Return to Charleston (part 1)

After a few months of minimal travel, it was time to gear up for our Thanksgiving trip to Charleston, SC. Charleston is one of our favorite destinations (food, architecture, weather), and we’ve been there four times so far. While visiting always means thinking about its long and complicated history. This time, the recent election (and its seething undercurrent of racism), along with related events (like last year’s massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and the police killing of Walter Scott), dominated our discussions, and rightly so. To be in Charleston is to try to understand all of its culture and influence: one can’t (or shouldn’t) look at all the beautiful houses south of Broad without recognizing on whose backs that wealth was created (spoiler alert: not the residents of those houses).

Taking all this seriously doesn’t mean we gritted our teeth for four days. We very much enjoyed the visit and felt the conversation made it more meaningful.

Wednesday

The flights down to Charlotte, and then Charleston, were completely uneventful and on time. After landing in Charlotte, we had just enough time to get coffee and walk to our gate before boarding. We even landed early enough to check in at our hotel before heading to our very late dinner reservation.

Speaking of which, I have to digress for a moment and talk about Sean Brock. He’s probably the most public influence on Charleston’s food scene and its elevation in stature. His restaurants — McCrady’s and Husk in particular — have received numerous accolades and helped spur a revival of innovative restaurants that sit comfortably alongside more traditionally lowcountry cuisine. McCrady’s used to be in a Revolutionary War-era tavern, but it proved too unwieldy for the many kinds of menus Brock wanted to offer. So he closed the restaurant and opened two new ones: McCrady’s Tavern (in the original space) and McCrady’s (three doors down). The tavern has an upscale gastropub menu and interesting cocktails, while the restaurant offers only a prix fixe menu for up to eighteen guests per seating. All this while running Husk (which also has a Nashville location) and battling an obscure autoimmune disease.

We’d been to the old McCrady’s a couple of times before, and decided we would try both the tavern and the restaurant (Husk will have to wait until next time). As luck would have it, the tavern had a reservation open for Wednesday at 10pm – perfect timing! We got there a few minutes early and were greeted by the host, who had just moved from Chicago to Charleston less than a year earlier. We then met our server Matthew, who had also just moved from Chicago! He had been working at Les Nomades, which we’ve very much enjoyed over the years, and we remarked on how he was there the last time we were there (for a wonderful dinner featuring the inimitable wines of Lalou Bize-Leroy). Such a small world.

We started with beet au poivre (a non-steak, but non-vegetarian take) and escargot-stuffed marrow bone, followed by duck confit rigatoni and crispy veal blanquette. Cocktails and wine accompanied everything, and we shut down the place around 11:30pm.

Thursday

We woke up to a beautiful Thanksgiving morning. We had made lunch and dinner reservations, but otherwise planned on a day in a city that was mostly closed.

Because it was warm and sunny, we decided to pick up coffee and muffins at The Press inside the Hotel Vendue and take them out to the Cooper River to enjoy the sunshine. We spent pretty much all morning there, sitting on a swing bench and reading. After the typically gloomy November weather in Chicago, we were determined to soak up all the sun we could.

And then back to the Hotel Vendue, this time to the Drawing Room for lunch. They offered a special prix fixe menu that day. Virginia went full-on Thanksgiving (pumpkin bisque, Heritage turkey supper, and pumpkin pie) while I indulged in oyster pie, pan-roasted grouper, and rice pudding crème brûlée (two great desserts in one!). After such a filling lunch, we wandered around the neighborhood south of Broad, stopping at the Battery to return to our books, before returning to the hotel to rest and refresh.

We had waffled a bit on what to do for dinner before making a reservation at Burwell’s Stone Fire Grill. After a cocktail at the bar (and some great shop talk with the bartender about whiskey and gin), we sat down to consider the menu. Having already had a more traditional meal earlier, we went with a slightly more tempered approach. We started with a salad, and then split a ribeye steak with Brussels sprouts, mashed potatoes, and “breakfast sandwich” mac and cheese (read: more pork!), paired with a Napa cabernet. After all that, we were basically spent and headed off to bed.

 

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