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Southern hospitality begins with food and drinks, but it rises to the level of fine art in Charleston, SC. The romance of the gracious 19th century colonial buildings provides a genteel backdrop for lively conversation. But there’s a surprisingly youthful vigor in the menus at area restaurants, which I discovered while visiting the 440-room Charleston Place.

Located in the historic downtown area, this Orient-Express property epitomizes the style and luxury of a grand hotel, but it was built from the ground up less than 30 years ago. For example, you’re greeted in a lobby resplendent in Italian marble by the open arms of the double Georgian grand staircase illuminated by a hand-blown Venetian glass chandelier.

For cocktails and proper introductions, our group met at the Thoroughbred Club—elegant without ostentation, like everything else in the hotel. Surrounded by equestrian-themed artwork gracing dark panel walls and a jazz trio laying down smooth riffs, we found the house tapas menu perfect for the occasion. Highlights include a spiced duck confit with blue corn tostada, goat cheese and mango salsa, which you can order for banquets in the 40,000 sf of flexible function space.

We then ventured a few blocks away to The Gin Joint, a throwback to the speakeasies of the 1920s when cocktails weren’t watered down rainbow juice. The vibe is slightly industrial with puffy black banquettes and blond wood tables. Certified by the Wine & Spirits Education Trust, owner Joe Raya offers private cocktail education events, comfortable up to 25 pax.

High Cotton’s main dining room

From there, we segued over to High Cotton. Designed for special events, this eatery bowled us over with its New Orleansy, French/Caribbean ambience and a menu that shouts haute Low Country cooking. My blue cheese iceberg wedge salad came draped with bacon and three delectable fried green tomatoes instead of croutons. Also try the wild American shrimp and grits, served with smoked chicken, andouille sausage and tomatoes in sweet corn garlic broth. Two private dining rooms seat 32/64.

Take a good look at the 39 Rue de Jean brasserie, voted the #1 French restaurant in Charleston year after year. An obvious choice for dinearounds, the restaurant hosts medium-size groups in the upstairs event space, while the Oyster Room offers small groups a semi-private dining experience. For a break from all the fancy fine dining, I devoured their 10-oz Brasserie Burger paired with roquefort, sharp cheddar or gruyère.

During the final night, we gathered at the hotel for a grand meal at Charleston Grill. GM Mickey Bakst introduced each round of the prix fixe dinner and wine pairing with charm and wit. Executive chef Michelle Weaver produced sumptuous courses such as a perfectly seared halibut succotash and Indian curry with white sturgeon. And rarely have I enjoyed anything as much as the foie gras with apple and mascarpone cheese in bourbon cider sauce. That was followed with a gorgeous beef tenderloin drenched in bourguignon sauce—the best meal of the trip.


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