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Charleston Cafe

I tried to eat here

I planned my first meal in the sophisticated and deliriously historic city of Charleston long before my plane ever touched down. Breakfast at the old Diana’s Cafe (now simply called Toast). I checked fried green tomatoes and grits off the list of required Southern cuisine. And everything was really nice. But maybe it was a little too nice. 

So later that day I asked some Charlestonians where I could go for something a little more, um, authentic. They sent me to the Fat Hen where I got collard greens checked off the list, and thought about getting my wife a souvenir shirt. Then I visualized offering her a shirt that said “Fat Hen” and decided to stay married instead. Now this was a great little restaurant, but it was still too nice for me. 

Next was Hominy Grill, a pretty fabulous cafe fashioned out of an old barber shop. Hominy gets it right not so much in the main course, but in the little things.  The boiled peanuts, the cucumbers, the potato salad that has never seen mustard or mayonnaise. But with so many New York Times accolades framed on the wall, you know this place is just too nice to be authentic. 

So I tried she-crab soup at Shem Creek. I saw the name of the soup and had to ask what it meant. In Washington, we catch leggy Dungeness crabs but are required to throw the females back into the sea. South Carolina is not so particular. I discovered that she-crab soup is more than just soup made from a female crab. You get both the mother and her unborn children. It’s delicious, yes, but most certainly it is not very nice. 

So I asked a new Charlestonian friend to point me to a really, really authentic experience. A place that locals would love but people from the New York Times would never find. I reached for just the right adjective to describe what I was looking for.  I grabbed the wrong one. 

Armed with a street address and my iPhone’s mapping technology, I set off for the ultimate Southern cuisine. And yet the cafe did not seem to exist. The phone number was disconnected. I couldn’t find a sign anywhere with the right name. And after circling around a few times, I came to the realization that everything was leading me to a strange, unseemly hulk of a building. There were no cars parked outside, or at least no functioning cars. The doors were caged in to fend off criminals. An Open sign glowed warmly over a locked door. I know it was locked because I tried to open it. I tried to eat there. Fortunately the door would not open. When I told someone the next day of where I was trying to eat, she said, “People don’t go there for the food. They go there for drugs.” 

So for my last meal in Charleston I found myself at Jestine’s. Unabashedly recognized by the New York Times. I got okra gumbo and sweet tea checked off my list. You can have fried pork, fried fish, fried oysters, and of course fried chicken. A note at the bottom of the menu reads almost sadly: “If you are a vegetarian, we do try to help.”  There is fried okra, after all.

I watched as a line of tourists grew outside. The locals in their Sunday best had managed to beat the crowd for tables inside and kept advising the newly arrived to go stand in the 94 degree heat and wait their turn. I sipped my sweet tea and was relieved to find myself in a place that was really nice. And that was perfect.

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