"Wow, that's, um, er, . . . adventurous. You'll enable the GPS on your phone just in case, though, right?"
That was the general consensus when I told some friends that I was planning to spend President's Day weekend in Charleston's Low Country with a woman named Sue, whom I'd never met.
And that our accommodations for the weekend would be provided by Sue's friend Missy, whom I'd never met, either.
Of course, I don't usually recommend jumping on a plane to meet up with strangers you find on the Internet, but when the offer includes a free beach house and a three-day binge on pig parts and punch bowls, you'd be crazy to say no.
Or at least just crazy.
Sue and I became acquainted online a few years ago after I wrote a three-part blog post about my food-filled weekend in Charleston, where she lived for nearly 20 years before moving to North Carolina in 2013 to care for her aging mother. We bonded over a mutual love of everything from fried chicken skins to watermelon martinis, communicating online about food, travel, and where we might travel next for some food.
That turned out to be Charleston, thanks to Sue's friend Missy, who generously offered us the use of her beach house on Sullivan's Island for a long weekend. Weeks of obsessive planning about where and what to eat and drink ensued, with menus and cocktail lists whizzing through cyberspace while Sue and I bombarded each other's inboxes with photos of pork chops, cheese grits, and bourbon drinks. Which sure beats the usual contents of my inbox, which usually consists of the secrets to enlarging certain parts of my body and shrinking others.
Finally, the appointed weekend arrived. Sue drove down from Greensboro and I flew down from New York, and in the 20 minutes it took to drive from the airport into downtown Charleston, Sue and I had already decided to pace ourselves for not one but two lunches and were debating about a snack in between. How could I not like her?
We parked the car and ambled in the sunshine over to Amen Street Fish & Raw Bar, which was one of the spots I ran out of time for on my last visit. (Hence the two-lunches-a-day schedule this time around. Live and learn.)
Famed for its gorgeous oyster-shell chandeliers, Amen Street is bustling and bright, and we were happy to discover that we'd arrived just in time to avoid the one-lunch crowd.
I knew had to try the "Owner's Famous Frozen Peach Bellini," which is made with both Champagne and rum. If one lunch would not suffice, you can bet only one booze wouldn't.
Sue went with the Bloody Mary, which she loved. Me, I don't like a lot of random vegetables coming between me and my liquor.
You know what's better than a corn dog?
That's a trick question: Nothing is better than a corn dog. But a shrimp corn dog comes pretty close.
We also split an order of shrimp ceviche and a third drink, the Chef's Old Fashioned, with bourbon, muddled orange, and brandied cherries. Of course, we didn't really need a third drink, but I'm pretty sure all the rules go out the window when you find yourself eating corn dogs at 11am with someone you just met an hour ago.
After lunch we milled around for a bit, taking in the sights and enjoying the warm sun on our faces.
Soon, however, it was time for lunch. Again. And so off we went to the Obstinate Daughter on Sullivan's Island.
The restaurant's unusual name is an homage to the Battle of Sullivan's Island during the Revolutionary War, in which the defenders of Fort Sullivan foiled the British fleet’s attempt to capture the city of Charleston. This first American Patriots victory inspired a London political cartoon of Miss Carolina Sullivan, one of the "obstinate daughters of America," whose large hairdo concealed fortifications, cannons, and battle flags.
The restaurant's web site notes, "To us, the Obstinate Daughter is a beautiful reminder that the stubborn refusal to change one’s course of action can change the course of history."
That is true. Because, although we were still plenty full from our corn dogs and cocktails at Amen Street, we forged ahead with our planned course of action. Onward, soldiers! The mighty cannot be felled, neither by gluttony nor by gout!
The O/D, as it's called, was until recently a beloved Sullivan's Island institution called Atlanticville, which was one of Sue's favorite haunts. So she was understandably a bit leery about giving the O/D a try. But I don't think she had anything to worry about.
Although it was mid-afternoon, the place was pretty busy, so instead of waiting for a table, we decided to grab two seats at the bar.
After a short bout of indecision, Sue settled on the Low Country shrimp roll with tasty little fried polenta sticks called "geechie fries," which she paired with the Swamp Fox cocktail. Made with bourbon, maple syrup, Luxardo cherry liqueur, Fresno chilies, and bitters, the Swamp Fox probably should have tasted like that vile cayenne-pepper lemonade people drink to lose weight, but instead tasted like the kind of well-made, sophisticated cocktail people drink to wash down their second lunch of the day.
After finding myself unable to tear my eyes (and just barely my fork) away from my neighbor's delicious-looking entrée, I ordered the same thing: Homemade gnocchi with short rib ragu, horseradish, and pine nut gremolata.
Although nearly everything on the O/D's cocktail list sounded amazing, I went with the Palmetto Log Colada, which started off traditional with rum, pineapple, and coconut milk, then veered into interesting with the addition of crushed ice and a sweet surprise: blueberry honey.
We'd just finished eating when another patron ordered this:
That is a sticky bun with caramel and pecans. Have you ever seen anyone actually make a sticky bun? It's like spreading an oil tanker full of butter onto half a slice of toast. But after shrimp corn dogs and short rib gnocchi, what's 10,000 more calories? The bartender told us it was too late in the day to order one, but I think the look on my face made it clear that he had two choices: Get the kitchen to make me a sticky bun, or get the manager to come and break up the fistfight I was going to start with the person who ordered the day's last sticky bun.
He got me the sticky bun.
That afternoon we explored Sullivan's Island a bit.
Finally, it was time to head back to what Sue referred to as "the beachiest beach house ever." And it was. Spacious, airy, and unfussy, the house radiated the simple charm of a lived-in beach cottage, the kind where everyone is having too good a time to fret much over sandy feet on the floors.
My room was bright and cheery, with lots of fluffy towels and a warm, soft quilt on the bed.
By the end of the day we were both too tired and too full to follow through on our original dinner plans, so Sue suggested the appropriately-named Stack's Evening Eats in nearby Mt. Pleasant for snacks and wine instead.
There, we sat at the bar with a couple glasses of crisp white wine, a plate of fried oysters, and the best Brussels sprouts I've ever had.
The Brussels sprouts were fried till crispy, then served with a creamy, savory smoked tomato and herb dipping sauce. That might sound fancy, but in the South, "dipping sauce" is just a euphemism for "mayonnaise," much like "I'll have a side of bacon" really means, "Just bring me the whole hog, and be quick about it."
Or, maybe they just call it dipping sauce because they know that's what you'll be doing with your fingers as soon as those Brussels sprouts are gone.
The next day dawned cloudless and sunny, but also freezing. And I don't mean southern-style, it's-65-degrees-where's-my-parka freezing. I mean freezing-freezing: Accounting for the wind chill, the day's high was roughly 40 degrees. Luckily I came prepared.
Sue steered us to the Boulevard Diner, where we could wait for a table in the small vestibule instead of out in the cold. After a bit of exercise to warm up, that is.
That gave us time to peruse the menu and take in the old-school diner décor.
I really wanted fried pork chops, but Boulevard Diner was serving brunch. Luckily, though, this is South Carolina, where fried pork chops at Sunday brunch are as commonplace as pacemakers at Sunday dinner. And so I had the fried pork chops with scrambled eggs, cheese grits, and toast.
Sue went with a classic: shrimp and grits.
If you're going to start the day with things like fried pork chops and cheese grits, there's no guarantee you'll make it to the end of the day. So you might as well go for broke with some creamy coconut cake and a rich chocolate mocha pecan torte for dessert.
After brunch we continued our exploration of Sullivan's Island, along with neighboring John's Island.
It's not the $1,000 that gets me. It's that extra $40, tacked on like a bad toupée.
And forget looking out for jellyfish. Here, the hazards include things like deep holes and marauding coyotes, which make the deadly currents seem somewhat redundant.
Worried about the land mines they probably forgot to mention, we headed inland a bit so Sue could show me the local neighborhoods.
Just when I started to think the houses all looked the same, a spaceship landed on this guy's lawn.
His neighbors, however, refused to be outdone by some lousy flying saucer.
After a little more driving around, we ended up at Vickery's on Shem Creek for an afternoon pick-me-up (and drink-me-down).
With its wraparound decks and outdoor bars, Vickery's is the perfect place to take in the view with a cocktail in hand.
That evening we had plans to meet Missy downtown at the Cocktail Club to share a party-sized punch bowl before grabbing dinner downstairs at one of Charleston's hottest new restaurants, the Macintosh.
Sure, a giant punch bowl might sound like a bit much for just three people, but that's why Missy brought her friend Jill . . . and Sue brought me.
On Sunday nights, the punch bowls at the Cocktail Club are only $20, which is just $5/person for a really good buzz, or $10/person for a really good coma.
Of course, you could probably get a punch bowl for $20 in NYC, too. At a flea market, where it will come with a big crack down the middle and two used Dixie cups.
We chose to fill our punch bowl with the Beachcomber No. 2, which contained white rum, brandy, pineapple and lemon juices, cinnamon syrup, ginger beer, nutmeg, and the fantastically named "Velvet Falernum," which sounds like something a natty gentleman might wear but in fact is similar to a low-proof rum infused with lime zest, ginger root, cloves, and almonds.
After recounting our weekend adventures for Missy and Jill, Sue asked if Missy would mind if I stored my luggage at the house the next day while exploring Charleston solo, since Sue planned to depart early to beat some impending bad weather. Of course, this being the South, not only did both Missy and Jill offer to stow my luggage at their respective houses, but both of them offered me a ride to the airport to boot. If two strangers in New York City ever make you this same offer, it is very likely that (1) you will never see your luggage again, and (2) no one will ever see you again.
Soon it was time for our dinner at the Macintosh, where, in a textbook case of nominative determinism, a chef named Jeremiah Bacon is turning out bacon burgers and other divine swine in a chic TriBeCa-meets-Charleston space complete with exposed brick walls, reclaimed floors, and caged pendant lights.
The room was too dark for photos, but I did manage a few of the pork shoulder ravioli, which are blurry not because of the dim light, but because your head is likely swimming at the sight of this puffy pocket of porkalicious perfection. For while pork on its own is good, pork that has been submerged in fat and cooked for eight hours is even better, particularly when whatever has fallen off the bone is stuffed inside a giant ravioli, along with some pork stock and crème fraiche.
Sue wanted to get an early start on the drive back to Greensboro the next day, so we woke early and made a beeline for one of her old favorites, Page's Okra Grill, a Low Country legend that offers "Local Food for Local Folks."
As well as, "Giant Rocking Chairs for Porch-Deprived New Yorkers."
After breakfast, I texted my new friend Jill to find out whether her offer to let me store my luggage at her place still stood, or if that was just the previous night's punch bowl talking. She responded with the most fantastic text I've ever received from a complete stranger: "I won't be home till 1 but have left a key for you. Two overly friendly cavalier spaniels will greet you. If you go out, just lock up and put key back in place. Make yourself at home. What time do we need to head to the airport?"
I was gobsmacked. Oh, sure, stranger from New York City who could be an axe-murderer. Just take my key and let yourself in and make yourself at home. And if you haven't robbed me blind and kidnapped my dogs by the time I get home, I'll even take you to the airport!
And so I dropped my luggage at Jill's house, which turned out to be a manse in the heart of downtown Charleston, complete with two adorable spaniels.
After saying my good-byes and thank-yous to Sue, I had about two hours to kill in Charleston before my flight. Naturally, I spent it eating.
I didn't have a ton of time, so I headed over to Gaulart & Maliclet, a tiny café also known as "Fast & French."
The space was tight and the seating communal, so it wasn't long before I got to chatting with a lovely woman named Kimberly Glenn, an interior designer whose firm you should definitely patronize because she is warm and friendly and has excellent taste . . . in dining companions.
We both ordered the lunch special: French onion soup, cheese and bread, and a glass of house wine.
Fast & French lived up to its name, leaving me with just enough time to take in some sights before heading back to the airport.
One of Charleston's many hidden treasures are the tiny gardens, alleys, and nooks tucked among the city streets.
As promised, Jill gave me a ride to the airport, and we chatted along the way about the pleasures of meeting strangers and offering hospitality and trusting that your new friend isn't a serial killer.
And when I got out of the car, she didn't even drive off before I could grab my luggage.
Southern hospitality indeed.