With the world even more on edge than usual, there’s something almost therapeutic about indulging in the past — watching classic films and TV shows, for example, or seeking out retro-minded restaurants that recall old days, old ways. 18th & 21st, a terrific arrival in Columbia, is such a place.
The title itself provides the first throwback — those numbers refer to the 18th Amendment, which ushered in Prohibition, and the 21st, which ushered it back out.
The dry years are further evoked in the way you reach the establishment. You first pass through Cured, an airy, casual bar-restaurant under the same ownership and sharing some menu items. If you pretend that Cured is a front meant to fool the Feds, you can imagine yourself furtively heading down a corridor to a speakeasy.
Such a flight of fancy would be easier to sustain if they had put a peephole in the windowless entrance doors to 18th & 21st and made you give a password (like any self-respecting Marx Brothers fan, I was dying to say “swordfish” to someone when we got there). But stepping inside still feels like a reward.
The restaurant’s sophisticated ambience, a little redolent of early 1930s supper clubs, is boosted by the classy bonus of live jazz offered nightly. (The refined playing of pianist Jeff Wilson and bassist Terry Battle added greatly to our evening.)
Elegant art deco touches adorn a bar and main dining area with a cool ceiling illustration of a skyline that suggests Chicago, epicenter of Prohibition gangsters. But such a setting cries out for much subtler illumination than we encountered.
The menu, printed on paper stained to look as if it’s seen years of usage (that may carry the retro concept a bit too far), is pretty much standard American, but the kitchen has the skill and sensitivity to make food pop.
Our first course included crispy Brussels sprouts mingled with spiced garbanzo beans, an invigorating combo, and a poetic plate of roasted red and yellow beets.
Our charcuterie board choices revealed quality of texture and taste (the snappy house chorizo sausage was a standout), artfully arrayed and complemented by excellent quince, pickled vegetables and more.
The thick, tender, quail egg-topped pork chop entree received sterling backup from confit fingerling potatoes and Swiss chard. Elegantly presented, the roasted airline chicken breast was a bit dry but still very flavorful with its yuzu glaze and sausage-cornbread stuffing.
And a succulent filet mignon, crowned with a little globe of red wine compound butter, nestled alongside a fine sweet potato puree and asparagus.
A vegetarian option, lentil curry, delivered a winning combination of supple flavor and texture, aided by sweet potatoes, cauliflower, spinach and Greek yogurt. (Slices of excellent flatbread came pre-sopped, having been placed atop the bowl; a separate plate might be better.)
For dessert, we couldn’t resist German chocolate cake, which revealed abundant richness and was garnished by sinful bourbon cherries. Petite ice cream sandwiches made with slices of dark chocolate brownie hit the sweet spot, too. Hitting that spot too hard was the doughnut bread pudding, served warm with vanilla ice cream.
And what of the alcohol in this alcohol-themed establishment? I wasn’t a fan of the old style, gingery tonic water made in-house. Although I appreciated the effort, I traded in a gin and tonic for a fine martini.
The bar didn’t have a requested bourbon, but the beverage director came to the table to offer a mini-tasting course of available brands. That unexpected gesture, along with the assistance of our exceptionally attentive and genial server throughout the meal, typified the remarkable qualities of 18th & 21st.
18th & 21st
10980 Grantchester Way, Suite 110, Columbia
Prices: Appetizers $9.50 to $16; entrees $22 to $38
Ambience: The retro look and the sounds of live jazz combine to create a sophisticated, but unstuffy, atmosphere.
Service: Our stellar server demonstrated a keen sense of timing, offered much-appreciated advice and anticipated our every need.
Parking: Free garage
Special diets: They can be accommodated.
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star]