Partly by chance, I recently visited the little city of Greenville (South Carolina), population of about 60,000. Business was bringing me to nearby cities of North Carolina, and while Asheville would have been the logical airport of choice (and a compelling food city), airfares were quite expensive. In contract, tickets to Greenville-Spartanburg were considerably cheaper, and I’d read that there are over 100 restaurants right along and off Main Street in the downtown district. I was eager, then, to see if Greenville could live up to its self-proclaimed billing as a “Foodie Paradise.”
The city has changed, with increased charm factor since my last time through—though that was many, many years ago. (The mayor actually stopped by and sat at my table for few minutes during one of my meals, and we enjoyed some conversation about the growth of Greenville.) It’s quaint and yet lively, especially once the weather warms up. During the day, many people stroll the streets, often tugged along by their dogs. At night, crowds of various ages congregrate, giving the streets some late-night energy, though the cigarette smoke can be a bit bothersome. This was one reminder that I was in the south; another was the overwhelming number of restaurant closures on Sunday and Monday—posing a problem for a food writer trying to build an eating itinerary.
While I didn’t get to any desired places for southern-style “meat and three” plates or barbecue platters, I did hit a number of interesting restaurants during my short weekend stay. From pimento cheese to rabbit livers to a bacon brownie, my dining experiences overall were satisfying, with one restaurant in particular rising toward stellar.
Read on for a look at what’s good in Greenville.
Let’s start with the best meal I ate in Greenville: American Grocery. The restaurant is dimly lit (a photo challenge!), and has just the right amount of elegance without being stuffy. First course: charcuterie tasting with trout pate/pickled red onions and fried bologna with some delicious, bright mustard. (Note: Some of the dishes I’ll show are smaller, tasting menu portions.)
My favorite course at American Grocery: rabbit livers and wild mushrooms on toast, with sherry gastrique.
Also delicious: spring vegetable salad with housemade ricotta, fava beans, beets, herbs, and preserved lemon vinaigrette.
Chef was interested in having me try this new menu item: grilled shrimp with chorizo, fava beans, asparagus, grilled escarole, and polenta rustica. Great smoky flavor for the shrimp, but the soft texture of the chorizo didn’t work well with the softness of the polenta. Perhaps lardons would have been a better accompaniment to the shrimp and polenta?
Braised beef tongue with charred onion spaetzle and smoked tomato cream (and pickled mustard seeds). A pretty complex dish that I was surprised to see as a mainstay on the menu. I appreciated the technique to make this, but perhaps spoiled by all the beef tongue I eat in Japan, I prefer a firmer texture to tongue.
Dessert at American Grocery was this refreshing lemon posset with blackberry-walnut chutney and sweet cream, with shortbread to the side. Fabulous dinner at a restaurant that strives for seasonality, and has a superb wine list and great cocktails as well.
This Seattleite spied the Coffee Underground sign on the street, and turned to descend some steps to the shop.
Inside Coffee Underground. No pour-overs, but I enjoyed an Americano and can see this as a fun place to hang out, even enjoying music in the evenings.
I did a tasting of (mostly breakfast) items at The Green Room, which calls itself “Upstate Casual…where the casualness of the Low Country meets the sophistication of the Upstate.” Here is the stuffed French toast, filled with raspberry cream cheese and with a “Frosted Flakes” coating for texture. Add in the whipped cream and “maple” syrup, and this is a very sweet start to the day.
The crab benedict features a poached egg on top of fried green tomatoes a crab cake, along with spicy hollandaise sauce. This was fine, but I’m bewildered that Travel + Leisure named the french fries (with truffle oil, grated parmesan cheese, and fresh parsley) as the best in the United States. They’re good, in an upscale McDonald’s way (similar in not being fresh-cut), but not close to the “best.”
A sampler of fried green tomatoes with herbed cream cheese and red pepper relish.
Best dish at The Green Room was this meat loaf. (You’re seeing a half-portion!) It’s got a sweet chipotle glaze and comes with jalapeno macaroni & cheese and creamed bacon peas.
To finish the tasting, chef put together some berries with chocolates from the Sip Tasting Room & Rooftop Lounge, also part of the High Street Hospitality Group.
Out to Main Street, Mast General Store has a fun candy collection.
Also on Main Street is Greenville House of Jerky. The nice workers will let you sample just about anything, providing an education about jerky in the process.
Passerelle Bistro is beautifully situated overlooking Falls Park. Here’s a starter of smoked salmon-potato croquettes with horseradish crème fraîche, caper relish, and lemon zest.
Next is the much-acclaimed baked goat cheese that’s wrapped in a light crispy pastry, with blueberry-lavender jam, candied walnuts, pomegranate balsamic glaze, and petite lettuces. Fun dish that would also work well as dessert.
Mussels Passerelle with saffron, tomatoes, and espelette pepper. Nice flavors!
Here’s a little pork belly sandwich with a bit of a banh mi vibe.
Lastly, flourless chocolate cake with hazelnut crunch, raspberry coulis, and chantilly cream. Passerelle is a nice place for lunch like this. The food isn’t particularly adventurous, but it’s well-prepared and a safe bet for most diners.
Nose Dive is connected to Passerelle (and the next restaurant: Soby’s) in being part of Table 301. At this gastropub, I enjoyed this dark chocolate candied bacon brownie with American honey bourbon ice cream. You can learn more about this dessert here.
At Soby’s, I enjoyed seating at table 301, in the mezzanine overlooking not only the main dining area, but also the kitchen. Soby’s describes its cuisine as “a blend of contemporary cuisine infused with traditional southern ingredients.” With good southern hospitality, they’d stuff me silly with a tasting menu of their own.
To start: garlic and cheddar biscuits.
Next: she-crab soup with sherry and crab roe. I’d had she-crab soup elsewhere earlier in the day, and it was not nearly as good as this, in which I could really taste the crab in the stock, plus lump crab in the soup.
When in the south…I was eager to try Soby’s spicy pimento cheese, served with crispy baguette chips and carrots. Again, good flavors.
On the left: fried green tomatoes with blackened haricot verts, pimento cheese fondue, and candied carrot strips. Firmer and “fresher” tasting than the earlier version I ate. On the right: crab cakes with sweet corn maque choux, haricots verts, and remoulade. One of the best crab cakes I’ve eaten. Just a little panko to bind a tremendous amount of crab.
This is shrimp and grits, Gullah style, with smoked bacon, peppers, onions, tomatoes, Anson Mills grits, and crusty bread. Very buttery, very rich, and quite delicious.
Bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin: applewood smoked bacon, mashed potatoes, broccolini, and habañero butter sauce. I found this dish relatively unexciting. Good smoke flavor, but otherwise the meat was a very “monotone” experience for me.
This is the pecan smoked duck breast with cane syrup lacquer, wild rice, brown butter Brussels sprouts, and pickled cranberries. I liked some of the flavor and texture combinations in this dish.
Soby’s signature dessert is this white chocolate banana cream pie. It features a short crust with whipped cream, white chocolate pastry cream and fresh banana slices topped off with shaved white chocolate curls and sprinkled with cocoa. Definitely a fun dessert, reminiscent of Tom Douglas’ triple coconut cream pie, but not as decadent. I enjoyed the underlying banana flavor. This was a sweet finish to a nice meal at Soby’s. A solid restaurant with nothing surprising in the way of adventurous dishes, but a great introduction to, and interpretation of, southern food.
A nice surprise, though, at Stella’s Southern Bistro, located in Simpsonville, a short drive from Greenville. Here my tasting menu started with pan-roasted swordfish with cauliflower-thyme souffle, local Brussels sprouts, and ginger & plum gastrique. I especially liked the souffle, with sweetness from the cauliflower. Stella’s sources as much local produce and protein as possible, with a blackboard prominently listing the local vendors who provide the food.
Next, grilled BBQ pork belly on a cornmeal Johnnycake with three-bean salad and smoked pork BBQ jus. I liked this take on “pork and beans,” with the Johnnycake a smart element to add.
This house-cured duck bacon & duck confit salad was bold and delicious. It contains ginger-roasted plums (fantastic!), arugula, sweet potato croutons (interesting!), toasted cashews, and sherry vinaigrette. Lots of flavors and textures, and a joy to eat.
Chicken and waffles? Almost. This is buttermilk-fried Carolina quail breast with an heirloom hominy cheddar waffle, duck bacon, bourbon sorghum syrup, and roasted baby vidalia bulbs. This dish held together nicely, with rich, earthy flavors.
The meal at Stella’s ended with this dessert tasting, including Stella’s grasshopper (fudge brownie creme de menthe buttermilk bar), butter pecan bread pudding with bourbon brown sugar ice cream, and (if I remember correctly!) housemade mint chocolate chip ice cream cake with a sugar cone crust. A really fun and flavorful lunch at a restaurant that seems to be off the radar for most people in Greenville. Well worth the ride.
Thanks to the Hyatt Regency Greenville for hosting my stay. (And thanks to VisitGreenvilleSC for helping with some of the restaurant meals.) The Hyatt is well-situated along Main Street, close to the action and a respite for post-meal naps. (Photo courtesy of the Hyatt Regency Greenville.)
The impressive atrium inside the Hyatt. (Photo courtesy of the Hyatt Regency Greenville.)
A glimpse of Greenville