Restaurants, chefs drawn by opportunity to experiment
Guilds Hollowell's Upper King Street-themed culinary tour is apt to start at HoM, where participants are served a homemade flatbread smeared with pimento cheese and piled with pork confit, caramelized onions and maple-bacon arugula.
While none of the dish's elements are unknown below Calhoun Street, it's their devious commingling that Hollowell believes defines the city's trendiest culinary corridor.
"Upper King chefs really have an opportunity to experiment," says Hollowell, of Charleston Culinary Tours. "There's nothing wrong with shrimp and grits and fried green tomatoes. But these chefs are trained to do more than prepare shrimp and grits every day. Up here, they get to do more."
Many of the city's most interesting new restaurants are now clustered around Upper King, a once-gritty area that initially attracted chefs with cheap rents and the promise of new hotels. "You have the built-in clientele," says Brooks Reitz, general manager of The Ordinary. "It's not a sure thing, but that's a safety net."
Charleston Culinary Tours launched its Upper King tour in April 2012, eight months before The Ordinary opened. "Literally, before I'd do a tour, I'd have to walk the tour route beforehand and clean up the beer bottles," Hollowell recalls. Now, his biggest annoyance is the noise of construction equipment.
Rave reviews for restaurants such as The Ordinary, The Grocery and The Macintosh have helped draw hordes of visitors, and they're spending money. At Indigo Road restaurant group, for example, the average spent per person is $35 at O-ku, $45 at Indaco and $55 at The Macintosh.
The rise of Upper King's food-and-drink scene was so mysterious to longtime residents that when Hollowell launched his tour, 80 percent of his guests were locals. Now most of his groups are evenly split; on a recent Friday, his tour-goers came from Mississippi and Texas.
"This is an area that's been out of sight," Hollowell says. "If you're in your 50s, you didn't party here in high school."