Between the tourists and the college kids, the downtown bar scene can be a bit much after awhile. Which is why it's a good idea to seek out new haunts off of the peninsula. You know the places where newbies get a good who-the-hell-are-you stare down when they first wander in, the kind of place where folks come to joke and shoot the shit, not pick up a drunken hookup for the night. These are some of our favorites around.
The High Spirits Lounge is one of the most unique bars in town, but it's one well worth venturing into, if only for the visual experience.
Situated on the 14th floor of the cylindrical Holiday Inn Charleston Riverview, the bar area resembles a posh country club parlor or golfer clubhouse bar from the late-1970s. It emanates a very different vibe than most of the nearby dives and watering holes up and down Savannah Highway and the Crosstown.
The lounge has been a fun facet of the hotel since the place was built in 1971. Recently, the Holiday Inn spiffed the place up with minor renovations and several coats of bright, white paint. If the long bar counter, the white linen-draped hors d'oeuvres tables, and the plush side chairs come off as a little low on personality, the stunning panoramic view of the Ashley River and downtown more than makes up for it with stunning scenery.
A series of pulled curtains and blinds decorate rows of tall windows facing east across the city and the harbor. From this spot, patrons can see the Citadel grounds and the Joe, past the MUSC complex, over the Ravenel Bridge, and all the way past Sullivan's Island (on a clear day). It's a mesmerizing experience — especially with a pint of freshly poured lager or a sweaty tumbler of bourbon or scotch in hand.
And while the view's a great one, hanging alongside the odd mix of locals and tourists during a happy hour or late evening session in High Spirits Lounge might enhance one's take on the inevitably amusing culture clashes that ensue. One recent afternoon, we ordered a glass of Bass ale (the only draughts available were Bass and Bud) from a suntanned lady bartender, sat back, and eavesdropped a bit as a few Northern tourists struck up a friendly conversation with an elderly regular who was showing off his pawn shop binoculars. The nasal Yankee accents bounced right off of the local's authentically Geechee brogue. It's this kind of polite but colorful interaction that adds to the distinctive atmosphere at the High Spirits Lounge. —T. Ballard Lesemann
The young bartenders at the gently aging Mt. Pleasant restaurant and bar Fonduely Yours won't beat around the bush. They'll gladly boast about the venue's uniquely loungey scene. Situated at the far end of Coleman Boulevard in an older, green-painted wooden building that once housed a small hotel, the no-frills scene at Fonduely Yours harkens back to the pre-Hugo days when blue collar and blue-blood East Cooperites used to congregate for cheap suds and booze at only a handful of taverns along this strip.
Regulars quaff basic stuff at this place — mixed vodka and bourbon drinks and domestic beers (Bud and Yuengling, especially, although they have a few nice imported German and Dutch beers tucked away). The staff sticks with what the regulars usually demand, and it seems to work fine. Older neighborhood folks with more than a few tall tales up their sleeves, younger working-class couples who look relieved to relax a bit, and a few straggler surfers and their buds comprise much of the clientele. Smokers stroll out to the big front porch for quick light-ups.
The dimly lit bar and lounge is nestled in a side room away from the main dining area, just past the cigarette machine by the front door and just to the left of the small aquarium in the main entrance. Scattered around the walls and posts are random name plates, pub towels, snapshots, neon signs, dart boards, and flyers for local businesses. Three small TV sets hang over the bar counter.
It's practically a setting from the 1987 film Barfly, minus a surly Charles Bukowski-type lurking about. There are some real characters in the place for happy hour and the late-night wave, but the room itself has tons of character on its own. One of the owners seems fascinated by bleached animal skulls and wine corks; entire shelves and walls are decorated with the unlikely ornaments. Somehow, it all comes together naturally in a way that only the oldest bars in town can. —T. Ballard Lesemann
Harbor Lites is the epitome of a neighborhood bar. There's no fancy sign or flashing lights urging everyone to step inside. There's just a non-distinct door and a window whose only purpose is to alert potential patrons whether or not it's open.
They don't serve food, but you can order in your own. A functional jukebox often plays local favorites, and if it is, then there are probably a couple of women dancing nearby. There's a pool league on Wednesdays and Thursdays. You can hear live music on Saturday nights, and no matter what day of the week, there's almost always someone there until 2 a.m.
Inside, it's dark and cozy. A couple of pool tables welcome you at your first step. When the door opens, most of the people will turn to see if it's a friend, which makes sense when you realize that everyone here pretty much knows everyone else. But don't worry if you're a stranger; you'll know someone before too long. As bartender Rae Hill says, Harbor Lites is a welcoming crowd.
A couple of old video games keep the cigarette machine company in the back and provide a reminder of the evolution of the bar. It used to be a video game store called Wizard World. Roy Shingledecker, a Harbor Lites regular, can trace his loyalty all the way back to Wizard World. Today, though, he's content to sit at the corner of the bar with friends while watching one of the old guys show the next generation how it's done on a pool table.
"A lot of the people here, their dads came here and their granddads," Hill says. The camaraderie associated with a place where seats at the bar are passed down from generation to generation is probably most evident during the weekend cookouts.
That's right. There's a patio in the back with a grill. On Saturdays, the regular crowd comes together for family-style cookouts. Bring your own steak, hamburger, hot dog or whatever you like and throw it on the grill. "On Saturday they have a blast," Hill says. "There's a good vibe." —Ali Akhyari
Like a beacon for bikers, a pair of carefully parked Harleys grace the entrance of West Ashley's Wolf Track. With enough neon beer signs to see from space — all domestic, of course — this bar is a chapel, open late, providing passersby with, what they assure me, is the coldest beer around.
Inside is a surprising lack of leather. "There's a really diverse clientele here. We've got accountants, cab drivers, construction workers, you name it," says an off-duty Wolf Track barman everyone knows as Billiam.
But to Billiam, who has been around the Track for nearly three years, it's the regulars who keep the place alive. He stares at the ceiling, rattling off names.
"The food's real good too," he says, boasting about the cooking of Marie Krcelic, who co-owns the joint with brothers Jerry and Robert Corbett. Krcelic's kitchen shells out seafood, steak and potatoes, and a selection of other cheap pub eats like fries, corn dogs, and wings. They mix it up with daily lunch specials, while keeping the prices low.
The interior décor is far different from many downtown spots. Paintings of wolves line the walls, and FOX News is muted on multiple big screens. And don't be surprised if you hear arguments over the legitimacy of NASCAR as a sport. Wolf Track's got a grungy charm you won't find downtown and none of the well-to-doers you normally see.
The generously tattooed bartender, Angelina, appears with another round pulled straight from tubs of ice. An I-told-you-so grin grows on Billiam's face, and he provides Jägerbombs, Wolf Track's best seller.
"Jägerbombs and Grand Ma, we don't really do fancy cocktails." Angelina says. Fair enough. Billiam also mentions the popularity of the Sweet Tart, an unnecessarily sugary concoction involving raspberry vodka, sour mix, and Sprite. The weeknight crowd keeps to their Budweisers and their own business.
Wolf Track has weekly live music too. Speaking in lists again, Billiam offers a handful of bands he is proud to say he knew. Local rockers Hed Shop Boys and Cherry Bomb are regulars on the Wolf Track stage. Wednesday is open mic night, emceed by Hed Shop Boys' Frank Royster. —Brian Sewell
When the over-40 business folk and golfers need somewhere to escape the college dives of Downtown, they head out to the Sea Island Grill and Lounge at Wild Dunes on Isle of Palms. Sure, you may see some rugrats with ice cream running around, but you'll be hard pressed to find anyone in their 20s doing Jägerbombs with the bartenders here. It's more of a homey spot for a nightcap and some conversation. Maybe it's the fireplace, the dim lighting, the mahogany bar, or all of the above, but one thing is for sure: The place has class.
That said, tuxes and suits aren't required, but you may feel more comfortable leaving your Daisy Dukes or baggy jeans at home. The suggested attire is "resort casual," which ranges between a polo and khakis and sports jackets for men and basic dresses for women. But don't let the word "resort" fool you. This place welcomes both tourists and locals alike.
The Lounge has an extensive wine list; Yuengling, Stella Artois, and Guinness on tap; martinis; and whatever else you can think up. They also have a variety of local beers by the bottle, including suds from the Palmetto Brewing Company. Their seasonal signature cocktail is the Mo-tea-to, which combines Charleston's own Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka with the mint and sugar you would find in Havana's best mojitos. It's the perfect drink for an afternoon spent sweating on the beach. If your tastes are more highbrow, there's a $900 bottle of 1996 Dom Perignon Rose with your name on it. Bartender Patrick Magee says he's never sold a bottle in the three years they've had it for sale, but he has sold a $275 bottle.
So why would you make the long drive to Isle of Palms when there are scores of bars downtown? Kevin Blake, director of food and beverage at the Grill, says the ambiance is the main reason. "It's more refined, but not pretentious." They also have plenty of parking. —Caroline Eubanks
TOP SECRET BAR
Perhaps you've seen a T-shirt for Folly Beach's most secretive bar. Beside the marine map with the big question mark over its location, you'll see their slogan, "If you can't find us, we don't want you."
At the bar's request, we're not spoiling their fun. The owner, David, says to just "ask a local." Find the right person and you'll soon enjoy Coronas and Grand Ma shots over the water at the finest sunset view in town, high over the Folly River.
When the marina bar opened a year ago, a core group of regulars immediately laid claim to the members-only establishment. (It's $1 to join, everyone is eligible.) One patron, Tom, who visits about five days a week, took one new person a day on the promise that they wouldn't tell anybody.
"It's perfect. The nicest, friendliest, most relaxed, chill people on the whole planet," says Tom, who always refers to the bar as the Lighthouse to keep Center Street riff-raff from following him to his favorite haunt.
With 2,500 members and about 50 folks a night making their way through the Lighthouse, owner David says he's happy with his level of business. There's no sign on the road or at the door, and he'd prefer that tourists bypass them all together.
"I want it to be some place for the locals to get away to, when it's so hectic and crazy downtown," says David. "Folks use the nickname, and it helps them to get away from the undesirables."
Tempting as it is, City Paper's not going to spoil their secret. But trust us — come to Folly around sunset and ask a local.—Stratton Lawrence