Scratch the surface of this genteel ol’ Southern belle to find a thriving, homegrown foodie scene, retro speakeasies and New York – style boutiques with a distinct dash of fun.
On Saturday mornings I stroll to the farmers’ market on Marion Square and get a coffee and a Roti for breakfast (always with a fried egg on top) from Roti Rolls. Then I head to the beach on Sullivan’s island for a few hours of napping in the sun. Back in town, I make my way to The Ordinary, which just opened on the corner of Cannon and King Streets, for a seafood platter and a glass of Muscadet. In winter, I venture further down King Street, ducking into antiques shops and galleries, such as Rebekah Jacob. Dinner is at Trattoria Lucca, where chef Ken Vendrinski makes a special one for me. The bars along Upper King Street, and Butcher and Bee, although it’s not licensed for liquor (it’s actually a late night sandwich place) so you bring your own. I take Wood Ford Reserve bourbon in a flask to drink with ginger ale.
Dressed in lace, like a matriarch of a certain age, Charleston Place stands right in the middle of town, opposite the recently restored Old City Market. Its Charleston Grill restaurant is a must try (seared foie gras; shrimp and clam stew), and the huge pool, spa and lobby shops make it a proper, grown up haven. All rooms have Botticino marble baths, and the two floor Club Level (lovely for afternoon tea) is worth the splurge.
For a more modern, vibrant option, head to The Restoration of King. The 16 suites were originally designed as apartments and it shows (shiny wooden floors, exposed brick walls, kitchens). Breakfast is delivered in a picnic basket; there’s no restaurant, but you can order in or snack on wine and nibbles at the reception. It’s an elegant antidote to Charleston’s occasional over reliance on Low Country kitsch.
Developed by a longtime Orient Express executive, Zero, George opened in last February just beyond Charleston’s town center. The 16 rooms are spread among a series of historic former homes and carriage houses dating from the early 19th century, and are anchored by an elegant piazza. Although there’s no formal restaurant, there is a car which holds Southern cooking classes.
At the start of the buzzy Cannon Street in the newly hip Upper King Street district, The Grocery’s spare, loft-like dining room serves Charleston’s version of farm to table food. Chef owner Kevin Johnson’s approachable menu is big on interesting dishes such as citrus spiked swordfish crude, and fried oysters in devilled egg sauce; the warm salad of shrimp, kale, pancetta and radish is sublime.
One part cosy café, one part ambitious gastropub, Two Boroughs Larder lures both foodies and hipsters with its recycled, wooden walls, simple metal seating and hearty, healthy (ish) fare. Owners Heather and Josh Keeler dish up instant classics such as broth ramen noodles with locally sourced pork confit, along with fresh market greens doused in cider vinegar and studded with pickled raisins. If you like what you see – and taste – many of the handcrafted beers, cheeses and charcuterrie are for sale.
Charleston restaurant vet Craig Delhi opened Cypress to showcase his love of traditional Southern ingredients and cooking techniques. His menu is shamelessly meat focused, with 80 different charcuteries cured in house along with plump crab cakes, chicken and dumplings, and a crispy guinea hen confit with Korean style shrimp fried rice. The wine cellar, with more than 4,500 bottles, has a strong emphasis on New World reds and Central European whites.
No Southern restaurant is more celebrated than Husk, whose chef, Sean Brock, has been championed nationwide for his devotion to heirloom produce and tail to snout cuts of meat. In a mansion straight out of Gone with the Wind on the edge of Downtown, the ultra seasonal menu from crispy pig ears and cornmeal dusted catfish to Altantic swordfish and sorghum glazed chicken served on the porch or in the glass walled dining room. Arrive early for a drink at the adjacent (and equally historic) red brick bar.
Set atop the Macintosh, a nouvelle Southern restaurant, the Cocktail Club specializes in retro drinks using custom blended fruit, vegetable and spice infusions and cult label liquors. Order a red pepper spiked Antipasto martini or a One Night Yam laden with sweet potato puree.
Dive bars don’t get more archetypal than The Royal American, wallpapered in old copies of National Geographic, where house made cinnamon whisky and six packs of ales and lager are sipped against a soundtrack of Exile on Main St. and other classic rock records from the old school jukebox. Rotating lines up of guitar chugging bands lure students and ascendant artists; when hunger strikes, hit the beef hot dogs and fried Bologna sandwiches.
As much a gallery as a conventional boutique, Indigo and Cotton focus on cutting edge men's labels sourced from throughout the South and beyond. New Yorker owner Brett Caron sells sturdy, indigo jeans from Raleigh Denim, sleek leather goods from Billykirk (Many of which are made by Amish craftsmen in Pennsylvania) and colorful shoes from Mark McNairy. It’s Manhattan style shopping with Charleston style service and charm.
Originally built in the early 19thcentury, Charleston City Market reopened in 2011 after a meticulous 18 month renovation. It’s a series of three long, slim, red brick halls that heave with dozens of small scale retailers selling goods ranging from creole spices to handmade jewelry and woven baskets from the local Gullah people island dwellers who descend from escaped slaves. There’s also a handful of food stalls, including the Caviar and Bananas café and the Cue Omsk BBQ joint.
Held every Saturday, and some Sunday, from April to December on Marion Square, Charleston Farmers Market has stalls offering everything from fresh empanadas and Rotis to sweet kettle corn and Filipino Lumpia (spring rolls). There are also organic bakeries, vegetable growers, spice mongers and craft makers.
Allison Smith and her boyfriend Mark Remi have been frying doughnuts at Glazed Gourmet, an open plan bakery/factory just above Charleston’s retail row, since 2010. Their creations include the expected (glazed and lemon frosted), as well as only in the Southern varieties such as Peanut Butter Pie and Apple Bacon Fritters.
Run by ex New Yorkers, Bill Bowick and David Bouffard, Sugar Bakeshop turns out moist, sinfully iced cakes in nearly 20 varieties, including German chocolate, red velvet, coconut and zingy lemon curd. Or you may prefer a bag of chocolate chip and ginger cookies, tiny fruit filled tarts or a gooey pie. Order the Derby (pecan pie with chocolate) and a cup of coffee, and sit for a spell on the porch.
Like most things in Charleston, the beaux arts Gibbes Museum of ARt is old established in 1858 and still reigns as the city’s cultural guardian with thousands of (mainly) Southern artworks (you scan almost fall into the panoramas of Charleston Harbour). But it lets its hair down with pop-up exhibition on anything from rock-n-roll photography to African American gardens.
You can’t leave Charleston without visiting one of its plantation estates. The Georgian Palladian Drayton Hall, 30 minutes’ drive outside town, is a vintage doll’s house of a building, beautifully preserved amid acres of precisely arranged gardens and grassland.