In the Holy City's hotel bars, solace seekers find peace 

Chameleon Corner

click to enlarge magnum.jpeg

Ruta Smith

I like to drink alone. I like the quiet roar of life erupting just outside my left periphery. I like the way the from-the-tap IPA tastes when I'm elbow-to-elbow with a stranger. I like to be left alone, to my reading or writing or Instagram scrolling. I'm rarely bothered — solitary sippers possess an invisible "do not disturb" cloak, penetrated only by the annoyingly oblivious. I forgive them.

I have my favorite haunts, places where the bartender doesn't hand me a menu — one knows me well enough to have gifted me a silly moniker, "you remind me of Punky Brewster." I don't travel for work, unless you count my not infrequent happy hour writing sessions at these beloved bars. I don't stay in hotels, even when we go out of town, we stay in Airbnbs or with friends. Hotel bars, for me, have always possessed that 'Jack Torrance bourbon on the rocks' eerie familiarity, imbued with dank danger and unfriendly ghosts. You know one when you see one, and you don't want to stay.

But for someone who enjoys her own company best of all, hotel bars, I've come to realize, are a haven. Writing for the Chicago Tribune, Nick Kindelsperger concurs, finding that hotel bars "provide comfort for the weary traveler, yes, but the best ones aren't so much bars as transportation devices, able to lift you up out of your everyday routine."

People circumnavigate the world to visit the sinking shrimp and grits city we all so desperately love, and the cranes scraping the skyline prove that more and more weary travelers are making their way to our shores every day. Some stay in Airbnbs, despite convoluted city ordinances and short term rental task forces trying to make that a little harder. Others book rooms in historic bed and breakfasts that may have seen better days. Others, still, dig deep in their pockets for the full package — luxe "boutique" hotels that treat guests like royalty. For $500 a night.

click to enlarge The Dewberry’s Living Room is all about the design elements — and the drinks - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • The Dewberry’s Living Room is all about the design elements — and the drinks

In a city ruled by tourism and hospitality, Charleston's hoteliers and the people who work for them take their jobs very seriously. The Dewberry's beverage director Ryan Casey is a foot soldier with finesse, honing a very specific cocktail program for each of the hotel's three bars: the Living Room (classic), Henrietta's (French leaning), and soon-to-open rooftop bar Citrus Club (tiki driven). Casey says he's been with The Dewberry team even before they opened: "I've been here almost four years, I've been around for a lot of the design and concepting. [Initially] they said we'd do normal drinks, wine and beer for The Living Room. And then I saw the brass, the beautiful bar, and the design language called for cigars and martinis. I said 'this room deserves a cocktail program.'"

The circa 1965 building does indeed call for classic cocktails, smoky scotch and spicy Sazerac. When I settle into a plush leather chair on a busy Friday after work with my dirty martini and a Scandanavian thriller, I slip my phone into the bag at my feet. Kindelsperger, a world away in the Windy City, writes that he is able, in this hotel bar transportation device, to put away his phone and reread "Tender is the Night."

I too, in this amorphous place that serves libations all day and all night, am reminded of the Lost Generation, of Hemingway writing of the old man in one of my favorite short stories: "He disliked bars and bodegas. A clean, well-lighted café was a very different thing." Casey, without knowing me, hands me my drink at the well-lit bar before I find a seat. "I'm Ryan, let me know if you need anything." In a city where the divide between natives, residents, and tourists is so often contentious, there's something about a hotel bar that evens the playing field, if only for an hour.

The Living Room, perhaps the pinnacle of comfortable chic luxury, is the second hotel bar I visit. Two weeks earlier, a coworker and I grab a mid-week happy hour drink at The Spectator. On my way to Market, I pass the razed grounds of 235 East Bay St. — the former home of Molly Darcy's, Meritage, etc., a bar where many like me spent many a happy evening years ago — soon to be the site of yet another boutique hotel.

click to enlarge COURTESY THE SPECTATOR
  • Courtesy The Spectator

The Spectator, located between Market Street and the French Quarter, is reminiscent of The Living Room, with a truncated bar counter and plenty of lush seating available in the adjoining lounge area. The bar opens up just as we arrive, and we squeeze in between two locals and two visitors. All four know Allen.

click to enlarge COURTESY THE SPECTATOR
  • Courtesy The Spectator

Allen Lancaster is the brains behind the creative cocktail list. We ask for a recommendation, and he admits "they're all my children." Married to a Kentucky alum, I take advantage of two different Buffalo Trace concoctions. After seeing a tall purple-blue miracle delivered on a tray to a guest in the lounge area, my friend orders Magen Lost Her Marbles. Made with Red Harbor rum, Darjeeling tea, cashew milk, and blueberry bursting boba pearls, it's a sight.

The boon of a companion, I find, is we are drawn into conversation seamlessly. "Why is it called that?" "One of our regulars Magen," Lancaster begins ... had knocked over a vessel containing some of the round, gold dipped chocolate mints the hotel keeps in the front lobby. "So we shouldn't be afraid of Magen?" asks the couple to our left. We all laugh, warmed by our delicious drinks and the knowledge that there is not an ex-employee recently released from the asylum roaming around the hotel.

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The couple is staying at another hotel — a chain — but loves The Spectator (and their drinks) so much that they're beginning their evening here. The two women to our right are local, and regulars it seems, stopping by for a couple of cocktails before returning to the grind of reality. Lancaster, dressed in a crisp button down, vest, and cap, is the character you conjure up when envisioning a swanky hotel bar. I spend an hour pushing away my to-do list: groceries, cleaning, appointments, interviews. I sip my bourbon and talk to my friend about the merits of living here, the merits of living there. The merits of spending time in a space alloted to those from over there, but gracious enough to welcome those from right here.

My final hotel bar is old school. One of the "grande dames" as Casey puts it. The Mills House on a Tuesday night feels, to me, the most like a hotel bar, especially as I park in the attached garage and enter through the pool level, weaving my way through the elevator and lobby like an intruder.

click to enlarge The Mills House is a grande dame, old school and cozy - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • The Mills House is a grande dame, old school and cozy

I join about half a dozen middle-aged men in the Barbadoes Room. The glassware is not beautifully etched or made to match the drinks like at The Living Room, and the upholstery on the chairs in the empty dining room is more comfy than sexy. I order a rum drink in honor of the historic spot, and assess my surroundings. The men are here for a conference, specializing in ... some kind of machinery? I expect an interruption, a query as to why I am sitting alone, book in lap (a riveting young adult novel this time). But I am unbothered. Left alone to relax, to unwind as ESPN plays silently on two TVs on either side of the bar.

I pick up bits of their conversation between chapters, learning that these men come here often for whatever their business is. They sound mid-Western? The bar gets busier, nearing 6 p.m. on a Tuesday. It's a nice place but it's no Mad Men-esque Living Room. Still, even with its worn exterior and standard beer list, it seems to have garnered some devoted fans, from both here and afar. Like at The Spectator, they all seem to know the bartender — this time it's James — but maybe it's just the gold-plated nametag? James asks if I want to put my drinks on my room, which is thrilling. I imagine having another round, making my way back to the pool level, reading my book on the deck as the sun sets, then wrapping up in a fuzzy hotel robe and throwing myself into reality TV and room service. I hand him my flimsy debit card instead.

"Hotels don't stop," Casey tells me. "And when you're drinking in the lobby of the hotel or the lobby bar, you owe us nothing — there is no obligation to buy. There aren't locks on the door. It's kind of crazy it's kind of like a hamster in a wheel — that's what makes hotels so fun. Christmas or Thanksgiving, any holiday. From a guest perspective you don't have to ask if we're open. Just come here and drink. We don't close early. We're just here."


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