Charleston's Bookstore Café
American/Eclectic — Casual
Breakfast, Lunch, and Sat. and Sun. Brunch
1039 Johnnie Dodds Blvd.
Amid the exciting landscape of Charleston's culinary renaissance lies a more sinister and depressing undercurrent — the inevitable wave of change. Like a red tide, it rolls over one honored establishment after another, inconsiderate of the love and devotion of the local clientele, each restaurant slowly succumbing to the competition of tourist dollars. One by one we have seen them fall to this grave gentrification. Alice's Fine Foods, where the colossal stuffed pork chop once retired me to the couch for an entire workday afternoon of gluttonous agony — gone. Latasha's Taste of New Orleans, where two friends whose competitive bid to eat the extra spicy jambalaya almost ripped the toilet from my bathroom floor — gone. The Horse and Cart, central arbiter of the drunken bongo beats that defined the "KGB" (King Street/George Street/Burns Alley) before the 2 a.m. closing era — defeated by the tidal inundation of corporate mall culture and reincarnated above Gilroy's as the Upper Deck Tavern.
It is a personal loss. These places defined my Charleston. As a broke émigré with a dodgy address, they were the dives that nourished my interest in food and culture; I still daydream of Latasha's Creole ribeye when dining at the successive Five Loaves Café and sometimes wipe watery eyes when dashing past the trendy boutiques and college hangouts that have overtaken Alice's on Upper King Street. When the Bookstore Café closed, one could chalk it up to the same trend, but the fatal blow, the signal of apocalyptic cataclysm, surrounded the little blue shack at the end of The Market. Symbol of the anti-chic, willful masseuse of sanitary regulation, wonderful dark hole of grease and seersucker, Your Place took a piece of our soul with it.
It never seemed to really offer an official name, the sign above the door read "This is Your Place," but anyone could tell you where it was and that it was not just a hamburger stand run by two wonderfully eclectic women; it personified the Charleston we knew. An old sailor's bar, Your Place entertained all classes; staid bankers and hungover students packed into a dilapidated wooden shell, walls carved with the memories of time, grease thick in the air. We were all united at the shrine of the griddle, packed in with hand-patted beef steeping in the half-inch of fat that constantly rolled across the front edge. They were the best burgers in town — perhaps the best burgers ever made in any town.
But Your Place and The Bookstore Café are not gone. They have been reincarnated in the unlikeliest of places, Mt. Pleasant. If they were Hindus, the former glory of a life lived in service would have guaranteed an upward path, a higher plane of existence in some new skin, but with both, the beauty was deeper and perhaps it can never be replaced. Do not fret. These places still serve some really good food, but to visit means to confront the question of what makes a legendary restaurant — for most certainly that notion cannot lie solely within the rim of a plate. One must contemplate the place, the people, and the atmosphere. These newfangled interpretations, even if they still make the list of really good places in town, do not approach their former selves.
Bookstore Café now hangs a sign reading Charleston's Café — a change made after the ownership switched from Keith Clarke to his daughter Amber — and still serves an excellent breakfast. In fact, I like it even better, even if they still do not poach eggs (anyone serving brunch should serve real poached eggs). The old stools still creak with the weight of hungry stomachs and the food seems better-prepared. The wonderful potato casseroles could feed three, and incredibly crispy fried green tomatoes come topped with eggs and delicious country ham gravy, but it is not the same when you can no longer walk afterward through Marion Square to burn off some of your indulgence or window shop along Upper King. Your empty plate overlooks only a plate glass view of the parking lot to which you must return.
Your Place (they somehow dropped the "This is" part), which landed in Mt P. after a brief layover at a former sushi joint, also sports new signage, in the form of a giant burger. Would we go there for anything else? They certainly want us to. It's become spotlessly clean, lacks that certain "aroma" that follows you home, and they now have steamed shrimp and crabs (blue crabs and stone crab claws) on the weekends (note to devotees: if you try to carve your name in the fresh paint they will kick you out). I am sure from the looks of the place that the shellfish are very tasty, but I refuse to eat them. This is Your Place, after all, and even though they still have the same lunch menu that always offered sandwiches and other tidbits beyond burger-dom, I have never seen anyone order anything but the beef. Besides, the Shem Creek area is not lacking for steamed seafood entrees.
So it is all about the burgers at Your Place, and I am sad to say that they are not the same either — not bad by any means, still some of the best in town, worth the trip across the bridge, but not the same. I pinpointed why. Having studied the art of burger cooking from across the bar at the real This is Your Place, I can tell you their former secret to the best, juiciest, running-down-the-elbows burgers in history.
It was all about the people.
People started pouring in around 11:15 at the old joint and the girls were always ready for them with dozens of fresh handmade patties hitting the hot plate in unison, sputtering and splattering a symphony as they bathed in their own fat. You see, the people created grease and lots of it. That half-inch of fat that roiled into the trap at the front of the unit perhaps cooled down the cooking surface (as a local chef theorized to me), steeping the burgers, and your clothes, in a concentration of their own flavor. They were burger confits. Slabs of goodness lacquered in the slow profusion of flavors developed on top of that seasoned griddle. I detected less umami, that ethereal "fifth taste" of yummy richness, in the new Your Place's patties. An investigation led me to the source. Up the stairs, in the open kitchen, a young man stood attentively at what appears to be that same consecrated griddle, carefully preparing two delicious, handmade burgers fresh to order. It was twelve o'clock, the place was half full. As the shiny new ventilation unit hummed overhead, This is Your Place disappeared into the ceiling above. I couldn't even smell them cooking.