Charleston: A Taste of the South

Bob Ellis Shoes; photo courtesy of Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau

In Charleston, the tempo of life is as sweet as my Uncle Wilbur’s iced tea and as dillydallying as his drawl. But, that doesn’t stop me from running past the antique stores and art galleries on King Street, not dawdling to window shop like a good Southern girl should. After all, I’ve got my priorities.

Because before there was Sex and The City, there was Bob Ellis Shoes. And, no visit to this distilled magnolia blossom of a centuries-old harbor town would be complete without a visit to Bob Ellis, the coolest shoe hall in the South — if not the world.

Shoe hijinks aside, by all accounts, Bob Ellis, a destination in itself, was the seed that gave rise to gallery, café, and boutique-laden King Street — Charleston’s most famous place to lighten the wallet. A fixture for 50 years, this flagship of King Street continues in the service of well-shod Southerners as a veritable temple to footwear.

Stemming from old school Southern hospitality, their customer service is the sort that surely makes their mommas proud. But that’s just one reason for the store’s popularity. The other is the indisputable fact that no matter what size your feet (gargantuan, wide as a river, slim as a stem), they can find a shoe that fits you. There’s not a soul in Charleston who hasn’t bought a pair of heel tappers at Bob Ellis. Why, just stepping in to look becomes a regular tidewater social occasion.

City Market; photo courtesy of Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau

But Charleston isn’t just about shoes. Indeed, this bastion of Southern sensibilities ensnares with cobblestone streets, Doric-columned antebellum mansions, white painted porticos and landscaped gardens. Tea parties with china cups are as common behind closed doors as strongly mixed cocktails with gin or bourbon — the sort my Charlestonian clan referred to as “travelers” (if you were going somewhere) or “dressers” (if you were in your room getting dressed).

It’s a place with undertones of Gullah (the African-Americans who live in the low country and seas islands of South Carolina) culture: folklore, food, language and artistry. It’s a maze of beauty and mystery; a city invigorated by its history and enhanced by the creative spirit. No wonder it feels like a treasure chest flung open.

And then, there’s the lure of lowcountry cuisine. Connect with the city’s heart and soul with this fusion food, a mélange of West Africa meets Caribbean and European influences beside the sea. The emphasis is on local and seasonal ingredients grown on the region’s plantations and the bounty of coastal waters. Relish dishes replete with crabs, shrimp, oysters, and other seafood, partnered creatively with rice, beans, okra and tomatoes.

Brunch at iconic Poogan’s Porch exemplifies the gastronomy. Here, for three decades, locals line up to start their weekend with such gob smackers as: flakey buttermilk biscuits with spicy sausage gravy, shrimp with grits and blue crab gravy, and fried green tomato and bacon benedicts.

McCrady's; photo by Jason Kaumeyer/Paul Cheney

First timers to the lowcountry food culture might want to acquaint themselves with a crash course at the City Market, a two-century old stretch of vendor sheds currently undergoing a massive ($5.5 million) renovation, but slated to be totally completed by April. Between East Bay and Meeting Street, this series of sheds dating to 1841 composes one of the nation’s oldest public markets.

The market is the best place to nab local souvenirs, like benne wafers (a sesame sweet treat that hearkens back to the plantation era) and hand-crafted seagrass baskets (made according to Gullah tradition). Go behind the scenes with Culinary Tours of Charleston’s “Savor the Flavor” tour.

But to truly delve into the local fare, one must loosen their belt and make some restaurant reservations. Trendsetting, award winning chefs have made headlines the past few years, formulating a new south cuisine that does lowcountry with a twist.

Three years consecutively, chefs from Charleston have garnered James Beard Best Southeast Chef Awards. Don’t miss Robert Stehling at Hominy Grill (2008), Fig’s Mike Lata (2009), or McCrady’s creative Sean Brock (2010).

For comfort food in a nostalgic setting, experience breakfast or lunch at Dixie Supply Bakery & Cafe. Owner Allen Holmes traces his Charlestonian heritage back to 1698, and the menu brims with recipes that have been passed down from one generation to the next. Try the tomato pie, always made with fat, fresh grown tomatoes.

Best time to visit Charleston? Anytime. But you might want to plan to coordinate your visit with a special event, such as January’s Lowcountry Oyster Festival or March’s BB&T Wine +Food Festival. So, come when you can —  just remember two things: Come shoeless and come hungry. You’ll be glad you did.

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