Charleston, South Carolina
If you want to go to a place where the buildings are beautiful, the porches are sprawling, and the streets are bustling but in an “I’ve got nowhere to be” kind of way, go to Charleston, South Carolina. The city is so historically preserved, walkable, and pleasantly technicolor that it makes you feel like you’re in a big, cozy, beautiful town as opposed to the daunting concrete city we’re all so accustomed to. There is no lack of sunshine from buildings or skyscrapers towering overhead, and yet there’s no lack of shade should you want it.
Charleston is lush with trees that immediately transport you back to early America where things were quieter and the earth was seemingly more pure, at least in our unsullied imaginations. Their branches sprawl left to right, and hang heavy towards the ground but then curve right back up again, like long spindly arms going in all different directions. There’s such a presence about those trees, like they’ve seen everything and haven’t forgotten even a part of it. And yet, they’re juxtaposed with a sizable share of palm trees that seem to offer a completely different feel. And oddly, I think it’s this juxtaposition that best represents Charleston. Old and new, refined and edgy, old school and avant-garde, classic and laid-back. And as our friend Mark said, who moved to Charleston a few years ago, the greenery is maintained nearly 12 months of the year, as to offer a constant image to residents and visitors of what the city will forever hold onto, and all that it’s rushing to become.
I say this with slight reservation, mainly because I’d have to spend a year there to truly eat my way around the city, but we did not have a bad meal in Charleston. And we were quite blown away by much of what we had (the lack of food pictures is proof of this!). The cocktails were on par with ones we’ve had in New York and San Francisco, and the food was on a unique playing field of its own. The city has seemingly delighted in taking famed Southern, down-home cooking to a much more heightened culinary experience that still holds true in fun ways to traditional cuisine. And seafood? Um, goodnight. We had the best lobster roll of our lives here (Boston and Portland need to step up their game!), ceviche at two different places that were next level good, as well as the best raw oysters night after night.
167 Raw was our favorite spot. We went there for dinner on our first night (which always adds to the magic of a place), and it happened to be when Tropical Storm Bonnie was just beginning to pass through the city (AKA it was a torrential downpour and we got absolutely soaked walking there, despite having umbrellas). It's a smaller joint just off the sidewalk, and it's all classy oyster-bar-glory inside. It's lined with subway tile and rustic wood, with perfect, dim lighting, and huddles of people enjoying good French wine and seafood. You could wear a chic black LBD or a Patagonia pullover and still fit in here. It has a sexiness about it that is seriously laid back (i.e. our server was a hot ginger with a man bun - does that help paint a picture?). The lobster roll was the best either of us has ever had, and we also shared amazing raw oysters, halibut ceviche that was my favorite thing, an incredible ahi tuna burger, and a swordfish taco that was phenomenal (we order light, I know).
Unsurprisingly, we had a truly top-notch fine dining experience at FIG. I ordered gnocchi with lamb bolognese (something that wouldn't normally be my go-to) after seeing it at a nearby table. It was one of the best dishes I've ever had (this is saying a lot because there are few this memorable in my life), as light as air and flavors like you wouldn't imagine. I can honestly still taste it. We had brunch at HUSK which was delicious and impressive (we are now shrimp and grits converts, but are too scared to ever have them again so as not to sully our *10* experience) - just wish it had a better atmosphere.
We had some super interesting cocktails at The Gin Joint, as well as some noteworthy beef jerky (something I can't resist on any menu or in any gas station, for that matter). It's a great spot for pre-dinner cocktails, because it's table service only which tended to slow the evening down and made our connection feel like an early date again. How often are you out for cocktails without a meal, and yet still sitting across from each other at your own table?! So romantic.
We enjoyed everything about Callie's Hot Little Biscuit, even the long thin line out the door that has you relying on smells wafting out to know what all the fuss is about. Biscuits made to-order with things like thyme butter, blackberry jam, or pimento cheese and black pepper bacon. Get 'em to go and find a nearby bench. Such a fun and different breakfast, especially for us Northerners :)
Although the times I've been blown away by ice cream are few (read here as zero), I was a little obsessed with my brambleberry and sweet cream DREAM of a (waffle) cone at Jeni's. That was a dessert-before-dinner day and I regretted not.
Other places we loved included: The Darling Oyster Bar which lives up to its name and is not only an Instagrammer's dream of refined space and color, but an incredible seafood place (the oysters - duh - and the red snapper ceviche with fennel and orange segments were divine); a Pan-Asian fusion place called Co that tasted so fresh and spicy and flavorful and was a nice switch up from everything else we were eating; Angel Oak Restaurant, which serves up Southern favorites, and made me, for once, identify with all the fried chicken lovers out there (and the pulled pork steamed buns?! And spicy mac and cheese?! Ahh!)
There are great shops, stores, and boutiques all along King Street that can be explored in more than just a day. Antique shops are flanked by art galleries are flanked by cafes are flanked by historic mansions. Everything downtown is walkable.
Go to Rainbow Row for Rainbow Row, but also for the walk through the older part of town along the way and the beautiful buildings and homes that line the streets all the way up to the waterfront parks. Speaking of the waterfront, said tropical storm hindered our plans to visit any of Charleston's beaches, although it's certainly first on our list for next time.
Make the drive a little ways out of town to visit the Angel Oak Tree, thought to be between 1,000 and 1,400 years old. It's like nothing we'd ever seen before; its humongous branches growing under ground and back above the earth again. My only complaint is that you can't climb it :)
I truly can’t wait to go back to Charleston - and next time, we want to do a two-parter with Savannah, Georgia, too.