Historic Charleston, South Carolina fairly oozes the genteel manner of a bygone era. Flickering gas lamps illuminate the city's gracious homes, while horse-drawn carriages roam her cobblestone streets. "Sir" or "ma'am" is the proper way to address someone, and even insults are softened with a gentle "bless her heart" at the end.
Indeed, cultured Charleston has been named the "Best-Mannered City in America," a designation bestowed by etiquette expert Marjabelle Young Stewart, herself better known as the Queen of Couth.
Yes, I know: The irony is killing you. But everyone knows that a trip report written by an ill-mannered barbarian is way more fun than a regular report, so stop your snickering.
Most historians agree that Charleston was originally part of the Carolina territory that was granted to eight Lord Proprietors by Charles II in 1663. The Lords arranged for the first settlement, Charles Towne, as it was originally called, to be established by English settlers from Bermuda under William Sayle in 1670.
There is, however, a little-known alternate theory, which is that Charleston was founded by a group of greedy orthopedists who conspired to create the most treacherous, uneven sidewalks in the entire 13 colonies.
They fiendishly arranged the craggy flagstones in a haphazard jumble, then sat back and reaped the windfall that resulted from the never-ending parade of twisted ankles and busted kneecaps. While their fellow settlers delighted in the peal of the town's many church bells, these bastards delighted in the unmistakable thud of yet another unsuspecting pedestrian taking a header.
We arrived on Friday morning to bright blue skies and warm southern breezes so, after dropping our luggage at the hotel, we decided to take a leisurely (read: painstakingly slow and wobbly) walk up to Hominy Grill in Charleston's Elliotborough neighborhood. Housed in a former barber shop, Hominy Grill is rumored to have some of the best Southern food in Charleston, so I prepared by donning my best elastic-waist expandable dress, and off we went.
There was a bit of a wait when we arrived, so we sat on the patio with a few drinks to, er, grease the skids for the abomination of fat and cholesterol to come.
I decided to try a John Daly, which is a boozy version of an Arnold Palmer made with local Firefly Sweet Tea vodka and lemonade. You can almost picture the advertising exec who thought that naming a mixed-up drink like iced tea and lemonade after famous golfers would make the game seem less boring. Nice try, but you could post strippers at all the odd-numbered holes and golf would still bore most people, um . . . stiff. Heh-heh.
Our meal began with a complimentary basket of boiled peanuts. Boiling the nuts renders them delicious, salty, and addictive, made all the more so by the fact that the softened peanuts are almost impossible to remove from their shells in one piece. So you could end up eating an entire basket just for the challenge of finding the one or two peanuts that come out completely whole. Hypothetically, of course.
Before I could get that far, our fried green tomatoes thankfully arrived. Although there is probably no one on the planet who loves tomatoes more than I do, fried green tomatoes are not for me -- the texture is just too off-putting. Luckily these came with a serving of homemade Ranch dressing, so I ate the fried breading dipped in Ranch (which is surely the official dish of at least one Southern state), while Angel ate the denuded tomatoes. Teamwork!
Next up was Hominy Grill's famous shrimp 'n' grits. Although I thought grits might be related to crowder peas or okra or some other little-known confederate vegetable, grits are actually made from a familiar ingredient: ground corn. Which are then prepared with butter and cheese and topped with bacon, which means they could be made out of sawdust and I'd still eat them. I may be a Yankee, but I'm a Southern girl at heart, y'all!
Angel went with the creole shrimp, which was a little bit spicy and a whole lot delicious.
I'd heard that Hominy Grill's vegetables were worth a try, so I went with the (mouthwateringly vinegary and salty) cucumber and onion salad . . .
. . . and the macaroni & cheese, which is vegetarian, so close enough.
After lunch we picked up a couple of those walkers with the tennis balls for feet so that we could safely navigate around town, then shuffled over to East Bay Street to look around and grab an afternoon cocktail.
We decided on drinks at Squeeze Bar, which bills itself as the "tightest bar in Charleston." Obviously the owner of this place has never seen a NYC closet.
Like almost every place we visited in Charleston, Squeeze Bar is a model of cool interior design, with repurposed egg-basket light fixtures fitted with bare Edison bulbs; rough exposed brick; a chocolate brown and pale blue color scheme; nubby ostrich upholstery; and a bartender who looks like he was born to serve up small-batch whiskey.
After successfully not dropping dead after that lunch at Hominy Grill, later that evening I decided to double-down . . . with some fried chicken skins at Husk. I know what you're thinking: Is it actually possible to improve upon chicken skin? In fact it is, if you deep-fry it, then serve it with a sticky-sweet dip made of honey and hot sauce.
Also amazing was the bread at Husk, which is so soft as to be almost ephemeral, and topped with a thin, buttery crust dotted with pretzel salt. The result is a bread so good that it doesn't even need butter but, this being the South, you can bet your bippy there is butter aplenty. But not just any butter: pork fat butter. I can practically hear Paula Deen cackling maniacally in the background as I type this.
The other dishes we ordered -- pimento cheese with country ham as a second shared appetizer, and the cornmeal-crusted catfish for Angel's entree -- were good, but the pork chop I ordered as my entree was, unfortunately, the fattiest, most gristle-and-bone filled piece of meat I've ever had the displeasure of leaving, almost entirely uneaten, on my plate (and which the waiter astonishingly failed to notice when he came to clear them). And so, if you are contemplating a meal at Husk, I'd recommend sticking to the bread and the fried chicken skin, and perhaps a nice after-dinner angioplasty.
Saturday's weather was just as glorious as Friday's had been, so we planned a walk from Meeting Street west to Colonial Lake, then south to the Battery, finishing up at East Bay Street. Not wanting to undertake such a long journey without proper provisions, we stopped at 82 Queen for brunch, which we chose just as much for the food as for their lovely courtyard.
Having decided that if the combination of fried chicken skins and Charleston's sidewalks hadn't killed us, nothing would, we each started with a bowl of 82 Queen's award-winning she-crab soup, which is made by combining a 55-gallon drum of heavy cream with 1 cup of crabmeat (measurements are approximate).
I decided to stick with sweet tea, while Angel tried the Raspberry Spritzer. Secure in his masculinity, that one.
I tried to go a little lighter for my entree by ordering the Oven Roasted Creamy Chicken Salad. Now, you might think the word "creamy" would be a dead giveaway that there was nothing healthy about this salad, but this is the South. The fact that they added a few pieces of lettuce to the plate automatically qualifies it for the spa menu.
My plan to eat lighter was foiled in part by the industrial-sized jar of mayonnaise that was surely used to prepare that delicious chicken salad, and in part by Angel ordering this:
That's right: Just when Hominy Grill had convinced me that adding butter, parmesan, and bacon was the ideal way to prepare grits, the evil genius behind the stove at 82 Queen goes and dumps a whole fistful of cheddar cheese on them instead. As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again!
After lunch we waddled over to Colonial Lake, which was notable for the fact that even though it was a gorgeous day, and a Saturday to boot, the lakefront wasn't completely overrun with people. Put a lake like that in the middle of NYC, and on a sunny Saturday you're liable to be trampled to death by an army of women pushing $1,000 strollers.
Later we made our way down to the Battery, where we took in the massive oak trees at White Point Gardens.
Oh, and the massive piles of bricks on Murray Boulevard, East Battery, and elsewhere.
Why be repetitive when you could also be redundant in addition?