Imagine if an establishment in Columbia had a menu that perfectly represented the food you grew up eating at family gatherings, that type of cuisine which, although native to this region of South Carolina, has yet to make it onto restaurant menus—a meal like a smoked pit beef sandwich, a salad with fresh greens grown nearby, and locally grown grits prepared in a smoky pork gravy.
Imagine if that establishment was located in a neighborhood a little farther away from downtown traffic and the university than many local restaurants are, and maybe a little over half a mile from one of your favorite parks—a quiet, comfortable, and familiar setting.
Imagine if that same establishment also had a full bar, and you could enjoy unique after-work cocktails with fresh ingredients and relax at a neighborhood pub unlike any others in the city.
For residents of Columbia, that place now is no longer imaginary. For The War Mouth, located at 1209 Franklin Street, this week marks the nine month anniversary of their opening day, although they continue to let their menu evolve, sometimes altering it every few days. With a motto of “celebrating the pleasures of living where we do,” the only concept held steady at The War Mouth is the idea to creatively redefine traditional South Carolina meals.
“All of us grew up in the Midlands, so we wanted to have a menu with the stuff we ate at our grandparents’ houses when we were younger—pit barbecue, chicken bog, catfish stew,” explained Rhett Elliott, co-owner and head chef of The War Mouth. “Every side of my family is from this area, so I really wanted to cook the kind of stuff we do at home.”
Originally from Camden, Elliott had begun helping his family cook for parties by the time he was in the seventh grade. As an adult, he moved to Charleston, where he worked as a chef for several years before opening The War Mouth this year in Columbia.
For Elliott and his partner, co-owner and pit-master Porter Barron, one of the first challenges was the location. The War Mouth hosts a large barbecue pit, adjoined with a dog-friendly patio with picnic table seating. “We spent a lot of time looking to find the right neighborhood. There aren’t a lot of properties that would have that much room. We have a giant backyard with a BBQ pit here—you can’t have that in many other places,” Elliott acknowledged.
The large barbecue pit is one of the more unique features of The War Mouth. Twice a week, Barron cooks a whole pig overnight. The owners acknowledge that preparing an entire pig has become a rare feat, as many restaurants with fresh pork tend to only cook the shoulders. Because of that, they are especially proud of their barbecue and their homemade barbecue and hot sauces. The pulled pork barbecue, served in a homemade glaze, still holds a smoky campfire taste that delights customers. Barron and Elliott also slow-cook some of the pork to prepare a thick stew with it to create a traditional Midlands barbecue hash served over rice.
The team behind the War Mouth found a home for their dream in the Earlewood/Cottontown area, settling into a building on Franklin Street that allowed them ample room for the barbecue pit. Elliot himself is a resident of Cottontown, which he calls “underserved” by the restaurant industry, and has enjoyed catering to his own neighbors this first year of business. “We get a lot more foot traffic than we thought we would,” he said. “We are really trying to create a neighborhood restaurant and make this somewhere you can just pop in and have a drink and feel right at home.”
For Elliott, that comfortable, at-home atmosphere does not apply only to lovers of barbecue food. The chef works diligently to have a vegetarian-friendly menu. With menu items like the summer vegetable farro, he combines zucchini, squash, red peas, cherry tomatoes, and mushrooms to make a warm and flavorful meal that will appeal to both meat-eaters and vegetarians. The farro is both hearty and filling while still maintaining its fresh and light nature. Even for a restaurant with a “home cooked meal” premise, appealing to multiple diets is a necessity, Elliot explains: “If you’re having a dinner party and you don’t have food for three of your guests, you’re not being a very good host.”
While there are many standout entrees at The War Mouth, even the side dishes are remarkable, such as the zesty, well-seasoned salad of raw, shaved zucchini, fresh herbs, and Parmesan cheese. With a pickled, zesty taste, the acidic nature of the salad has a bright, flavorful taste that delights customers.
Also standing out is the dish of marinated field peas, served with red wine vinaigrette and peppers that were pickled in house. The country ham accenting the dish is tenderer and less salty than ham often is, and the peas are deftly cooked, maintaining their crunch while still being chewy and soft. With menu items like these, it is hard not to imagine you are eating a home-cooked meal with ingredients freshly picked from a family garden.
“Our menu stays vegetable driven. We get our vegetables from a variety of farmers and sources, and we always keep fresh fish on the menu,” explained Elliott. “We just keep going and let the menu roll with whatever ingredients we have. Hopefully they keep getting better.”
Even the bar maintains the creativity of the kitchen. One of the restaurant’s most outstanding signature cocktails, The Block Party, combines mescal, ginger liqueur, and chartreuse, and its taste is accentuated by a rosemary twig that is singed in front of the customers during the drink’s preparation. The War Mouth also boasts a tasty homemade punch for their happy hour special, a sweet, crisp drink featuring muscadine wines, two kinds of rum, and fresh pineapples.
The War Mouth serves lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and dinner from 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Their bar is open from 11:30 a.m. to midnight Tuesday through Saturday. They also have a mouthwatering new late night food menu featuring hot fried quail, smoked turkey legs, and Dixiecrat sausage. For a full menu, visit www.thewarmouth.com.