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Charleston's Southern Hospitality

Charleston’s historic Queen Street.

Photo: Peter Frank Edwards

There may be no better example of Maybank’s premise than Bowens Island, a seafood dive perched on a muddy bank of the Folly Creek about 25 minutes from City Hall. May and Jimmy Bowen opened their place, a few rooms in a ramshackle building serving fresh seafood platters and roasted oysters from the creek, in 1946, and it soon became a legend as much for its honest Lowcountry fare as for the quirky rules enforced with a martinet’s zeal by Mrs. Bowen—there was a room for the consumption of oysters only, so if a few folks in your party opted for the fried shrimp, they’d have to dine separately. Over the years, the walls acquired layer upon layer of graffiti and the mismatched furniture had been complemented with an ever-growing collection of dormant TV’s. In 2006, a fire razed the restaurant, but the Bowens’ grandson Robert Barber, a gentleman lawyer and ordained minister, reincarnated it as a huge pavilion on stilts, a cleaner and altogether more accommodating place. And yet the newly constructed restaurant preserves much of the unhinged vibe and sheer rusticity of the old Bowens. When we arrived at five o’clock on a Saturday, the main dining room thrummed with the sound of oyster shells hitting buckets and tables of families tucking into gorgeous blond platters of fried whiting and shrimp. The ordering line wrapped halfway around the room, and the lone bartender strained to keep up with orders at the giant horseshoe bar. May Bowen might not approve of the new regime (oyster and fish lovers eat in the same room), but the drill remains the same: order oysters, get a knife and towel for shucking, then hike down to the open-air roasting room on the ground floor and wait for the pit master to assemble your tray.

We’ll level with you: Bowens can seem spartan, even challenging, but the oysters—still harvested from the restaurant’s own leases on the creek at the edge of the property—are sublime, and the beers are cold; the owners’ intentions are good, and the bare-bones quality of the place, even the graffiti on the walls, speaks volumes in a town that for more than a century was peeling and cracking, “too poor to paint and too proud to whitewash,” as the saying goes. At Bowens, you devour this authenticity to atone for a life that may now be a bit too well air-conditioned and crisp.

Back downtown, the nightlife, still mostly confined to the northern reaches of King Street, is diversifying beyond the sports bar/dive bar, Bud/Miller dichotomies of days past (this is a college town, after all: the College of Charleston, the Citadel, and the Medical University of South Carolina, to name a few). Studied architectural candor—exposed beams, boards, and brick—is a decorative given, but there’s a new emphasis on serious artists. On Percy Street, we dropped into Enoteca, a dark jewel box of a bar, for a brief nightcap, and wound up treating our group to an Italian beer tasting of such esoteric depth that Mario Batali would have been humbled. On another night, we waited patiently as the doorman at the single-barrel-bourbon-centric Belmont enforced a civilized, 46-person maximum.

A couple of evenings later, at the Charleston Pour House, in the Riverland Terrace neighborhood, we got to see a rare show by the Grammy-nominated Band of Horses, whose front man, South Carolinian Ben Bridwell, is based in Charleston, but whose anthemic, soaring Southern rock has taken him and his bandmates to the greatest venues in the world. The Pour House manages to incorporate two stages and a Cuban restaurant under one roof, and is so tame it barely needs a bouncer. The band entered (and later exited) through the front door.

As we waited for the group to take the stage, we drank HopArt IPA’s from North Charleston’s creative (and conscientious: organic grains; biodiesel-fired kettles) Coast Brewing Company and thought about how much the climate has changed for aspiring musicians in the city. To be sure, there was music everywhere when we were growing up—you could take in a Johns Island prayer band, Philip Glass at the Spoleto Festival, and the Charleston Symphony Orchestra all in the same week. But these days, the range and quality of homegrown talent is inspirational. Band of Horses may be the most galvanizing force for Lowcountry rockers, but there are plenty of Charlestonians who’ve broken out to national acclaim: the freak-folk chanteuse Cary Ann Hearst, rapper Righchus, and sound-art practitioners New Music Collective. There’s Daniel D, a young violinist who emerged from the gospel tradition, was shaped by contemporary hip-hop, and recently opened for Jamie Foxx and Kanye West on BET. You name it, we’ve got it: the postmodern ragtime of the V-Tones, the Defilers’ rollicking rockabilly. Blues-punk? Check. Electronica? Got that, too.

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