Eating your way through Charleston

Monday, February 07, 2005
By Beth Macy
The Roanoke Times

Abundant in food and history, Charleston offers tourists more than their fill of things to do, even in winter.

In the past 12 months, we’ve traveled to Charleston, S.C., in two very different ways.

The first, in celebration of a friend’s milestone birthday, involved a private plane, a stretch limousine with a driver named Omar and a multicourse meal featuring foods we loved but couldn’t quite pronounce.

Needless to say, we were traveling on someone else’s dime.

Last month, left to our own devices and checkbook, we took an off-season journey to the Holy City in considerably humbler style.

Attempting to eke out one final road trip in our 112,000-mile minivan, we left Roanoke in the predawn – our kids home safe in their rightful place – that is, with the baby sitter. We were racing to beat a snowstorm that was crippling the Northeast and would later have one Charleston weatherman nervously declaring: "It’s 30 degrees outside and dangerous. Do not go outside unless you have to!"

Where was Robin Reed when we needed him?

Things could’ve been a lot worse, though, especially when we factored in the foggy, icy stretch of Interstate 77 near Fancy Gap, where the temperature was 21 – and our van heater, inexplicably, conked out.

By the time we reached our mechanic on the cellphone, we were down the mountain, our heater moodily spitting bursts of tepid air.

"I think you’ll make it OK," he said. "But whatever you do, don’t let anybody down there work on your car. If it dies, I’ll come down there and tow it back."

Charleston may have nabbed the Most Mannerly City award, but you don’t have to go to the Deep South for real hospitality.

Eight hours later (a Charlestonian from Roanoke swears she can make the trip in 6 hours, 15 minutes), we were checked into the Doubletree Suites of Historic Charleston, our trademark cookies downed and a pint glass of Palmetto Amber Ale at Hyman’s Seafood – a famous, if not exactly great restaurant – in our hands.

The next thing to do was to call down the Expert. That would be my old buddy, Aida Rogers, who is managing editor of the statewide Lexington, S.C.-based magazine, Sandlapper, and a foodie extraordinaire. Aida writes a column called "Stop Where the Parking Lot’s Full," and there’s almost no decent restaurant in the Palmetto state that doesn’t have one of her stories adorning the walls.

It being Sunday morning, Aida recommended her favorite restaurant for brunch: High Cotton, which she described as tasteful, lovely, moderately priced and home to good live jazz.

If you want to shop – she knew I would – the place to walk was King Street, a mile-long stretch of independent boutiques and chains (Williams-Sonoma, Banana Republic, etc.) with an occasional consignment store and hole-in-the-wall diner thrown in for the funk factor.

I found a boutique aptly named Affordables (which was having a 50-percent-off sale) and a vintage shop called Grandma’s Goodies, where a clerk and I had a very serious conversation about the best way to make pimiento cheese (minced jalapenos and green olives, we agreed, are key).

Being home to two culinary institutes, Charleston is known far and wide for cranking out innovative chefs and servers who know their mache from their arugula. In fact, serious gourmands here are biting their nails because Johnson & Wales will soon be relocating to Charlotte. Accustomed to a new restaurant opening up almost weekly and featuring such semi-precious foods as coconut-encrusted oysters and fried goat cheese, they advise taking the Eating Tour of Charleston as soon as you can.

Ask the locals for their favorite places to eat, and they’ll bubble like cream sauce in need of a whisk: Carolina’s, Magnolia’s, Sermet’s, Cru Cafe, Basil. For the ultra hip, there’s FIG (stands for: Food Is Good) – where we shared a mussels appetizer that made us want to eat an entire loaf of bread (so good was the sauce for sopping), even if our entrees were both on the salty side.

If live music’s your thing, check out the Music Farm (musicfarm.com), an old railroad depot-turned-bar / concert venue within walking distance of downtown. We caught Steve Earle, one of our favorite singer-songwriters, there on a Monday night, and Sam Bush was scheduled to perform a few nights later.

And speaking of celebrity sightings: Standing next to us at the Earle show just happened to be Mark Bryan, the guitar player from Charleston-based Hootie & the Blowfish; he stood stock still the entire time while an entourage of dancing skinny blondes orbited around him.

If Charleston’s food won’t fill you up, the history will. In Charleston, the first city to pass laws governing historic preservation, even the Subway sandwich shop is housed in a building older than anything here in Big Lick.

It was a Reconstruction-era Charlestonian who gets credit for the phrase: "We are too poor to paint and too proud to whitewash."

Fortunately, Charlestonians were never too practical to tear it down. I toured the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon on East Bay Street (built by the British in 1777), where American patriots were held prisoner and slaves were carted off the boat and processed before being sold. While the presentation of colonial life was interesting, the slave narrative was conspicuously lacking – not nearly as thorough as it’s treated at Roanoke County’s Explore Park.

Though there were hundreds of artifacts and photographs, I found only one picture of a slave woman winnowing the famous Carolina Gold rice. According to the caption: "Africans were brought to America as slaves not only for physical labor but because of their knowledge of rice cultivation."

Sounded almost as if they were paid consultants’ fees.

I’m told that a museum commemorating the history of slavery is under way, along with a museum for the C.S.S. Hunley, the first submarine to sink an enemy ship in combat and recovered nearby in 1995.

You can spend money on a horse-and-buggy carriage tour of Charleston, but it’s just as easy to view the myriad Easter egg-colored homes, tucked amid the churches and graveyards, on foot. (Take along your tennies – the cobbled, historic sidewalks are beautiful but not easy on the feet.)

Charleston may be a sophisticated place with a big-city feel, but it’s also remarkably easy to navigate, from the shops on King Street to White Pointe Gardens and Waterfront Park.

In 1857 and just about every year before and after, something happened here in Charleston, judging from the decorative earthquake rods (nailed into the homes’ exteriors for stabilization after the late 19th-century earthquake) to the corner lamp posts. This city so appreciates its history that a straightened-out wrought-iron lamp post fueled an outcry among preservationists to put the pole back the way it used to be: on a tilt.

After four days of fancy food – a gal can only take so much fried goat cheese and chipotle mayonnaise – we spent our last night at Jestine’s Kitchen, where sliced cucumber in vinegar is the complimentary appetizer and the floor’s so slanted that the gravy runs slightly downhill. No pretensions here.

Just honest-to-goodness Southern food with soul: broccoli spoonbread served over grits with collard greens on the side. Served on mismatched plates and with Jestine’s signature "table wine," a tall glass of sweet tea.

I was so full by the end that my stomach sloshed audibly.

"You need a Tums," my husband said.

But there was no room for a Tums.

Even in the dregs of winter, Charleston is the city of plenty, if not for its abundant food and history then for the treat of seeing a rosemary or camellia bush in bloom.

Just take an empty stomach and your Robin Reed sensibility along with you – and your hat and gloves.

(By the way, the best time to go, weather-wise, is March through June. . . not, alas, when the weather has plummeted to a dangerously low 30 degrees.)

As our server at Jestine’s Kitchen put it: "Y’all have a great night and stay warm!"

We did and, happily, the old minivan even made it back to Big Lick.

If you go …

For 10 years in a row, Conde Nast Traveler has named Charleston, S.C., one of its top cities. Charleston has also been named "Most Mannerly City" numerous times, Port City of the Year and spotlighted by National Geographic in its "50 Places of a Lifetime." The city has also been named a top honeymoon destination by Bride’s Magazine, and ranked third in FamilyFun magazine’s Family Friendly Travel Awards.

ATTRACTIONS

White Point Gardens, commonly called "The Battery"

Waterfront Park, also on the water

Other must-see attractions include the new South Carolina Aquarium, the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon, the Gibbes Museum, the Charleston Museum and the Nathaniel Russell House

For more historic-site recommendations, see sciway.net

HOTELS / ACCOMMODATIONS

Two Charleston hotels were placed on Conde Nast’s Top 50 North American Hotels list. The Wentworth Mansion was 42nd, and Charleston Place Hotel, 44th. Other hotels frequently praised in the press can be found at charleston-sc-inns.com and include:

The Planters Inn – plantersinn.com

2 Meeting Street Inn, near White Point Gardens – (843) 723-7322.

Harbourview Inn Charleston, near Waterfront Park – harbourviewcharleston.com

RESTAURANTS


FIG Restaurant, praised by Gourmet magazine as "where to eat right now in America" – 232 Meeting St., eatatfig.com

Jestine’s Kitchen, Southern food with soul, at 251 Meeting St., (843) 722-7224

Cru Cafe, specializing in whatever’s fresh (it takes its name from crudites), 18 Pinckney St.

Tommy Condon’s, Irish pub with seafood and live Irish music, 160 Church St.,

Mistral’s, French restaurant, 99 Market St., (843) 722-5708

Magnolia’s, fine Southern food with updated flair. A New York Times food critic once wrote: "Magnolias was my best meal in a city of great food." 185 East Bay St.

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