Travel: Do the Charleston
Rebecca Parker Payne
Photos: Olivia Rae James
June 22 2014
Few places embody the soul of the new South like Charleston, South Carolina. This handsome and hospitable crossroads of buttery foods, humidity and high style has been making quite the impression as of late, and some pretty cool kids are taking note.
Southerners and their cities all too often remain hidden behind nostalgia, married to veiled representations of what once was. Charleston, though, is a resilient Lowcountry town that has turned over a bright new leaf. And while the city respectfully preserves its olden charms, it is also moving resolutely towards the future. So, when it comes to reasons for paying Charleston a visit, this town famous for flower boxes and Bill Murray photobombs, provides a long list of libations and liberations for any long weekend getaway.
Still, its food scene perhaps speaks the most confidently. Charleston has had an instrumental role in moving Southern cuisine off the dusty shelves of another generation (and, ahem, another inclination) and into inventive new territory that bridges ages and palates. Charleston cooking knows fresh vegetables and butter and lard in equilibrium, and it values cast-iron fried chicken every bit as much as locally sourced ingredients. But however contemporary it may become, you’ll never be left wanting for grits or oysters-on-the-half-shell. The city’s southern roots remain indelible indeed.
Since it’s somewhat difficult to ingest more than three meals per day, it comes as a relief that Charleston life doesn’t begin and end at the table. There are plenty of diversions to distract you between meals. What’s more, the city is well-equipped for pedestrians, idle walkers, and even bicyclists to ease your digestive efforts.
To help plan your Charleston trip, here are a few of our favorite spots, sure to guarantee the right amount of delicious treats, artisanal drinks, and worthy sightseeing.
Husk: Perhaps the first chef to become a household name without his own cooking show, local Sean Brock is something of a celebrity. Brock is behind Husk and McCrady’s, and was the 2010 recipient of the James Beard Best Chef Southeast award. A table at either of his restaurants is nothing short of a peerless culinary experience, both when compared against what you’ve eaten in the past and likely everything you’ll eat in the future. He is in his own words “transforming the essence of Southern food” and his transformative take on a rich history makes him a rather fitting embodiment of Charleston. The menu changes by season as well as availability of ingredients, but always ask for the bacon-skillet-cornbread.
Gin Joint: If you’re aiming to find out what a true Mint Julep tastes like, the Gin Joint has you covered. Its craft drinks will impress even the most persnickety of cocktail aficionados, and will showcase anything and everything, except, of course, any alcohol introduced since prohibition. That means only gin, whiskey, rums, and brandys at the bar. However, what is lacking in diversity is made up for in perfectly detailed originality. Unsure of what you want? Choose from two adjectives ranging from bitter to smokey or vegetal, and the bartender will make you something—chilled by a perfect sphere of ice—to satisfy your craving.
Hominy Grill: It’s worth the wait, especially when you can walk up to the beverages-to-go window to grab yourself a bloody mary for your time. Patrons are equal parts tourist and locals, and the biscuits are made by hand and lard. Trust us, again, the high-rise flaky biscuits are worth every cent of the two dollars you pay for one. Best served with a drizzle of honey and lathered unashamedly with butter.
Runners-up: Toast (almost exclusively for the bottomless mimosas), and well, everywhere else we’ve recommended.
The City Market: Open-air market packed with all the finest Charleston gifts and knickknacks. Fine wares include: bags of grits, handwoven baskets, and anything else you’ll need to prove your Southernness back home.
Two Boroughs Larder: This spot is as much restaurant as it is provincial pantry and market, selling everything from locally roasted coffee to sorghum and tableware. Come for the food, leave with a full stomach and suitcase.
Get Lost: The best Charleston advice I’ve heard is know where you’re going, then take the long way. Wind through the back streets, and find yourself gawking unconsciously at homes with more square footage on their porch than in their interiors. Stumble upon grand waterfront views, horse-drawn carriages, and secret pocket parks.
Eat, walk, be a very southland type of merry.
Photos by Olivia Rae James.