843 Polo Road
This California-style pizza place isn’t just about pizza. Find out why everyone’s flocking to NE Columbia’s hidden gem.
By April Blake Photos by Katie Bowie
Looks are deceiving, especially when it comes to a restaurant that shares a parking lot with an adjacent gas station, but to pass up on Upper Crust because of the because of the nearby BP is to lose out. Nestled in a stonework-fronted shopping center with soaring curved windows, this isn’t just “some pizza place” located at the corner of Polo and Mallet Hill roads — this is a dining experience that you’ll want to repeat time and time again.
Upon entering, it looks like the perfect blend of a rustic trattoria and upscale eclectic, thanks to the interior brickwork and wood accents melded with the funky Sputnik lights and clean lines. A glittering tiled pizza oven is the literal and figurative center of the restaurant that’s been churning out wood-fired pizzas five at a time since early 2017. This is all the brainchild of serial entrepreneur and Charleston native Beth Burrell, whose passion for this place is evident when chatting with her, or even when digging into one of her healthfully decadent food creations.
Prior to opening Upper Crust, Burrell also owned Little Mama’s, a pizzeria at Folly Beach, and before that, a fine dining establishment called Elizabeth’s that ended its run 14 years ago. Burrell currently owns Roundabouts Consignment (also on Polo Road), and a bakery in Charleston. On top of all of that, she is the primary chef in the kitchen at Upper Crust. “I work 80 plus hours a week!” she exclaimed. “But pizza is my favorite food so it’s just logical that it’s what I do for a living!”
Best described as California meets Carolina, the menu is entirely her creation, spiced up by flavors from her travels. “My inspiration mostly comes from when I eat out and have something that’s fabulous — I think about what I can do to make this a little more me, which is how the majority of the menu came about,” Burrell said.
California-style food is based on fresher styles, unique flavor combinations, and West Coast ingredients like avocado, goat cheese, and sun-dried tomatoes. Burrell points to the truffled goat cheese pizza, which features salami, fresh spinach, mushrooms, goat cheese, a cheese blend, and a drizzle of truffle oil as a prime example of the Cali-style eats that imbue the spirit of the restaurant.
Other fresh pizza combinations, like the pulled pork pizza, are a perfect representation of California fresh meets classic Southern ingredients. Barbecue sauce, red onions, bacon, tomatoes, green onions, cilantro, smoked pulled pork, and a cheese blend all nestle on a cracker crust to make this an option for someone who wants familiar Southern flavors on their newfangled Cali-style pizza. The crust style is best described as thin and crackery, thanks to being baked up to eight minutes in a 600∞ oakwood-fired oven.
For more adventurous eaters, there are more than 70 pizza toppings, which can be chosen à la carte and piled on to the eater’s desire. “Anything under the sun you can put on a pizza we’re going to have it,” she said. There’s even pineapple for those who want it, though Burrell shared a secret about it: “This is really horrific for me to say owning a pizza restaurant because it’s a major debate, but pineapple doesn’t belong on a pizza,” she said.
The appetizer selection is as wide and varied as the rest of the menu. Pimiento cheese fries are a bestseller, and the meatballs, served in a garlicky red sauce topped with fresh basil ribbons, are just like your Italian mama would make on special Sundays. Salads are another surprisingly big seller at Upper Crust, with mountainous piles of lettuce leaves adorned with more piles of healthy toppings that won’t break the caloric budget.
Also outside of the norm of typical pizza places, Upper Crust offers a brunch that brings people all the way from the other side of town on Sunday mornings. Pizzas are not necessarily pushed aside, but they aren’t generally the star during this sacred meal. “Our brunch is something that we pride ourselves on, and it’s my favorite meal to go out for when I have the chance!” she said. “I put a lot of love into the brunch menu.”
Brunch offerings range from fluffy eggs Florentine pumped with spinach and tomatoes to crème brulée French toast with powdered sugar and fresh strawberries and, yes, there’s even a breakfast pizza that features olive oil, ham, shaved Brussels sprouts, grape tomatoes, mozzarella, smoked provolone, and topped with an egg (for those who can’t choose between breakfast foods or pizza).
Don’t forget the most defining feature of brunch — champagne cocktails! These aren’t just your average orange juice and champs mimosas. These creative creations, like strawberry and basil or a Dreamsicilicious OJ and cream concoction served in a flute, will cure the boring brunch blues. Upper Crust has a mature wine program for only being open one year, with a rotating wine selection supporting a core menu of bottles. Rare and craft varieties of beer and wine are the focus, and options are available for lunch, brunch, and dinner.
Seating options include a blissfully air-conditioned space and a spacious patio that is a rarity in northeast Columbia. On Saturday evenings in May through August, live music emanates from the patio to bring an extra layer of entertainment and relaxation to the restaurant’s casual-cool vibe.
“Our goal is to feed people, make them happy, and get them to jump out of their comfort zone and eat something different,” said Burrell.