The Charm and Chow of Charleston, SC

I landed at JFK on Tuesday afternoon. The flight from Charleston, South Carolina to New York City was less than two hours. In avoidance of the carry-on collection frenzy, I remained in my exit-row seat, awaiting the opportune moment to join the disembarkment. Finally, thanks to the generous patience of another passenger, I reached as hard as I could to grab my bright red bowtied roller luggage from the overhead compartment and was out the door, headed home.

The revitalization of the South is undeniable. After a full week there, the waves of hospitality, sunny blue skies, and affordable cab fare helped to scrub the stores of stress that had been built-up like soap scum in an over-used shower that living in New York caked onto my soul.

Clear skies and thriving trees in one of Charleston’s northern neighborhoods.

Within minutes of returning, I got my first dirty-water bath in the overcrowded airport. Even on a Tuesday (which, actually, they say is one of the busiest travel days of the week) the straight shot to the exit had me exasperated. People were coming from every-which-way on their own missions, cutting you off or standing in the way as if they’re paying the premium price for the plot of land you decided to mosy through.

Getting outside into the dreary smog-laden air almost felt like a welcome relief, until that, too caked on a layer of the stress-scum. Getting back to Red Hook from JFK by public transit is much more a nightmare than it would have been getting home from LGA, and my post-flight inclination for nausea wasn’t supporting that adventure, so I summoned a cab. Having compared Lyft to the NY-Only Juno app, the best price I could find was a whopping $66.

Reluctantly, I accepted and received a cheerful push notification that I had been “upgraded to a black car at no additional cost.”

GREEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAT THAAAAAAAAAANKS I thought, rolling my eyes in front of an audience who very likely failed to even acknowledge my individual human presence.

New York, New York; the city so nice they charge everything twice.

Living on the cusp of Red Hook and Carrol Gardens, I toe the line of contrast between yuppie brownstone dwellers and 24/7 spot-lit housing projects. In true New York fashion, even my seam-of-society apartment comes at the premium price. But home is home, and it was nice to return to my small, overpriced four-story walk-up. Still, there was some semblance of early-onset nostalgia for the sprawling manor I had just spent the week lounging about.

The house, my host, and her ride.

My lifelong friend, Alexandria, who had the pleasure of being my roommate in two separate bottom-of-the-barrel New York apartments, moved to Charleston for something new. What she landed on was a room in a house with three other roommates, one french bulldog, and a sunny second-story front porch. The four of them chain their bikes out front, or around the back. Visitors can drive cars and find parking right in front of the house. The city’s center is so close that directions involve nothing more than a single right-hand turn. If you don’t want to walk or bike there, a cab will cost about $5.

The true magnum opus of Charleston is the food scene. Alexandria, a chef by trade, was a wonderful candidate to give me that tour.

The various options and cuisines of restaurants in Charleston make them the go-to day (and night) jobs of many Chuck Town residents, both native and transplanted. Her roommates each worked in separate bars and restaurants, and chatting with bartenders and servers proves that these roles are those they stay in for years. Reading through Yelp and Foursquare reviews proved that there’s a deep pride they take in this trade. Restaurants are quick to reply to disgruntled customers, eager to make things right.

Dinner the first night was shared between four of us. Sitting at the table at Maison, the waiters recognized some of my dining companions as past coworkers. “The Industry” as restaurant-workers lovingly call their community, is especially small in a place where almost all of the eateries are on one main drag: King Street.

I hate cherries, but I love brioche paired fabulously with professionally-chosen wine.

Alexandria’s roommate, a sommelier (seriously), helped advise us on wine-pairing as we shared plates of foie gras and escargot. The extravagant dinner was followed up by drinks at a local dive bar–still on the same main drag–called the “Recovery Room.” Outside, a banner boasts that it’s America’s #2 seller of PBR following, unsurprisingly, NYC’s Fat Cat.

When we arrive, hoards of people are socializing outside on the small, fenced-in garden patio, where a not-very-intimidating white boy is stationed as a bouncer. At one point he calls out “Whoever’s smoking weed, knock it off!” and I already know that I’m in a town where a sense of order is much more-easily attainable and even somewhat respected.

Sparing the details of sun-soaked days, beaches, and bike rides, I can confidently say Charleston is a city of old time charms.

(A quick word of advice on bikes: DO NOT rent a bike from King Street’s affordabike if you plan on doing extensive riding. You’ll literally get a one-speed bike with solid tires and a rubber chain that sounds indestructible except for the fact that it’s also nigh on immobile. By the time we rode around town and back home, I was beet red and exhausted.)

On my second night, the dining quartet we had established donned our best eveningwear for dinner at the Peninsula Grill: world-renowned for its coconut cake and the very place my dear friend is employed. We were treated to generous chef-sendouts including soft-shell crab (delectable) and beef tartare. Stuffing ourselves with further entrees and side-dishes, we arrived at dessert still hopeful. I looked around the suited-up dining room and noticed that the coconut cake was everywhere. One young couple came in specifically for a slice, while another group of three rotund ladies had a cake to themselves.

Coconut cake in the back flanked with pannacotta on the left and chocolate mouse with raspberry dots on the right.

This beautiful 12-layer cake is enough to serve 16 guests and costs $130. It ships nationwide, costing an additional $100-aught for handling. Their website has a floor-length list of rave reviews on it, including one from The New York Times calling it “a little slice of heaven.”

I wasn’t impressed. I had a bite and hardly bothered to go back for a second. The massive slice was enough for all four of us to taste, and then bring home to share with the rest of the house.

The standout dessert, in my very humble opinion, was an incredible banana “pannacotta” pudding encrusted in a creamy chocolate casing and drizzled with housemade Tia Maria sauce. THAT I made sure to dig into until it was all gone.

What was most striking about this dining experience was truly how, well, Southern it felt. The walls were papered in velvet and hung about was framed artwork of what I can only assume were visages of old wealth; a strange painting of a horse, rendered too-big, presumably for perspective, and busts of ugly ole’ white folk peppered the dining room. Across the bar was a mural equally as fitting and somewhat hair-raising depiction of plantation-workers (slaves) in a field of wheat.

This is the south’s not-so-far-off history and, from the looks of it, pride.

White table-clothes, soft textile booths, and dimly-lit dining rooms welcome only the most well-dressed (and well-paid) patrons.

Overall, the dinner was great, and within the next few days, I’d get the chance to meet Alexandria behind the scenes: in the kitchen. For me, there’s something sensational about the metallicness of a freshly-scrubbed kitchen after a long day of serving impeccable plates.

But my most impeccable plate did not come from the kitchen at Peninsula Grill. Before arriving to tour the bowels of Peninsula Grill, I took myself out to dinner at Leon’s. Leon’s is a chicken and oyster joint that, for me, was a nice simple stroll or a $5 cab from home base. Also on King Street, it was easy to stop in there before maneuvering my way “downtown” to meet Alexandria after her shift.

(Peninsula Grill is actually not on King Street, but a block over.)

When I arrived at Leon’s around 9:30PM, the place was jumpin’. There was a group of four waiting, but the hostess graciously offered me immediate seating at the bar given I’m “small.” I accepted on both counts.

So I perched and ordered a Michelada for the same price as a straight-up beer in NYC. To my shock and delight, it also came with a “pony” Miller Highlife, flipping the price from comparable to a downright bargain.

The full dog and pony show: two beers for the price of one.

I looked around and noted that many people had their own fistfuls of this “Champagne of Beers” and was excited to see how it paired with an oyster roll. A few bites into my swiftly-delivered sandwich revealed there’s no way that this was an oyster roll. The check came and my assumption was proven: somehow I ended up with fried catfish.

Still somewhat tasty, and given I was on a schedule, I paid and departed for my lone stroll down King Street.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about what could have been, so I went back. This time, it was a Sunday afternoon around 4PM. Personally, this is one of my favorite times to go out to eat. It’s a good time to just miss the Sunday brunch crowd and to beat the dinner rush. My aim was dead set, and the restaurant was much less crowded than it was on Saturday night at 10. Still, I took the very same seat at the bar.

This time in a hat, I’m not sure if the bartender, the same one to have apparently misinterpreted my order on Saturday, recognized me. I hinted at my identity again by ordering the Michelada. Again, I had to know how that pony pulled this oyster roll to port.

She gave me my drink and then, I presume, clocked and ducked out. The bartender that she swapped with, to my delight, asked me my order–which I made damn sure to enunciate this time–and repeated it to me as he asked what side I wanted.

Off to a great start.

Upon reflection, I’m actually somewhat glad that my first order came out wrong. My second experience at Leon’s was worth the revisit. The oyster roll was absolutely miles away from the catfish sandwich in both taste and presentation. Everything about it was spot on; the well-seasoned, crispy but not greasy fried oyster, the split-top white bread, and the sesame cucumber side salad I ordered again, as I loved it the first time I came. I’m not sure if it was the sandwich or the High Life, but even the cucumber tasted better this time around.

The bartender took the time to educate me on the food, the city, and to just have a chat about our respective home-towns. This is something that was consistent through each dining experience I had in Charleston. The waitstaff, or maybe just the people, really want to make you feel welcome.

That, they achieved. I was sad to leave Charleston, and that feeling was magnified when I came home to the usual strike across the face by a metal pipe that New York so characteristically delivers to its inhabitants. There were surely some things about Charleston that made me feel like a bit of an outsider (way too many pastels and nautical stripes, for instance, though I get it) but even a simple walk with the dog afforded me a swim in the smooth southern drawl of conversation with strangers.

I don’t foresee myself moving to Charleston, but such a pleasurable experience was what I needed to confirm that there are plenty of other cities with similar joys to be discovered. It’s reassuring to know that outside of New York, there’s still a world of NYTimes-acclaimed food, except with affordable beers. And really, what else do I need?

Here, in the fabulous bathroom of the Peninsula Grill, I toweled my hands dry and accepted this gilded photo-op.

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