A Few Days in Charleston
Charleston is one of those cities that has been on my list for awhile, but for some reason I never got around to visiting. I am now kicking myself that I didn’t visit sooner. In short, the architecture, weather, history and the restaurant and arts scene made this quick four day trek an incredibly enjoyable one, and one which I intend to repeat soon - to see all the things we couldn’t get to the first time.
In a tremendously compact area, you have all of the following: an urban landscape with a big city feel; a college town with all the energy that brings; numerous historical landmarks; a phenomenally great restaurant scene with interesting and very talented and inventive chefs, mixologists and wine experts; a deep arts and culture scene that spans all genres; a place for US history buffs to dig into; and of course, a waterfront area; and finally within a 15 minute drive some tremendous beaches on the Atlantic Ocean. For the most part, you don't need a car to navigate the downtown, and public transportation is readily available as are the traditional taxi services as well as Uber and Lyft.
You could say that Charleston is the beginning of the Deep South - or at least it seems to me that way. It's not a huge city, with a population of approximately 130,000 people. I’ve been through every state in the South, and each state and each city in the South carry their own distinct sensibilities. Charleston’s sensibility is - in one word - genteel. One would expect the people who work in the hospitality industry here to be friendly - and they are - but there’s something more.
Everyone you interact with here is overwhelmingly courteous. People on the street. People that walk in front of you. People on the roads. I heard the phrase “Excuse me” more in this four day swing with random interactions on the street than I had in the previous month up North. Northerners just aren’t used to manners anymore.
If you are from the northeast corridor, with its attendant busyness and sharp elbows, coming to the South in general can be somewhat unsettling at first. Things are just slower here. They way people talk, the traffic, the overall pace. That's a good thing.
There are many, many books written about Charleston's history, and I encourage you to look those up and get a feel for how deep the history of this city runs. Any attempt to exhaustively catalogue that here would be folly. But to get you oriented, dear reader, consider this:
- The City of Charleston is OLD (by American standards anyway) and was founded in 1670. The portraits that hang in its courthouses and government buildings reveal that the original government officials were the Governors appointed by the British Crown;
- The British occupied Charleston for 2 1/2 years during the Revolutionary War;
- A large amount of trade with the then- British colonies in the Caribbean left a huge influence on the history and cuisine of Charleston to this day;
- Pirates, including Edward Teach (known as Blackbeard), trolled the coast and caused heavy losses on the shipping companies and citizens;
- Charleston played a central role in the Civil War. The first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter, SC, which is now a National Park and a 30 minute ferry ride from the city.
The history of this city is too deep to fully explore here, but a quick survey of any online or brick and mortar book store will show you want you need to know.
There is much to say about the architecture and streetscapes in Charleston, and there are so many stately and historic buildings in this small town, so many well preserved historical residences and smaller buildings, that it is difficult to know where to begin.
Many of the homes and buildings we passed as we walked through the historical district dated back to the late 1700s and early 1800s. From the outside, a vast majority of the structures looked to we very well maintained.
This, like the historical aspects of this city, is a topic that can (and does) fill books on its own, whether the focus is on the Revolutionary War era buildings, the many finely preserved churches that dot the city, or even simply on the masterful iron work that one can find all over town.
Although the city is obviously not only comprised of churches, it is noticeable that the sheer number, size and pristine condition of many of them is a testament to the strong history of faith running through the city. Again, solely a focus on the churches could fill a small book.
In addition, the palmetto trees that line the streets are a reminder of the importance that the Caribbean islands and trade played in the early economy of the city. The palmettos give Charleston a strangely exotic feel if you are accustomed to seeing palm trees in Florida or California.
Finally, one feature of Charleston that makes it unique is the abundance of small parks and courtyards, even in areas that one would consider prime commercial real estate locations. One can easily imagine every square inch of the downtown being developed, but Charleston has retained many older (and finely maintained) places like Wragg Square and Washington Square, both of which are worth a visit to enjoy the quiet scenery.
This was of course our primary motivation for coming to Charleston. A 90 minute drive and a 90 minute flight to experience this foodie scene first hand? Done and done. Much has been written about the exploding restaurant scene here, and it did not disappoint. Let's get one thing out on the table right now: three days isn't nearly enough time to explore all of the great places that this town has to offer, so we visited our top choices first. In the process, we discovered quite a few more cafes, bars and pubs while there by chance and we're making our list for Charlestown Round 2 soon. Now, let's get into the details of a few places we were lucky enough to visit...
HUSK, 76 Queen Street, Charleston, SC
On Queen Street, a short walk off the main street stands Husk, a multiple award winning restaurant housed in a large Victorian building which is traditional on the outside, but modern and fresh and minimalist on the inside.
One of life's great surprises is when an experience is better than anticipated. In the case of Husk, not only was it better than I imagined, but it was vastly better.
While this may be an odd aside, one of the striking things about Husk was that the physical condition of the building is impeccably maintained, even the places that don't typically draw the eye. Every corner of chair rail, crown molding was spotless and dust free. The surface of the stairs leading up to the dining room, the restrooms, the outside condition of the building and grounds were impeccable. And I mean clean by the standards of what you would find in a five star hotel or a high end country club. There's really no other word to use. The attention to detail was a positive indication of what was to come.
We ordered what one would consider traditional Southern comfort food. For starters we ordered an arugula salad, and chicken wings, which both grabbed our attention on the menu. The salad was topped with goat cheese and cucumbers. The key here is that there were simple ingredients, and it was incredibly well executed. The wings were covered in a dry rub and scallions with a buttermilk cream sauce and were phenomenally good. Some heat, some sweetness, crispy but still tender all at the same time.
For our entrees, we ordered the wood fired quail with beets and hominy, and another entree that that was too good to pass up: the fried chicken. The quail was expertly done, and the beets were tender and had none of that metallic earthiness that beets traditionally have even when prepared by a pro. Our server explained that this was because the beets are marinated for two days prior to serving. Again, the attention to detail (i.e. a two day process to prep a side ingredient) that yielded very happy results. Everything was simply outstanding and Husk is highly recommended.
RODNEY SCOTT'S BBQ, 1011 King Street, Charleston, SC
This visit was The Main Event of the trip, primarily driven by profiles of this place I had seen on TV. The dedication that the owner has to his craft cannot be overstated, and the results are on your tray. The sensation of trying both of the two BBQ sauces was really overwhelming. It was one of those meals where you didn't talk, you just sat and ate, because you didn't want to interrupt or dilute the experience.
During our time there, people came in and out with their kids from soccer practice, or individuals coming in after work for take out. We marveled that one could have an establishment THIS GOOD in the neighborhood as a local option. But that's an apt description - Rodney Scott's is a neighborhood place that's affordable and happens to be insanely good.
We got to sample the ribs, the pulled pork, hush puppies, mac & cheese, cornbread and coleslaw. Each element done to perfection. There was nothing overly complicated or overwrought in the basic ingredients or presentation, but it was close to perfect.
It should be noted that this is NOT the original location in Clinton, SC, which is about an hour and 45 minutes by car. If you are in this town, Rodney Scott's is an absolute MUST.
CALLIE'S HOT LITTLE BISCUIT, 476 1/2 King Street, Charleston, SC
Callie's is wedged in a small storefront on King Street, and is one place you should absolutely visit for breakfast. Their speciality? Buttermilk biscuits, naturally, and they were serving a line of people out the door while we were there.
The quarters are pretty close, with room for a single file line of customers, while those who choose to dine in have a ledge about 18 inches deep with a handful of bar stools to use. The size of the space is somewhat reminiscent of of a small eatery in New York City for comparison.
Despite the crowd, the service was quick and courteous. Our order came out hot and delicious and was a great change of pace that we stumbled upon while walking King Street one morning. Again, the ingredients were straightforward: biscuits, eggs, bacon, sausage gravy, good and hot coffee, but the care that went into the food came through.
CRU CAFE, 18 Pinckney Street, Charleston, SC
The motto at Cru Cafe is "Comfort Served Daily". This very comfortable, homey environment made one feel like they were over an extended family members' home over the holidays. As one can expect, this is restaurant housed in what used to be a large residence, so the tables are close together, including a few long tables right in the front room where you may be sitting next to people you don't know. But, Southern hospitality being what it is, everyone was pleasant. We stopped in for a drink in the middle of a hot day, and opted for some local craft beers and french fries. We did also order the tomato bisque, which was outstanding, and surprisingly a bit on the tart side, but in a very good way. Every dish that we saw come out of the kitchen to a customer looked good, and on the next trip, Cru is definitely on our list for lunch, because it was packed with locals, which is always a good sign.
My wife and I went to Charleston in mid November. The northeast had just experienced its first cold snap of the season, with temperatures going down into the 20s. For us, going to Charleston wasn't quite a tropical getaway, but the afternoons in the 60s and evenings in the 50s were a welcome change of pace from the weather in Pennsylvania. All the locals were in jackets with some in winter hats. It's all about perspective. For anyone visiting from the North, Autumn in Charleston is downright balmy. It's not quite shorts and T-shirt weather, but it's pretty close.
The sun was out everyday, and the temperature was perfect for a November getaway.
The summer heat can be oppressive though, with multiple days in the 90s and 100s, so definitely keep that in mind when you are planning your visit. In travel, just like in life, timing is everything.