Nights Out: Downtown Charleston
Nights Out: Downtown Charleston
Local brew, comfort food and a contemporary vibe light up the night
by Jacob Maynard
Armed only with a camera and a bag of clothes for the weekend, I hopped into my Subaru after work and hit the highway for Charleston. It was a city I’d never visited, but one I’d heard a lot about: the downtown was renovated, full of shops, restaurants and bars pulsing with live music. I was intrigued to see this West Virginia city for myself.
I drove with the windows down, surfing the ocean of mountains. I was cruising solo, and a little worried being by myself would make for a lonely trip. But Charleston was full of people, I reasoned, and the odds were good that I would meet a few of them. After a two-hour drive, I got off the highway and found my hotel in the heart of downtown.
My room looked out over the Kanawha River. On the paved river trail, people were jogging and biking. Others sat on the riverbank enjoying the sun. A coal barge floated down the glistening river, the water rippling in its wake. The sun was setting and it was time to see what this place was really about.
Eat & Drink
Excited to stretch my legs, I walked downtown in search of a place to wet my whistle. The main artery of Charleston’s downtown is Capitol Street, a tight street brimming with mature trees. There the city’s art deco architecture gives way to smaller brick buildings housing restaurants, stores and bars.
My first stop was Big Joe’s Bar & Grill, a renovated old dive bar with a pool table and oak floor that looked like it had been danced on for a hundred years. I chose a local brew—a citrusy IPA with plenty of bite—and chatted with the bartender. He told me I could find all the fun I wanted right downtown, adding that I just had to catch the Mountain Stage concert the next night. It was a live radio show, he explained, that had been going on for more than 30 years in Charleston.
I hit up a couple more bars—The Blue Parrot, Bar 101 and Sam’s Uptown Café—and eventually found my way to Adelphia Sports Bar and Grill, a great place with a retro, lunch-counter vibe. At Adelphia, blue-collar guys rubbed elbows with lawyers sipping wine, families with kids sat at booths eating a late dinner and sports fanatics watched college football on one of the bar’s bazillion screens. It felt like a welcoming, communal place.
It took only 15 minutes to meet two local chefs who were quick to offer up their favorite haunts in town. I ordered some of Adelphia’s award-winning wings (so crispy!) and spent the night making small talk with the town. The chefs told me all about West Virginia’s brewing scene, with nearly 20 breweries spread across the state. We soon moved down Capitol Street to another bar, known for their wide selection of brews. I sampled more than a few, from West Virginia IPAs to stouts and even some locally made hard cider. The next thing I knew four hours had passed and it was well past my normal bedtime.
After a brunch of breakfast pizza and strong coffee at Lola’s Pizza, an amazing pizza shop in the South Hills neighborhood, I headed back downtown to explore. I started back on Capitol Street, where I visited Taylor Books. The selection of new and used books was huge, and an attached pottery shop at one end sold locally made wares. In one corner of the store, a group of folks sat on plush leather chairs, sipping white wine and discussing poetry. In the attached coffee shop, a group of men argued international politics over espressos. Was I really in West Virginia? In downtown Charleston, the old mingles with the new; hip coffee shops and bistros sit next to old-timey pharmacies and department stores.
From there I visited some galleries, artisan shops and made my way toward Capitol Market, a cornerstone of Charleston’s revitalization. The market had rows of farmers hawking their best seasonal products. The market space is also used for events, like a craft beer festival that I saw advertised for the following weekend. I also found an indoor market and bistro, selling locally made goods—everything from wines and cheeses to gourmet mustards and beef jerky. I had an expertly made latte, ate a late lunch at a bistro and watched families pick out pumpkins to carve. I could have wandered the city all afternoon, but I had a ticket to Mountain Stage.
Mountain Stage was taking place at the Clay Center, an impressive building with a performance theater, children’s science center, art gallery and education center all-in-one. Just a quick walk from my hotel, I arrived at the Clay Center with enough time to enjoy some of the great public art outside before the concert began.
Eventually, I found my seat in the theater next to a couple of thirty-somethings who were excited to tell me more about Charleston. “It’s a city on the up-and-up,” the man said. “There’s something every weekend. Music, art and lots of local food and beer. We barely have to leave for vacation.”
The crowd filed in and the show began. It’s a live-performance radio show, meaning that part of the fun is listening to the host introduce each artist while the sound technicians swarm the stage to change the equipment for each new act. There were five acts in total: a jazzy pop singer from New Orleans, an indie-folk songwriter from Philadelphia, an alternative country act from Nashville, an indie band from Australia and an acclaimed singer-songwriter from Northern Ireland. It was amazing to me that they had all converged, from all over the world, on Charleston just for this show.
Afterward, as we filed out, the man sitting next to me said, “Will we see you at the Empty Glass?”
“The what?” I asked.
“The Empty Glass. It’s a bar. That’s where the after party is.”
I soon found that the Empty Glass is a dive in the truest, best sense of the word. The floors are plywood, the chairs are mismatched and the drinks are cheap—even the local craft beers. I ordered a can of a rich, chocolately porter made just a short drive east of Charleston. The host band was already kicking out tight, funky rock songs.
Many of the Mountain Stage producers and crew shuffled in shortly after. I introduced myself to the show’s host and some of the producers. Eventually, some of the performers from Mountain stage sauntered in and took the stage with the host band. There were three fiddles, five electric guitars and the rest of the band all jamming to a classic rock song. It was some of the best live music I’ve ever heard.
“How’s your trip?” he asked. I think he already knew the answer by the grin on my face.
Let the night unfold with downtown Charleston’s nightlife.