Enter the words Leon’s, oyster, Charleston, and search engines return “Oyster Shop,” “Oyster Shed,” “Leon’s Oyster & Chicken” and “Leon’s Fine Poultry & Oysters.” They’re all the same establishment – a relatively new restaurant with a well-worn feel (located in an old garage) where the menu is traditional Lowcountry fare with modern chef brio and the attitude is urban-hip but Dixie-hospitable. Leon’s is an extremely casual place that has been scrupulously created to offer an experience that is in fact culinary theater.
I apologize for my inability to neatly categorize Leon’s. It is hard to describe because it is an original. Its laid-back attitude and snapped-to-attention menu have become a North Star of Charleston’s rampant restaurant scene, in particular the scene on North King Street (where other beacons have been opened by the same relentlessly creative restaurateur, Brooks Reitz).
The poultry part of the operation is fried chicken, and it is good: juicy, crisp-skinned, and glowing red with a fair measure of Nashville-style heat and spice. It’s sold as two pieces (white or dark), a half-bird, or whole, and is well accompanied by “old school” scalloped potatoes, black-eyed pea salad, and hush puppies with honey butter. Other swell side dishes include Brussels sprouts fried crisp in a tangy wine marinade and a refreshing cucumber salad with an Asian-flavored sesame-seed twist.
For oyster lovers, Leon’s is a blast. Of course, you can have them raw by the dozen on the half shell, opened to order — simple and impeccable. When I visited, shuckers were offering a sampler of four: two different oysters from South Carolina – both big and briny – plus one from Massachusetts that wasn’t quite as bold but had a more complex marine character and a Prince Edward Island lovely that was soft-flavored and ineluctably elegant. I could have eaten a dozen of these quartets, comparing and contrasting all afternoon, but duty demanded I also try some char-grilled oysters. Under a mantle of Parmesan cheese and butter, the seductive gleam of the oyster is blurred, but the swirl of oceanic sweetness, dairy richness, and smoky char is bewitching.
Not being a tippler, I can’t evaluate the adult-beverage menu, except to say that it’s bigger than the food menu and includes such intriguing categories as “Cheap Wine,” “Day Drinking,” and “Bold and Boozy.”
Thanks to Karl McMillan for directing us here.