It’s 10 p.m. on a Friday, and upper King Street is already a flurry of activity. Pairs of high heels click-clack rapidly along the bluestone sidewalks as groups of well-dressed young adults stride to trendy cocktail joints and dance clubs. Pedicabs wheel into their usual waiting spots on street corners. Bouncers take their posts, preparing for late-night revelers to fall in line behind their velvet ropes.
Continue south down to the Market Street area, and it’s a much different scene. Flip-flops are more common than dress shoes. Most groups are families, some with small children. They peruse the wares under the soft glare of lights in the City Market, now open past sunset on weekends. Some pause to watch street entertainers such as a puppeteer and an acoustic guitarist. The only line on the street is outside Kaminsky’s, a small cocktail and dessert cafe.
Will Breard, a manager and bartender, helps the hostess manage the flow of customers at the door. A 2008 College of Charleston graduate, Breard remembers when the Market area was the city’s nightlife hub. It was the place to catch the best live bands in town, drink cheap frozen slushies and throw back shots at dives such as Big John’s Tavern, which is now closed.
“We used to go out in the Market. No one goes out in the Market anymore,” he said. “It’s becoming much more of a family-friendly nightlife down here, whereas Upper King is becoming more of the going out, cocktail party type thing.”
Down the street, Rebekah German of West Ashley steps out of Henry’s with two friends, one of whom is from out of town. They grabbed a drink after taking her sightseeing in the historic district, but if they wanted to show her a night on the town, German said they would probably head to upper King.
“I just don’t like Market as much,” she said. “They don’t have the kind of atmosphere I like or the or the DJs I like, really.”
While there are still plenty of bars around, most people seem to agree: the Market Street area is no longer home to the rowdy nightlife scene. More prominent is the slew of dessert shops, souvenir stores and restaurants with Southern cuisine that are buzzing with business well into the night on the weekends.
The change hasn’t necessarily created a clear set of winners and losers. Instead, both well-known parts of town have experienced their own set of pros and cons brought on by the city’s shift in nightlife culture.
The explosion of bars and restaurants on upper King and the surrounding area in the past several years has made it a nightlife mecca, and the trend continues to edge its way north to Morrison Drive.
The rapid growth prompted the city to implement a one-year moratorium in 2014 on new late-night bars in both areas to examine nightlife-related issues. Members of the community and food and beverage industry were appointed to the Late Night Activity Review Committee to discuss and find solutions to those problems, and recommendations were given to City Council last year. It led to a few changes in how the city manages nightlife, including a special zoning for all late-night operations that fall within 500 feet of residential areas.
A few new late-night businesses such as Home Team BBQ and The Commodore have since opened in the upper peninsula.
But nightlife along Market and East Bay streets already had been slowing down for several years. Elliott Smith, who served on the committee, said the 21-member group would often have to be reminded that its purview included that area.
“There would just be so much focus on upper King Street,” he said.
Staples of the bar scene in the lower peninsula — Mad River Bar & Grill, Purple Tree Lounge, Social Wine Bar, Wet Willie’s and others — closed during the past few years for various reasons. A fire in 2013 at 213 East Bay Street wiped out four bars at once, including Squeeze, Speakeasy, The Brick and Light. None reopened. Several other former nightlife spots have been or soon will be replaced by restaurants.
Charleston Police Lt. Heath King, who oversees patrols in the nightlife districts, said the shift has changed the way the city polices the peninsula on weekends.
“Without a doubt, the area has changed,” he said. “It used to be I kept a lot more officers in the Market area as opposed to the upper King area, but obviously I’ve done a complete shift on that.”
On typical weekend nights, the city keeps 12 officers stationed in the upper King Street area and four officers around Market Street, he said.
Kevin McQuade has worked as a concierge in Charleston for 17 years and currently serves as the chief concierge at the Courtyard by Marriott on Calhoun Street —a hotel geographically in between the Market and upper King. When guests are looking for a night on the town, he said his suggestions are much different than they were five years ago.
“I would send everybody down to East Bay and Market, and now I’m finding that I’m just doing that much less,” he said. “I’m sending a lot more people north of Calhoun.”
Kevin Brown, a pedicab driver, sits along South Market Street at about 9:30 p.m. with three other drivers, all hoping to pick up fares once people finish up dinner nearby. He said there won’t be many pedicabs left in this area in about an hour.
“Once the nightlife pops off up north, we’ll transition up there,” he said. “After 10... there’s nothing down here for us. It’s all up there.”
There are several theories about what drove the party crowd from the Market area. Some say the rapid rise of new bars on upper King and the loss of several older ones on the lower peninsula caused a natural migration. Others think it had more to do with the growing concentration of tourists in the historic district, which changed its demographics. The northward migration of college housing also played a role.
Brown, the pedicab driver, said the closures of long-time favorites made locals less likely to spend a night out on the lower peninsula, which over time, deflated its nightlife scene.
“Big Johns, The Brick, Squeeze —when a few places that were key to the culture down here go away, it doesn’t matter what opens up in its place, people don’t have the loyalty to those new places,” he said.
McQuade, the concierge, thinks visitors and locals “like being where the action is” when it comes to nightlife, and right now, that’s upper King Street. To compete, he thinks Market Street will need to add some new bars and inventive restaurants to make it a destination again.
“People like new,” he said.
Smith, who served on the city’s Late Night Review Committee, agrees. He helped establish the BACE league, an informal group of people involved in downtown business, art, culture and entertainment.
“Tastes change, you know, and culture changes,” he said. “The Market is going to have to catch up at some point. I do think the demand for diversity, live original music, things like that, has outrun the supply.”
Mike Shuler of King Street Commercial Real Estate said it’s more plausible that the cruise ship crowd tipped the scales toward an all-ages atmosphere in the Market area, and that future businesses in the area will likely center on hospitality, not nightlife.
“I don’t think King Street necessarily sucked that scene out (of the Market area),” he said. “I think it sort of played itself out. The places that were there just fell out of favor.”
Several who live around or work in the Market area don’t seem to mind that it’s no longer the trendiest bar scene in town.
Shuler owns Midtown Bar & Grill on King Street, Club Trio on Calhoun Street, and recently took over the Blind Tiger Pub on Broad Street. The pub is under renovation and Shuler expects it to reopen next month.
He sees the Blind Tiger’s location near East Bay street, away from the nightlife hub, as an advantage.
“It’s kind of on an island there all by itself, which I think is nice,” he said. “I think if we keep the quality up, there’s plenty of people, especially locals, who might not want to fuss with King Street for a night, but still want to go out for a night and have fun and see people they recognize.”
Angela Black Drake, president of the Ansonborough Neighborhood Association, lives next to the Market and said most of her neighbors have welcomed the change because it’s brought more upscale restaurants and an older demographic that tends to be less boisterous than bar-hoppers.
“The Market is not the bar scene (it was),” she said. “It’s matured. She’s the older lady, and the new kid on the block is upper King. It’s a nice transition.”
City planning director Jacob Lindsey said recent changes in the Market area seem to have led to more businesses that attract locals, a goal of the city. Officials also want a balance of uses on upper King.
“My sense is that we’re in a little bit of a transition,” he said. “I would hope over time that the nightlife experience can balance itself out more, and at the same time that daytime uses get balanced.”
Meanwhile, there are plenty of southern peninsula stalwarts like Henry’s, The Griffon and The Gin Joint that continue to draw locals and tourists alike.
James Bolt, a bartender at The Gin Joint, said things have changed on East Bay Street since he started working at the bar three years ago, but it’s not hurting the business.
The clientele at the Gin Joint has gotten older, which he attributes to closures of clubs like Wet Willie’s and Tsunami. The upside is, with fewer bars around, people tend to spend more time there.
“It’s definitely changed on East Bay, but ... the Gin Joint has not seen a decrease in sales or customers,” he said.
A couple blocks away, Will Stewart smokes a cigarette with a group of friends outside Tommy Condon’s, a longtime music venue and Irish bar. They’re all in the military, stationed at Joint Base Charleston, and Stewart said they like to come here to blow off some steam after a long week. There’s usually live music, and there’s never a line outside.
“(Upper King) is more nightlife-y, for sure,” he said. “We just kind of enjoy the atmosphere here.”
Brown, the pedicab driver, isn’t surprised people keep coming back to these old Market area bars.
“Tommy Condon’s has their old-school crowd. It’s a classic spot, so people still hit it up. It’s just not what it used to be,” he said. “Nothing down here is.”
Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail