In our last post, we talked a bit about the geographical expansion of Charleston’s restaurant scene over the past few years, so we thought we’d feature another of our favorite off-the-beaten path spots: Spero. The look and feel of this under-the-radar restaurant (and we mean “under” literally – it sits in an unassuming strip mall in the shadow of the Ravenel Bridge) are incredibly casual, but its food is seriously good.
We first tried Spero not long after it opened in 2015. We’d planned a quick date night and promised our babysitter we wouldn’t be long. Cut to three hours later and a text asking when we’d be home – the food was so good and shareable and reasonably priced, we just kept ordering more. And more. And more. Since then, we’ve visited Spero every few months, sampled their market-driven menu in all seasons and come away raving every single time. Our most recent visit last week was no exception – the summer menu was refreshing and adventurous, the $4 happy hour Sauvignon blanc was tart and delicious, and the entire staff couldn’t have been nicer to us (our son is still talking about “Mr. Rob” and his high-fives).
Spero’s menu focuses on small plates (per the menu, “share it, don’t share it. it’s your food, do what you want”) but also offers a selection of larger sandwiches and a few entrees (or “big shares”). We’re often tempted to order ALL of the small plates, which would bust our guts but not our wallets – on last week’s menu, the 9 small plates tallied under $75 total. We typically restrain ourselves and choose the bread flight, 3-4 small plates and a sandwich.
Let’s start with the bread flight ($6.50). Oh, the bread flight. We’ve eaten a lot of food in Charleston, and to be honest we can only think of one dish (the gnocchi at F.I.G.) that we talk about more. This is probably the best restaurant bread in Charleston. Order it and you’ll be treated to three different, homemade breads or rolls, each served with its own specially-paired butter. On our most recent visit, we had a schmaltz biscuit with maple butter, cornbread with burnt honey miso butter and a sourdough pretzel roll with ham and mustard butter. Each was fantastic, but for us, anything paired with Spero’s fantastic ham and mustard butter takes the proverbial cake. This is always our first order, no matter what the day’s breads are. (You can also order each bread individually, but really, why limit yourself like that??)
Our favorite strategy at Spero is to order a lot of smaller things to share, and our first plate after the bread was the roasted beets ($7.50). This is not the beet salad you can find on any menu in town. These beets were roasted to soft perfection and paired with bleu cheese, buttermilk and a raspberry sauce. We’re not usually big bleu cheese fans, but its funk nicely balanced the sweetness of the raspberry sauce.
Next up was the simply named “Radish” dish ($7), which was definitely the most interesting plate of the night and would not be out of place on the menus of the finest-dining restaurants in Charleston. Raw, roasted and pickled radishes were served with rosettes of tahini butter and anchovy bread crumbs. We’ve never even thought about including radishes when roasting vegetables, but they were so good we may have to start. The light dusting of anchovy-infused breadcrumbs gave the whole dish a fantastic extra boost of umami.
The North African-spiced chicken sausage was one of the two meat dishes we ordered and came with middlins rice, pickled raisins and mint ($9). The punch from the berbere in the sausage was nicely offset by the sweetness of the raisins and the creaminess of the rice. This was perhaps the simplest dish we ordered, but simplicity of this level is hard to execute this well.
To complement the small plate selection, Spero offers several sandwiches that are fairly substantial and perfect to split. This time, we broke from our standard order of the lamb barbacoa sandwich and opted to split the “Not Fried” chicken ($9.25) instead. “Mojo-ish” chicken, tasso ham, sauerkraut and roasted red peppers on a toasted honey roll was a delicious combo, though we both agreed that it did not eclipse the lamb.
At this point, we were stuffed, but we had promised our tiny human dessert. In his opinion, there’s no finer option than Spero’s milk and cookies: two chocolate chip cookies served on a silver platter with a goblet of cold milk. (Parental pro tip: the cookies are made fresh to order, so request them when your last course is served to avoid a long wait and a lot of whining.) Warm and gooey, the cookies were a perfect, comforting end to an adventurous meal.
What’s not to love about a place that looks like a dive bar, makes fine-dining-quality food and serves Miller High Life in champagne flutes and milk and cookies on a silver platter? Spero takes its food seriously, but it has fun with it. Beneath the colorful bird mural that dominates the restaurant’s decor is the phrase Dum Spiro Spero, which means, “While I breathe, I hope.” (Probably not-so-coincidentally, this is also South Carolina’s state motto – thanks, Google!) You can sure that while we breathe, we’ll hope that Spero keeps wowing us with its inventive, delicious food and boundless hospitality. Until next time!