It’s 4:00 p.m.
Happy Hour starts early in Charleston. I’ve wandered up and down King Street without intention of stopping in Prohibition. The online menu did not jump out at me and I must ration my stomach space when only in the city for two days. Charleston’s culinary scene is baffling – so much good food and drink for such a small city. I need seven more stomachs.
But my intended destination, Proof, is closed until 5:00 this Monday, or so a sign on the door reads. Prohibition’s doors are open and inviting.
I assess the empty bar as somewhere I can perch my laptop to work. The bartender greets me immediately with water and a thick menu meant to evoke an old book. It’s happy hour, but he can’t find that menu. He rattles off drinks on the list and runs off in search of garnishes, tools, and happy hour menus. He is far from set up, he tells me, training a new guy who is yet to be seen.
“I’ll have the spicy margarita,” I decide, more interested in working than the drink, really. The tequila is habanero-infused in large vessels behind the bar. A pineapple habanero rum is also in the repertoire, and I know that will be my next move if it behooves me to stay for more than one drink.
The habanero salt is a nice touch to the classic drink that boasts fresh lime juice and agave. It’s a margarita. It’s good. I am pleased. A breeze floats through the doors to my exposed legs beneath my floral dress (yes, it is warm enough in February to wear a dress!). I pull on a sweater and continue working. The bartender and I keep chatting intermittently without really breaking my focus. Somehow I manage to have a full conversation while writing a business plan and ordering dollar oysters.
“How long have you lived in Charleston?” I inquire. The answer is two years, originally from the northeast.
“Look at the pace the new guy is walking,” he gestures towards the inner reaches of the space. Indeed the new bartender is poking along at quite the southern pace. “No sense of urgency and we still have so much to do,” he criticizes while snapping granny smith apple slices in his mouth. His points are valid and not malicious. His energy is focused though not frantic.
“I get it,” I empathize. I relay instances of not being set up at my own bar in New York.
“I’m going there around my birthday,” he says, routing me through his trip home, then to Philly, to New York, and back down. We’ve struck a chord of casual comradery.
The bivalves arrive, long and narrow. “What are these?” I inquire.
“I think those are Hog Islands,” he responds, still sporadically running around the bar.
Eventually my brain maxes out for productive work after the second drink – the pineapple daiquiri – is nearly done. I close out, the bill slightly higher than the proposed happy hour prices. I don’t address it, I’m on vacation.
A few doors down, Proof is now open. I had intended to try one of the drinks on their much-too-long cocktail list (most of which are classics). Instead, I opt for the Lunde Gras special – a hurricane. It arrives in a purple solo cup adorned with a lemon wheel and a cherry. The accolades of this bar created anticipations of high-end cocktails, but the vibe is more a cozy corner bar with good drinks. The hurricane hits the spot, a palatable punch.
I am sandwiched between two middle aged men, both in Charleston for work. The man on my left shows me photos of his Mardi Gras suit and his girlfriend’s costume. He will not stop chatting, and the man on my right teases the other man and rescues me into a conversation about all the delicious food in Charleston. I am much more interested in this topic than the $14 costumes and Facebook photos from the man to my left.
Now three drinks in and still early, I close out to find food. A banh mi slider and glass of Madeira later, I exit the MacIntosh, unimpressed. The food was pleasurable, but the ambiance stiff and overly formal for a place that boasts a “bacon happy hour”. I’m making my way steadily through my eating and drinking ambitions and know it’s time for the Gin Joint.
“Where are you having dinner?” my CouchSurfing host texts.
“I’m not sure yet, but definitely hitting the Gin Joint. I’m up for company if you’d like,” I respond. My host and I had hit it off the night before over a love and appreciation of the tacos at Minero, a Sean Brock restaurant. May I just pause to say, if I lived in Charleston I would be at Minero at least three times a week.
He picks me up on my walk south on East Bay. His small sporty convertible embodies all the excitement of driving, standard transmission and all. We wiz down the road and park on the street. “It’s over here,” he gestures.
We enter what I know will be my favorite cocktail bar in Charleston. Two, please. A booth is fine. The place is quiet, but it’s still early on a Monday. The list looks impeccable. A milk punch, a gin and carrot juice cocktail, mezcal and suze. We need more time with the menu, but he orders the beef jerky – flank with soy and chili. Its saltiness is the perfect aperitif and brain food for cocktail choices.
The Haulin’ Oats and Bad Hombre are decided upon. His is the milk punch (barley tea, lemon, green tea, monkey shoulder scotch, pineapple, arrack, drambuie, lemon, oleo saccharum). Mine is mezcal (vago, Génépy Des Alpes, suze, dolin blanc, tepache, clarified pineapple, lime bitters). We trade sips like we’ve known each other for years. Our mutual affinity for the good life of flavors has us sharing everything ordered. The milk punch is hearty, silky, and well balanced. Mine is exactly what I wanted it to be, floral, rich, light, and smooth. The Gin Joint, while smaller than I expected, hits the mark as the best bar in Charleston.
I should have booked a longer trip.