Soak in the Holy City’s rich history and eclectic cuisine while getting reacquainted with old favorites and new attractions around every corner.
by Sharon Smith
It would take more than two hands to count my trips to Charleston over many years. Just three hours from Charlotte, it’s a convenient and popular destination for weddings and weekend getaways. But this was the first time the city itself got top billing on my itinerary. And our three-day reunion did not disappoint.
My friend Martha, who knows Charleston, appreciates good cuisine and is well-traveled — and whom I’ve known since seventh grade — tagged along. Our familiarity with the city and each other allowed us to be selective and intentional. We sought a range of culinary adventures — from esteemed fine dining to trendy, new cafes — all in a quest to experience Charleston in a new way.
Left: Weltons Tiny Bakeshop. Right: Chez Nous
With a head start leaving Charlotte, I put Weltons Tiny Bakeshop first on my list. This newcomer to Upper King Street, which opened late last year, is known to have a line out the door and limited hours of operation. As the name implies, it’s tight quarters — only parties of two are allowed in the shop at a time — but patience pays off. An attentive and friendly face behind the counter warmly guides guests through a selection of savory and sweet pastries and breads made with heirloom grains.
Outside, a gussied-up side alley hums with the happy chatter of people sharing a bite to eat, while the bakery’s mobile wood-fired pizza oven is in full swing. As if this little bakery needs anything else to add to its charm, a blue retro bicycle with a basket rests underneath the shop’s colorful mural.
For lunch, I meet Martha at Chez Nous, a pint-sized downtown restaurant featuring elevated European comfort food. Tucked away on a tiny side street in a historic property, Chez Nous has a Parisian-inspired patio and a cozy, dark wood interior. We browse the handwritten menu over a glass of wine and catch up over the Smoked Trout Rillette and Lumache with Duck Sauce. The choices are few (two appetizers, two entrees and two desserts) and they change weekly, but that speaks to the confidence of Chef Jill Mathias. This secluded neighborhood gem consistently draws high praise from national food critics.
The Charleston Place
From there, we head to The Charleston Place on Meeting Street, in the heart of the historic district. The luxury hotel was built in 1986 as part of a larger vision to revitalize the city. Last year, it was acquired by Beemok Hospitality Collection, owned by local businessman and philanthropist Ben Navarro, which is making significant reinvestments in the iconic property. With restaurants, boutiques and a luxury spa on site, it’s well-designed to be a luxurious, comfortable oasis for travelers coming from near or far.
For dinner, Martha and I have a reservation at the elegant Charleston Grill. It would be easy to overlook this Lowcountry fine dining destination amid such a dynamic dining scene. But don’t mistake Charleston Grill’s longevity for being staid. The seasonal menu is inventive, and each course is an experience. The restaurant’s knowledgeable staff take pride in crafting a culinary memory for each guest to take home.
To wind down, we settle into Thoroughbred Club just across the lobby. As two talkers, it doesn’t take long for us to exchange stories with a mom who flew in from Philadelphia to visit her daughter, a College of Charleston student. She faithfully stays at The Charleston Place on each visit. Soon, a guest from California jumps in, a Marine-turned-caviar grower who is in town for a food and wine festival. Our new acquaintance generously shares samples and humors us by fielding questions about his line of work. Rounding out our new circle of friends is a Boeing executive from Seattle, in town for a conference.
Sitting here, I am struck by how Charleston is the place where people from all over come to sample life in a thriving, beautiful and complicated Southern city. “This just doesn’t happen,” Michael, the caviar rancher, says. “Strangers don’t just meet like this and act like old friends.” How fitting that this random group would embrace the core values of Southern hospitality — to be welcoming and friendly — in this place, The Charleston Place hotel.
The next morning, I’m ready to relax with a facial at The Spa at Charleston Place, which also offers an array of massage and wellness services. Double glass doors lead to a modern, refreshing interior which invites hotel guests, visitors and locals to reboot and recharge. The adjacent indoor pool is connected to a rooftop veranda with a small bar. On this bright, sunny day, a few guests have already claimed spots on the cushioned chaise lounges.
Melfi’s patio and pizza
For dinner that night, several locals recommend Melfi’s, an Italian spot featuring fresh pastas and Roman-style pizzas on Upper King Street. The nondescript brick-and-mortar exterior belies the classic, clubby vibe that packs people in night after night. Don’t leave without trying the stracciatella and olive oil bruschetta.
The next day, I met “Lid Lady” Tyler Page Wright Friedman, founder of Walk & Talk Charleston for a tour, which I booked through the hotel. Tyler points out many of the colonial and antebellum buildings built with skilled labor from enslaved people. “It’s their skilled craftsmanship that went into building so much of the beauty that we admire in the historic buildings. It’s hard to balance, but it’s important to reflect that these buildings are both/and. They are beautiful and reflect an ugly history,” Tyler says. The tour is an insightful and engaging way to explore the city’s storied character and characters. It is my first Charleston tour, and I consider it two hours well spent.
Sorelle. Photos by Peter Frank Edwards
For a late, quick lunch, I hit stepped inside the newly opened Sorelle on Broad Street, which has two distinct dining options. The market cafe or Mercato serves casual fare (salads, paninis, pizza, pastries), while Sorelle offers more formal Italian dining experience. People are constantly coming and going from the Mercato, so if you’re patient, you should be able to snag a seat.
Finally, I couldn’t leave without walking through The Battery to see the giant live oaks and enjoy the water view. No matter how many times I visit Charleston, there is always something new to experience. SP
Feature photo: Boone Hall courtesy of Explore Charleston, ExploreCharleston.com
Left: Huguenot Church. Photo courtesy Walk & Talk Charleston. Right: High Battery Seawall
Opening this summer
The highly-anticipated International African American Museum is set for a late June opening, after a series of delays. A wide range of exhibitions, including the African Ancestors Memorial Gardens, tells the story of how Africans and African Americans have shaped history through trauma and triumph. 14 Wharfside Street, iaamuseum.org
Photograph by Greg Noire