On the Road: Email Dispatches from Charleston, South Carolina

Travel Features Charleston
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From: James Calemine
To: Paste Travel
Date: Jan 30, 2015 at 6:07 PM
Subject: The High Road To Charleston, South Carolina …

We hit I-95 early, driving north from the Georgia coast to Charleston. With me are Griffin Bufkin, proprietor of St. Simons Island’s Southern Soul Barbeque, and my friend Comer Smith. Griffin needed to drop off some sauces at High Wire Distilling Co., and that was our excuse to get out of town. The three of us are hard-boiled nomads who know the face of decadence, and Charleston always serves as a good place to let loose.

When we arrived, the fresh sea breeze smelled sweet. Maybe it’s the Revolutionary and Civil War history that springs from the cobblestone streets. Or maybe it’s because there’s something like seven women to every man here. Regardless, this town always stirs the poet in me. The salt air awakens the technicolor realization that Charleston provides a port city-meets-high Southern confluence of the finest elements in American culture.

Before we checked into our rooms at the hotel on King Street, we dropped off the barbecue sauce at High Wire. From the barrels of bourbon I smelled that familiar fragrance: the rising energy of the weekend and a high fever of impending the-boys-are-back craziness. Drinking the rare contents from those barrels might have contributed to that sensation.

High Wire Distilling Co. Photo by James Calemine

From: James Calemine
To: Paste Travel
Date: Jan 30, 2015 at 8:12 PM
Subject: Out The Door And Down The Street …

You might be jealous after this email. I make no apologies. When in Charleston, you just do it. I told you you should have come … your loss.

After cleaning up, we hit the streets. Charleston always reminds me of a cross-pollination of Savannah and New Orleans. There’s a beauty to the seediness. I love that laid-back, rustic atmosphere mixed with aristocracy.

At Edmund’s Oast we ordered numerous dishes: tuna, cow pea & spicy squid salad, lamb meatballs, rare beef jerky, fresh ricotta. I sipped a high-gravity raspberry beer. The Oast cast a comforting golden light over Charleston’s business people, purveyors, movers and shakers.

Then we devoured raw oysters at Leon’s. A funky, low-to-the ground, no-nonsense, aesthetic here with a wide beer selection. Can’t beat the seafood in this town. Leon’s drives with a rock & roll edge. No pretentious bullshit. Next, we grabbed (with both hands) the tail of the dragon at The Royal American, which emits a dirty subterranean neon vibe and it’s where bands like Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires perform. We drank two beers, but gathered no moss …

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The Royal American Photo by James Calemine

We ate bacon-laced oysters and swilled raw oyster shots (with cocktail sauce & vodka) at the Rarebit. This sleek joint is a straight-up, high-class saloon with a long bar and low-hanging lights. Many pretty women dining here. You feel like you’re in a Robert Altman film standing in that place. A smell of flowers and seafood filled the room.

Husk served as the last stop of the evening. The upscale Husk is for the sophisticated, the believer, the cultured and Southern gourmand. The chef, Sean Brock, a James Beard winner, is a culinary artist of the highest order. At Husk’s lo-fi lit bar, Comer and Griffin enjoyed pork tails. I drank several Moscow Mules (Tito’s vodka, Ginger Beer and a lime) in a freezing brass cup.

Walking back to the hotel, Griffin experienced a moment of clarity: “Charleston, in my opinion, contains the highest per capita collection of classic history, first-rate restaurants, Southern artists, brewers and distillers—it is a wellspring of talent. I will have to die here before I die.”

From: James Calemine
To: Paste Travel
Date: Jan 31, 2015 at 7:17 PM
Subject: To The Heart of Charleston’s Bohemia …

We visited Martha Lou’s Kitchen to start the day. We ate fried chicken, collard greens with mac & cheese for a long journey ahead. This is where tourists come to get their authentic vittles in a small, quiet place. Then we walked through a rough part of town to Hannibal’s Soul Food. This, amigo, is where real people act real. You just know when the sun goes down, these checkerboard floors transform into hot spot. I ate cheese & grits, shrimp and lima bean soup.

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Martha Lou’s Kitchen Photo via Flickr/Wally Gobetz

That night The Drive By Truckers played in town. Earlier in the day, I chatted with Patterson Hood about my new book in the courtyard outside of Kudu Coffee & Craft Beer. At Kudu, the owner continued to bring Comer and me the latest brews on tap; some aged in whiskey-soaked oak barrels for three years. The beers would be tasted by the public for the first time the following day. For an early dinner, we ate at an upscale Mexican restaurant, Minero, which served mezcal that was $30 for one shot. Minero served the best chicken tacos I’ve eaten in a long time. Comer ordered beef tongue.

Later, my friend Renee—one of the most beautiful women in the Low Country—met us at King Dusko. This hip locale has coffee shop, a bar and a clothing store, and great photos lining the walls. Renee invited me down to see the historic Palm Fountain, and enjoy a drink with her at the Griffon Bar. The brick walls inside the Griffon are at least 100 years old. True grit at The Griffon. We traveled by horse and carriage through the streets like ghosts. As the sunset, the briny scents mixed with seafood, bourbon, lavender and distant wood smoke drifted the air.

From: James Calemine
To: Paste Travel
Date: Feb 1, 2015 at 6:07 PM
Subject: The Last Day…

Sunday morning was a rude awakening. Exhausted. I hate to leave Charleston … and get back to the grind. I already miss the cemeteries, mysterious plantations, rare shops, unforgettable restaurants, coastline and even the 400 churches.

It was then that I thought of the passage from James Caskey’s book, Charleston’s Ghosts: Hauntings in the Holy City:

“But like any great seductress, Charleston presents a careful veneer of half-truths and outright fabrications, and lets you, the intended conquest, fill in many of the blanks. Seduction, after all, is not true love, nor is it a gentle act. She whispers stories spun from sugar about pirates and patriots and rebels, about plantations and traditions and manners and yes, even ghosts; but the entire time she is guarded about the real story. Few tourists ever hear the truth, because at the dark heart of Charleston is a winding tale of violence, tragedy and, most of all, sin.”

James Calemine is a freelance writer and author of The Local Stranger.