Wendy Rae Vicary and her husband didn’t expect to spend their downtown Charleston date night sitting in a Mexican restaurant in Summerville. But they were forced to abandon the hunt for their original destination — Wentworth Mansion’s Circa 1886 restaurant.
Some of Charleston’s best haunts are either intentionally hard to find or revel in their obscurity, like former watering hole Charlie’s Little Bar. But sometimes it’s hard to find even the easiest of spots when the directions involve turning off the main strips.
There’s an easy way to Circa 1886, located a short walk up Wentworth Street from the popular King Street shopping district or one block down from Rutledge Avenue. But Wendy and her husband were downtown novices. They searched and searched, even calling the restaurant, but still struggled to find the spot.
“We got so frustrated,” Wendy says. They finally gave up. “We still have the gift certificate.”
Circa owner Linn Lesesne bristles when the restaurant is called one of Charleston’s “best kept secrets.”
“You don’t want to be known as a secret,” she says. Rather than a hidden treasure, she sees the restaurant more as a local treasure. Circa gets very little walk-in business, but the food, service, and ambiance of a delicately remodeled carriage house has provided something even better than passersby: it’s brought loyal clientele. Lesesne notes last month was the restaurant’s best November in its 11 years.
Circa isn’t alone. There’s a host of places downtown that require a little more attention to directions. Some even on the busiest streets.
At nearly 200,000 square feet, with space for more than 5,000 fans, it’s hard to believe the $45 million Carolina First Arena is hard to find. But that’s the argument from school administrators. The name of the arena rests high on the front of the building, but it’s not easy to find unless you’re really looking.
The city’s Architectural Review Board refused a request last month for a small sign hanging over the sidewalk that would have included the school’s name and a digital event listing. City staff worked with the school on the smallest, least-obtrusive sign possible, but board members and downtown preservationists have reservations.
“This sign is intended to capture your attention at a distance,” says Robert Gurley, the assistant director of the Preservation Society of Charleston. “We don’t know if it’s appropriate to have a sign that captures your attention.”
Of course, the problem is that every sign is meant to capture your attention. City planners say this building should be granted an exception because large arenas like this are typically built in areas where they’re easily seen. The venue’s urban setting and an intentional setback from the road seem to camouflage the building.
But the board has asked the school to try again with a sign that’s a little less SportsCenter and a little more Charleston.
“I don’t really think we need a Dallas Cowboys scoreboard on Meeting Street,” says board member Robert DeMarco.
When the owners of Theatre 99 were looking for a new home after their last hard-to-find space on Cumberland Street, they wanted a convenient spot, but they also needed enough room for a stage, seating, and concessions. They found space above the Bicycle Shop on Meeting Street. But getting to the entrance means snaking around the lot and climbing a long flight of stairs at the back of the building.
During a recent stand-up competition, there was a persistent theme, says Theatre 99 co-founder Greg Tavares.
“Every single night at least one out-of-town comedian made a joke about walking around to the back of the building,” he says.
But Tavares notes that sometimes we put too much stock in making things easy-to-find. “People aren’t used to figuring things out,” he says. Because of that, “there’s a sense of pride in finding a place that’s a little hard to find.”
Michael Maher, the director of the city’s Civic Design Center, notes a survey a few years ago to determine what was keeping people from finding the South Carolina Aquarium. The city determined, at the time, there were roughly two dozen signs in the four blocks between Marion Square and the Aquarium pointing to the site.
“There were all of these signs, but people weren’t seeing them,” Maher says.
The lesson: Signs are expensive, so they better be effective. “If a sign isn’t effective, then its just pollution,” Maher says.
View Hard to find spots in Charleston in a larger map
Here’s a rundown of some of the sign-less or hard-to-find spots downtown:
149 Wentworth St.
They’re not the kinds of places you find as you’re walking by. This includes just about any spot off the regular peninsular routes. Also See: Queen Street Grocery, Hope and Union Coffee Co.
Go Around Back
280-B Meeting St.
Newcomers walk around the back of the building very slowly, says co-founder Brandy Sullivan. But once inside, you know you’re in for a laugh. Also See: Burns Alley Neighborhood Bar.
City Gallery @ Waterfront Park
34 Prioleau St.
There are, in fact, public restrooms downtown — people just don’t know where to look. One mission of the city’s Toilet Taskforce (not kidding) is highlighting available johns. Also See: City Hall’s swanky toilets.
Big, But No Sign
80 Broad St.
Take a green tourist to the Four Corners of Law and ask them which building is Charleston’s centuries-old City Hall. Hell, some locals may scratch their heads. Also See: White Point Gardens
Off the Beaten Path
Old City Jail
21 Magazine St.
Spooky enough, but first you have to find the place. There are no directional signs and another one you’re unlikely to stumble upon. There is a handmade sign for ghost tours, though. Also See: Old Slave Mart Museum.
The Difference a Historic Wall Makes
Carolina First Arena
301 Meeting St.
Not wanting to overpower the block, architects set the new sports area away from the street, preserving a brick wall along the sidewalk. The side effect is a building that doesn’t capture people’s attention.