Ciara's "My Goodies" blasted from my wall-mounted CD player. "Sexy, independent /I ain't wit' it so you already know," I sang as I caked coat after coat of jet black mascara on my blond eyelashes. Karen would be here any minute I thought as I chugged a bottle of Heineken. I stepped into a pair of pointed heels, my flared Seven jeans just touching the floor. The door bell buzzed. There was Karen in a tiny mini skirt and shimmery halter top. Yep, we were ready. It was a Friday night, October 2005, and we were East Bay bound.
Yes, kids, there was a time, not so long ago, when the East Bay neighborhood was the place for locals to be on any given weekend. Hard to believe, but I swear it's true. Before we had Minero and Gin Joint, there was Charlie's Little Bar and (shudder) City Bar. My college years were spent pre-gaming on apple sake at Wasabi, downing shots at Johnson's, and inevitably dropping it like it was hot, or, more accurately, lukewarm, at 213 Top of the Bay. That's when you could actually get into the club. Most nights a line of over-cologned bros and spray-tanned girls would snake around the building. If 213 — later renamed Light — was too full, we'd drunk sway to a band at Big John's or head to Meritage. By night's end we'd be carrying our heels, our feet a mess of blisters from walking up and down East Bay amidst the throng of young Charlestonians.
But like Atlantis, this mystical land of Jäger bombs and lithe bods has vanished. The closure of Social last month felt like the final death knell for any kind of residential late-night scene. But Alejandro Torio, the co-owner of new Market Street restaurant 5Church, is convinced he can lure locals back.
"We're going to make Market and East Bay cool again," he says.
This raises the question: When did it stop being cool? And, more importantly, why?
It started with a fire.
Four days before 2013's Cooper River Bridge Run, 213 East Bay St. went up in flames. The home of Light, Squeeze, the Brick, and Speakeasy caught fire at 1 a.m. when a spark caught in a back room of the dance club. According to Charleston Fire Department investigators, the flames spread through the rest of the building due to lack of a sprinkler system and fire alarms. The inferno could be seen from the Ravenel Bridge. There was smoke and water damage and the roof collapsed. All four businesses closed immediately.
"I had seven employees lose their jobs," recalls Clint Gaskins, the owner of Squeeze. Gaskins says that following the fire, there were plans to rebuild, but an ongoing lawsuit between himself and the building's owner Yaschik Development has left the space in limbo. Two years on, the building remains boarded up. (The developer didn't return City Paper's calls.) But that wasn't the only thing that happened that month. In April of 2013, Moe's Downtown closed. The pub at 5 Cumberland Street fed into the street's late-night scene. New owner Chris Egan purchased the property, but didn't open his Egan & Sons Irish pub until six months later. "At the same time Johnson's was turning into Craftsmen, so there was a lot of downtime there too," says Gaskins. Suddenly six bars on two blocks of East Bay were shuttered all at once.
Brad Ball, the owner of Social Restaurant & Wine bar, says that there's no doubt in his mind the fire at 213 directly contributed to his own business losing foot traffic. "There was a slow decrease in the late-night business, but after the loss of those establishments, it started decreasing at a much more significant rate," he says. The change was severe enough that last month Ball decided to cut his losses and close Social after eight years in business. Ball, whose family also owns Poogan's Porch, plans to renovate Social's space at 188 East Bay, but it will no longer look to attract millennial eonophiles. Rather, Ball plans to open a family-friendly Southern barbecue joint, Poogan's Smokehouse.
But, make no mistake, East Bay Street had been losing blood for a while. When Recovery Room opened on the far reaches of King Street in 2008, Chris "Boston" DiMattia's gritty dive seemed like an outlier. But the next year Shine (now Barsa) opened at the corner of Line and King. Reviewer Robert Moss called it "a new high-water mark for ambitious dining on Upper King," and the swanky establishment ushered in an upscale drinking era for the area. The growth north didn't stop there, of course. According to the Post & Courier, between 2005 and 2013, 30 new restaurants opened on Upper King.
Meanwhile in the French Quarter, residents were beginning to get huffy over the neighborhood's 2 a.m. revelers. In May 2009 the French Quarter Neighborhood Association took action. After discovering Pearlz was only zoned for 11 p.m., they shut the business's late-night hours down. The City of Charleston's Zoning Board of Appeals overturned the measure a month later, but in hindsight, the timing seems eerily significant.
Now one might think the King Street boom would mean a commercial real estate bust for East Bay, but not so says realtor Patrick Bell. "Basically, lease rates on Upper King have doubled over the past 10 years, and East Bay rates have increased by approximately 43 percent," he says.
Brad Ball concurs. "The lease rates on this side of town are nearing 100 percent increases over the past five years," he says.
In fact, East Bay-area landlord and President and CEO of East Bay Company Hilton Smith says, "This is the first time since '99 that I don't have a square inch of space available."
Clearly the space demand is still there.
Alejandro Torio's 5Church, set to open this fall at 32 N. Market, is a testament to that.
"When we started looking to open a restaurant in Charleston, Upper King was originally where we wanted to be," says Torio. The restaurateur and his business partner Patrick Whalen looked at Indaco's space as a possible option five years ago when the area was still undeveloped. When they returned, King had grown. "But we said, 'Why compete with all those other places already on King?" says Torio.
Instead the men opted for the former home of Mad River Bar & Grill. And from a Market and East Bay vantage point, Torio thinks their new concept will bring a breath of fresh air to the area.
Torio's 5Church is certainly unlike other market street spaces. 5Church's design will mimic its Charlotte sister property, a look The Washington Post called a "Vegas-y setting." Think the exact opposite of the city's recent reclaimed wood/exposed brick restaurant trend. At 5Church the entirety of The Art of War has been painted on the ceiling, huge angel wings drape over the bar, and pop-art, like a giant $5 bill painting, sits behind banquettes.
"It's got a really creative interior," says Torio. He thinks 5Church's punchy style, plus Chef Jamie Lynch's American bistro fare, will attract local customers. Failing that, of course, there are always the tourists to fall back on. Charleston sees some 4.9 million visitors trek through its streets each year.
That's all well and good, says Torio, "but we always market to locals first." And he believes the French Quarter has plenty to offer Holy City citizens.
"Have you been to the Spectator bar?" the animated restaurateur asks.
Right next door to Wasabi on State Street, the recently opened, locally owned Spectator bar in the Spectator Hotel has an Ivy League library feel. Designed to look like a 1920s speakeasy, floor-to-ceiling book shelves line the space while leather stools sit around an ebony-colored bar.
"It reminds me of the SoHo Grand Hotel Bar," says Torio. SoHo Grand's Bar & Lounge is known for being a hot spot for New York artists and models. While that may be a reach in Charleston, Torio doesn't see why the Spectator can't lure the Belmont-set south. And Brent Gresham, the Spectator's general manager would argue that it already is.
"At night the locals are pouring into the bar," says Gresham. The GM chalks it up to the space's stylish look and walkability to area fine dining, as well as French Quarter and South of Broad homes. "There are people in these neighborhoods going out every night for all of their meals," he says. "The locals don't want to drive or valet."
Other business owners want to tap into that local demand too. Gresham points to the Hall family, owners of Halls Chophouse, who snatched up S.N.O.B. and High Cotton this spring, as those leading the charge. Bill Hall, owner of Hall Management Group declined to comment for this article.
But people like Burwell's Stone Fire Grill owner Ken Emery has plenty to say. He's been looking to open a second venue in the East Bay area for a few years.
"My goal has always been to put the Speakeasy back," says Emery. "I loved that bar." His concept, he says, would be a place akin to New York City's Please Don't Tell bar accessed through a phone booth. "It might be hidden behind kegs or a kitchen door," he explains. "Only people in the know would know about it." The steakhouse owner has looked at spots for his clandestine watering hole up and down East Bay Street because he says, "I believe the bar life is there."
That's the thing about East Bay's metamorphosis, there are plenty of places for fine dining — Cypress, High Cotton, McCrady's — but Emery says his diners always ask him where they should go for an after-dinner drink and very few want to hike all the way up to King Street. Tsunami, Club NV, Wet Willies, Mac's Place, and Molly Darcy's are all open until 2 a.m., but for those looking for a more reserved cocktail, the Gin Joint is one of the few places to go. For Gin Joint owners Joe and MariElena Raya, that's meant a business boon.
"Our business is the best it has ever been," says MariElena. Since opening five years ago in her father Robert Dickson's Robert's of Charleston restaurant space, the couple have carved out a niche in the less-collegey neighborhood. "We have become, happily, a destination spot of our own and people come for cocktails, stay for snacks, and then have more drinks and never leave," she says.
But as the late Gianni Versace once said, "It is nice to have valid competition; it pushes you to do better." Which is to say, two bespoke cocktail bars do not a scene make. Gresham hopes more such businesses will open, even it means fighting for the locals dollar.
"You need options," Gresham says, adding that while Charleston is a competitive F&B market, "we all know each other. My mixologist might go to Gin Joint and see what they're doing. We're very supportive."
That's good news for Torio. The one-man marketing machine is so convinced residents should return to the area, he's pushing local business owners to use the hashtag #MarketandEastBay on all of their social media to promote the neighborhood.
But maybe his plan isn't so crazy. Maybe a more vibrant local nightlife scene will one day return. If Hilton Smith has his way, it'll be sooner rather than later. He hopes to purchase 213 East Bay.
"It would be better if 213 could be a beautified part of our community and working," says Smith. "I own buildings on three sides. I had $2 million worth of fire damage. My tenants went through hell. It's been such a disappointment to our businesses and our block."
Smith says if he's able to buy it, he'll have no trouble filling it. "It has innumerable uses," he says. "To still have a blighted spot, that's not what Charleston is all about."
Maybe it's time for the party pendulum to swing from King Street back to the area where it began.
Torio, Emery, and Smith think it's possible. Gresham says it's already happening. "Everybody is seeing that it's coming back this way," he says. "It's always been there. Locals are yearning for it."
I better call Karen and see if those jeans still fit.