Lowcountry Food: Comfort rules the day at Panini's on the Waterfront
By Betsy Hinderliter | Comfort is a wonderful word and the phase ‘comfort food’ is even better. Lately I’ve been pondering the term and thinking about the foods that soothe and cheer a Southern soul. As sure as this is a personal choice, certainly there are more than a few that land in a Southerner’s top five. May I suggest grits, homemade biscuits, macaroni and cheese (NOT from a box), squash casserole and here in the Lowcountry most any ‘one dish meal’ made with rice, be it pilau, red rice, crab rice or any other.
Being that our current weather pattern (like most of the country) has been parked in the Weather Channel-blue range of chilly and ‘brrrrr’, I find myself drawn to something besides food, believe it or not.
No one has ever accused me of being a pyromaniac, but I do appreciate a roaring fire – inside or out. Depending on the situation, a good old-fashioned fire not only validates socializing with friends, it just begs for a party. The kind is totally up to you – slurp some briny oysters, toast marshmallows, or roast a pig. The warm comfort of fire and food is a natural mix here in Beaufort.
However, if a fireside glow isn’t possible at your home, then let me tell you about a place right here in Beaufort where you cannot only find a cozy hearth but also a hearty meal. Panini’s on the Waterfront, located at the western end of Bay Street (926 Bay to be precise) will set you up right with a menu that while expansive, does not lack for quality. Open seating is anchored in the rear by the large brick oven, where all the magic – pizza magic that is – happens. You can belly up to the bar that surrounds the copper-topped oven, place your order and sip a nice glass of red or a pint of ale while your pie is baking. Take in the ambiance of this bank turned movie theatre turned restaurant as you nibble on an appetizer – bacon wrapped shrimp with mascarpone cheese and a caper remoulade, perhaps?
Derek Comerford, Panini’s ‘go-to’ guy (he’s worked for owner Paul Thompson for 10 years) was nice enough to share some historical background of the restaurant with me. It is fairly easy to see how the space was originally a bank, but later a 1940’s era movie theater? Derek says that the space that is now the restaurant’s ample outside deck that faces Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park and the Beaufort River, and was once the theater section and the current building was the entry and concession area. Since the 1960’s or so, the current structure as been used as a restaurant with Panini’s relocating here from about 10 years ago. It’s a landmark building in Beaufort for sure and Panini’s on the Waterfront does it justice I think, as a favorite with visitors and locals alike.
Having dined here several times, my only complaint would be the name – because this place offers a whole lot more than just the panini. Yes, my most recent meal here was the crab and shrimp BLT panini, which was excellent. Bursting with fresh local blue crab and shrimp layered on a crispy nest of shredded romaine, garlic mayo, crunchy pancetta and topped with pickled onions, this sandwich was in a word, well two words – gargantuan AND good.
But I started my meal with a cup of the Panini’ signature Italian sausage and white bean soup, to ward off the morning’s cold… and it did the trick. I understand why this soup is a favorite and this original-to-the-menu item has stayed right there. I appreciated the freshness of the vegetables and herbs Chef Paul uses in this soup. It also had a subtle spiciness that was not overpowering, but added to the soup’s flavor profile. So having thoroughly enjoyed my soup I was presented with my Panini that, luckily, was sliced in half so I could easily tackle taking a bite. This made packing up the other half to-go a breeze, too.
In addition to the namesake panini and brick oven baked pizzas, this restaurant offers a range of lunch goodies including hoagies and entrees. Several of these are mainstay items (like that awesome sausage & white bean) and Chef Paul tells me that the menu changes about every 4 months or so.
“We use as much local product as we can,” Chef Paul said. “Our menu reflects the seasonality of produce as well as the seafood we serve. We buy our seafood from independent fishermen and of course, our local shrimp and crab is the best. We’re serving local clams right now from Beaufort Shellfish Company.”
The current menu reflects this locality with the addition of she crab soup quickly becoming a favorite with restaurant patrons. And while neither I nor anyone in my immediate family has food allergies, I do see that Panini’s offers several gluten-free dishes and will substitute gluten free pasta on request.
While Panini’s hearty lunch menu definitely reflects an Italian angle with selections like the antipasto plate, meatball parmigana hoagie, eggplant capanata panini and the various pizza pies, their dinner menu really shines with a Mediterranean glow… and a Lowcountry twist! Because who can resist adding the ‘comfort food’ favorites we’re known for – grits, mac-n-cheese, and paella made with local Beaufort clams, shrimp and flounder – to their menu? ‘Frogmore Penne’ with local shrimp, Andouille sausage and penne pasta tossed in a lightly spiced curry cream sauce sounds delightful on a cool winter’s night.
Personally my husband and I are foodie fools for steak frites and as I spy this entree on the dinner menu, I know my next meal here will be quick to order. Order up! Well, unless Chef Paul pulls some delicious slight of hand with a nightly special and that warm brick oven, to tempt me away from one of my favorite comfort meals.
I wouldn’t think anything less could happen at Panini’s.
Photos by Betsy Hinderliter and ESPB
Cover photo, Panini’s macaroni and cheese with pesto grilled shrimp.