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Charleston's Southern Hospitality

Charleston’s historic Queen Street.

Photo: Peter Frank Edwards

Street-level art is a hallowed tradition in Charleston, and the next time you visit, be sure to take note of the fantastic and often florid hand-painted lettering, in calypso colors, on the sides of the taxis in town. That same lettering can be found on the blackboard menu at Alluette’s Café, on Reid Street, where Alluette Jones-Smalls, chic and impeccably dressed, cooks her “Holistic Soul”: vegetable-centric, truly luscious, Southern food (you can still have a mean fried chicken here) that is perhaps closest to what native Charlestonians actually eat on a regular basis. She recently stepped in front of the counter to welcome and seat us at one of the dozen or so tables that make up the café, and after a chat returned to the kitchen to get down to business. Her flavorful, crisp-edged black bean burger put to shame any we might have experienced in Berkeley or Northampton, and the bright, fresh slaw that came with the salmon burger was proudly organic. Just don’t place an order if you’re in a rush, because for all its gracious hospitality, lunch at Alluette’s moves at the speed of a limping ceiling fan. And don’t expect to find Sean Brock dining here: as the purple script on the menu proudly announces, Alluette’s is a no pork café.

Returning to Charleston has made us realize that so many of the buzzwords of post-recession America—sustainability, community, artisanal—have been real, and evergreen, here for centuries. Artisanal? Wrought-iron gates are everywhere, and sweetgrass-basket makers hold open studios every day on the streets of downtown. Sustainable? This town virtually invented the voluntary conservation easement. In a place where kids learn how to net shrimp and crabs before they learn to ride bikes and know the locations of every loquat and citrus tree around town, even the word local has a special meaning. An appreciation for the small-scale, the personally sourced, and the handcrafted is part of the lifeblood of this city. At Hope & Union Coffee Company, Charleston’s power-breakfast spot, there are only a handful of single-origin beans to choose from, ground and brewed to order with the careful, languorous pour-over method. But Charlestonians get that—the return to simplicity, the respect for ingredients—so on a bright spring morning, we joined blue-blooded property moguls sharing the communal table with painters and jazz musicians (the Lexus set meets the fixed-gear cyclists). Granted, Hope & Union’s space—an 1855 residence restored with airy minimalism and furnished with weathered wood—would draw even a non–coffee drinker.

By contrast, the space at the Glass Onion, the new-Charleston restaurant most likely to achieve institution status, would not win any design awards. It opened quietly a few years ago in a former used-book store next to a defunct car-detailing shop on a commercial strip south of town, but it’s helmed by a trio of young restaurateurs who honed their chops in the laureled kitchen at Fig. The Glass Onion takes a page from more-informal places—Bowens Island and the Wreck—scrimping on some creature comforts in order to deliver astoundingly fresh food. Nothing casual at all about the perfectly crisp fried whole local quail and triggerfish with sunchoke purée that the kitchen was turning out at a recent Saturday brunch. It’s a diner with a Southern locavore’s spirit and friendly new-school flourishes (chefs tweet their specials: “Local Turnip Soup + Pan Fried GA Pork Chop=Powermove!”).

Its comforts might not be for everyone—we watched a group of women in their Sunday finest walk out of the place when they realized they were expected to queue up at the counter to order their food.

To them we offer this bit of news: the Glass Onion now offers table service at dinner. But we’re not sure how we feel about that.

For now, however, you’ll find us there at lunch.

Matt Lee and Ted Lee are T+L contributing editors. They are currently at work on their next cookbook: The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen.

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