Where the Locals Are
As Charleston, South Carolina, celebrates its 350th birthday this spring, much of the city’s vitality seems to be migrating up the peninsula to neighborhoods like Cannonborough/Elliottborough. One of the most diverse areas in the city with young families, creative transplants, longtime residents, college students, and blue-collar workers, this dynamic district resembles the earliest version of itself. In the first part of the nineteenth century, German and Irish immigrants, freedmen, and Jewish families built a close-knit community filled with independent businesses and vernacular architecture, including the Charleston Singles and shotgun-style Freedmen’s Cottages that are being restored by modern-day residents and business owners. Spring and Cannon streets are the neighborhood’s heartbeat, and these days, they’re pumping with palpable creative energy, giving rise to some of the most interesting restaurants and unique retailers in town.
Charlestonians like eating food almost as much as they like talking about it. And whether it’s your Uber driver or the hotel concierge, food-focused locals are more and more likely to advise visitors to venture just off the well-trod tourist track to the blocks between President Street, King Street, Septima P. Clark Parkway, and Morris Street. Yes, you should order the seafood pilau at the Grocery and slurp the smoked oysters at the Ordinary—both fine-dining landmarks sit on the edge of the neighborhood—but it’s the rapidly expanding number of small, risk-taking restaurants that will make you a regular here.
This isn’t the first time the neighborhood has earned a foodie rep. In Jim Crow-era Charleston, the area was a hub of primarily black-owned businesses and restaurants. William Deas, the man who invented she-crab soup, served the renowned roe-studded, sherry-splashed bisque at Everett’s on Coming Street until 1961. And the McCray family has been frying local flounder, whiting, and fresh-caught shrimp to order at Dave’s Carry Out since 1987. Inside Dave’s unassuming dining room, there are a handful of tables and a few barstools, but most folks take their fish with a side of hoppin’ john or red rice to-go.
Just up Coming Street, the year and-a-half-old Chubby Fish—chef James ondon’s perennially packed, forty-seat restaurant—is rooted in real relationships. “We only use small, independent fishermen,” London says. “And we don’t order by species, which means our menu has to stay fluid.” There’s almost always a smoked fish curry, though. Order it, along with a glass of Txakolina; the slightly effervescent Spanish wine holds up well with the spice. And if you like heat, visit Xiao Bao Biscuit for fiery pan- Asian comfort food and cocktails that are as cool as co-owner Joshua Walker’s playlist. On a given Friday night, you’ll hear everything from Indian disco to Afro-blues inside this converted forties-era gas station.
Max Kuller, owner of Estadio, the new Spanish tapería on Spring Street, describes the neighborhood’s thrumming energy as “Austin-like.” But a host of Cannonborough/Elliottborough restaurateurs, Kuller included, are looking across the Atlantic for inspiration. He and Estadio chef Alex Lira spent several weeks in Spain before inking the menu, which includes an entire section built around local Carolina Gold rice.
And opened in early 2019 by food-and-bev veterans Fanny and Patrick Panella, Malagón, named for chef Juan Cassalett’s Spanish grandfather, also takes its culinary cues from the Iberian Peninsula. Dine on stuffed dates, blistered peppers, and paper-thin slices of Serrano ham. And pick up a flagon of good Spanish olive oil at the restaurant’s grab-and-go market. The three-person kitchen at Chez Nous, the Panellas’ first full-service restaurant, is run by Cassalett’s wife, Jill Mathias. Tucked inside a petite Charleston Single house down a short alleyway off Coming Street, the restaurant is inspired by the food of Fanny’s European childhood with dishes from southern France, northern Italy, and northern Spain. The menu features just two appetizers, two entrees, and two desserts nightly.
Babas on Cannon, which serves house-made pastries and coffee in the mornings, sandwiches and salads at mid-day, and Italian apertivo service in the evenings, would be considered a bar in most parts of Europe. The descriptor didn’t translate stateside, so owners Edward Crouse, Marie Stitt, and barman Lane Becker dubbed Babas an Old World cafe. You can call it whatever you like, but go for pastry chef Amanda Plunkett’s riff on old-fashioned Betty Crocker banana bread (ask for it buttered and toasted with a dusting of fleur de sel), Stitt’s mother’s recipe for pickled shrimp, and one of Becker’s bottled G&Ts.
Among the first in the new wave of restaurants making over the area’s food scene a decade ago, Trattoria Lucca continues to dish out classic Tuscan-accented dishes prepared with Lowcountry ingredients, like soul-satisfying plates of from-scratch pappardelle with sugo and local duck sausage. Thirsty? Head over to Elliotborough Mini Bar, a casually elegant spot for a nightcap with marble- topped bistro tables, light snacks, and regular live music.
Residents and visitors alike appreciate Cannonborough/Elliottborough for its walkability. On two wheels it’s even easier navigate. Bonus: If you pedal instead of walk, other popular peninsular points of interest are just minutes away. To get set up with a ride, visit the team at Affordabike on the corner of Cannon and King streets. A beach cruiser is just $15 for a half-day ($25 for a full) and comes with a helmet, bike lock, and area maps.’
Fill your bicycle’s basket with souvenirs as you browse the neighborhood’s growing number of independent boutiques. At his hip menswear outpost Indigo + Cotton, Brett Carron reimagines the modern Charleston wardrobe, highlighting smaller creative brands such as Engineered Garments and Shuron Eyewear that offer edgy contemporary style and enduring classic appeal. Nearby, J. Stark is both workshop and showroom. Designer Erik Homberg and his team of artisans construct the company’s well-made, unisex carryalls from sturdy waxed canvas and heavyweight twill in rich Earth tones(and the odd blaze orange) while you shop. Step inside Mac & Murphy, a tiny, light-filled stationer on Cannon Street, and you’ll never want to type an email again.
The selection of greeting cards, calendars, stationery, and notebooks runs the gamut from irreverently whimsical to old-school preppy, but the in-house collaborations with regional artists are particular favorites.
The hotel boom currently sweeping Charleston hasn’t reached Cannonborough/Elliottborough yet. No matter. The joy of staying at 86 Cannon—the circa-1862 property was once the home of noted civil rights activist Septima Clark’s brother Peter Poinsette— is that it doesn’t feel like a hotel. Instead, the five-room inn, which opened in 2017, feels like the gorgeously designed historic home of a well-housed friend. You’ll find breakfast, including fresh-baked pastries, in the airy upstairs cafe. And beginning this year, 86 Cannon will welcome guests to a pair of new suites located in the restored 1880s cottage next door complete with a private garden.
- by Erin Byers Murray