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