For some, Charleston is a place stuck in a certain time. These people live in a "golden haze of memory," which so often obscures the dark realities of the area's aristocratic past. They demand that the architecture remain loyal to a small slice of history preserved by the poverty of Reconstruction. They want to eat food that represents that vision, and they want to hawk it to others who visit. And in the last century, those tendencies made Charleston's dining scene somewhat boring.
But culture shifts, which is evident in the fact that innovation now springs up well north of Calhoun Street. These days, a seat in the hot new bar on Upper King is more sought after than a seat at the yacht club, and most of the people who chat me up about Pat Conroy's latest book react with gleeful relish rather than grim concern. In many ways, Charleston's mythic past now seems subsumed by a thoroughly cosmopolitan present, especially in the world of food.
It's hard to point to a watershed moment. The City Paper often lauds the arrival of Sean Brock at McCrady's and the influence of kitchen science on our collective appetite. Sometimes we think that the farm-to-table movement put us back in touch with the myriad pleasures of Lowcountry farm and field, that it moved us beyond an undying devotion to ground hominy topped with shellfish. Then again, it could just as easily be explained in an examination of the recession and the explosion of quality mid-priced fare, which we sorely lacked for so long, or the rise of a nationally recognized Wine + Food Festival. No matter the exact cause, its effects are clear; Charleston has become a city with an increasingly diverse palate.
It makes me wonder exactly what's in store for the City Market. As renovations start, we hear rumors of fresh produce, of a return to some semblance of a working venue proffering food instead of cheap plastic junk. Let us hope. New life could be breathed into that part of town with the right approach.
This diversity also infects the tried and true. You can get a dose most anywhere these days — in new soul food places like Huger's, Crave's, and Silva Spoon taking their place among the city's greats. Old matriarchs like Mrs. Martha Lou Gadsden continue to cook their fare in buildings that look like weathered monuments, but younger faces run the shiny new locations. The Silva Spoon offers free WiFi.
You could sail over to the Park Circle area, which continues to prosper and expand. The popular new Cork Neighborhood Bistro should be open for dinner by now. And even Cajun cuisine has found a foothold in North Chuck, where Cajun Kountry Kitchen and The Crescent Connection battle it out for top honors.
Evidence of our changing city can be found in bars like Closed for Business, where no one under 21 can even eat, and restaurants like Quyen/Party Kingdom, a Vietnamese funhouse partially devoted to people under 10 that also happens to serve the best pho in town. Comfort food can be found everywhere, in a thousand flavors, from Brett McKee's new roadside diner called 17 North in Mt. Pleasant to the Italian-American stylings of Alessandra's in Summerville and La Tabella on James Island.
Of course, there is plenty of "tradition" left in the Holy City, and plenty of great kitsch to sell to tourists, but somehow it now tastes better. Amen Street Fish and Raw Bar transformed the old crabby joint that came before it into one of the best places to eat on East Bay Street. It's a splendid space, filled with dark wood and tile, offering platters of fried seafood and cold beers. One can sit at the bar and imagine being in Boston, or San Francisco, or Charleston, especially Charleston with its historic facade, oyster shell chandeliers, and windows full of bright Southern sunshine.
But even if we bid goodbye to certain "traditions," some are hard to swallow. This spring, at the conclusion of Spoleto, Robert's of Charleston will close after 33 years. The piano will fall silent, and the man who has presided over more birthdays and anniversaries than any other in town, will retire his beautiful voice for good. There will be many who decry such exits as a loss for Charleston, but in such change lies rebirth. That will become clear if Robert's daughter and son-in-law choose to open a new place shortly thereafter, continuing the legacy in some other form.
I think that's what makes a real city a fun place to eat. It's not the famous dishes that you must try, it's the evolving scene where growing ethnic enclaves supply a steady bill of diverse fare, where restaurants that close are quickly replaced by something new and different. And if that's what it means to be a true dining destination, then I think we are about to arrive at the station.