New face of Upper King Street: Bars, restaurants take root, spawn Charleston's first true Midtown
It's 11 o'clock on a Friday night and Upper King Street is springing to life.
On one corner, an upscale restaurant wraps up its dinner service and transforms into a nightclub with neon lights and thumping party music.
Across the street, bouncers outside a dive bar pinch cigarettes between their lips as they drag velvet ropes onto the sidewalk, now a necessary measure to manage the impending crowds.
By midnight, the sidewalks are packed with people in their 20s and 30s. Most are beyond the average college age, perhaps because most bars on Upper King Street aren't aimed at college crowds anymore.
What was once an area with a handful of sports bars, record shops and furniture stores is now home to an array of upscale restaurants, high-brow nightclubs and cocktail joints.
Byron Knight, a homeless man once dubbed the Holy City's "best street character" by the Charleston City Paper, spends many nights on this street. Most weekends, he can be found outside the bars, striking up conversations with passersby, shaking hands with some he's known for years. Sometimes, he just comes to watch.
"This is my cable TV," he says, marveling at the scene on the corner of Radcliffe and King streets. "Over there, that's Comedy Central," he points to a group of laughing guys crossing the street, barely missing oncoming traffic.
"That's the History Channel, and that's the Food Network," he says, nodding toward the William Aiken House, then Fish.
"It's constant change," he says. "One of those oxymorons that makes sense."
The burgeoning food and beverage scene is perhaps the most evident sign of how much the nearly mile-long corridor from Calhoun to Line streets has transformed in the past decade into a true Midtown for the city. The changes, along with the construction of hotels, condominiums and a massive mixed-use development planned by The Post and Courier's parent company, promise to remake a landscape that struggled for years to find its focus.
While the new businesses have brought in millions of dollars to the city of Charleston, the growth also raises concerns about policing the area, its effect on nearby neighborhoods, and the potential for development to uproot and displace longstanding businesses.
Claire Xidis, an attorney, lives on Bogard Street, a few blocks from the bar scene on Upper King. She says the neighborhood is regularly disrupted by noisy people heading home when bars close on the weekends.
"Don't get me wrong, I love that I can walk to The Ordinary and have fabulous oysters," she says. "But at the same time, I would like to not get woken up at 2:15 a.m. every weekend after bars close."
Over the past eight years, Upper King Street has witnessed the arrival of about 30 new businesses - primarily bars and restaurants - and the majority have popped up in the past three years.
Rusty Day of James Island is among those drawn to the area by the changes. An adjunct professor of marine biology at the College of Charleston, he spends weekends hopping around King Street to bars such as Cocktail Club or The Belmont.
The area near the City Market that long has been regarded as the center of Charleston's nightlife is now overshadowed by Upper King, at least for young professionals and other locals, he says. "It's hard to convince anybody to go out on East Bay and Market streets anymore."
That's a big difference from when Day moved to Charleston 13 years ago for graduate school. At that time, he says, "there was no Upper King Street."
There were some dive bars, such as AC's Bar and Grill and The Silver Dollar, but the more mature nightlife scene didn't arrive until the mid-2000s when Chai's Lounge, a tapas joint, and RAVAL, a Spanish wine bar, opened near John Street.
Karalee Nielsen established RAVAL with business partner Tim Mink in 2005.
"We found a great piece of property up there. It was the right size for the right price, so we decided to gamble on it," Nielsen says. "I definitely think that we took the risk and then everybody thought it was OK to go up there."
The business partners closed the wine bar in 2009 and reopened it as Closed for Business, a craft beer tavern. "Most of the businesses up there are just completely different than what they were," Nielsen says.
Jim Curley, owner of AC's, has seen the transformation firsthand.
AC's has been on the street for 26 years, but moved north of Calhoun 13 years ago after a fire damaged its first location, below Calhoun at 338 King.
At the time, Upper King was far from the foodie scene it is today.
"That was a Huddle House," Curley says, pointing across the street to Basil outside his bar. "There were boards on the windows everywhere you looked. Now it's a high-rent district with fancy restaurants."
That's not a complaint. Business is booming more than ever for AC's, Curley says. It reaches its capacity of about 160 people most nights, and on weekends it has a line outside the door that often stretches past two neighboring buildings.
"It's just because there's a lot going on around here," Curley says. "Essentially, we have a busy bar on our loyal clientele, and then on top of that we have all that traffic of people bar-hopping."
The activity on Upper King reflects a citywide trend of a growing and thriving food and beverage industry.
Charleston receives an accommodations tax of 2 cents from every dollar of food and beverage sales. That revenue grew from $9.8 million in 2010 to nearly $11.5 million in 2012 for a 17 percent gain.
The success new businesses are experiencing in the area has drawn significant interest from investors. Though the restaurant and nightlife scene may be the trend on Upper King at the moment, upcoming developments promise to fill in the corridor with a mix of businesses in the next few years.
Patrick Price, a real estate developer with PrimeSouth Group, says demand is higher than ever for space in the area. The vacancy rate is about 2 percent, and investors are dealing up front in cash, he says.
"If you can't provide the cash, there's somebody behind you that will," Price says. "It just shows the level of people trying to get downtown in this area right now."
In 1989, property on Upper King Street leased for about $6 per square foot, or about $11 in today's market. Now, properties are leasing for at least $40 per square foot, Price says.
Demand is so high, development has spilled onto Spring, Cannon and other surrounding streets, with trendy bars and restaurants popping up in old warehouses, gas stations and other spots.
The surge of interest in the area means property owners, many of them developers, can afford to be choosy with their tenants.
"We want to get a tenant mix so there's not just one type of use," Price says. "It's considered a food and bev area, but we're really getting a good retail mix now."
Locally owned boutiques such as JLinsnider, Magnifilous Toy Emporium and Seeking Indigo have opened on the street in the past few years and more are expected to join them, Price says.
Tim Keane, the city's director of Planning, Preservation and Sustainability, agrees. "We now have retailers wanting to go on Upper King, retailers that I don't think one or two years ago would have done it."
Several complexes planned for the street will feature housing, retail and office space all under one roof.
Elan Midtown, an upscale housing and retail complex under construction at Meeting and Spring streets, is nearly complete.
PrimeSouth Group has plans for two more complexes, including a boutique hotel with a parking deck and office and retail space near the corner of Ann and King streets.
Evening Post Industries, the parent company of The Post and Courier, also plans to begin a 10-year construction project on nearly 12 acres it owns around King, St. Philip and Meeting streets. The development, named Courier Square, would include a mix of housing, office, parking and retail space.
A new Holiday Inn is open on nearby Meeting Street, and five more hotels planned for the area promise to bring in even more foot traffic and potential shoppers.
"In 18 to 24 months you're going to see a big change," Patrick says. "And in five years, this area of Charleston will look vastly different."
The first seeds for this transformation were planted some 40 years ago, as the city sought ways to reverse an exodus of merchants and shoppers from a key urban corridor once filled with a diverse mix of department stores and mom-and-pop shops, many of which were owned by Eastern Europeans and Jewish immigrants.
Joe Riley made revitalizing King Street a centerpiece of his 1974 mayoral campaign, and the city met with great success with the stretch below Calhoun, thanks in large part to the addition of Charleston Place, which drew pedestrians from the then-newly restored City Market.
But Upper King proved a more stubborn obstacle. The city hired consultants, built a Visitor Center to attract tourists, constructed parking garages, opened the street to two-way traffic, improved lighting, buried utilities and updated sidewalks. But for a variety of reasons, plans to remake the area into an antiques district, a furniture mecca or an urban design corridor never quite stuck.
Then an unexpected boon came in the form of the bar and restaurant scene, which seemed to follow college students and other urban homesteaders who flocked to surrounding neighborhoods such as Cannonborough/Elliotborough in search of cheap rent and affordable homes.
For many longtime merchants who stuck out the lean years, the transformation has been a mixed bag.
Tom Reid, whose family has operated a fabric store at the corner of King and Spring streets for 100 years, likes having more places to dine and is excited about the prospect of more customers from a hotel being built across the street. "You'll have people coming from all over the country, and at least some of them will wander across the street to us," he says.
But nearby Star Beauty Supplies, which has catered to a predominantly African American crowd since 1992, is planning to move. Many of its customers have moved out of the surrounding neighborhoods or are put off by the dearth of parking on the crowded strip, says Cathy Yi, whose family owns the business. They are negotiating with a bar that wants to move into their building, she says.
"If you're selling alcohol, you're doing well, but with retail ...," she says with a shrug as her words trail off.
The buzz of the street at night is undeniable, though.
"I drive home on King, and the only place I've ever seen so much happening is New York," says Brooks Reitz, general manager of The Ordinary, an upscale restaurant that took over a former bank building on King. "A year ago it felt like we were in no-man's land. Now I can walk out the door and eat delicious handmade pasta at Indaco; I can curve around Spring Street and eat fresh flavors at Xiao Bao Biscuit."
Today, the area has more white tablecloths than ever, and a high-brow attitude has caught on with many of the bars as well. The strip's gritty image now seems a thing of the past.
Miles Ware, who frequents the street's night scene, was surprised to be turned away from The Republic Garden & Lounge one Friday night for wearing sneakers and jeans. The nightclub has a strict dress code.
"This is a first for me," Ware says. "This didn't used to happen. Not on Upper King Street."
Glenn Smith, Robert Behre and Hanna Raskin contributed to this story.