By Becky Billingsley
Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2011, Conway - Nate Palmer completed his move from downtown Conway to near Coastal Carolina University and Horry-Georgetown Technical College, and so far business has been steady at the reinvented Berni's 501.
Not that everything is new. Many of the menu items are the same, but much has been added.
However, the decor is completely different. The original Berni's Cafe was in a vintage building with high ceilings and period architectural details from the tiny geometric tiles to the wood trims and beveled glass. The new Berni's 501 (named because it's off U.S. 501, and the Berni in question is Palmer's mother) has an extremely orange and modern-looking paint job. Furnishings are also firmly in the 21st century with slate- and wheat-colored stone tile flooring and tables topped in a matching stone-like hue.
Palmer's kitchen, which is much, much bigger than the tiny kitchen he had in downtown Conway, has a wide opening so diners can see him at work. A full service bar was constructed on the wall opposite the kitchen with room for about a dozen drinkers. Several televisions are scattered about the restaurant, and the front inward-curving multi-pane bay window enhances the modernistic effect. To the side of the bar is a patio is a door leading to a fenced-in patio with another dozen tables.
Music played on the sound system is anything but modern, with a pleasant mix of earthy bluegrass, folk, blues and jazz. A live entertainment schedule is being worked out, and on Nov. 5 the band Treehouse performed. Manager Eric Hall said it was a popular and busy night.
Palmer is still serving his two signature dishes: Spinach Cakes and Fruit Cobbler made from a 136-year-old recipe.
However, an enhancement has been added to the Spinach Cakes. You can still get the original version made with baby spinach, fresh mozzarella, breadcrumbs and seasoning, but now there's also a specialty version that comes with a choice of smoked gouda, blue cheese or feta with bacon.
The Spinach Cakes are part of the all-day menu's appetizer section ($7-$11). Other appetizers include a Maryland-style Crab Cake, Cornbread, Wings (mild, medium hot, barbecue, teriyaki), Wu-Tang Shrimp that are fried and tossed in sweet chili sauce, and Quesadillas that can have shrimp, chicken, beef or just cheese.
There are five salads, and one of them is Berni's delicious Taco Salad that was available at the original location only as an occasional special. It contains meat, beans, veggies and a special sweet dressing. Other salads ($7-$8) are House, Caesar, Spinach and Classic Cobb, and for an extra $3-$5 they can be topped with shrimp, chicken breast, barbecue chicken or a spinach cake.
Another option is to build your own salad for $6, and there are 28 topping options from pastrami and pepperoni to corn and black beans.
Several $7-$8 sandwiches are offered including hoagies, chicken salad, club, cheeseburger, meatball, Reuben, chicken and The Thornton with pastrami, provolone and spicy mustard. Three wraps are $7-$8: Cheesburger, Bacon Jack Chicken and Chicken Caesar.
Three pasta dishes come with a bread stick and are priced at $12-$13: Gouda Chicken and Mushroom, Blackened Chicken with veggies in Cajun cream sauce, and Alfredo that can come with chicken, shrimp or a spinach cake.
Six entrees are $8-$13, and this is the list my friend and I chose from. Matt Cayuela of MyrtleBeachHappyHour.com picked the Angus Pot Roast for $9, and after he cleaned his plate he said he liked it, as if I couldn't tell. The meat certainly looked tender and juicy, and the meal came with mashed garlic Parmesan redskin potatoes, gravy, corn, Texas toast and a house salad.
I picked the Crab and Spinach combo where you get a spinach cake and a crab cake with a spinach side salad. I asked for the blue cheese spinach cake, and it was delicious. If you've never had one of Berni's spinach cakes, they are wonderful creations where the spinach has excess moisture expelled from it, and with the seasonings and cheese it's a heartily delicious vegetarian option.
The crab cake was generously sized, but I think Nate is stretching it a bit to call it a lump crab cake. It had a few lumps in there, but it was mostly back fin. Still, it was a tasty crab cake and I liked the drizzle of spicy Texas Petal Cream Sauce it was plated with. My spinach side salad was great - the baby spinach leaves were de-stemmed, and it was topped with tomato chunks, a bit of onion and grated Cheddar. The vinaigrette dressing was tasty too.
We didn't have room for dessert, but there's that cobbler in peach, blueberry or apple served hot with a scoop of Breyer's Vanilla Bean ice cream on top. I've had it before, and recommend it.
If you'd like to try a few menu items on the cheap, there is a happy hour menu from 4-7 p.m. daily and a late night menu from 10 p.m. to midnight with seven dishes priced $5-$9: Spinach Cake, Breadsticks with marinara, Wu-Tang Shrimp, Wings, Quesadillas, Bacon Jack Chicken Wrap and Chicken Caesar Wrap.
I like the food at Berni's and think Palmer is offering terrific value for the prices. I miss the cozy vintage ambiance of the original location, but now there's more room, quicker service and increased amenities. I guess if I want cozy, I can sit by the fire pit out on the patio.
Berni's 501 is at 2246 U.S. 501 E., in the outparcel by the Food Lion just east of HGTC. It's open from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Mondays through Fridays and 11 a.m. to midnight Saturdays and Sundays. The number is (843) 347-1060.