Lunch at Opa Café included more feta cheese and phyllo dough and white rice than I typically eat halfway through a workday, so coffee was in order. My phone told me I could find it at Knightsville General Store & Country Cafe.
True to the first part of its name, Knightsville keeps jars of Hillbilly Jack’s Moonshine Jelly and oversized pro-Summerville stickers on its front counter. But it also sells cold brew in sizes ranging up to jumbo, priced at $6.95 a cup. I asked for a small.
No problem, the woman minding the store told me. And would I like chocolate milk in that?
At coffee shops across the country, I’ve been offered milk made from almonds, soybeans, oats, cashews and coconut flesh. I’ve never been asked if I wanted milk made with chocolate powder.
When I declined, saying I’d take it black, she shook her head and sighed. “You’re brave,” she said.
As I would learn over the next 48 hours, Summerville is a very sweet place. It’s no accident that this is a town which, in spite of the historical record, claims its residents were the first in the South to dump massive amounts of sugar in their tea. But does it have more to offer eaters than a comforting screen of saccharine?
For years, Summerville readers of The Post and Courier have said that their culinary scene is given short shrift in this paper. The complaint always perplexed me because the vast majority of popular Summerville restaurants are affiliates of national chains or expansion locations of downtown Charleston favorites, neither of which meet our standards for critical consideration. Just as a film critic who writes about a movie when it’s released in New York won’t watch it again when it comes out in Milwaukee, there’s no point in reviewing another Five Loaves Café.
On multiple occasions, I’ve asked readers to specify what’s been overlooked. They’ve supplied very few suggestions. That led me to believe it’s difficult to appreciate Summerville from the outside, so I decided to shift my vantage point. For two days in August, I moved there.
Sweetening the deal
My AirBnB was a two-bedroom ranch house with a wide driveway and front and back yards, each more than twice the size of the 500-square-foot freedman’s cottage that I typically call home. If I wasn’t there on a work trip, I probably could have wiled away the weekend playing lawn games and resting between sets in the living room recliner.
To get there from Knightsville, I followed a route that led past Carolina Cotton Candy, a 32-year-old confectionery with a front office that doubles as a retail store. On weekdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., the general public can buy single servings of cotton candy and candy apples, wrapped in cellophane and secured with a striped twist tie.
Because production is the main business at Carolina Cotton Candy, I’d wager most of the sweet-toothed visitors who step into the facility are as puzzled as the woman who followed me to the reception desk.
“How does this work?” she asked skeptically.
Assuming it’s cotton candy you’re after, you hand over $1.89 in cash and get a bag of pink and blue fluff in return.
I bought a red candy apple instead, since I’ve long been fascinated by why that 1908 invention endured when pneumatic tubes and telegrams went by the wayside. (The New Jersey candy maker who first dipped apples intended for them to serve as decoration, but people couldn’t resist eating them.) Carolina Cotton Candy’s rendition shattered with the appropriate amount of toothache-inducing force.
On the other end of the hardness spectrum, blueberry bagels are apparently big in Summerville right now. When I stopped by The Rustic Muffin around 10 a.m. Saturday, drive-through customers were disappointed to learn the coffee shop had already sold out of the desirable variety.
Bagels at The Rustic Muffin come from a bakery in The Bronx, but humidity is hard on them. I much preferred a sweet corn muffin, although I suspect the pumpernickel would have been fine toasted and topped with cream cheese.
What I liked best about The Rustic Muffin, a vibrant community gathering place, was its position on the far side of Nexton, since I’d never before toured the gargantuan development. Nexton is preparing to welcome carbon copies of restaurants, including Halls Chophouse, Page’s Okra Grill and DB’s Cheesesteaks, making this a prime time to experience Summerville before it’s overrun by replicates.
Friday night fancy
If there’s such a thing as classic Summerville dining, it’s Oscar’s, which was the centerpiece of my Friday night out on the town. Oscar’s opened in downtown Summerville almost four decades ago and remains the default local choice for special occasions.
Oscar’s doesn’t put on fine dining airs, nor does it charge fine dining prices. My main entertainment in Summerville was texting a picture of Oscar’s cocktail menu to friends back home, none of whom could recall the last time they saw a $6.50 cocktail. In downtown Charleston, most mocktails cost more than that.
Still, Oscar’s serves the sort of dishes that one might want when celebrating a birthday or anniversary, including a thick prime rib with a foil-jacketed baked potato. While I don’t regret ordering the excellent prime rib or a preceding she-crab soup, spiked with just enough sherry to titillate the sweet tea crowd, I retrospectively wish I hadn’t zeroed in on items ready to be rushed to the table.
I’m not sure what accounts for Summerville restaurants’ fixation on speed, but I’ve never received food faster than when seated at Summerville tables.
My terrific server at Oscar’s was apologetic for not having my prime rib in hand when he cleared my soup cup.
The following night, a server at The Icehouse Restaurant, a beloved pub with an ambitious kitchen, reassured me, “I put that food in for you, so it should only be a matter of time.” My peach salad, dressed with sweet tea vinaigrette, arrived almost instantly.
There was one lag at Oscar’s: The line took its time assembling a whipped peanut butter pie, one of nearly a dozen homemade desserts on the restaurant’s menu. In Summerville, the last course is critical.
After dinner, I wandered over to Wine & Tapas Bar, which reopened last year under new owners. Since I’d come to Summerville in hopes of mining all of the culinary gems I’d missed over the years, I figured I could pick up a few good leads at the bar. Bartenders and bargoers are usually authoritative sources of insider knowledge.
In Summerville, though, bars don’t seem to attract solo drinkers seeking conversation. Apparently, the suburban model is to go to a bar with your friends or co-workers — or children. (Wine & Tapas is the only wine bar I’ve ever patronized with a kid’s menu).
Everyone seemed to be having a very good time listening to a live band play Creedence Clearwater Revival and watching Guy Fieri on the big-screen TV. I ordered a glass of Writer’s Block Syrah and fretted about this story.
Farm to table
Summerville is justly proud of its Saturday morning farmers market, which has retained a food focus while other markets have gotten caught up in crafts.
One of the market’s newer stars is Trolly Dolly Treats. I bought a few of Alyse Webster’s extremely sweet, multicolored macarons. But I also was able to buy eggs from Three Oaks Farm, shrimp from The Seafood Lady, merguez sausage from Wishbone Heritage Farms and heirloom tomatoes from Gruber Farm, as well as zucchini and a ripe cantaloupe.
Those items were the makings of a cocktail hour I planned to throw that evening. Looking at my haul, I decided to serve zucchini-wrapped shrimp, deviled eggs atop heirloom tomatoes and merguez sausages-in-blankets. Obviously, though, I still needed a few pantry basics to pull off a party, which meant I got to go to Lowes Foods.
Lowes Foods is no longer brand-new, nor is it regionally unique to Summerville. Still, it belongs in any discussion of the town’s culinary advantages since it’s more like a food fantasyland than a supermarket. For example, my shopping list included basil for the tomatoes, dill for the deviled eggs and mint for the sausage dip, all three of which I was able to snip from a waist-high herb garden in the store’s produce section. Score one for Summerville.
Other than Lowes Foods, the highlight of my Summerville stay was Matt’s Burgers. (Forgive me, but I need to have a quick word here with all of the readers who accused me of ignoring Summerville: Why didn’t you tell me about Matt’s?)
Perhaps town boosters thought Matt’s tiny tile-floored dining room or habit of celebrating customers who ate burgers bigger than their heads wouldn’t play well beyond the county line. Or maybe they just wanted all of the perfectly seasoned chili for themselves. In any case, Summerville has no greater gift to give than a Matt’s cheeseburger, swamped with chili so it sits at the center of the plate like a shimmering beef-filled crouton. It’s a dish to devour with a fork and knife, and it’s exceptional.
Matt’s is reportedly also known for its milkshakes, but wanting to give the chili cheeseburger my full attention, I stuck with root beer. A Summerville meal is never done without dessert, though, so I later stopped at Baker’s BBQ Kitchen, the adjunct of a garden store.
Open three days a week, Baker’s serves a smoky pulled-pork sandwich, but everything on the savory side of its menu is just a warm-up for dessert. Baker’s rotating dessert case is populated by homemade banana pudding, red velvet cake and a variety of pecan pies, distinguished by tightly packed nuts and a flaky crust.
Not much of a party
To prepare for my guests, I bought a couple of bottles of wine at Accent on Wine, a wine bar that also has a store in Park Circle. While Accent on Wine charges slightly more than its Charleston counterparts for the same labels, the extra few dollars buy you a soft jazz soundtrack and small-town charm. I also picked up a Jogglin Board lager at Oak Road Brewery, Summerville’s first brewery, on the advice of a helpful bartender at Homegrown Brewhouse.
Fortunately, that was the extent of my investment, since only two people came to my party. Excuses started rolling in days in advance, and as late as 15 minutes after the party was supposed to start, friends were texting to say they didn’t realize Summerville was so far away. I have never had more empathy for Summerville residents who feel dismissed by downtowners.
With the party over early, I headed out for dinner. But it apparently wasn’t early enough for Summerville. At 8:30 p.m., it was just me and a flooring guy at Palmetto Flats, where I ordered a flatbread garnished with chicken and sweet barbecue sauce.
“I don’t like super-packed places,” the other customer told the bartender.
Icehouse also was nearly empty when I arrived. My trip to Summerville seemed destined to remain remarkably uneventful, which had been my greatest fear from the start. What if I went to suburbia and nothing happened? It’s a poor punchline to a great setup.
Fortunately, I found myself in the midst of a dining throng the next morning, when I went to Lowcountry Fish Camp for brunch. In spite of a name with an institutional ring to it, Fish Camp is just 4 years old, although local residents have been showering it with popularity poll awards since it opened. Based on my seared catfish and sweet hush puppies, the glory’s well-earned.
Beyond its seafood competence and screened-in dining area, I suspect Lowcountry Fish Camp has succeeded because it sums up Summerville right now.
Over the past 20 years, Summerville’s population has grown by a stunning 81 percent. It’s not the town it was at the turn of the century, when the owners of Oscar’s never could have imagined counting a restaurant like Halls among its local competitors.
Now Summerville is a town culturally dominated by former Northeasterners, which explains the New York Yankees memorabilia behind Fish Camp’s bar. A Yankees totem pole shares a shelving fixture with a banner exhorting people to “Be Nice or Leave.” (It’s the rare Summerville restaurant that doesn’t post slogans: Even my AirBnB had motivational sayings affixed to the wall).
That’s not exactly a NYC sentiment, but a variation of it is true for many people living and eating in Summerville: "Leave and Be Nice," their sign might say. They left New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to embrace sweetness down South. Or at least that’s what I was thinking when my server offered me a slice of homemade lemonade pie.