This Southern city has a rich history, well-preserved architecture, distinguished restaurants, a charming atmosphere and the warm Southern hospitality of its people.
I’m ensconced in a plush demi-lune banquette with my husband about to embark upon the fifth meal of our first day in Charleston, South Carolina. A plate of velvety foie gras, served with a petite apple handpie and topped with mascarpone crème fraîche is presented. So, too, is a glass of Disznoko Tokaji Aszu “5 Puttonyos,” a complex and elegant Hungarian sweet wine, that Mickey Bakst, the bon vivant manager of Charleston Grill, informs us is essential. And, there’s no saying no. After all, the chef here, Michelle Weaver, is a culinary pioneer in a town that has blossomed into one of America’s food meccas.
My husband Scott and I have escaped to Charleston for a weekend. It’s easily to fall foolishly in love with this city, and we are not immune to its charms. We revel in the city’s historic beauty, its complicated history and, let’s be honest, the food. The food is Southern, yes, but with a global twist. Those, who for centuries have blown through the city by land and by sea from all around the world, have left lasting influences that inform meals from humble diners to marquee restaurants.
We hole up at the very center of the city at Belmond Charleston Place, where rooms have recently undergone a refurbishment, transforming them into glamorous abodes dressed in greys, black and chrome. Our view of the city and its many steeples reveals why Charleston is known as the Holy City. We are booked into a club level room and, in this era when club levels all too often deliver little more than snacks and newspapers, this one impresses with tapas-style plates throughout the day and champagne service that begins at 11 a.m., which just about guarantees a good day ahead. It was tempting to never leave the property, thanks to am ambitious food program that includes the clubby lobby bar called the Thoroughbred Club, that serves a swoon-worthy grilled cheese stuffed with slow-braised shorts ribs, and the Palmetto Café, an airy boite, that’s ripe for lunchtime Bloody Mary’s and a perfect filet.
We do manage to break free of the culinary intoxication. Across the street from the hotel, we duck into City Market, where local artists and artisans sell their work. Scott and I pause to watch a Gullah woman coax sweetgrass to shape a basket using her fingers, her legs and even her mouth. Next, we meander along the waterfront to the Battery, which is flanked by antebellum mansions that stand sentinel over the sea. This spot delivers a clear view of Ft. Sumter, where the Civil War began, at the mouth of Charleston Harbor.
For lunch, Scott and I sidle up at the lunch counter at what has to be America’s best luncheonette, Gaulart & Maliclet French Café, which serves country pate, French cheeses and escargot. Afterwards, we wander along Broad Street, a hub for many of the city’s art galleries. Wandering the cobblestone streets on a sultry day, when the sun has faded the blue sky to a milky white, we pass street after street of exquisitely preserved Southern homes: double porches, wrought iron fretwork, arches outlined with ivy. We take a tour of the Nathaniel Russell House, an early 19th century home, now a museum, one of the only specimens in the country with a “flying” staircase. We also visit The Calhoun Mansion, a fantasyland, which a private owner has stocked with opulent furnishings and artwork.
Food again, well, yes. How could we not? At Hyman’s, a rambling seafood restaurant, that got its start more than 100 years ago, we are seated at a table with a plaque that informs us this is where the Beach Boys sat when they came to town. Scott and I torch through a bowl of addictive boiled peanuts before chowing down on cornmeal-crusted oysters and fried green tomatoes that we dip into homemade Cajun mayonnaise. We walk off the feast along King Street, where we weave in an out of antique shops stocked with fine porcelain, mahogany tables, gilded mirrors and serious silver service pieces, much of it plucked from plantation homes.
Over the course of the next two days, we dine at some of the best restaurants in the country, all within steps of one another, like Husk (catfish, field peas and butterbeans topped with a smoky tomato gravy), SNOB (scallops served with okra, ham hock broth,) and Hominy Grill (something delectable called a nasty biscuit with fried chicken breast, cheddar cheese and sausage gravy). In order to fit in all this eating, we treat the city as a movable feast, sampling an appetizer at one place, ordering entrees in another, before heading onward to savor another course at the next.
On our last day I make a beeline to a little shop housed within the Preservation Society of Charleston, where I buy a dainty bag of benne wafers (tiny sesame-seed cookies inspired by the West African slaves who originally brought the sesame to America) and a big bag of stoneground grits. After all, what could be a more fitting souvenir from Charleston, this foodie town, than a taste of the city?