Culinarily inclined as I am, when I began planning a New Year’s holiday to Charleston, S.C., I started drawing up my “to-eat” list months in advance. There were the old-time comfort-food fixtures, of course, like Martha Lou’s and Bertha’s Kitchens. And I couldn’t resist making reservations at Husk, given how the name Sean Brock has become practically synonymous with unabashed Lowcountry pride. But in doing my homework, I also sensed a buzz brewing in the Holy City, a desire among the food set to move beyond regional classics and bring the historic city into the culinary here and now. I thought I’d have to sign up for some underground supper club. How wrong I was. Turns out all one needs to do to explore the innovative edge of the Charleston dining scene is walk north from downtown, away from the water and the romantic side alleys and stately homes, to the Upper King district.
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In Charleston, charm has long been the name of the game. The city advertises itself as so steeped in tradition it verges on kitsch. Deep history, old money and a proud sense of place are inescapable in the Lowcountry’s best known, and much beloved, city. But recently, a group of inventive chefs, restaurateurs and cocktail pros have been busy reimagining what constitutes Charleston “charm.” These movers and shakers have been snapping up vacant spaces on Upper King — the stretch of one of Charleston’s main arteries farther away from the waterfront — and transforming the neighborhood into the heartbeat of Charleston’s youthful revival.
We’ve seen this game before — hip risk-takers transform struggling neighborhoods, storefront by storefront, into the next “it” district. (Brooklyn? Oakland? Chicago, anyone?) In Charleston, gritty-cool “dives” like The Recovery Room Tavern now rub shoulders with class acts such as The Belmont; and Charleston’s formal sit-down dinner tradition has been turned on its head by wildly popular eateries such as Butcher & Bee sandwich shop (which also features regular — and regularly sold-out — pop-up dinners) and Two Boroughs Larder.
New Charleston restaurants open to big crowds
I happened to arrive at a fortuitous time. The weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas 2012 offered the opening of three new dining venues on Upper King, each with a unique menu and concept, and all three already in high demand.
First stop: The Ordinary. Just before Christmas, chef/owner Mike Lata (of FIG fame) and partner Adam Nemirow opened the doors to their eagerly awaited seafood establishment. I stopped by my first afternoon in town and found myself swooning over The Ordinary’s dramatic and elegant setting. Housed in a historic bank building designed in 1927 by celebrated local architect Albert Simons, it’s difficult not to be taken with The Ordinary’s 22-foot ceilings, large windows and class-act renovation. (Read: tiled walls, towering flower arrangements and a long, marble bar.) Over apéritifs and an unusual array of local oysters, manager Brooks Reitz stopped by to talk. “Surprisingly, because we’re a waterfront town, there’s no definitive great seafood place in Charleston,” he told me. “The Ordinary is an answer to that.” Diverging from FIG’s reputation as a quiet spot for “casual” fine dining, The Ordinary is “louder, funkier and more ‘detailed’ casual,” Reitz explained. “Our menu layout is very different. Here, you order a bunch, and it comes out as it’s ready, which is shocking for some Charleston folks who are used to regimen.” While the focus is on offerings from nearby waters, Lata’s New England heritage peeks through on the menu — a lobster roll is featured alongside Southern classics like “peel-and-eat” shrimp and gumbo.
Xiao Bao Biscuit
Just a few blocks away, on a sleepy residential block, a young couple has opened a very different kind of a local gem. Hidden behind the unassuming plate-glass windows of an old gas station shop is Xiao Bao Biscuit, the quirky little restaurant that (so far, it seems) could. Like so many restaurateurs these days, native South Carolinian Joshua Walker and his wife and partner, Duolan Li, who’s Mongolian by ethnicity, tested the waters with pop-up dinners before venturing into the world of full-fledged restaurant ownership. The couple met in New York, where they both worked in the business. They married and began to think about where to settle down. But not before dropping all their things with Walker’s family in Charleston and hitting the road for a seven-month honeymoon tromping around Asia. After deciding to make Charleston home, the couple saw their recent Asian experiences as a boon in a city bereft of the ilk of Asian food the couple had grown accustomed to in New York.
Open just a month now, Xiao Bao seems to be settling nicely into its new digs. When I visited, a warm and convivial neighborhood vibe filled the sunny space. I quickly befriended my server, who was happy to keep refilling my glass with the addictively spicy ginger-and-lemongrass house iced tea. After downing an Okonomiyaki (“what you like” cabbage pancake with kale, scallion, pork belly and a fried egg) and a refreshingly clean bowl of cold rice noodles, I spent some time chatting with Duolan, or “Dee,” who shows up at the restaurant to “play hostess” after her day job at a design and marketing firm. While her husband kept his head down in the kitchen, preparing for evening service, Dee told me the couple was pleased with their success so far. Neighbors, she explained, often stop in for a bite and a cocktail in the evening, and the popularity of the couple’s pop-up series has translated into a bustling dinner scene.
And then there’s The Rarebit, a 1960s inspired diner-cum-Hollywood cocktail bar. Sorry to say, I didn’t make it in — this is what happens when one waits too long over a busy holiday weekend. (I kept hoping the packed house would die down. Alas, the joint closed down for New Year’s Day, and I took off for home the next morning.) But a good peek in the window and a scan of The Rarebit’s website gave me a bit of insight into what I was missing. John Adamson, a restaurant vet whose past endeavors include Boylan Heights in Charlottesville, Va., has built out a sassy, inviting space accented by its long elegant bar, leather-backed stools, plaid-printed booths and bold artwork. Hungry visitors can get breakfast all day as well as simple plates Adamson calls “cheffed-up diner fare“: grilled cheese, chicken noodle soup, chicken and waffles and a daily blue-plate special. But the real draw seems to be the cocktails. Brian Sweatman, who was a fixture at Granville’s before it closed, makes all his own bitters and sodas at The Rarebit. And while the components of the cocktails may be obsessively fresh, the menu aspires to perfect the classics rather than erring toward mixologist hipster-fication.
So is the Old Charleston out? Not a chance. The city’s got too much history — and too many people interested in buying into that nostalgic image, be it real or imagined — to let its past fall by the wayside. But with the Upper King renaissance in full swing, Charleston has become the site of an unlikely, intoxicatingly exciting mashup of old South and edgy urban revival. With reverence for tradition tucked snuggly into their consciences but a gutsy hunger for experimentation guiding their menus, Charleston is proving, again, that chefs are at the helm of the (re)invention of the American city.
Photo: A peek from the bar area into the kitchen at Xiao Bao Biscuit. Credit: Sara Franklin