One of the toughest parts about being a food critic is when I have to confess I don’t love a place that I know many of you do. When I’ve written some not-so-hot reviews before, I get plenty of feedback from readers defending these spots.
I have a feeling this may be another one of those unpopular opinions, but having been to the new Books and Brews on Charleston’s West Side five or six times now, it’s time to fess up: I don’t love the place.
It’s a really cool space, I’m glad they’ve opened a second restaurant in our town (their first is in Hurricane) and I wish them well. If I want a really good sandwich, salad or pizza, though, there are better places to go.
And the service REALLY needs help.
For those who don’t know, the book-themed restaurant opened a new location near Gonzoburger late last year. Unlike the original location featuring shelves of books and games you can enjoy, most books here rest on shelves near the ceiling out of reach. (There are some on a ledge splitting the restaurant, though.)
The remaining décor is industrial-chic, music blares on the sidewalk outside and the overall vibe is cool. I do like being there and have enjoyed a couple of hits.
The pepperoni rolls made with hand-tossed dough — essentially giant calzones stuffed with pepperoni and cheese — are fantastic. Like, so good. Toasty, savory, salty, gooey perfection.
I’ve also enjoyed the Italian sandwich piled high with ham, pepperoni, salami, cheese, lettuce, tomato, peppers, onion, oregano, oil and vinegar, as well as a sandwich overflowing with thick-sliced turkey, bacon, lettuce, tomato, green peppers, pepper jack, Swiss and ranch.
Everything else has been pretty mediocre, though.
My margherita pizza didn’t feature sliced tomatoes, fresh basil and giant discs of fresh mozzarella, instead coming with marinara sauce, dried basil and shredded cheese. It wasn’t bad, it just was not at all what you expect a classic margherita pie to be.
The Atlas Shrugged pizza with hickory-smoked pork, barbecue sauce, mozzarella, smoked Gouda, bacon, peppers and onions didn’t have as much flavor as you would expect. We also tried both hot and mild wings, but couldn’t tell the difference between the two.
The sweet potato burger and my beloved Reuben were both dry, a head-scratching problem given all the gooey toppings that latter sandwich is known for. The fries, while nicely crisp on the outside, are mealy inside and begging for a shower of seasoning.
Not bad food, but not great either. My larger issue, however, has been poor service.
One of the bartenders has been drinking (while serving guests) every single time I’ve been there. I know this happens, but please be more discreet about it. One poor server has been testy with all the rest every time I’ve seen her working. She clearly doesn’t want to be there.
I’ve witnessed multiple servers eating food while also serving guests — grabbing a bite, taking an order, grabbing another bite, delivering a plate — which is a complaint I’ve heard from other readers as well.
And then there was this night.
The fries that came with my sandwich were still stone-cold inside. I bit into several to see if they were all that way. They were, so I asked if they would bring me a few cooked ones to try. The waitress kindly offered to take my half-eaten fries and dump them back into the fryer.
Say what now?
I was horrified, asking her to please not do that.
She smiled and took my plate. Minutes later she returned with my same plate of still half-eaten fries, which were now warm and crispy.
Had they been dumped back into the fryer — half-eaten? I can’t say for sure, since I didn’t see what happened in the kitchen. Their sudden crispiness didn’t seem to come from a microwave, though, which would’ve been an unlikely (and poor) choice as well.
So I don’t even know where to start there. Why they didn’t just give me a fresh plate of properly cooked fries is beyond me.
While that issue is a big ol’ red flag for me, I realize most other observations I’ve shared here are subjective — and fixable, with stronger management. While I’m not a fan of this Books and Brews, I did meet a group of guys here for dinner one night who mostly liked what they tried. Our service that night was really good, too.
I’ve been receiving lots of reader feedback on the place that’s pretty much running 50/50 for and against, so I hope they turn things around before it’s too late. If I start hearing more good than bad, I’ll definitely give it another go.
I just won’t say anything if my fries are cold.
IF YOU GO: Books and Brews at 222 W. Washington St. in Charleston is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, closed Sunday and Monday. For more information, call 681-265-5014 or visit www.booksandbrewswv.com.