Lewis Barbecue, maybe Charleston’s most anticipated new restaurant, will finally be opening its doors to the public tomorrow, June 28, 2016. We have written about John Lewis before, but now we’ve gotten the full picture.
In preparation, John Lewis and his Pit Crew, hosted a “Friends and Family Dinner” which we were lucky enough to attend.
It is no secret, Lewis Barbecue is exceptional. We made this clear in a previous review (and we definitely need to go back and update this article on the Best BBQ in SC), so we’re not going to spend time here repeating the same accolades Lewis earned in that review.
Instead, we’d like to share with you yet another way in which Lewis Barbecue is an exception: the dining experience.
This is Texas barbecue.
Most South Carolinians will not have a point of reference for understanding the whole of the experience they will encounter at Lewis Barbecue. Without being too wordy about it, here is what you can expect:
First, this is Lewis Barbecue:
Like us, you may feel the need to enter from the left on what seems like the more formal side of the building, but actually, the entrance is at the end of the porch on the right. The choice to have their patrons enter through the porch makes all the sense in the world once you understand the overall experience.
As you head toward the entrance, however, you cannot help but behold the mural painted on a neighboring building.
What may not dawn on you at first is the not-so-subtle proclamation that beef is, indeed, king of the BBQ world. This chime rings boldly in SC, a state where the SC Barbecue Association once wrote the following:
“The incorrect use of the term barbeque on television, in movies and in magazines which is, more often than not, written or spoken by people who know nothing about real barbeque, has led to the misconception, for instance, that beef is barbeque.
It’s not. Don’t forget, barbeque is more specifically a noun, a specific thing, and that specific thing is pork, not beef or fish, or beaver, or shrimp or anything else.
It’s quite possible to barbeque beef; tens of thousands of people out west do it all the time. And it’s oftentimes delicious. But it’s “barbequed beef” not barbeque. The term barbeque is always properly reserved for pork.”
Lewis seems to disagree.
Next, your eye might wander left of the mural where you will spot a sight common in Texas, but one which I had never seen before: the split hardwoods, fuel for all the barbecue — pork and beef, alike — produced by Lewis, tucked safely away inside their own lockers.
Regardless of your choice of meats, one thing South Carolinians and Texans can agree upon: wood is the only way to cook real barbecue.
Next, you will enter the building through the porch. This area was built with the expectation of long lines.
This is where you will wait. And, yes, you should expect a wait, not something you’ve experienced in virtually any SC BBQ restaurant before. You will understand why shortly.
Note the bar area on the left near the entrance to provide you with a cooling beverage of your choice as you wait to be served. The long table along the wall gives you a place to leave your empty beverage container as you continue your wait.
But not to worry: a member of Lewis’ “Pit Crew” will be along shortly to refill as you like.
Note also the overhead fans.
This is a wise choice for the sweltering humidity we often endure during our long Charleston summers. I will mention, however, that not all fans are made equally, and I would argue that despite the best of intentions, the fans installed are not up to the task, as we could barely feel any airflow beneath them as we waited once the serving began (this was taken early, so there was no line, yet).
As you near the door to the interior of the building — and the teasing wisps of the air conditioning that await your entrance — you are greeted by the two signs below:
The one on the left of the doorway (top photo) is obviously the menu. Not much to say here except, well….yum.
The one on the right (Tips for Ordering), however, is yet another exception to the SCBBQ rule, and what may be yet another clue that this BBQ experience does not follow the precedent set by down by the long line of SC BBQ restaurants that have preceded it.
“Pick my proteins….Give my order to the Meat Cutter? Well, this is different.”
Yes, it is.
So, what you should know is that once you enter you will bend to the right past some tables and booths and wait to approach the meat cutters to begin placing your order.
Again, the photo below was taken before people started lining up for service, but you get a feel for the space.
We circled around to the bar to grab a drink and await the time for service to begin.
See the interior part of the bar in the shot below. (This is to the right of the shot above.)
We grabbed a seat and a very friendly waitress soon stopped by. Heather asked for a glass of red wine, and I got a Citrus-flavored Pale Ale that was fantastic.
We enjoyed our beverages, and as the time approached for service to begin, we circled back through the porch area (to the left of the interior part of the bar) and made our way to a line that was already ¾ of the way down the porch.
We waited, finished our beverages, and received a refill with the help of the same waitress who had helped us at the table.
As our turn approached, we moved closer to the mark on the floor that tells you where to wait before being next served.
Once your view is similar to the image below, you are almost there:
John Lewis was working the entire service, but he had help from an additional meat cutter to his right. Both were active and focused during the entire service. We were lucky enough to be served by Lewis.
So, as you step up to the counter, be prepared to order. They are working hard to get you served and the folks behind you are patiently eager for you to move along. Here’s what you need to know.
Tell you meat cutter exactly what you want.
Want two pork spare ribs, a pound pulled pork, a single hot gut sausage, and two slices of brisket? (That was our protein order.) Just let them know.
They will give you exactly what you want, in whatever possible quantity.
As they do so, as seen in the photo of Lewis below, the meat cutter will write on the butcher paper on which your food will be served the weight or quantity of the proteins you ordered.
Once your meat order is complete, you will slide to the side to speak with another of the Pit Crew to order any sides you might like. We ordered the Green Bean Salad, Green Chili Corn Puddin’, and the Cowboy Pinto Beans.
Heather loved the salad and the puddin’. As usual, I liked everything, but I would give the nod to the Puddin’ myself, followed closely by the beans…but, again, this isn’t intended to be a review of the food.
After getting your sides, that server will pass you down to the person working the cash register who will tally up your order and take payment.
Note in the side view below, the tape marking the waiting spot for those being served next. This, of course, serves to leave an opening for the place you will head next.
If you look against the back wall, you will see a self-service area where you can get soft drinks, utensils, napkins, and sauces. Head that way then find a seat.
Lewis had two sauces (at least I only saw two) in the self-service area.
One was a “Tangy Sauce” and the other was a “Green Chili Sauce.”
The Tangy Sauce is a light tomato-based sauce with a good tang, as you might expect, good salinity, and a touch of heat.
The Green Chili Sauce is sweet and has a vibrant color. There is no heat to it at all. The primary flavor is sweet. Both are very good.
So once you’ve placed your order, paid, and gathered your additional things, you will end up with a plate that looks something like this.
In addition to what you ordered, you will get (if you like) white bread, pickled red onions (fantastic, btw), fresh pickles, slices of fresh onion, and a pack or two of gum to freshen your breath after your meal (nice touch).
With your plate in hand, you will then find a seat. There is sufficient seating inside for a large number of customers. There is additional seating outside among the oaks next to the pit house.
This is where we sat. The evening was warm, but it was breezy and a thunderstorm in the distance kept things interesting but was never a threat.
Beside our seat to the left of where I was sitting are additional designs on yet another neighboring building. The designs on the neighboring buildings tied the whole space together and made it feel like one. Otherwise, the site would probably feel less spacious than it does.
After you enjoy your meal (and, yes, you will), you might exit to the following view, looking forward to your next return.
In the end, this experience will be unlike what those of us born and raised in SC are accustomed to in a BBQ restaurant. It is not a place you will walk casually into and pick from a buffet or wait to be served at a table.
Here, you wait to be served. When you reach the counter, you will place your order where the meats are freshly cut and weighed, step down and get your sides then pay for your order before gathering your additional needs, and being seated.
But the wait, if you have one, will be sooo worth it.
It is exceptional in every sense.