Charleston, party of two

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The last time we went to Charleston, we had a day-and-a-half and a one-and-a-half-year-old. This time, it was just us kids, leaving the real kids (now ages 1 and 3.5) behind with Grandma and Papa for a long-overdue weekend away.

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Other than a quick overnight to Lockhouse 10 on the C&O Canal, this was our first trip away without the kids since we added Charlie to the gang a year ago. My husband is activated with the Naval Reserves this year, so he is gone from the day-to-day grind for most of each week, with one week off a month. Being together for four days in a row felt as indulgent as being away.

Now to the part you care about: Charleston. The city rose to the top of our list for a few reasons: good food (everywhere), beach time (a big one for my husband) and a historic downtown to explore (big for me). Add in historic plantations with garden tours for bonus points.

We happened to book our trip during Memorial Day weekend… which happened to be the start of the city’s month-long Piccolo Spoleto Festival, a celebration of the arts that included our pick of almost a dozen concerts a day and as many theater and art shows. We ended up adding two ticketed concerts — a moving gospel music show and choral concert — to our agenda last minute, and we ate to the tune of live jazz and bluegrass the other nights. Couldn’t have planned it better!

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If you’re looking for somewhere to go for a quick getaway or already have flights booked to Chuck-town, here are some of our highlights for things to eat, things to do and things to avoid.

First, we stayed at this “Charming Bungalow” AirBNB on James Island, which was a great fit. James Island has a quieter feel, its neighborhood streets lined with those impossibly curvy live oaks, and is a 15-minute drive to both downtown and to Folly Beach. That gave us great flexibility — on a weekend where the weather proved unpredictable — to jet to the beach when the sun appeared or to a house tour downtown to wait out the rain.

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BEST BITES

Charleston has become known as one of the best food cities in the South, and the reputation is well deserved. More than a little ink has been spilled on where to eat in the city that Bon Appetit clearly loves. We needed a few extra days — or stomachs? — to consume all the calories worth eating in this city.

As a side note, I’d been dairy-free for almost a year while nursing my son, who gets severe eczema from dairy. Now that he’s 13 months (and finally taking to dairy alternatives like Ripple’s pea milk), I took the trip as a chance to wean him. You know what that means? I GOT TO EAT BUTTER AND CHEESE IN CHARLESTON. So just know that any food reviews from me are a bit tainted by the fact that I hadn’t had either of those things in many months. Charleston, therefore, felt like the Southern version of the Garden of Eden, topped with butter.

  • Wine, Fish & A+ Service @ FIG (Food. Is. Good.) — For D.C. friends that are fans of The Dabney, this place is the not-Sean-Brock’s go-to for a similar brand of genuine we-serve-local-food-because-it-tastes-better fare. Like many of the buzzy places in Charleston, you have to get reservations weeks in advance, but we had no trouble getting seats at the bar right after the 5 p.m. opening (old, early-eating souls that we are). A bartender named Andrew gave us impeccable service and knew as much about the triggerfish we ordered as the fisherman who fetched it.

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    One of the best things I put in my mouth this trip were the two half-glasses of wine I ordered, indecisively, at FIG, deemed the James Beard Foundation’s most Outstanding Wine Program for 2018. I had never tasted anything like the cloudy Erbaluce by Terre Sparse Vino Bianco ‘Diverso,’ which gave new meaning to the phrase “dry white wine” with tannins that reminded me of a cross between sour beer and amber/orange wines from Georgia. Two of my all-time favorite things to drink this time of year.

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  • Caribbean & Live Jams, Beachside @ Chico Feo. — We literally followed the sound of live music from Folly Beach to this backyard bar on a Saturday night, and totally lucked out. You had me at bluegrass under live oaks and a chandelier made of oysters. The cheeky Caribbean menu was unexpectedly good (from pork tacos with kimchi to a curry goat dish) and we had the added pleasure of chatting up the locals who sat beside us: a friendly marine biologist who dates the bartender… and whose family recently started a local hard cidery called Ships Wheel, which everyone at the bar was drinking. The family, originally from Charlottesville, was a treat to meet and their dry-hopped cider became my new go-to at all the Folly Beach haunts.

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  • Roadside Seafood & Sunflower Cafe. — Yes, I had a notebook filled with places we just MUST eat at before leaving Charleston. But sometimes the rental car line is two hours long or Magnolia Plantation is farther away than you thought it would be and you’re STARVING. At first, I was alarmed that almost every place I pulled up on my phone while making these roadside-eats decisions had close to 5 stars on Yelp. Really? Is everything that good or are the locals just that nice? Maybe we just had good luck letting our cravings take the lead, but those hunger-induced decisions led to some of our best meals in Chucktown.

    If you’re headed to Folly Beach, take a pit stop at Roadside Seafood for all the fried things, especially shark or gator tail (when in Rome?) with “bam bam” sauce. On the way to a full day at Magnolia Plantation, load up on a larger-than-life breakfast at the charming Sunflower Cafe in West Ashley. I am still digesting the sweet potato pancakes with maple-pecan butter and the filet mignon omelet with boursin cheese. Did I mention I can eat those things now? Insert happy emoji.

Other honorable mentions in the food-and-drink category:

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  • Bar Normandy — The first two days we tried to stop by this trendy bar-in-a-bakery that opens at 3 p.m., it was closed for a Sunday and then Memorial Day. We had reservations at McCrady’s Tavern the other evening (foie gras-chicken liver pate on onion toast, FTW!), but decided to stop by the bar afterward. Truth be told, I purposefully ate less at McCrady’s as my Charleston-eats FOMO was kicking into high gear on our last night. I’m glad I left room for the bar’s exquisite oysters and only wish I’d headed Brandon’s recommendations earlier (Don’t eat oysters just anywhere in Charleston. Sometimes they’re not great.). The pineapple topped with beef heart slices was equally delicious, as was the funky white wine whose name I don’t recall. The extra treat: both folks behind the bar are originally from Virginia!

    IMG_5569Xiao Bao Biscuit — We had barely missed eating here our last time in town, so this was at the top of my list this trip. We went right at 11 a.m. on Memorial Day and had no trouble getting a table.
    Plus: Asian fusion is a great way to break up the butter-induced coma that starts to set in while eating your way through all the Southern food options. The cabbage pancake, “OKONOMIYAKI,” is well worth the hype and pairs well with an Asian beer.
    Minus: Some of the dishes were unbearable spicy. I’m all for flavorful spicy, but not burns-til-dinner spicy. I have a feeling we didn’t order the “best” other thing on the menu beside the pancake, but when there are only 7 options and everyone raves about this place, they should all be pretty out of this world, right? If we’re comparing it to Rose’s Luxury in D.C. — which has featured Xiao Bao in local pop-ups — the service was not even close. I get that you can’t be super accommodating when you’re hip and there are lines out the door, but is it too much to ask for more sauce when the dish is way too spicy to finish? They weren’t busy when we were there but couldn’t seem to shake the too-cool-for-school service. My husband’s main critique: “There are no biscuits!” Ha, I tried to warn him.
    That said, you should still go and eat that pancake — and ask extra questions about the spice level before ordering otherwise.

THINGS TO DO:

Charleston is really so much fun, so we loved having extra time to just wander. We planned out which days we hoped to spend downtown or at the beach, but we broke most of our plans based on the weather. Here are the top things I’d recommend based on our recent trip:

  • Spoleto! If you have the pleasure of visiting this month, go to as many of the shows as you can. We didn’t have any trouble getting last-minute tickets, and most of the ones we purchased were in the $20-30 range. The high-end shows were likely sold out, but we hadn’t budgeted for them anyway, and there were plenty of free shows during the day to pop into during the rain. A bonus of going during Spoleto weekends is that you can get into restaurants around primetime (7-8 p.m.) while the locals are off at the big show of the night. We found reservations un-gettable or unnecessary at some of the top spots, so might as well try to fit in at the bar.
  • Historic House Tours. I am that person that’s always trying to peek into windows in Old Town Alexandria, just to see what rowhouse living is like (should I be ashamed?). In Charleston, the city’s zest for both history and Southern living is on full display at several house tours, many of them worth the $10 or so admission that helps keep the lights on at this beautifully preserved estates.
    We toured the Nathanial-Russel house a couple years ago during the immaculate spring garden tours (BYO Flonase), and the spiral staircase magnet still adorns our fridge. This trip, we opted for the 3-in-1 tickets that get you into the Charleston Museum (the first museum in America!), the Joseph Manigault House and the Heyward-Washington House (where GW stayed during a visit).

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  • Magnolia Plantation. We finally made it to Magnolia! We could have spent more than a half-day at this gorgeous, sprawling estate on the river that, I imagine, is like the local zoo to folks who live nearby, peacocks and all. You could justify going every weekend to bite off one piece of all it has to offer — and it would be better for your budget, too. The house tour, the garden tour, the swamp tour, the $$ tours add up, so plan to just do the basics on a short trip (and look for Groupons). We loved the house tour — especially as it compared to the city-living tours of historic homes downtown — and wandering the surrounding gardens. I’m obsessed with Charleston’s flora and fauna, especially the envy-inducing hydrangeas that seemed to spring up like weeds on the landscape. That said, it can get HOT on this tour, so be flexible about the day you visit and wear mud-worthy shoes.
  • IMG_5472Folly Beach. If the weather’s remotely nice, make time for this comfortable beach. Even on Memorial Day weekend, the crowds were manageable (said the D.C.-area people), the restaurants were accessible and the people were friendly. The sand is that perfect sort that’s easy on the feet… gah, I’m not a beach expert but it was just a really great beach. The service at some of the restaurants leaves something to be desired, so consider hitting up Bowen’s Island Restaurant on the way to or from the beach (doesn’t open until 5 p.m.) for some of the best seafood in town.

There’s so much more I could say but, obviously, the best part of this trip was being away, together. Four whole mornings of waking up to the sound of not-kids made it that much better to come back to those adorable little people we do (I promise!) love. Hope you and yours have the chance to get away this summer, or to change things up just enough to appreciate what you already have back home. XO

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