The Alchemist’s Mix is a new review series, visiting, discussing, and evaluating cultural phenomenon of food, drink, music, festivals and other sources of the pleasures of life in the South. We’ll keep you in the know as to what’s what around these parts!
Cottontown is Comin’ Round with The War Mouth, the Song of the South!
The War Mouth, 1209 Franklin Street, Columbia, SC 29201
Roughly a hundred years ago, just north of the capital city of Columbia, South Carolina, there was a district full of cotton warehouses beginning to bustle into a thriving residential and business community. Named for those very warehouses, Cottontown was being intentionally developed by the same group of investors who had only years before turned a decent profit with another small development on the south side of town they called, “Shandon.”
Early in the 20th century, Cottontown catered to the craftsmen, tradesmen, and merchants of the district, building bungalows to house them, extending the streetcar line from the downtown area, and providing recreation options such as parks and even a casino. The neighborhood had boomed. After World War II however, like many similar districts across the country, the old neighborhood had lost momentum and had started the slide into shabby sentimental solitude. The cotton warehouses were mostly closed, and Cottontown was tastefully if not ambitiously renamed “Bellevue Springs,” as it began its new identity of a sleepy little neighborhood that had surely seen her glory days come and go.
Friends, I’m here to tell you, Cottontown is booming again. There have been quite a few new additions to the neighborhood, renovating several blocks along Main Street, and now the rehab is pushing deeper into the historic grid. Just one block from that ancient streetcar line extension which ran up Main Street, north of Elmwood, on Franklin Street you’ll find a gem that has most certainly signaled a new beginning for this historic district. If you have not heard of it yet, chances are you will soon, because The War Mouth is making noise among the locals, and for good reason. It’s so good we couldn’t resist making it the test subject for this inaugural edition of The Alchemist’s Mix!
If it’s Southern food you want, it’s there to be found at The War Mouth, but it may not be what you expected. Partners Porter Barron, Jr., and Executive Chef Rhett Elliot have artfully created a dining experience straight from the marrow of everything inherently Southern. The War Mouth itself, is situated in a converted auto body garage, facelifted but still maintaining the character that connects you with the nostalgia that touches every bit of this place.
After spending some time with Porter and Rhett, it is clear to me that if you put these two boy-at-hearts into a blender and then dumped out the concoction of their combined life experiences onto a paper plate like the contents of a good lowcountry boil, you would see and taste exactly what The War Mouth is. From the rustic campfire feel, to the authentic whole-pig pit BBQ, to the soft glow of the strings of light bulbs in the beer garden, to the easy laughs often heard ringing from bar, you get it. You understand, after one bite of the falling-off-the-bone duck confit, the savory quail or pork, or the lick-your-bowl clean chicken bog, just what it is that brought what is now The War Mouth into existence. It was lifelong pursuit and celebration of life’s pleasures of food and friendships. It was Boy’s Life Magazines, it was hiking, hunting, fishing, crabbing, gigging, paddling and all things to do with growing up in the Midlands of South Carolina, combined with a sophistication of grown and world-experienced men… real men, like the men our grandfathers wanted us to be.
Don’t get me wrong, these guys are serious about their business, but they speak about who they are with an easiness that they know they understand, they hope you understand, and they shrug it off if you don’t. Chances are though, walk through that door, have a seat at the handmade but sleek-feeling cypress wood bar or in one of the hunting-cabin-esque wooden chairs, take a bite and taste the flavors, and you’ll get it. And once you do, you’ll be wanting more of it.
The War Mouth has been open since December of 2015, and they’ve settled into a routine of offering their succulent pit BBQ several nights a week, and filling the gaps in-between with such delights as a Mustard-Fried Venison, Mountain Trout, or the Duck Confit served over grits (which may in fact be the best thing I’ve ever put in my mouth, warranting a second mention). At the bar, they not only serve a decent selection of craft beers on tap, but there is also a sortie of unique and tasty tongue-in-cheek cocktails to be tried, such as the Backsliding Southern Baptist, Snake Juice, and the Bee’s Knees. Desserts are in no short order either, as sherbets and custards are elegantly presented, taunting you to taste, despite how full your belly will likely be by that point.
One other note-worthy addition from The War Mouth is the presence of a “Snacks Menu.” Not quite appetizers, but more of a non-uppity or unpretentious tapas for the peckish, you’ll find the deviled eggs to be more than just deviled eggs. Serving hot dogs and other light fare, geared toward the later-evening “stop in and have a pint” crowd, mark this down as another “why doesn’t everybody do this” move by The War Mouth gang.
Up and Coming to Cottontown
Anticipation for the near future of The War Mouth is continuing to build as well, as plans develop for expanding their property farther north, behind the beer garden in order to open a second physical location where they will be offering up their pit BBQ in a take-out style. This is big news for them (and all those that love their offerings), as rumors have abounded about the early struggles with ridiculous regulation adherence demands by the city and DHEC with regard to the construction specifics of their state of the art BBQ pits outside the restaurant itself.
Apart from adding its distinct flavors to a growing Columbia at large, which continues to slowly separate itself from our in-state rivals of Charleston and Greenville as a “place to be” in South Carolina, The War Mouth’s success has marked a beginning of a new era for Cottontown. More ventures are soon to come with the addition of the Cottontown Brew Lab, just down from The War Mouth on Franklin Street. Cottontown Brew Lab is sure to be making some noise of its own when it arrives in the next few months, with Matt Rodgers (the current brewmaster of Old Mill Brew Pub in Lexington) at the helm. In the next five years, Cottontown, I expect, will look a good bit different than it does now. Who knows? A few years down the road, Cottontown might be giving the Vista a run for its money! Did I tell you about the Duck Confit?
Special thanks to Porter Barron, Chef Rhett Elliot, and all the staff at The War Mouth, for your hospitality and attention and of course, the incredible food! Thanks to Mark & Wendy Plessinger, who always make for fantastic dining company.