Dine in a top restaurant in downtown Charleston and you can go the entire evening without seeing a single person of color. It’s a conspicuous reality 55 years after black students staged a transformative sit-in at the S.H. Kress & Co. lunch counter on King Street.
The Charleston area has seen significant demographic and cultural changes in the past decade or more — an influx of newcomers, increased tourism, growth in the technology and aerospace sectors and a burgeoning of hotels, restaurants, bars and cultural institutions.
While this change has come with a number of benefits, it has done little to bridge lingering racial and economic divides.
It’s especially apparent in downtown restaurants, where throngs of mostly white patrons are packing the trendy new spots along upper King and surrounding neighborhoods. Diners in search of a racially mixed crowd will have better luck visiting a Japanese steak house in West Ashley or a sports bar in North Charleston.
History and local traditions explain a lot, said Andre Woods, a 68-year-old businessman and civic activist who still lives in the Ashley Avenue house he grew up in.
During the Jim Crow era of legalized segregation in the South, 1890-1965, black people in Charleston and other urban centers developed self-sufficient communities, Woods said. They included main streets; neighborhood pillars such as churches, family centers and schools; and relatively safe play areas for children.
“We had enough kids in the neighborhood that, even though segregation prevented us from going places and having opportunities that whites had, we (got) creative,” Woods said.
Charleston also saw the rise of a significant black middle class during those years: doctors, lawyers, builders, school teachers, pastors. And they sometimes wanted a place where their money could buy some good food and drink.
Those are some of the reasons why restaurants on the peninsula today still are relatively segregated, Woods and others said.
On the other side of many kitchen doors, there is at least some black representation. At a number of upscale Charleston restaurants, blacks and whites form friendships on the line: Barsa chef Cole Poolaw had Thanksgiving dinner at the home of one of his black cooks.
Out front, though, the ubiquity of whiteness is evident. While most area residents can’t afford to eat downtown, at least not regularly, it’s even more daunting for blacks who live on the peninsula: At $56,529, the median household income for whites in the city of Charleston is nearly double that of blacks. Still, there is a healthy contingent of whites who are sufficiently financially secure to spend $85 on a raw seafood tower.
State Sen. Marlon Kimpson was struck by the lack of diversity when dining with his family recently at a King Street restaurant. When he looked around, he saw no other minorities. “Although we can sit at the counter,” he said, “many of us can’t afford to eat at the counter.”
Woods said the preponderance of whites is partly because the black middle class, once a real economic force, has declined significantly in recent decades. Professional blacks often leave town to find greener pastures, and those who remain are as likely to spend a weekend in Atlanta or Charlotte, spending their money in those larger cities, than they are to frequent a Charleston restaurant or bar, he said.
The flip side of this equation is a decline in black-owned businesses, especially on the peninsula, Woods said.
“There’s been a major revitalization of the historic district, and you can’t point to two black-owned businesses,” he said. “There’s a major problem with that.”
Since the 1960s, the black population on the peninsula has declined from about 34,000 to about 12,000, according to U.S. Census data. Many of the blacks left downtown live in public housing units.
“With gentrification, you don’t have the volume of blacks on the peninsula that you had in the past,” Woods said. “The handful of entertainment places that African Americans had, they’re gone. They couldn’t withstand the onslaught.”
During Jim Crow, modest eateries served the neighborhoods, along with less formal clubs, Woods said.
Groups like the Athenians and the Owls, family-anchored groups, often with their own little clubhouse or picnic place — the Faculty Lounge or Vagabonds on Johns Island. “Families supported each other and had family functions,” Woods said. “They kept that society glued together.”
These makeshift organizations often were picky about who got to be a “member,” he said. And the city had its share of white clubs, too, especially along or near Market Street. These and other private clubs (sometimes called “key clubs” because patrons needed a key to get in) once flourished, in part because of the state’s blue laws that limited the legal sale of alcohol.
The remnants of some of these organizations are still around: Moulin Rouge on Rutledge Avenue (recently closed). The Fabulous Ellen Bright Hall on upper King Street. Moe’s Crosstown Tavern once housed Jimmy Dengate’s.
Today, downtown restaurants draw more visitors than ever, relying heavily on a transient customer base and growing tourist economy. Residential patterns play a role, too. People eat and drink where they live, so the ratio of white-to-black diners is unlikely to shift unless the racial makeup of the neighborhood changes.
Still, location isn’t the only factor influencing dining decisions. The Cannonborough-Elliottborough neighborhood still is home to hundreds of blacks. Yet chef John Ondo estimates his clientele at Lana, which sits at the corner of Rutledge and Cannon streets, is about 5 percent black.
“They’d walk by, walk in, get a menu and never show back up,” Ondo said of his restaurant’s black neighbors.
Todd Kliman, restaurant critic for The Washingtonian, spoke at the last Southern Foodways Alliance symposium about coded cultural markers in dining rooms. “Everything is saying something, from the tablecloths to the choice to not have tablecloths,” he told the audience. The display of certain condiments such as hot sauce can signal to blacks (or others) that their patronage is welcome.
Many of those codes are musical. “We hoped that black residents wanted to come in and hang out with us — as long as they could stand listening to the music we play,” jokes Shep Rose, a cast member of Bravo’s Southern Charm and one of the white owners of Palace Hotel.
By contrast, three of the white-owned downtown venues popular with the local black community are Barsa, which hosts a “Jazz Jam” every Thursday; Proof, where jazz bands turn up almost every month; and Hall’s Chophouse, renowned for its Sunday gospel brunch.
“If you go to Barsa on a Thursday night, it’s a black bar,” Ondo said. “You’re like, ‘Am I in the right place?’”
But it doesn’t always work. The Mezz, a downtown Charleston jazz club, regularly attracts more whites than blacks, a function of its location and cost more than the musical style it showcases.
Poolaw credits a diverse staff with helping to re-calibrate notions of who belongs at their restaurant.
“I’m Native American, the general manager is Japanese and the owner is Bosnian,” Poolaw said. “So that’s very comforting for a lot of people to see non-white faces.”
Poolaw said Barsa had an easier time than “a craft cocktail bar or hip oyster joint” establishing its openness. As he sees it, the restaurant charges fair prices for its creolized food from coastal Spain and serves its customers well.
“The white customers get taken care of so well everywhere else; I’m just a face in the crowd to them,” he said. “But my black customers are always so warm and welcoming. It really wells me up.”
At Frankie’s Cafe, one of the last black bars on Spring Street, owner Darlene Jenkins swears by the very same strategy.
“We talk to people like we been knowing them a long time,” she said. “White people come right in here, it don’t bother me one bit.”
According to Jenkins’ customers, drinkers from all backgrounds find the relaxed feel at Frankie’s is an even greater draw than the $1 beers. “It’s just comfortable here,” said one black woman who declined to give her name.
More relaxed or not, the number of black-owned restaurants and bars continues to dwindle. In recent months, Huger’s on upper King Street, Alluette’s Café on Reid Street, Dell’z Deli on the corner of King and Morris streets, Ike’s Gullah Food on upper Meeting Street and Gullah Cuisine in Mount Pleasant all closed. (Alluette Smalls said she’s looking for a new location, and Dell’z still operates its Rutledge Avenue store.)
For many whites, who prefer the popular destinations on King Street or East Bay Street, the changes might be little noticed. After all, Charlestonians have grown accustomed to eating and drinking in different places according to race.
It’s a habit that might be hard to shake. Proof’s Craig Nelson suspects it might take more visitors like the sports fan at Frankie’s to flout local patterns.
Nelson said his clientele has already been diversified by Boeing. When the company puts up employees downtown, they mosey over to Proof because it’s highly ranked on Yelp. They don’t investigate beforehand whether it’s more popular with white drinkers or black drinkers.
Is this a sign of the times? Will crowds mix more as they grow, as they accommodate more visitors and new arrivals?
“We’re in a new century,” Ondo said. “It’s bound to get more integrated. It has to. Human nature is too good for it not to happen.”