Trio Of Unique Food & Beverage Establishments Add Character To Charleston Live Music and Special Events Venue
Jeff Walker, Restaurant Review
Drive by 1640 Meeting Street in the northern part of downtown Charleston and you'll discover The Refinery, an impressive three story building that is home to several creative and forward thinking businesses, including Green Rock Sustainable Waste Solutions, Flyway Construction, Rebecca Atwood Designs, and 96.3 FM Ohm Radio.
However, if you opt to park on either side The Refinery or on Meeting, and venture behind the building you'll come across an oversized mostly paved courtyard with an inviting amphitheater that hosts a variety of concerts including local, regional, and national performers, as well the occasional marketplace event. Long running railway tracks, a retired blue passenger car (a green room for artists), and additional cargo trains further enhance the overall vibe while providing more secluded surroundings.
Nestled nicely on the bottom floor of The Refinery facing the courtyard are three distinctly different food & beverage establishments. While all offer up adult beverages, just two of the three serves up food. From Jeremiah Schenzel the owner of Daps Breakfast & Imbibe (280 Ashley Ave) comes Cleats, a brand new concept that his staff describe as 'an community of sports'. Schenzel adds Cleats is a 'Sporty Sammy Public House'
For those uncertain, let me break it down even further. Cleats is a public house with a big sandwich & sports obsession. Whether you're a diehard sports fan, a casual sports lover, or somewhere in the middle, you can enjoy handheld and pop in your mouth edibles alongside unique cocktails, frozen drinks, select wines, and an array of local craft beers (draft, bottles, & cans).
Cleats is a mix of modern day industrial, with the interior resembling the underside of a stadium, featuring soft wood tones and bright accent colors. Lots of glass (windows) overlooking the exterior courtyard allow patrons a sense of eating outdoors while protected from the elements.
The bar easily sits a dozen or more, with four and six person tables spread throughout. Ordering can go either way, i.e. old school or contemporary. Servers mingle about and are happy to take an order, or you can scan the QR code affixed on the table to place your order, and pick it up at a stadium style window when alerted. Pretty cool!
Enough about how aesthetically pleasing Cleats is, what about the food & drink. This is not the first rodeo from Jeremiah. He has created a menu that caters to vegans, gluten-free types, and all out carnivores, including a hearty array of hot & cold sammies (specialty sandwiches), and dawgs (southern name for hotdog).
If you're a multiple meat loving sandwich eater, the Meat Sweats might be screaming pick me from the menu. We're talking a fat (plump) dawg partially sliced before being placed on an equally fat bun, then blanketed under an ample arrangement of salami, pepperoni, and chicharonnes (spicy Spanish fried pork skins, similar to crackling). It will please the palate!
Vigorous meat lovers might gravitate to the hot Cleats Pit Beef sandwich teeming with layers of char-grilled beef and onions, under a slather of home-made horsey sauce (secret recipe), served on a potato bun. Both sandwiches are pleasantly messy, four or five napkin sammies that will have your taste-buds and your tummy extending a contented 'thank you'.
Vegans might opt for the Thai Roasted Mushroom (hot sammie) stacked nicely with marinated & roasted mushrooms, surrounded by a medley of coconut yellow curry, cilantro, crispy onions, and jalapeno all on a long bun. This one has a little kick to it, so have a beverage ready. The Egg & Eggplant cold sammie is likewise alluring. A long bun supporting slightly fried eggplant, sliced hard boiled eggs, and dill pickles, before being additionally enhanced with seasoned herbs and a garlic cream sauce.
Vegetarians have a least a half dozen options from the everyday menu, aside from Cleats three signature salads which meat eaters can further intensify with grilled chicken, pit beef, and red curry shrimp. However, for those who choose to go meatless than you can't go wrong with the Broccoli & Brussel Salad wrapped in a savory blend of scallions, cilantro, crispy onions, complete with herbs and curry dressing to an extra measure of zeal. A flavorful and crunchy salad. Ooh la la!
Cleats carry a half dozen shareables including a gluten-free option and a vegan friendly Bean Dip that you can doctor up with a cheese sauce or smoked dawgs. The straight up slightly salted Waffle Fries and their tangy garlic infused Garlic Fries under a bevy of herbs and garlic cream also appeal to vegans. Leaning toward the carnivore side, the Pigskins are a delightful helping of seasoned chicharrones served with cheese sauce. Pop in your mouth and repeat!
What's the sense of enjoying good food without an equally stellar beverage. Cleats offer four wines and 10 craft beers on tap, including brews from nearby Munkle, Snafu, and Commonhouse. You'll find canned or bottled beers from the likes of Edmund's Oast, New Realm, and Frothy Beard, among a dozen or more local and regional brewers.
Ice cold brews and smooth drinking fruit of the vine are all welcome, but it's Cleats signature cocktails that set the adult beverage menu apart. Perhaps the liquid concoction with the most character is their Breakfast of Champions, a lively shot or two of Bacon Fat Washed Irish Whiskey (for a hint of smoky flavor) swirled in a sweet and citrusy blend of butterscotch, maple, orange, and lemon, with egg white and saline to add a bit of pungency.
Their namesake Cleats Daiquiri is another exceptional sipping combination from the Cocktails on Draft menu. A cold infusion of opposing distilled liquors, with Pineapple Rum providing a splash of sweet and Overproof Rum offering a sharper bite, with Pimento Dram (spiced Jamaican rum) and demerara (light brown sugar) bringing the flavors together. Fairly priced at $11, but you can order a 'snaquiri', aka a fun-sized sipper for just $4.
Affordability is apparently on the A to Z menu. From Appetizers to Zesty salads and sammies, prices range from $6 to $15 for edibles, with potent potables ranging from a $2 High Life Pony (shades of yesteryear) to a $13 Nothing But (fer) Net (a Thai tea, milk blended rum cocktail) topping the list at $13. Most Beers fall in the $6 to $7 category.
When it's a beautiful sun-filled Charleston day, you can eat and drink indoors, or dine al fresco (in the open air). Cleats is open most days 11am until 10pm. You can go online and order takeout. They have seven big screen TVs always on carrying the most preferred sports, and hope to have a 96 inch screen installed before the Super Bowl. On the weekend they may open earlier to accommodate sports taking place across the globe, i.e. soccer, and tennis.
The best way to describe CLEATS is by my acronym 'Charleston's Latest Establishment w/ Alcohol and Tasty Sammies! Or 'Come Let's Enjoy Alcohol w/ Tremendous Sammies'. Finally 'Community Loving Eatery Available To Sporties'.
While Cleats focus on handheld bites and local brewers, their neighbor at The Whale 'A Craft Beer Collective' zero in on offering patrons beers from around the world. While they have additional locations in Asheville NC and Greenville SC, The Whale stay clear of local breweries allowing them to shine in their specific markets.
Much like their website asserts, The Whale pour and serve up a wide variety of fun, eclectic, and somewhat sophisticated hand-crafted beers from breweries across the country and across the globe. They are in simple terms a communal beer gathering place. The Whale search the world over to bring beers not only with quality and character, but hard to find brews that have a specific stories surrounding their brew history.
Although they center on craft beers, they also carry a decent selection of seltzers, hard ciders, craft sodas, sake, and world class wines, including a rose on tap. To tap (pun intended) it off, they attend to guests in a retro themed 1980's 'Miami Vice' art deco setting. Pastel suits and Ray-Ban sunglasses are not required, but if you're feeling your inner 'Crockett & Tubbs' than feel free to pony up at the bar.
From Portland Maine to Portland Oregon, The Whale carry lagers, ambers, porters, IPAs, and stouts including Grimm Sumi Ink out of Brooklyn NY, an artisanal chocolatey imperial stout aged in bourbon barrels with vanilla beans.
Or maybe sample Rigor Mortis Abt, a hearty brown ale out of Montreal inspired by the beer brewed by Belgian Trappist monks. Prefer a is a smooth drinking try Orval by Brasserie d'Orval out of Belgium. If you're a craft beer lover than I recommend putting The Whale on your 'bucket list'.
20 craft brews on tap everyday at The Whale, and an additional 200 plus canned or bottled brews from Europe, North America, South of the border, and destinations unknown.
Cleats and The Whale have an incredible symbiotic working relationship. If patrons at Cleats are seeking an off the wall brew they refer them next door, and in the same fashion patrons at The Whale can order food via a QR code that's available along the bar. They even share a side door for easier access to both locations.
The Whale is open 4-10pm Mon & Tues, 2-10pm Wed & Thurs, Noon til midnight Fri & Sat, and noon til 10pm on Sunday. They host trivia and industry nights on a weekly basis. Sounds like they host a 'whale of a good time' at The Whale.
On the other side of the food & beverage spectrum, or in this case the right side of The Whale you'll discover the home of the Sweet Grass Lounge, the official flagship to Charleston's own Sweet Grass Vodka.
A 2022 Gold Medal winner for Best Domestic Vodka, as well as a three category Master Award (Organic, Micro-distillery & Smoothest) winner, Sweet Grass Vodka consisting solely from potatoes, water, and yeast has put Charleston on the worldwide vodka map.
Inspired by his wife Alicia's Polish heritage and his love for premium spirits, CEO Jarrod Swanger partnered with South Carolina potato farmers to create Sweet Grass Vodka in 2020. Its overnight success attracted two-time Academy Award nominated actor Jeremy Renner and vodka connoisseur to partner with Sweet Grass, further validating Swanger's original vision.
According to their website if you're looking for a cool place to hang out, maybe to delight in extraordinary cocktails alongside a 'double E' i.e., elevated & exceptional bar food, than Sweet Grass Lounge is where you need to be. They offer up a stream-lined menu focusing on a half dozen snack-ables, two distinct sandwiches and sides, in addition to four Italian inspired charcuterie boards that easily complement any of their signature adult beverages.
All of their 'bar bites' explode with flavor in your mouth, and are a great way to kick start and hour or two at Sweet Grass. Their Thai Shrimp Lettuce Wraps are a crisp and refreshing treat, as is their home-made Whipped Ricotta spread and Pimento Dip.
For my money there's no better way to experience a great sipping vodka cocktail, a choice wine, or an amazing local craft beer than to complement said drink with a charcuterie board. All appear to tantalize the taste-buds, with the Salame Rustico embracing the peppery dry-cured salami coming out of the the Parma region in Italy.
Maybe enjoy an appetizer or meat and cheese tray with a smooth drinking Sweetgrass Signature Tini (blanco vermouth & orange peel). Their Summer Lover is a cool and sophisticated island cocktail complete with lime, coconut, and vanilla chai. Feeling a tad bit amorous, nursing the Love Potion with its exotic blend of cranberry, strawberry shrub, and egg white in a swirl of Sweet Grass Vodka might set the tone for an intimate evening. When it comes to vodka cocktails Sweet Grass Lounge know their stuff!
Although their name brand vodka is the marquee drink attraction, Sweet Grass Lounge serve up a nice selection of local craft beers including Fam's Coffee Blonde Stout, Tideland's Atlantic Amber, Surface Tension Light Lager from Brewlab, and a Rotating Sour complements of nearby Edmund's Oast.
Fruit of the vine lovers can savor a variety of upscale chardonnays, pinot noirs, roses, and sauvignons, including the 2020 Domaine Barmes-Buecher, a dry and tangy seven grain French white wine with a hint of pear and musk. The 2019 Valravn Old Vine Zinfandel is a dark full-bodied wine carrying a plummy fruit and spice suggestion with notes of chocolate.
Just two of the more than a dozen wines offered by the glass, with another four in bottle form, introducing the lively, red fruit based Fiorini Lambrusco Becco Rosso ’21. Joining your friends out but not an alcohol drinker, ask your server for a resplendent Orange Crush and its medley of citrus, tonic and orgeat (sweet almond syrup).
Sweet Grass Vodka is more than a vodka, it's a distilled alcoholic beverage celebrating the history and ambiance of the Holy City in iconic liquid expression, with each bottle including a single blade of grass from Charleston. And Sweet Grass Lounge is more than a lounge, it's an experience, a place where you can chill with friends, make new friends, or just enjoy a cocktail before heading to a show. Totally smooth, and totally awesome! Open Wed-Sat 4-11pm and Sun 11am-5pm.
All I can add is, that if you want to do good business and be customer friendly, than you support your neighbors and everyone thrives. Kudos to Cleats, The Whale, and Sweet Grass Lounge! Enjoy incredible food and drink at all three establishments. With spring and summer about to unfold, The Refinery offers plenty of outdoor happenings, with musicians other marketplace events taking place on the courtyard. Check below for more.
For more on Cleats visit their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/cleatschs/ and their developing website at https://www.cleatschs.com/ For more on The Whale visit them at https://thewhalecollective.com/charleston-sc/ For Sweet Grass Vodka & the Lounge click on https://sweetgrasslounge.com/To keep up on events and happenings at The Refinery visit https://www.therefinerychs.com/calendar