Is the “36 Hours in…” phrase trademarked by The New York Times? I hope not, because I had only that amount of time in town last weekend, and I want to tell you what I did:
First off, we checked into the Mills House Hotel, which is a 150-year-old property that has been restored to some sense of grandeur. By grandeur, I generally mean “expensive,” because man, Charleston is really spendy! At least, all the very well-located properties in the historic downtown core are. IMO, the Mills House’s best attributes were its connection to history and its incredibly comfy bed.
Speaking of beds: When hubby and I checked in, we were given a room with two beds although we’d booked a king. For our troubles (which were not totally insignificant, since we were exhausted, late for dinner after traveling all day — plus hubby was sick), the front desk manager threw in our breakfasts for the duration of our stay and several cocktails each at the bar. A nice compensation — and they moved us to a king room anyway. Importantly, we had no need to move the car even once while in town, which was key to seeing the highlights of the city in limited time, and why we splurged on location, location, location.
On our first evening, we dined at McCrady’s Restaurant (on the recommendation of a food editor friend, and on basically everyone else’s recommendation as well), a lovely place within an easy walk from the hotel that also happens to be on the National Register of Historic Places and Landmarks. Chef Sean Brock, recipient of the 2010 James Beard Best Chef Southeast award, is behind the new southern menu. We each opted for the four-course tasting menu, which was fairly priced at $65, and which had excellent vegetarian substitutions available for me. We noted also (since we are becoming our parents) that the noise level seemed just right for a convivial vibe that did not preclude actually talking to your date.
The next day, we walked over to the Big Red Barn in the historic Charleston City market area (where slaves were once sold) to pick up a horse carriage tour from Palmetto Carriage. Let me first say we were not unconflicted about this experience, given our love for animals. It was a perfect mid-70s spring day in Charleston, so there was less of that sense of deep sadness you get when you see animals lugging around fat tourists in infernal heat. But still. When we began the tour, our guide actually took great pains to describe the animals’ welfare in the company’s care. The carriage tour was a seriously pleasant experience, and a great way to take in the city. Our guide gave us a general overview of the city as we winded our way around an hour-long route (there are three routes, and each carriage is assigned one randomly selected by lottery so as to reduce traffic congestion and such), which included historic homes and churches and things. Neat.
Next, we walked around the Battery, gawking at gorgeous antebellum mansions (a glimpse of one is pictured above), impeccably restored. (And of course I was all over my iPhone’s Trulia app, trying to compare those with L.A. real estate prices, with House Hunters-esque morbid curiosity.) Anyway, the Battery is where it’s at for residential oohs and ahhs.
And then we spent a bit of time on King Street, a shopping street with everything from antique shops to standard mall fare (Forever 21) to upscale mall fare (Louis Vuitton). I bought an antique silver serving spoon (ahem, a “jam spoon,” per the tag) for my mother-in-law, since she’s all about that kind of thing.
After a rest back at the hotel, we began an impromptu bar crawl on the lobby level of the Mills House, where the patio with fountain would have been lovely if the weather had been a bit warmer after dark. (I’m a thin-skinned L.A. native.)
Next, we went across the street — literally — for a drink at Husk‘s bar. Husk also comes from Sean Brock and is in a really adorable former private residence (it appears), with expansive porch. We didn’t eat there (I’m told the veggie options were nil), but we enjoyed fabulous drinks and apps like fried pickles at its adjacent bar just next door in a separate building. The cozy bar felt every inch as cool (actually cool, and cool as in hyped) as anything in Brooklyn or downtown Los Angeles. Down to this detail: Husband ordered a cocktail, and asked for one of the special spherical ice cubes we’d seen other people get in their drinks. The bartender was like, “Sure, that’ll be $3.” And we totally thought he was joking. We’re like, yeah, put it on our tab! Sure enough, it was on our tab. (It very much reminded me of this, which you really have to watch.) Anyway, apart from that silliness, it was charming and hopping and delicious and all the things you want a bar to be.
Next, we walked a bit further out of the way (still just 15 minutes or so) to the Vendue Inn near the waterfront for a drink on its rooftop bar. With apologies to the very knowledgeable friend who suggested it, I didn’t love. It was pretty bro-tastic. It reminded me of the college bars from my Berkeley days, which is to say that there were a lot of college kids doing their thing in there. Not mad at it, and again — had it been a hot summer night, rather than a breezy spring one, I probably would have loved alfresco cocktails up there. That’s just me.
Last, we ended up at FIG (for Food Is Good), from Chef Mike Lata, which was absolutely divine — every last morsel I consumed was perfection. I started with the ricotta gnocci (melt-in-the-mouth amazing), and then ordered as an entree a collection of all of the veggie sides. I am often confronted with that form of ordering as an entree option (or sometimes the only vegetarian entree option), but in this case it felt so very far from a concession. Everything on the plate was killer: Sonora wheatberries (didn’t even know what a wheatberry was) (still kind of don’t), roasted beets, puree of Yukon Gold potatoes, snap peas with generous sea salt, and greens sauteed with garlic. For dessert, we shared some kind of sticky caramel flan-type thing that was obviously gone seconds after I told the server, “We’re so stuffed! This will just be for a little taste.”
After an excellent night of sleep in the Mills House’ previously mentioned comfy bed, it was off to our last stop before the timing of a friend’s wedding in Atlanta would force us to get on the road. Of the three plantations right in a row about 25 minutes from historic downtown — these are Magnolia Plantation, Middleton Place, and Drayton Hall — we chose Magnolia Plantation & Gardens for a visit. There were so many available tours, it was like Disneyland. We chose the “nature train” and enjoyed a lovely non-train, motorized tram tour through the property’s gardens, swamps, and natural miscellany. We saw tons of alligators, and enjoyed the guide’s right-out-of-central-casting Southern charm.
All told, we were totally convinced that Charleston is a lovely destination for a short trip (or a longer one), and that it’s every bit the food and drink town as some of those cities that make much more noise about being so.