Charleston continues to be the South’s shining star, and with good reason. New restaurants and retailers seem to be pop- ping up on every corner, and the city’s manageable population of 128,000 offers visitors a warm welcome. There’s an ease to Charleston, as open doors give way to art galleries and retailers, while a quick drive outside of the center of town reveals stately plantations that remind us of freedom’s fragile history. With new non-stop service from Denver and St. Louis, Charleston is becoming even more accessible.
This is a city that is now playing with the big boys on the hospitality front with the recent opening of The Spectator Hotel (67 State St., Tel: 843-724-4326. www.thespectatorhotel.com), a luxury property in the heart of the Historic District. The 41-room boutique hotel pays homage to the Roaring Twenties, and in the spirit of the fictional Jay Gatsby, guests can live the high life. Complimentary amenities include a well-stocked “dry bar” of locally sourced nibbles, bike usage to easily buzz around town, and a welcome cocktail (have two, they won’t mind).
Beyond the Spectator’s plush digs designed by Jenny Keenan, the hotel’s biggest draw is its signature butler service. In addition to typical concierge-related tasks such as restaurant recommendations and local attractions, butlers will unpack luggage, lightly press your clothes, and go on the hunt for nearly any quirky request.
After an excessively decadent lunch at Slightly North of Broad (192 East Bay St., Tel: 843-723-3424. www.snobcharleston.com) under the helm of Executive Chef Russ Moore, I became obsessed with one of his finishing salts: red mash sea salt locally made by Bulls Bay Saltworks (www.bullsbaysaltworks.com). A collaboration with Red Clay hot sauce, the salt combines Fresno pepper mash with solar-evaporated sea salt and had me hooked in a bite. I didn’t want to spend valuable time hunting for the product, so I asked my butler to help. Within the hour, I received a message detailing not only what nearby retailers carried the brand, but also the various sizes, costs, and the option to have it delivered to my room. Needless to say, I returned to New York with enough salt to require Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge blood-pressure medication.
Another great option for accommodations, The Dewberry (334 Meeting St., Tel: 843-558-8000. www.thedewberrycharleston.com) will have you channeling your inner Don Draper in their gorgeously reimaged former Federal building. Real estate developer John Dewberry spent more than eight years bringing this mid-century lux property to fruition, and it’s paid off in spades.
A seamless collaboration between New York City’s Workstead design studio and in- house StudioDew, The Dewberry is a feast for the senses, including deep, rich woods in cherry, mahogany, and walnut; custom furnishings as well as vintage pieces; pops of saturated color in teal and moss; a walled garden creep- ing with ivy amid the bluestone walkways; and a 22-panel art installation (conceived by artist Thomas Swanston) of migrating cranes paint- ed in silver, pewter, and 22-carat gold.
While there’s plenty to discover on near- by King Street in the way of restaurants, bars, and retailers, be sure to allow time to unwind in The Living Room, The Dewberry’s multi-purpose lounge area where you can enjoy an afternoon tea or something a bit stronger. The adjacent Henrietta’s features a well-thought menu from Executive Chef Wes Mortonm, featuring a convergence of classic French technique with Lowcountry favorites such as boudin-stuffed vegetables, locally caught wreckfish, and pickled shrimp with homemade butter crackers.
Henrietta’s is a shining, but not exclusive, example of Charleston’s thriving restaurant scene. A crop of established and up-and-coming chefs are revisiting the region’s culinary traditions and imbuing them with their own personal style. McCrady’s Tavern (2 Unity Alley, Tel: 843-577-0025. www.mccradystavern.com) is Chef Sean Brock’s inventive interpretation of Edward McCrady’s 18th-century watering hole now recognized in the National Register of Historic Places and Landmarks. Dramatic brick archways, copper-topped tables, espresso-stained wood beams, and a candlelit hearth set the scene for a potent menu of elevated pub food. Standouts include escargot-stuffed bone marrow, which rises from the plate overflowing with gelatinous goodness, only to be reprieved by a bright parsley salad. Beet au poivre is as decadent as its carnivorous counterpart, while any veggie-hating diner will succumb to the baked broccoli with cheddar and oxtail.
For a casual breakfast bite, be sure to stop by Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit (476 King St., Tel: 843-737-5159. www.calliesbiscuits.com). Founded by Carrie Morey in 2005 and named after her mother’s famous recipe, the tiny storefront offers classic, handmade buttermilk biscuits as well as a variety of flavors including black pepper bacon and cheese and chive.
Charleston is also not short on barbecue, and the newly opened Lewis Barbecue (464 N. Nassau St., Tel: 843-805-9500. www.lewisbarbecue.com), overseen by Pitmaster John Lewis, is serving some of the most mouthwatering smoked meats east (or west) of the Mississippi. The custom-designed smokers use local oak to impart an earthy finish to juicy cuts such as prime beef brisket, pork spare ribs, and Texas “hot guts” sausage. Tex Mex Tuesdays is one of the best deals in town, with $5 margaritas and beef enchiladas.
Synonymous with the rum trade of the 1700s, Charlestonians have been pouring stiff drinks for more than 300 years. Chef/owner Paul Yellin continues the tradition and brings the spirit back into the limelight at Cane Rhum Bar & Caribbean Kitchen (251 East Bay St., Tel: 843-277-2764. www.eatdrinkcane.com) a funky eatery and bar just steps from the Charleston City Market (www.thecharlestoncitymarket.com), one of the country’s oldest public markets. Yellin was raised in Barbados and brings Caribbean flair to the high-octane cocktails and vibrant food menu, including a selection of more than 80 rums, like the limited-edition Black Tot Original Royal Navy Rum. Drink it straight or consider mixing it with housemade ginger beer for an unforgettable rum buck.
When it comes time to eat, the menu sizzles with sweet and spicy island favorites, like Haitian griot, salted codfish fritters, and 24- hour-marinated jerk chicken and pork, drizzled with a local cane syrup glaze. If you want to push the limits of your Scoville scale intake (the heat measurement for chili peppers), proceed with caution with a miniscule dab of Motouk’s Trinidad Scorpion pepper sauce.
Visitors in search of some retail therapy will find sweatgrass woven baskets made from the indigenous bulrush for the taking at nearly every market and street corner. For menswear, traditionalists should head to Ben Silver (149 King St., Tel: 843-577-4556. www.bensilver.com), who has been in the blazer business since John F. Kennedy famously disregarded outerwear in a 1960 televised appearance, causing the company’s founder to quickly rethink his business model. Today, customers can find an array of options, including accessories, toiletries, and an abundance of Technicolor ties to brighten any occasion.
For curated menswear that may appeal to a more modern shopper, Indigo and Cotton’s (79 Cannon St., Tel: 843-718- 2980. www.indigoandcotton.com) owner Brett Carron has an eye for style and a purposeful storefront with smaller brands like Vancouver’s Homespun Knitwear and Novesta sneakers from Slovakia.
Those with a crafty side will appreciate the hands-on workshops at Candlefish (71 Wentworth St., Tel: 843-371-1434. www.candlefish.com), the retail outlet of Rewined, which upcycles wine bottles for their collection of soy candles. Working with fragrance house Givaudan to create exclusive scents, participants can make their own candles during a casual B.Y.O.B. class. Plan your class for at least a day prior to departure so you can return to pick up your candles once they’ve set; alternately, Candlefish will arrange for shipping.
And just when you think Charleston is all sweet tea and horse-drawn carriages, be sure to pop into Pulp (535 King St., Tel: 843-647-1282. www.pulpcharleston.com). You’d be more likely to find this NSFW gallery and bookstore in Berlin or Amsterdam, with its pop culture collection that pushes sexual and gender boundaries. Recent exhibits include an exclusive showing of Kurt Vonnegut’s works on paper, and Kimberly Butler’s provocative nude “Banned Books” series.
LGBT pride appears subtlely throughout Charleston, but a gay soirée is never far away if you know where to look. Dudley’s on Ann (42 Ann St., Tel: 843- 577-6779. www.dudleysonann.com), a longstanding LGBT watering hole with a 33- year history, is open seven days a week with the hilarious Patti O’Furniture holding comedic court on Thursday nights. If you’re looking to dance, DJ Cruise spins on Fridays and Saturdays.
For bigger celebrations, plan your visit for the fall when two major events take place. Charleston Pride (www.charlestonpride.org) moves its signature event to September 23, 2017 to catch a break from those sweltering Southern summers. Founded in 2010, the volunteer board of directors works throughout the year, leading up to a week’s worth of revelry, including guest speakers, drag brunch, parade, festival, and after party.
The AFFA (Alliance For Full Acceptance) Gala (www.affa-sc.org), scheduled for October 14, 2017, is the state’s largest LGBT fundraiser and awards ceremony in South Carolina, recognizing organizations and indviduals making a positive impact in the LGBT community. Pop up events also happen throughout the year thanks to Takeover Friday (www.takeoverfriday.com), dubbed “the longest running mobile happy hour in the South.”
Tucked among its cobblestone streets and gorgeous architecture, Charleston also has its share of gay history…if you know where to look. Harlan Greene, a librarian at the College of Charleston, along with Dr. Sandy Slater, created “The Real Rainbow Row” (www.speccoll.cofc.edu/the-realrainbow-row) an interactive map of Charleston’s queer history. The 20 highlights include Tales of the City author Armistead Maupin’s residence while he worked for the Charleston News and Courier; the home of the Spoleto Festival; and the home of Dawn Pepita Simmons, one of the country’s first documented transsexuals.
Whether you’re seeking classic elegance or a new generation of Southerners looking to shake up the establishment, Charleston’s charm and hospitality is sure to make you feel right at home.