Sunday, May 25, 2014
Savannah Morning News column
It’s an old trick. Not the most ethical. Not something I’m proud of. Not something I do all that often. But when I am out of town (or even in town) and I see a crowd of people following a leader who is talking (and who seems to know what he or she is talking about), I tag along, if just for a few minutes. In Charleston, S.C., this past weekend, at the corner of Broad and Meeting streets, I loitered, I listened, I laughed. The group was standing in front of City Hall, a beautiful early 19th-century white building with dramatic steps and plenty of white tile. Only minutes earlier, as we circled the block looking for parking, we spotted the scene of a photo shoot for a wedding party, everyone but the bride dressed in white. The bride and some of her bridesmaids chose apricot.
“It’s my son,” a woman said, explaining the crowd gathered around a tour guide and a pay telephone. “He’s eight years old. He’s never seen anything like this before.”
It was a regular old prepay phone where you drop coins into a slot and stand and wait for a dial tone.
Guarantee: that’s what this eight-year-old will remember from his trip to Charleston – a heavy receiver tethered by cord to a funny-looking phone attached to a pole.
I will remember trying to get into a restaurant known as Husk and listening as the hostess, with no hint of attitude or impatience, said three times:“The first available table? Let’s see. That would be at 9:45.”
Shocking. Disappointing. But no matter. Charleston is the queen of restaurants. Barely 10 steps away we found a restaurant called 82 Queen. Perfectly delightful. Of course, the best restaurant is not anywhere near the historic district and it’s easy to miss. The Glass Onion, which refers to the first track on the Beatles’ White Album, is tucked between strip malls on Savannah Highway on the way into Charleston. It’s moderately priced. It’s tasty. The menu changes every day. And they host an annual Julia Child Birthday Dinner every August to honor the culinary matriarch.
The owners migrated to Charleston from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The bread for the po’ boys is imported from Leidenheimer’s in New Orleans, an outfit that has been baking French breach for over 105 years. Light, crisp and airy.
My biggest beef? They were out of black bean falafels. Rats. We had to have shrimp po’ boys. Not so bad.
As close as Charleston is, I am embarrassed how few times I’ve visited. People in Charleston – waiters, tour guides (!), grocery store clerks at Harris Teeter, guests at the wedding I went to, a woman doing the make-up for the bridal party who is majoring in women’s studies at the College of Charleston – said the same thing about Savannah. They have been meaning to go. They want to go. They think about going.
With a widened Highway 17, the trip is easier than it used to be. And there’s always the joy of staying in a rented house where the sink drains properly and the remote control is manageable.
Then there’s Folly Beach, a dressed down version of Charleston, a place where leashed dogs are occasionally allowed on the beach. And where there’s a water tower with the letters FB. Except this FB did not mean Facebook.
But then this thing happens, every time I’m in Charleston. Just when I’m enjoying the wide streets, the fine dining, the sophisticated service, the older architecture, and the size of the downtown, I feel myself comparing it to Savannah. I feel myself getting defensive. Humph, I said this time. I bet there’s not an elementary school that pairs up with a botanical garden for a day of pastoral poetry and cut out butterflies, the way Charles Ellis did this week with the Savannah Botanical Garden.
I bet there’s not a group of middle-schoolers like those at Hancock Day School that took six months to recycle and install 15,000 pieces of paper and fabric onto a 7-by-19-foot screen, a project that morphed into a permanent collage of the marsh that sits a few blocks from the school. One thousand of those pieces of paper are egrets, the rest trees, hammocks, sky and water.
I bet one of their high schools didn’t give an early evening outdoor concert like the one I stumbled across at the Savannah Arts Academy last week.
Beat that, Charleston. If you can.