Charleston, W.Va.: Funky, his­toric and af­ford­able

The Hamilton Spectator - - FOOD - ME­LANIE D.G. KA­PLAN

CHARLESTON, W.VA. — A city that has time for you is a win.

In Charleston, W.Va., you can park your car all day for $3, catch free live mu­sic al­most ev­ery night and be seated right away — sans reser­va­tions — at the city’s best restau­rant.

Servers and shop­keep­ers have the time to ex­ceed ex­pec­ta­tions, of­ten in de­light­ful ways: the owner of Swift­wa­ter Cafe de­signed me a cus­tom sand­wich, and the owner of Elk City Records, af­ter we ban­tered about dogs, asked, “Ever heard Por­tuguese mu­sic?”

Sec­onds later, a record spun and a gor­geous sound em­anated from the speak­ers.

I’ve vis­ited three times in the past four years, tak­ing small de­tours from road trips to eat at one of my favourite res­tau­rants in the re­gion, Blue­grass Kitchen. This time, I cast a wider net.

Lo­cated on the banks of the Kanawha River, this bike­able cap­i­tal city has vis­i­ble scars from its eco­nomic strug­gles: boarded-up houses and va­cant store­fronts in the mid­dle of town. As I wheeled around, I had the re­cur-

ring thought that the city was far short of ca­pac­ity, both in peo­ple and busi­nesses. But that means it’s a wel­com­ing (read: af­ford­able) place for artists, small busi­nesses and vis­i­tors es­cap­ing big-city prices and crowds.


Lo­cal faves Lit­tle in Charleston im­pressed me more than Live on the Levee, and it wasn’t the mu­sic. The city comes out of the wood­work for this free and weekly out­door con­cert se­ries in Had­dad River­front Park — bik­ers in cow­boy boots, teenage girls in too-high heels, hippies, canoo­dles, dancers, smok­ers, dogs, strollers, young and old. In the lineup for Au­gust: Tusk: the Ul­ti­mate Fleet­wood Mac Trib­ute. Guidebook musts On the East End of town, I joined a fourth­grade class at the Capi­tol Com­plex for free tours of the Capi­tol build­ing and Gover­nor’s Man­sion. (Also in the com­plex: the West Vir­ginia State Mu­seum, where you can see the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd’s 1978 LP, “Moun­tain Fid­dler.”)

Our guide, Grace, pointed out the man­sion’s West Vir­ginia-shaped raised gar­den bed and the Dutch clock that plays seven baroque arias. A kid asked Grace if she had met the gover­nor. “I have. He’s a very nice man. Very tall,” she dead­panned, adding that he sleeps in an ex­tra long bed be­cause he is six­foot-six. We had no choice but to be­lieve her — the up­stairs was off-lim­its.

Open year-round, Capi­tol Mar­ket is where lo­cals meet for cof­fee and tourists look quizzi­cally at items like chow chow (a re­gional rel­ish). In­side, you can buy meat, seafood, choco­late, wine, grains and spices.


Lo­cal faves If din­ing at Mi Cocina de Amor feels like sit­ting in your Mex­i­can grand­mother’s kitchen, owner and chef Frank Gon­za­les has done his job. Us­ing gen­er­a­tions of recipes from his fam­ily, he opened this Elk City spot, which has be­come a favourite of lo­cals. For a laugh: the Bad Hom­bre Tacos. For a deal: Mar­garita Mon­day or Taco Tues­day. For a West Vir­ginia spin on bev­er­ages: peach moon­shine mar­gar­i­tas and Ap­palachian iced tea.

Af­ter bik­ing up steep Bridge Road, I needed to re­fuel and stum­bled upon a restau­rant in a con­verted, cen­tury-old house: Lola’s. Funky art adorned the walls, and the Supremes wafted through the speak­ers. I set­tled on a large, pur­ple-cush­ioned bench in a sunny room. Lola’s is known for hand­crafted ar­ti­san pizza and lo­cally made Ellen’s ice cream. A beet salad with goat cheese and can­died wal­nuts hit the spot. Guidebook musts Blue­grass Kitchen stands out in a city where Tu­dor’s Bis­cuit World (fast food in bis­cuit form) is of­ten named as a favourite restau­rant. But it also has been cel­e­brated far be­yond the city, and for good rea­son. For 12 years, the own­ers have been putting an up­scale, eclec­tic spin on com­fort food, cel­e­brat­ing the state’s Ap­palachian her­itage with a menu that changes daily.

Lo­cated down­town, Black Sheep Bur­rito & Brews was per­fectly sit­u­ated af­ter a long morn­ing of shop­ping. I sat at the bar, with a front-seat view through the glass-walled Bad Shep­herd Brew­ery next door and or­dered a flock of tacos new to my palate, in­clud­ing one with tem­pura av­o­cado and an­other with fresh roasted beets. The restau­rant serves four types of san­gria and beers with names like Bad Shep­herd Milk Stout and Why Ewe Whin­ing.


Lo­cal faves Kin Ship Goods had me at the Char­lie Brown turntable and the retro camp­ing trailer socks. That’s a lie — the shop’s res­i­dent bea­gles lured me in. It’s the kind of store in which you start jus­ti­fy­ing gifts; af­ter all, you know the per­fect re­cip­i­ent for the toy wooden ban­jolele, the “Ask me about my dog” tee and that set of lum­ber­jack-tool tem­po­rary tat­toos. The own­ers hold oc­ca­sional work­shops and talks with artists and mu­si­cians.

One of two record shops in town, Sul­li­van’s Records has a ro­bust se­lec­tion of vinyl, from Fleet Foxes to Flam­ing Lips, Bach to Bil­lie Hol­i­day. Shop owner Sam also sells turnta­bles and band posters that took me back to the 1980s (the Clash, the Smiths). I donned head­phones to sam­ple an Earl Scruggs al­bum. Home­ward Bound Books re­cently opened in the back, with enough in­ven­tory to have a sec­tion on sex, di­rectly above the sec­tion called “Wrestling with God.” Guidebook musts Ev­ery time I visit Charleston, I spend more of my time at Tay­lor Books. Im­por­tant for its fine se­lec­tion of Ap­palachian ti­tles (“Moun­tain Mea­sures: A Col­lec­tion of West Vir­ginia Recipes” for adults and “A is for Ap­palachia” for kids), beloved for its wel­com­ing cof­fee shop that sells no-bakes (a sweet re­gional favourite) and sur­pris­ing for its ad­ja­cent gallery of lo­cal art and base­ment screen­ing room, Tay­lor is an in­sti­tu­tion.

Among Charleston’s sev­eral vin­tage and an­tique re­tail­ers, the Pur­ple Moon takes the cake — and prob­a­bly serves it on a fab mid­cen­tury mod­ern plat­ter. The shop’s rooms are taste­fully filled with stylish fur­ni­ture, light­ing and glass­ware, from a mod space­ship desk lamp to a West Ger­man pot­tery vase. The owner, Con­nie, stood by a thought­fully cu­rated col­lec­tion of vin­tage glass and briefed me on re­gional hand­blown items from pi­o­neer­ing com­pa­nies like Blenko and Fen­ton.


Lo­cal faves Just a block from the Capi­tol Com­plex, the Brass Pineap­ple Inn was built in 1907, well be­fore con­struc­tion of the new state Capi­tol build­ing. Op­er­at­ing as a bed-and-break­fast since 1989, the inn sits among late-Vic­to­rian res­i­dences on a tree-lined street in the city’s his­toric East End. Ev­ery spring for a quar­ter­century, the neigh­bour­hood has hosted the state’s largest one-day com­mu­nity yard sale. Guidebook musts At the Four Points by Sher­a­ton Charleston, you’ll have the best views, the best go­ings-on on your front porch and per­haps the best happy hour in town. Ris­ing above the river, the Sher­a­ton is front row for Live on the Levee and big fes­ti­vals. Ev­ery Wed­nes­day is Brews and BBQ (free sam­ples of lo­cal craft beer and bar­be­cue) for lobby bar pa­trons.


Lo­cal faves Like a dream come true, ev­ery shop I en­tered in the Elk City His­toric Dis­trict on the West Side had a shop dog. Take Calvin the hound mix at Elk City Records, whose ti­tle is direc­tor of se­cu­rity and morale. But I also saw a neigh­bour­hood be­gin­ning its re­nais­sance. Thanks to af­ford­able com­mer­cial space and a re­brand­ing cam­paign, the cre­ative class has set up shop here. Base Camp Print­ing, next door to Kin Ship Goods, is a store­front let­ter­press print shop. Nearby: Mi Cocina de Amor and Bully Trap, a walk-in only, cash-only bar­ber shop. At Calvin’s shop, owner and re­tired lawyer Phil Melick is hardly a starv­ing artist, but he shares the pas­sion and en­ergy of other small busi­ness own­ers here. Plus, he has a mighty fine col­lec­tion of records. Guidebook musts

One af­ter­noon, I ped­alled over the river and up to the South Hills neigh­bour­hood. And up. And up. I wasn’t pre­pared for the steep­ness of the hill.

But I was pleased at the top to find the Bridge Road Shops, a lit­tle hill­top des­ti­na­tion of cloth­ing bou­tiques, sa­lons and res­tau­rants, a respite from the gritty down­town. Eclec­tics sells lo­cally made ac­ces­sories and gifts; Sarah’s Bak­ery has sweet and savoury pies; and Lola’s has a charm­ing pa­tio for din­ing al­fresco. The Folded Leaf yoga stu­dio of­fers do­na­tion-based com­mu­nity classes on Sun­days. Open­ing this sum­mer: gela­te­ria Caffe Romeo.

A pair of fans of wine and mu­sic dance to the High & Mighty brass Band at the Wine & All That Jazz fes­ti­val at the Univer­sity of Charleston.


The South Side Bridge over the Kanawha River. An ac­ces­si­ble city that treats you well, writes Me­lanie Ka­plan.

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