The oysters arrive on a shovel.
Henry the cook deposits an all-you-can-eat pile on the table at Bowen's Island Restaurant, a no-frills treasure hidden a short drive outside the city.
The steamed morsels clatter as they sprawl across the table.
On a good night, say when the temperature settles in the 70s, the restaurant is crowded and the barrel collecting shells fills quickly.
But on this unusually cold evening in January, flurries fall on the deep-water creek. We own the place.
I pry open my dinner — the effort always makes it taste better — alongside my girlfriend and a campaign consultant I know from my days covering South Carolina politics for the Charleston newspaper.
We spend hours scraping shells and emptying cans of Bud Light as my friend cranks his political spin machine into gear.
The topic doesn't match the reason for my visit. But old habits die hard. This time, I return to the Low Country on assignment from my editor to find the "hip places" in a city known for thinking in the past.
Just another 'Best'
There must be hip here; after all, this bastion of the Old South was recently named the second-best city to visit in the United States in Condé Nast Traveler's annual reader survey.
For many here, the accolade was just another title for a City of Titles. In a world of Top 10 journalism, Charleston constantly gets mentioned on lists of the Best This and Greatest That. Only the visitors bureau folks seem to care; the natives inherit a prideful smugness that doesn't need affirmation via press release.
But it's one thing to get labeled Southern Living magazine's best Southern city. It's a whole bigger deal for a relatively small place to rank second to San Francisco and to top New York City on a list of must-see cities.
Yes, Charleston does hold a certain grace.
Its ancient streets, where parked cars seem out of place, are peaceful and beautiful. The history, when put in the appropriate context and not sanctified, is important. And the restaurants specializing in Southern cuisine are divine and worth the trip alone. (Don't miss Hank's hallmark she-crab soup, the classic shrimp and grits at Jestine's Kitchen, and 82 Queen's best-in-the-city crab cakes.)
But I could say similar things about most top cities on Traveler's list. I still wondered: What is it that makes Charleston so "charming" and so "best"?
Away from it all
If you want to find the "hip" places:
• Visit the bar at 39 Rue de Jean or the Blind Tiger Pub to mingle with yuppies in work clothes.
• Stop at any trendy restaurant on the revitalized upper King Street, careful to avoid the bars crowded with college students.
• When the weather's nice, mix with the South Tampa-esque crowd at rooftop bars at the Market Pavilion Hotel or the Venue Inn. Skip most other tourist-heavy venues at the City Market.
A few days touring these places led me back to wondering about Charleston's spot in the pantheon of tourist cities. It all become clear after I landed on Bowen's Island, a dollop of sand surrounded by palmetto trees that marks where land meets Folly Creek and its tidal tributaries.
It's not exactly an undiscovered location. The locally caught oysters, addictive hush puppies and low-key vibe are hometown favorites. It also made the tourist map after owner Robert Barber, whose grandparents opened the restaurant in 1946, won a James Beard award a few years ago.
The main restaurant was destroyed in a fire in 2006 but Barber still serves food in the Dock House while a new building is constructed.
The Dock House sits on stilts above the creek. The walls are covered in graffiti of the "I-was-here" variety, giving it a community bulletin board feel that only adds to the restaurant's aura.
Amid this, I began to understand what makes Charleston so special: It is an escape.
Try calling cities like San Francisco and New York City an escape. It doesn't work. Their major attractions and great nightlife come burdened with traffic jams, a busy-bee population, and big city problems such as crime and grime.
Charleston's seemingly only concern is the increasing feel of a cliched Southern Disneyland with some of its tourist-trap tendencies.
But for the most part, the city manages to transport its visitors from life as usual with a something-for-everyone offering.
The reverence of the borough district. The great golf courses of Kiawah. The adventure in the surf at Folly Beach.
It all contributes to a feeling of freedom and an escape from the everyday city. And every bit of it steeped in history.
John Frank can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 754-6114.