Big John’s Tavern
Downtown. 251 East Bay St. 723-3483
I hated Charleston for a few moments when I first moved here. This city was hot. My car air-conditioner was broken. I didn’t have anywhere to live. I was lost, nervous. And the roaches bothered me.
After two weeks of couch-crashing and Carolina exploring, I parked my car outside the Lord Anson Arms apartment building to unpack. Stepping out of my Honda, I looked up to the right and saw this miserable-looking, maroon-painted building with the words “Big John’s” written in white on its side. I smiled.
I was the newest next-door neighbor to the antithesis of a clean, well-lit place. I immediately knew that I had found my safe spot in a city full of khaki slacks.
A few hours later, I put on a slightly revealing shirt and went to Big John’s with some Kentucky girls. The car was finally empty and I wanted a cold beer.
Walking into Big John’s, I sat down on the cushioned bar stool to rest my elbows on the bar, and nodded in satisfaction at all the stuff covering the walls and the old guy sitting alone, smoking, and kind of chuckling to himself for no apparent reason.
There’s a lot to nod at in Big John’s: sports memorabilia, license plates, dozens of weathered employee nametags tacked to a wall, cheap PBR cans, a couple of bras hanging on whatever a bra can hang from, and the huge gong the bartenders strike after a good tip.
The first time I went, there were no more than 10 people playing pool or just drinking around the bar. I remember the bartender coming over to us, smiling, being just as nice as could be. I asked him what “Youngling” was, and he corrected my pronunciation. Embarrassed, I introduced myself, telling him I was his new regular.
Turns out the guy laying napkins on the bar was Chris Condon, the owner.
Then he did what all good bartenders do — he got us drunk and asked us questions about life. He told us about his bar. There was another owner before Condon, and before that, ex-New York Giant “Big John” Cannady ran the show. He opened his bar in 1955. Apparently, Big John was a good guy who helped everyone, and the crew at Big John’s is wonderful like Cannady supposedly was. Because of the staff, it’s more than a hole in the wall. It’s the hole in the wall.
I went back to Big John’s that next night, and the night after that, too. I wasn’t embarrassed that my friend Dana had showed her boobs for a free shirt to mail her dad. I knew this no-frills bar had seen its share of boobs, and I needed a place where I could pretend like I was still in college.
For me, Charleston wouldn’t be Charleston without the black hole that is Big John’s. It’s an establishment. It’s old enough to be my dad.
It’s sucked me in. It’s my bar. I’m a lifer. (Don’t tell my parents. They think it’s a bar for immoral people who show their boobs).