The Southern hub of Charleston has a thriving, multicultural downtown. The 3.5-mile-long peninsula containing its eclectic neighborhoods has become a beacon for creative professionals from New York and other major U.S. cities looking for more laid-back lives. Thanks to the influx, Charleston is rife with entrepreneurial energy: Over the past five years, new restaurants, shops, and boutique hotels have opened at a rapid pace. Charleston’s biggest challenge? Making room for the changes while still protecting the city’s unique history and architecture. Three locals share their favorite places, old and new.
Ask any local what makes Charleston special, and chances are they’ll say it’s the architecture. The city is best known for its multicolor Charleston single houses—long, narrow homes, often with elegant, white-pillared porches on each level—that line many streets. Jacob Lindsey is charged with preserving them. As the former director of planning, preservation, and sustainability for the city, he oversaw Charleston’s strict Board of Architectural Review (BAR), which supervises new construction, dictating everything from the color of a building’s mortar down to the finish of its bricks.
“Charleston has a legacy of architecture and design that goes back to the beginning of the modern city,” Lindsey says. “The historic district really is a national treasure. And the city’s emphasis on high-quality new architecture is a big part of what makes us unique.”
In recent years, his office has been charged with reviewing new developments on Charleston’s Upper Peninsula, a former industrial area now alive with restaurants and multiuse developments, such as Pacific Box & Crate, which houses offices in addition to a few restaurants and a brewery. But Lindsey and his wife, who have a young daughter, have chosen to stay in their 1800s-era building in the city’s historic downtown. “Living downtown allows us to walk to everything we need, including work,” he says. “That’s a rare lifestyle these days.” Here are some of his favorite places to go in Charleston.
“If we want to spend a little money, we stroll over to Billy Reid. It’s one of the few places where you can find fashion that has authentic roots in the South. The clothing is designed in Florence, Alabama. The men’s suits are the best things in the whole store.”
The George Gallery
“This is a contemporary gallery on Broad Street in the historic district downtown. Anne Siegfried, the owner, primarily represents abstract and non-objective creators like South Carolina artist Tom Stanley—one of my favorites—but the work she shows is totally accessible. The gallery is a wonderful place to see what’s relevant and new in Charleston’s art scene.”
The Fireproof Building
“Built in 1827 as the country’s first fireproof document archive, the Fireproof Building is one of our most notable public structures. It was designed by Robert Mills, the architect who went on to create the Washington Monument in D.C. The building recently reopened after major renovations as the home of the South Carolina Historical Society, which has a really cool collection of maps, manuscripts, and old photographs that tell the story of our state.”
“We love this little sardine-can-size oyster bar. It’s got a cool, maritime feel inside. But you have to time it right. We try to show up by 3:30 in the afternoon to avoid the lines. Our standard order is a dozen oysters and the fish tacos. You can’t go wrong.”
Duolan Li and her husband, Joshua Walker, moved from Brooklyn in 2009, drawn by Charleston’s warm weather and historic charm. Though the city’s food scene was growing, the couple noted the lack of culinary diversity. “We missed some of the flavors we enjoyed in New York and on our travels,” says Li, who was born in China and grew up eating home-cooked Chinese food. “At one point we said, ‘Why don’t we do it ourselves?’ ”
The restaurant they launched, Xiao Bao Biscuit, is now one of the most popular in town, serving what Li calls “Asian soul food” (such as okonomiyaki, or cabbage pancakes, topped with candied pork) in a renovated gas station. Tu, the couple’s other collaboration, opened in Charleston’s up-and-coming Eastside neighborhood in 2017 and went through several iterations (global fare, Indian cuisine, Asian street food) before closing in March 2021 due to the pandemic.
Li and Walker, along with their infant daughter, live in Wagener Terrace, a residential area within walking distance of new restaurants and bars in the Upper Peninsula. On nights when she’s not on baby duty, you can catch Li moonlighting as a DJ, Auntie Ayi, spinning house, electro, and techno tunes at small clubs uptown. These are her picks.
The Royal American
“A restaurant and music venue, the Royal American is an awesome place to catch independent local and touring bands. They support local hip-hop by hosting events like the Art Binge Festival [an art, wellness, and music show]. There’s a lot going on with the decor—it’s like visiting your punk-rock grandma’s saloon!”
“This neighborhood park has walking and bike paths and beautiful flower beds that bloom with zinnias and black-eyed Susans for nearly half the year. It also reflects Charleston’s remarkable history. One of my favorite areas is home to the statue of Denmark Vesey, a free black Methodist leader and antislavery activist. Hampton Park, ironically, is named after General Wade Hampton III, a Confederate general who was one of the largest slaveholders in the South. The park is a telling narrative of Charleston, one I’m reminded of whenever I walk through.”
“I love going to this neighborhood spot early. They have a special happy hour menu from 4 to 6 p.m. with Detroit-style pizza—and I can bring the baby. The restaurant is owned by Erik and Nayda Hutson. Erik designed and built the bar himself. After 5 p.m., my go-tos are the Caesar salad and the Big Rob pizza, which has broccoli rabe and, if you want, salumi. I always try to get a banquette seat by the window.”
Joseph “P-Nut” Johnson
If anyone can attest to Charleston’s dramatic changes over the years, it’s local folk artist P-Nut Johnson. Born in 1955, he got his start as a poet, scribbling rhymes on napkins at local clubs in the ’70s and ’80s and selling them for $5 apiece.
A few years ago, P-Nut switched from poetry to painting. “My fans got me into art,” he says. “They wanted me to put my poems on canvas. All of my paintings tell a story.” While some of his paintings verge on the irreverent (hangovers are a favorite motif), many portray street scenes from old Charleston: neighbors saying hello across the fence, a fisherman catching his dinner. Some of his subjects live only in his memories. “There used to be a bar called the Piccadilly Club, and another one called Three Nags, where everyone would hang out. Jimi Hendrix actually played a little tune with the boys there in the late ’60s,” he says. “I miss being able to walk down King Street and know everyone’s name.” These days, if he’s not showing prospective buyers new work at his home uptown, chances are you’ll find him at one of these tried-and-true locales.
Artist and Craftsman Supply
“I started going to this [art shop] when I started painting. It’s convenient for brushes and paint, and it’s in a 100-year-old brick church building a few blocks away from my house. The people are nice, and the prices are right.”
“I go to Hannibal’s on the Eastside if I want good soul food at a good price. My order is whatever looks good that day. I like the flounder, lightly fried, with red rice. The restaurant was called Martha’s when I was a kid, and we used to jump the fence and eat there because we didn’t want to eat the food at school!”
This story was originally published in January 2019, and was updated on November 7, 2022, to include current information.