The barbecue drought in Westport is over.
Celebrate it in the place that made it happen. At Char Bar, competition-style barbecue shares the table with gourmet southern-style sides, some of which are hearty enough to pleasantly satisfy carnivores, omnivores and lacto-vegetarians.
Managing partners Mark Kelpe and James Westphal have a proven track record of introducing successful dining concepts to Westport with their popular Beer Kitchen, McCoy’s Public House and The Foundry.
Now, thanks to them and their investors, the barbecue void that happened a decade ago when John and Rosie Grant doused the fire and turned out the lights at Westport Bar-B-Que on Broadway is over.
Char Bar takes up a big chunk of the former Beaumont Club. It has been transformed into a barbecue joint with retro-contemporary ambiance. You can’t miss the huge mural painted on the cinder block wall in the distance to your left as you walk in.
Reminiscent of barbecue graphics in cookbooks, magazines and postcards from America’s 1950s backyard barbecue boom, a proud pitmaster shows off his rotisserie chickens to an admiring guest.
While you and friends sip craft beers, sodas, infused tea, infused lemonade or bourbon cocktails, see who can come up with the most outrageous or entertaining story as to what’s going on in that scene.
If stretching your creative brain cells doesn’t appeal to you, other indoor amusements are at hand — Foosball or watching sports events on TV, for example. New amusements are planned for outdoor fun when the weather turns warm.
While the mural reflects the retro-contemporary Char Bar spirit, the menu goes far beyond 1950s style backyard fare with a creative medley of Southern style comfort foods.
We liked the ambiance, but Gretchen, Di, Terry and I were there for the food, the barbecue in particular. Let’s eat.
The meat menu is crafted by award winning competition pitmaster Mitch Benjamin, known in Chow Town for his Meat Mitch barbecue sauces. Thus, you’re getting contemporary competition style barbecue unlike 1950s backyard barbecue.
Our favorite meats in the Whomp Platter were the burnt ends, brisket and ribs — although the latter lean toward the barbecue competition candy standard. The ribs are tender and juicy with a hint of hican smoke when you get past the add-on sweetness. The sliced turkey breast spent a bit too much time in brine. A butter bath would complement the saltiness.
Any barbecue dish with “heaven” in its name gets my attention. The Burnt Heaven sandwich has ingredients and flavors that befit the name — smoked burnt ends, smoked sausage, fried jalapenos, chipotle barbecue mayo and creamy slaw.
We liked it, but it fell short of the name, due to the egg bun. It is so large that you need a really big mouth to take a bite; thus, we sampled individual components instead of getting a mouthful of the combo. Burnt Heaven in a gordita would ramp this one up to heavenly.
The “Pig Tail” Mac & Cheese, named after the shape of the pasta — I’m guessing riccioli — was rich and loaded with melted cheese. We loved it.
Add a touch of garlic to the Anson Mills Cheddar Grits and it would rival the famous Garlic Cheese Grits at Miss Mary Bobo’s Boarding House in Lynchburg, Tenn. Touches of cheese and baby watercress sprouts — I’m guessing — add a tasty garnish and color accent.
Our unanimous favorite was Roots & Fruits — roasted beets, parsnips and onion, goat cheese, oranges, pistachios, crispy Brussels sprouts. The skull and crossbones warning that “These items contain no meat!!” didn’t stop us from enjoying every bite.
The combination of ingredients, laced with blackberry wine vinaigrette, resonated deeply with our primal gatherer genes. Roots & Fruits was our memorable favorite from beginning to end.
There’s more I want to try: Fried green tomatoes, cheesy grits hushpuppies, smoked corn succotash, sweet corn spoonbread, the other sandwiches, and of course the Velvet Elvis.
Hats off to Sophia, our fun, lovely, amiable server, and to Mark Kelpe, James Westphal and Mitch Benjamin for ending the barbecue drought in Westport.
Ardie Davis founded a sauce contest on his backyard patio in 1984 that became the American Royal International Barbecue Sauce, Rub & Baste contest. He is a charter member of the Kansas City Barbeque Society and an inductee into the KCBS Hall of Flame. He has been interviewed on food shows and writes for barbecue-related publications. His most recent release is “America’s Best BBQ Homestyle: What Champions Cook in Their Own Backyards.”