding the cliché. If you sit at the bar, there are snacks. If you reserve a table, the full coterie of Petrillo’s weekly menu will tempt your senses.
General manager Ray Berrouët, a seasoned Charleston hospitality pro and veteran of the Orient-Express Hotels group (now Belmond), leads a credible service team up front. Mirroring the minimalist décor with which the dining spaces are provisioned, Petrillo’s menu offers a restrained repose in size and manner. You will find no sauces laden with pork fat or cream. There will be no cloyingly rich reductions of stock. Rather, Petrillo often deals in vegetal purees placed beneath a simply prepared centerpiece, studded with local herbs, flowers, or candied nuts. On any given day, the nine or so dishes that populate the ever-changing menu focus on local fare and bright, clean flavors.
A selection of fall vegetables recently came cloaked in a crust of feather-light tempura, served simply in a small terracotta flowerpot alongside a spicy aioli spiked with sambal chili sauce. A crispy tuna roll may sound like sushi, and technically it is, but the fried norimaki layered with foamed soy sauce evokes the inventive molecular constructions of McCrady’s more than the artful interpretations of O-Ku.
The heirloom lettuce salad could seem a bit pedestrian, slightly over-dressed as it is in buttermilk and blue cheese, but as a creamy counterpoint to the rich entrées, it fits in rather well. More interesting are the roasted and pickled beets, balanced above a teetering pile of luscious goat-cheese fondue and sweetened by a smattering of dried cherries and candied hazelnuts. And perhaps the most unusual and creative dish is composed of a roasted octopus tentacle lurking amongst roasted peppers and tiny heirloom potatoes rendered pleasantly bitter with jet-black squid ink.
If the promise of delicious spinach ricotta gnudi sprinkled with pistachios and dressed in lightly browned butter suits your fancy, save it for the return trip. You’ll want to sample the braised Wagyu beef cheeks first. In fact, whip out your phone right now and peruse the menu: If the beef cheeks are starring this week, make a reservation before it’s too late. They are meltingly tender, fortified with sautéed maitake mushrooms, and scattered with roasted butternut squash. There isn’t a more satisfying winter dish in town. Of course, if red meat isn’t your game, you’ll leave equally satisfied with the pan-roasted local wreckfish that swims amongst dainty little rolls of paper-thin raw zucchini shavings, split cherry tomatoes, and an heirloom tomato jam. Regardless of your entrée pick, save room for the tres leches cake—a worthy follower of the preceding masterpieces or a rich indulgence all on its own.
When faced with the special challenges of cooking in such a small space, a chef must make every dish count. Plus there’s the added pressure that comes with working in an open kitchen—particularly when that kitchen is nestled within the hotel’s reception area. But Petrillo turns these would-be limitations into unique opportunities. Like the inimitable Chez Nous, Zero Café + Bar excels by embracing an elegant simplicity. Just don’t tell the neighbors—it's too small for the secret to get out.
The Draw: A romantic hidden gem
The Drawback: The limited kitchen means advanced planning.
Don’t Miss: Wagyu beef cheeks
Price: $11-$34s too small for the secret to get out.