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"May I help you?"
Genteel, sophisticated, cosmopolitan -- these are all honorifics that have been bestowed on Charleston, S.C. But the spirit of this elegant city is best captured by that simple question above, as I discovered one gray morning in February as I puzzled over a map.
The gentleman who offered assistance, in his patrician drawl, was typical of old Charleston: unpretentious, dapper, clearly prosperous -- and on his way to church. Charleston has long been called the "Holy City" because of its procession of grandly steepled houses of worship. On Sundays, you wake to church bells ringing all over town. It's the least a local can do to perform Samaritan service for a befuddled tourist.
There are more and more tourists these days, thronging the streets of this small (population just less than 100,000) but vibrant city. Increasingly, they come for something other than picturesque surroundings, a dose of authentic Southern hospitality or the splendid coastal weather.
Nowadays, they also come for the food. A remarkable achievement, since 20 years ago there were virtually no fine dining establishments in Charleston. The local custom was to eat at home. Sure, there were a few white-tablecloth restaurants, but they served mainly formal French cuisine. The food at these places was good, but the lowcountry of South Carolina -- so named because it's where the land meets the sea, on ground that's largely swamp and marshland -- was keeping a culinary secret just waiting to be discovered.
The truth is that the lowcountry can boast of being home to what might very well be the original high-low cuisine. A mixture of fresh seafood, rich gravies, local produce and rice (the grain that first made Charleston great), this cuisine owes as much to slave traditions as it does to what was served in the dining rooms of the antebellum mansions that still line Charleston's famous Battery.
What Charleston's chefs have done where the water laps the sand is explore in-depth the possibilities of this cooking. And the city has embraced their innovations. It has been said that Charlestonians are like the Chinese: They eat a lot of rice and worship their ancestors. Well, they still revere their forefathers in Charleston, but they eat a whole lot more than rice these days. Whether working in traditional or updated styles, chefs have brought this city to national prominence.
Longtime Charlestonians freely acknowledge that the city they inhabit today is vastly different from the one they knew in the early 1980s. Restaurants have played a big part in the transformation. So have hotels.
"Charleston Place completely changed the city," says Marlene Osteen, wife of Louis Osteen, one of the region's pioneers of contemporary Southern cuisine. Charleston Place is the largest and most visible hotel in town; it occupies an entire city block and features a spa, a ground-level mall and, at the larger of its two restaurants, Charleston Grill, a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence-winning wine list.
However, as recently as 1986, the site of this downtown anchor was a huge vacant lot, ringed by chain-link fence and populated not by visiting celebrities and adventurous diners, but by abandoned cars. Today, Charleston is almost completely free of such blights. It is crammed with hotels, inns and bed-and-breakfasts -- all within easy walking distance of historic districts and top restaurants. It has two major educational institutions -- the College of Charleston and the Citadel. It is the U.S. home of the annual international cultural festival Spoleto, which draws artists from around the world.
And it has nurtured a dining culture that competes very successfully with that of much larger cities. You can start a day of eating and drinking in Charleston at Hominy Grill, famous for its breakfasts, or Cru Café, where the younger set goes for weekend brunch. Then move on to lunch at laid-back, even divey, burger joints such as Kasper's, Your Place or Jack's Cafe. Or raise the bar a notch, at downtown standbys such as Magnolias or Slightly North of Broad. You can then prepare for dinner alongside lawyers at the Champagne bar at Peninsula Grill, or among witty 20-somethings at McCrady's new wine bar.
Dinner itself tends to be a casually dignified affair -- Charlestonians are easygoing people, but they still stand on ceremony. Don't try to get away with a baseball cap and a pair of cross trainers; this is a city that upholds a reasonable standard of attire. chinos and a blazer are a good idea, and a tie wouldn't hurt (buy one at Ben Silver, the best neckwear emporium south of the Mason-Dixon Line). Women should be aware that the ladies of Charleston, young and old, give Manhattanites a run for their fashion money.
You won't find another Southern city that takes wine as seriously. Not surprising, really, as Charleston has always been a vital international port, and it continues to be the country's fourth-largest container-shipping destination. Its wine shops are impressive; one of them, O'Hara & Flynn, is also doing its best to promote one of the few culinary frontiers remaining in town, artisanal cheese.
The 1990s were a boom time for Charleston's restaurant scene, and visitors and locals alike are enjoying the results. There's plenty of room to grow, too. According to Louis Osteen, smaller establishments, filling the gap between old-fashioned almond-fried oysters at cheerful French bistro Mistral and sophisticated sweetbreads at Peninsula Grill, represent the next generation of Charleston dining. Three popular Italian bistros -- Fulton Five, Il Cortile del Re, and Al Di La across the Cooper River in Mount Pleasant -- have taken on the challenge of bringing good Italian fare to town. Young Charleston too has been bitten by the restaurant bug: The hip, Upper King Street neighborhood is now home to a pair of lively nightspots -- Coast and 39 Rue de Jean -- that treat wine and food with equal enthusiasm.
In fact, you might have so much fun in Charleston that you'll wind up like the waiter I spoke with at McCrady's the night before I flew back to New York.
"How was your stay?" he asked.
"I don't think I want to leave," I replied.
He chuckled. "Yeah, I said the same thing. Seven years ago."
For information on where to eat and stay in Charleston, see page 2.
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