The Charleston is what you get when you take a celebrity chef, a menu of classic American comfort foods, a team of mixologists and a friendly staff and put them in a small space full of art deco décor and fill it with live music every night. That might not be anything out of the ordinary downtown, but "Iron Chef" Jet Tila's latest creation is in Santa Monica, in the location formerly occupied by Angel's.
Apart from his television celebrity, the Le Cordon Bleu graduate gained respect with his pan-Asian Wazuzu at Steve Wynn's Encore resort in Las Vegas. But this restaurant is a very different enterprise, featuring Tila's modern take on traditional comfort foods like mac n' cheese, shepherd's pie and pulled pork sliders.
You'll want to begin with a cocktail. Depending on when you come, there may or may not be room at the bar. It's worth choosing an off-time just to enjoy the environment and get to know the talented bartenders there. The white leather seats are a nice touch, too. There's a list of specialty cocktails that should be tried, including the Sazerac (Ri whisky, lemon peel, sugar, peychaud bitters, angostura bitters with Kubler absinthe wash), the Cucumber Cooler (Hendrick's gin, a slice of cucumber, basil leaves, a sprig of rosemary, fresh lime and honey syrup) and the Ginger Kiss (Bombay Sapphire gin, lime juice, simple syrup, fresh ginger and habanero chili). There's also a good selection of top-shelf liquors, and for the bold -- a variety of absinthe.
For starters, consider the bacon-wrapped dates. Stuffed with marcona almonds, they're not typical of the appetizer. Another dish worth trying is the short rib tacos with shaved Brussels sprouts and Korean Salsa.
The sides are good, too. The fries -- both sweet potato and the garlic & herb -- are what you'd expect from a modern take on American cuisine. And you can't go wrong with the wedge, grilled Caesar or asparagus salad.
One of the most decadent items on the menu is the pork belly bao buns -- spiced braised pork belly, pickle, hoisin sauce and five buns. Another is the pulled pork sliders -- slow-smoked pork shoulder and cole slaw on a country roll. The cheese-crusted filet mignon crostini is yet one more.
The desserts are pleasantly unique. Imagine a crispy plantain with vanilla ice cream and candied nuts or a heaping scoop of vanilla bean ice cream floated in Guiness stout. I would also suggest the chocolate chip bread pudding, featuring brioche, chocolate chips and crème anglaise.
I've heard varying opinions on The Charleston, but everyone seems to agree that the food and drink are great. The discrepancies are a result of the atmosphere you are expecting. There are not a lot of booths -- I strongly recommend reservations -- and if you've got a loud group next to you, that may color your dining experience. The lines outside can be excruciating. The parking is basically valet or no way. The space is small and can become loud and overcrowded. The jazz is fantastic, for those who appreciate it, and the karaoke and '80s night are fun -- again, for those who appreciate it.
The bottom line is that The Charleston is a great experience, but you need to check their website ahead of time to make sure you're planning a visit that fits with the experience you desire. Pick the time and date that suits your style and you won't be disappointed. On the contrary, you'll find a speakeasy like nothing else on this side of town.