Two weeks ago today my ventures took to me Charleston, the oldest and second-largest city in South Carolina. Having missed stopping in Savannah, GA on my way up from Florida, I was excited about what was going to be my first field trip to a quintessential Southern town. And what an adventure it turned out to be, filled with food, history, mixology, sun and an impromptu jam sesh!
Before heading out from Columbia (about 114 miles away or about a two-hour drive), I knew our time was going to be limited. Having heard that you could spend at least a week just putzing around town, checking out its historical sites, like Fort Sumter and The Citadel as well as tasting the fares of its renowned restaurants, I wasn’t going to be able to see and do it all, but that was okay. I had great “tour guides,” who had a few local connections and favorite places they wanted to share. But, before I get into those, I wanted to turn you on to with what most mainstream tourists, which I am not, would’ve had on their agenda.
A brief history
Founded in 1670 as Charles Towne in honor of King Charles II of England, Charleston adopted its present name in 1783. By 1690, Charles Towne was the fifth largest city in North America, and it remained among the ten largest cities in the United States through the 1840’s, at which time it was a bustling trade center – the hub of the Atlantic trade of African slaves, cotton, silk and tea for the Southern colonies.
It was also the city which started the civil war. In December of 1860, following the election of Abraham Lincoln, South Carolina voted to secede from the Union – hence why the Confederate flag still flies in the capital of Columbia. On January 9, 1861, cadets of the Citadel, an arsenal-turned-military academy, opened fire from Fort Sumter on the Union ship, Star of the West, that entered Charleston’s harbor.
The rest, well, is history…
Known for its rich history, well-preserved architecture, restaurant community, and mannerly people, Charleston has received a large number of accolades, including “America’s Most Friendly City” by Travel + Leisure in 2011 and “the most polite and hospitable city in America” by Southern Living magazine.
Charleston is also famous for its unique culture, which blends traditional Southern U.S., English, French, and West African elements. The downtown peninsula is well known for its art, music, local cuisine, and fashion. Must eats, like the Hominy Grill (synonymous for Shrimp and Grits), Jestine’s Kitchen holly low country eats, FIG and the Tattooed Moose for their Food Network-famous features would’ve been nice, but it was the pristine beaches, epicurean delights, artistry and funk that scratched the surface for me.
“It’s always an adventure with the McCaulley’s”
Before even arriving in Charleston, the adventure had already begun by means of a little car trouble. So I wanted to take the opportunity to clarify a couple questions I received on my previous post “Early Insights,” which alluded to them, but left a little room for worry for some. Yes, we had a minor delay in getting there. It was my friend’s Ford Escape (not my Mazda) that encountered minor break trouble on the way in to town. But, it was not a big deal – nothing that a short stop and cool-off couldn’t fix. Within minutes we were on our way to our first stop in Charleston:
Folly Beach: I had heard great things about this little beach town before even stepping foot on it. It was (and still is) my Wanee sister’s favorite place to be, so we had to check it out even though her husband probably preferred that we didn’t. He’s just not a beach guy, but he rolled with it so she and I could squeeze in a little quality time on the South Carolina shore.
With its beach boutiques, surf and skate shops as well as family-owned bars and eateries, Folly Beach reminded me of a scaled down version of Santa Cruz, California, sans the boardwalk and sea lions. Like many beach-side communities, it was laid back, casual but really cool with a West Coast kind of swagger. Lacking the rocky cliffs and cold currents of the Pacific, it was truly an East Coast coastline, with expansive sandy beaches, significant tidal surge and a fishing pier.
Taco Boy: Having just got out of the car, our first stop was a needed one: food and drink. So we stopped into a place my friends frequent every time they’re in town. Taco Boy. Adding to Folly Beach’s west coast flair, Taco Boy served up an impressive selection of taco fusion. So we sampled the Baja fish, kimchi beef, Al Pastor, braised beef and Carnitas Norteno tacos, while slugging several traditional and jalapeno margaritas. Like tequila, but not a fan of sour mix? Try ordering a margarita with just tequila and lime juice. My friend did, and it was a simple and sessionable take on a classic…without the heartburn.
The Gin Joint: After soaking up the sun in Folly Beach, we ventured into downtown Charleston, where I had a plethora of recommendations at which to eat and drink some more. But having filled up sufficiently at Taco Boy, we opted to try a speak easy-style mixologist bar, called The Gin Joint. What an impressive place! At first, we weren’t sure if we were dressed appropriately to even go in but after a quick inspection inside, it was green light go! With its cool-colored walls and hipster-fashioned staff, we perused the menu, complimented with provisions, cheeses, deserts and, of course, cocktails.
Feeling a little daring, I opted to go with the Bartenders Choice, which allows you to choose two adjectives which the mixologist would blend together. In true form, I opted for “smokey” and “herbal”, and while I don’t remember exactly what was included, I have to say I was super impressed by the green-colored concoction I received. My company enjoyed champagne and the Six Shooter, which expertly blended together Rye Whiskey, Smoked Honey, Tosolini, Cynar, on Mole Bitters poured over an oversized, crafted cube of ice. Priced at around $10 per cocktail, I would’ve gladly paid over $22 which represented their signature and most high-end libation – The Apple Skin Bittered Sling, which blended Thomas Handy Cask Strength Rye Whiskey, Ramazzotti Amaro, Sorghum Molasses, Homemade Apple Skin Bitters. Next time you’re in Charleston, be sure to stop by. You will leave feeling right as rain…even if there isn’t any in the forecast.
Running a little late to meet up with a friend of my hosts, rather than hoofing it down Bay Street to King Street, (where the action is), we decided to catch a cab – a rickshaw ride to be more accurate. And, I’m so glad we did! Not only did the driver take us down a path less traveled in Charleston, which allowed us to soak up the sights of its historic alleys, it turned out to be my Wanee sister’s first time in a rickshaw. Yay for her!
Fish: Arriving on King Street, we easily navigated our way to Fish, where we were to catch our friend and local jazz guitarist, Lee Barbour, play an improvised set at this schmancy French-Asian establishment. Too caught up in the calming sounds of Lee’s guitar, we decided not to have a proper dinner, but I have to admit I drooled a little bit over their fresh and seasonal, sweet and spicy, classic and modern menu with the finest local ingredients, reimagining French and Asian classics. We did sample a petite plate of Don’t Peel, But Eat Shrimp, poached in coconut and citrus and accompanied by a ginger cocktail sauce. I didn’t want to leave Charleston without sampling their local, coastal shrimp. The one regret was not ordering the Duck Croque “Mad Duck”, which featured confit duck, foie gras, emmethal, bacon and challah brioche. Next time. And, there will be one!
The Rarebit: With Lee wrapping up his sexy set at Fish and my friends looking to catch up, the four of us headed down King Street only to discover The Rarebit, home of the best Moscow Mule (Vodka, ginger beer and limeade) ever and some damn fine fried Chicken and Waffles, too! In fact the only one of us that didn’t opt for the Chicken and Waffles as breakfast-for-dinner was our female counterpart, who ordered a proper Shrimp and Grits – which Charleston is known for – just so I could say I did. Creamy but not heavy and freshly milled, I’m glad she did. Hey girl, hey!! I’d highly recommend The Rarebit to anyone eating and drinking their way through Charleston. The menu is filled with elevated comfort food. Just keep in mind that anytime after 10pm is breakfast only. And I’m glad it was!
Juanita Greenberg’s Nacho Royale: With the night winding down (or so we thought) and the three of us having to make the drive back to Columbia (duty calls), we wandered down King Street a ways to the most unlikely of places featuring even more unsuspecting sounds. Stumbling into this not-so-impressive taco joint (as compared to our previous stops), the door was over-run with 20-something, college- looking kids, who could’ve been accused of loitering but were just having their smokes. Despite Lee’s recommendation that local musician friends of his were going to be playing, we were just about to call it night when the tunes started up. Funky ass bass! Within minutes, the four of us had drinks in hand and were warming up to a local funk jam session in the making. After only one or two songs, the guitarist approached “Uncle Lee” and asked him to sit in, handing him his guitar. What followed was about 20 – 30 minutes of uninterrupted funk. It was so funky, we could’ve smelled it all the way back in Columbia. Pee Yew! Just goes to show some of the best things in life are not and cannot be scheduled.
Looking back, I was thoroughly impressed with Charleston. I expected to find a Savannah-like, city filled with southern charm but discovered an up-and-coming scene that gives the swanky side of Las Vegas a run for its money. Although there was a lot that I did not get to see or do due to time limitations, I wouldn’t have had it any other way! I was fortunate to have seen the real side of Charleston, from historic sites and what was once a slave market to Food Network-featured restaurants and auditory funk. But most of all, I got to experience the city the way a local would want. Thanks guys!
Before I sign off, I have to acknowledge that this post is two weeks behind the power curve, but the good news is I’m catching up. Check back soon as I will be filling you in on my more recent adventures to Asheville, North Carolina, Pisgah National Park and Nashville, Tennessee where I will be for the next couple of days.
Until then, thanks for stopping by. Love the support!
P.S. – Did I miss anything? If so, don’t hesitate to leave me a comment for next time. I appreciate it…and more, you!