Restaurant Review: Rivertown Bistro
Conway eatery is full of delectable delights
This unforgettable culinary trek took us along the U.S. 501 corridor in the depths of January. As we cleared the bridge that spills traffic into Conway, the only sign of life was the twinkle of post-holiday lights still set in sidewalk trees.
Rounding Third Avenue, into the historic business district, the old cornerstone city hall was still. Shops and offices were locked tight. But as we closed in on the Rivertown Bistro, the block suddenly came alive with lights, the lilt of chit-chat and clink of cutlery. The Bistro’s parking lot was full, and there wasn’t an open spot on the street, so we had to circle the block until a space became available.
In winter, on a week night, in the midst of a recession, distanced from the hype of Myrtle Beach, on a sleepy side street and you can’t find a parking spot. What’s up with that?
I’m here to tell you: Hands down and forks up, Rivertown Bistro serves the most outstanding food you will taste anywhere, in a cool Mayberry-meets-Manhattan atmosphere, with top-notch service and value in every bite.
What a crying shame it would have been if Darren and Cyndi Smith had thrown in the tablecloth and decided not rebuild and re-open after their bistro caught fire in 2008.
The bar was packed and every table full in the main floor dining room, so we got the pleasure of sitting in the newer upstairs loft area, complete with an open-air patio that overlooks the street and across rooftops. Outside, but underneath heat lamps, couples enjoyed after-dinner drinks and desserts.
I wanted to start with wine, a vintage voted “most likely to pair” with almost any food. Our waiter suggested a popular Rivertown red from California’s X Winery, an interesting blend of Syrah, Cabernet and Zinfandel that was absolutely delicious with a heady breath of berries in every sip.
Having trained in some of the best kitchens in Charleston, chef Darren continues to dazzle a dish, not only with fresh local ingredients, but with a Southern stamp that elevates a lowly green or common staple to gastro stardom.
A perfect example of Darren’s chef-ery is the appetizer that wowed us—the pimiento cheese cake. Not only was the cheese sharp and creamy, but the accompanying peas sautéed with smoky bacon took the legume to new heights. Served with triangles of grilled pita bread and a dense, sweet wild mushroom and fig vincotto, the combination proved to be a taste sensation.
And just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, we had supper.
I had a steaming plate of Parmesan-encrusted snapper resting on a bed of Dixie-style risotto with chunks of Benton country ham and fresh pineapple, a deep pool of port wine sauce and topped off with crispy shavings of leek. Believe me when I say you will never look at breading the same way once you’ve tasted this extraordinary coating.
My husband went for the night’s special, a ribeye of pork with an insanely good bacon Béarnaise, surrounded by roasted potatoes. He has always snubbed collards until he experienced Smith’s bacon-creamed version, a culinary tribute to a green that’s habitually served a touch bitter and a lot greasy.
The hearty portions made us rethink dessert, for about a minute.
We shared the homemade gingerbread held together with thick pastry cream and capped by mincemeat and pear compote.
Rivertown Bistro also offers a list of salads and sushi rolls. For a sushi roll with a drawl, you can order the fried flounder, boiled peanut and okra selection that comes with smoked tomato ranch dip.
From fish to meats to pan-roasted duck and chicken, Smith brings a magical fusion of tastes and textures to each menu item while keeping his Southern roots intact. Standby sides would never make the cut in Rivertown’s kitchen, up against the likes of mac-n-cheese noodle cake, Tasso ham fried rice, hash brown casserole, jalapeno grit cakes and caramelized onion bread pudding.
For this level of fine cuisine, you simply cannot beat the price. Rivertown’s supper menu starts at $10 for an Angus burger on brioche to $25 for lobster, shrimp and sausage served in a zucchini boat.
If you haven’t discovered Rivertown Bistro yet, I just have two words for you: Road trip!
1111 Third Avenue
Conway, SC 29526
11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5–10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday