Pearlz Oyster Bar
An entire strand of Pearlz: way more than just oysters
By Rachel Haynie Photographs by Sally Taylor
Pearlz is purposefully written uniquely, ending with a z, to tip diners off they are in for an inimitable experience when they enter the distinctive restaurant on the corner of Gervais and Park streets. As the z stands in for an s, which would make Pearlz plural, the branding also conveys there may be more than one pearl awaiting discovery in this historic two-story structure in the heart of The Vista. Operating Partner Mike Evans will tell you right up front: what is in store is more like an entire Strand of Pearls. And, like the stroke of good fortune in finding a pearl in your oyster, a visit to this restaurant is about discovery.
“It is gratifying that more and more Columbians are realizing Pearlz is way more than an oyster bar,” said Evans, who had been leading the growth and success of this full-service restaurant for more than four years. “What our oyster bar logo actually implies is freshness, and that translates to all our offerings, not only to our seafood.” Evans gestured upward, toward Pearlz Upstairs Lounge, a space with a Speak-easy feeling and a jazz vibe. But wait for it …
Evans, who began in Charleston with Homegrown Hospitality Group, is happy Columbia’s dining culture can reap the same immediate benefits of very fresh seafood demanded by diners at Port City restaurants. The restaurant is thoroughly invested in the Sustainable Seafood Initiative, and holds itself to standards of impeccable freshness.
“Our Fresh Catch program is designed to bring the very best fish seafood from the boat to the plate in as short a time as possible,” Evans said. “Our aim is always to offer selections from the South Carolina and North Carolina coasts. Chef Mikey Orel, along with his team, creatively constructs feature dishes each afternoon that bring together a fresh piece of fish, a locally-grown vegetable or starch (or both), and a uniquely house-made sauce – two or three variations are offered every day. Our guests have become accustomed to ordering entrees from our ‘Daily Feature’ sheet because they know those choices are ever-evolving and one of a kind dishes.”
On a given day the ‘Daily Feature’ sheet showcased two fresh catches. An almond and panko-encrusted Mahi was served over a garlic parmesan orzo with a vegetable medley of zucchini and squash topped off by a fresh-made watermelon salsa. Another choice was a twist on the South’s beloved Shrimp and Grits – with a respectful and flavorful salute to General Tso. The dish combines lightly fried shrimp served over an Adluh grit cake, with an Asian ponzu sauce along with carrots, bok choy, and chili peppers. This dish takes on new nuances every day as well.
As a plate heads through the restaurant, on its way to the guest who ordered it, culinary artistry goes on view as well. Guests in the process of making their selections often Ooh – “What was That?” Sous Chef Terry O’Toole said, “We care a lot about presentation at Pearlz – we know diners eat first with their eyes.” If every person at a table orders the same entrée, each plate will each be the same in composition, but like original paintings, “they may vary slightly in visual appearance.” Perhaps O’Toole is more a sculptor than a two-dimensional artist because he builds plates from the base up. And a grit cake provides him a very reliable foundation upon which to build.
When the restaurant opens at 4pm each day, including Sundays, it is not unusual for guests to be waiting at the old wooden front door. “Orders for appetizers and drinks, from our expansive selection of beers to hand-crafted cocktails, are first up,” said O’Toole. And Evans estimates that about half the time, those who come in early for appetizers and drinks continue enjoying themselves, ultimately extending their evenings by ordering from the dinner menu. “We have given a lot of thought to making our patrons feel comfortable enough to stay as long as they like. We have a long, linear building to work with and play that up with high-top tables centering the space. Sensing that people would want to be at the same levels, whether standing, sitting at the comfortable bar stools, or in booths that line the wall, we structured the interior with that dynamic in mind.”
For success formulas, Evans drew from the corporate canopy founded as TBonz in 1985, and that now also includes, here in Columbia, Liberty Tap Room and Liberty at the Lake, as well as Rioz on Harbison.
Beginning with the raw bar, other appetizers and drinks, and beyond the full and changing menu, the strand of Pearlz has lengthened through requests for private parties upstairs. With so many special events being hosted in the Capital City, the uniqueness of Pearlz Upstairs Lounge has steadily enhanced its popularity.
Evans smiles when he calls the upstairs lounge the property’s most cloistered pearl, its piece de resistance. “It is a completely autonomous space. It’s perfect for private parties or functions, with its 110-inch projection screen, its full bar centered by comfortable seating areas. Our research on the building confirmed this floor was once a brothel, right here in this warehouse district we now call The Vista. We left the little fireplaces in place as reminders of another time – they still even have their glow, as though there are still embers in them.” But, it’s very cool in the lounge.
Sound from downstairs dining cannot make its way into the lounge. It has its own sound. “Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturday nights, we have live jazz here,” explained Evans. “Friday nights are anchored by the Robert Gardiner Group; performers for the other two nights change, and those schedules can be found on our website.”
Evans is like a proud papa of this space. “Columbians have discovered this as a great place to cap off their evenings, whether they drop by following some other event or occasion, or drift up the stairs after an enjoyable meal in the street-level dining room,” Evans said. “We like hearing that the vibe the lounge gives off makes guests feel they are in some far-more metropolitan city, even though the dome of the Capitol is just a couple of blocks away.”
Soon Evans will be announcing the newest pearl to the strand – and suggests “if you have even been to Kaminsky’s bakery in Charleston, think how much you’d enjoy there being such an establishment right here in The Vista. Keep reading; we’ll be telling you all about it soon. Meanwhile, join us at Pearlz for an evening of discovery.”
Pearlz Oyster Bar