By definition, Charleston may be a “small town”—just around 130,000 folks, making it the 200th most populous city in America—but its impact on the country’s food and drink scene is undeniably huge. Outside of New York City, the east coast might not have a more important culinary city at the moment, and that influence spreads into the alcohol as well. In Charleston we find a city with significant forces in the beer, cocktail, and even wine-bar world—where two of the latter such spots (FIG and McCrady’s) even snagged James Beard Award nominations last year.
Still, you’d think a town this size could only have so many dives for pro drink-slingers to recommend. But you’d be wrong. Instead, Charleston is a city teeming with service industry workers—and yes, they all have that one cherished watering hole. Mainly, that one place a little off-the-beaten path, away from the peninsula’s “hot” bars and restaurants New York writers always tout.
We asked nine of Charleston’s top bartenders where they drink when they want cold pints of High Life and warm shots of cinnamon whiskey (housemade of course). You’ll probably find them bellying up to these watering holes when they’re off the clock, watching college football, or, most importantly, avoiding fanny-packin’ tourists flocking to town on food and drink-cations.
Owner and bartender at Proof
Favorite dive bar: AC’s (467 King St; 843-577-6742, acsbar.com)
Nelson says: “It’s on King Street, right down the road from us. I don’t make it out as much as I used to with three kids and a bar now, but when I do, you can find me there some nights. There is nothing pretty about the place; and Jim and Lenny have been doing it longer and better than anyone else in the city. They have the best burger in town and serve food until 1am. I can still walk in past the college kids, professional drinkers, and a lawyer or two and get two beers and a gigantic shot in less than two minutes. I was once banned for a year when I turned 21 because I might have been drinking there under false pretenses for a long time. (That pretty much ruined my social life for that year.) I’m 41 now so, we have some history together! They have six items on the champagne list, all of them Miller High Life!” (Photo: Yelp/Adam M.)
Bartender at McCrady’s Restaurant
Favorite dive bar: Recovery Room Tavern (685 King St; 843-727-0999, recoveryroomtavern.com)
Kocak says: “Just on the outskirt of chaotic Upper King Street lies Recovery Room, my home away from home. Recently crowned the #1 seller of PBR in the world, “Rec Room” reminds me of walking into a windowless house party full of industry friends and local bar flies. This little gem is completely unpretentious, equipped with badass bartenders and a solid jukebox. Plus they serve tater tot nachos—enough said.” (Photo: recoveryroomtavern.com)
Bartender at The Gin Joint
Favorite dive bar: The Pour House (1977 Maybank Hwy; 843-571-4343, charlestonpourhouse.com)
Mahoney says: “My favorite late-night joint is The Pour House. It’s just off the peninsula about five minutes from downtown. Easily one of the the locals best-kept secrets. They have a stellar selection of local brews, a staff that knows your name and drink, a Cuban food truck in the parking lot, and the best live music venue in town. They start every night with bands on the massive back deck. At 11pm the main show starts on the inside stage. I remember one night in particular a Stevie Wonder tribute band was playing with some serious local talent on stage. Mid-set they randomly started inviting other locals up onstage for an impromptu jam session. The energy and talent in that place was incredible. I think even Stevie would have said, ‘Hot damn, that was good!'” (Photo: Yelp/Amanda P.)
Bartender at Palmetto Brewing Co.
Favorite dive bar: The Royal American (970 Morrison Dr; 843-817-6925, theroyalamerican.com)
Roth says: “I love the New Orleans-style biker bar aesthetic. Good, cheap drinks, whether it’s a local beer, a shot of house-made cinnamon whiskey, or the 32oz liquor punches. They’ve also got killer food and live music most nights.” (Photo: Facebook.com/TheRoyalAmerican)
Bartender at FIG
Favorite dive bar: Gene’s Haufbrau (817 Savannah Hwy; 843-225-4363, genes-haufbrau.com)
King says: “I am currently drinking a beer at The Griffon, one of my favorite bars in town, but Gene’s Haufbrau is my go-to dive. It’s been around since the ’50s, draws a purely local crowd since it’s not downtown, and it’s just right. Even though all I really want is a High Life and a Jameson, Gene’s has a a great beer selection—so if I wanted a killer beer, I’d be covered. The bartenders, who are also the owners, know me and have my drink waiting as soon as I walk in the door. And they keep ’em coming. Gene’s has free pool, free darts, and late-night food, too. I order the crawfish—fried with cajun mayo on the side—every time. A classic rock soundtrack plays from behind the bar (Gene’s has no juke box), and the clientele is just gritty enough to where you don’t want to talk to them. But if you do, you’ll find they are the best people on earth.” (Photo: Facebook/GenesHaufbrau)
Bartender at The Grocery
Favorite dive bar: Tattooed Moose (1137 Morrison Dr; 843-277-2990, tattooedmoose.com)
DeVenuto says: “It’s stylish and hip, but still a dive bar. They know how to pour a drink, and their duck club is not to be missed when that late night hunger strikes—it also goes great with hangovers!” (Photo: Yelp/Don P.)
Bartender at Closed for Business
Favorite dive bar: Faculty Lounge (391 Huger St; 843-203-6150, facebook.com/facultyloungechs)
Sarafin says: “It’s got the look of a bunker on the outside—no windows, no sign, and a locked door with a buzzer. Inside is a very long narrow space that has been touched up with some photos and some well-placed lights. There’s a simple beer and cocktail menu, and if you’re hungry, your options are ramen and ramen.” (Photos: Facebook/Closed4Business, Facebook/Faculty Lounge)
Brian M. Gottshalk
Bartender at The Gin Joint
Favorite dive bar: Craftsmen Tap House (12 Cumberland St; 843-577-9699, craftsmentaphouse.com)
Gottshalk says: “I think I speak for all of us [at The Gin Joint] when I say that I like to go to The Craftsmen after work (even if it’s not really a dive [in the truest sense]). Mainly because they have a really good beer selection, and beer is what I prefer after making countless cocktails all night—along with the occasional shot of Fernet.” (Photo: Facebook/CraftsmenKitchenandTapHouse)
Lead bartender at The Ordinary
Favorite dive bar: Cutty’s (227 St Philip St, 843-724-4111)
Becker says: “In our neighborhood, the truest expression of a dive bar is Cutty’s. On paper, there are almost no redeeming qualities to this place. It’s small and uncomfortable (one of the two booths has an enormous knee-basher of a tree trunk beneath the table). It’s not the cleanest (somebody’s pet snake puked the smelliest puke of all time, in the dead center of the floor, a few Fridays ago). The standards of service aren’t great (they once poured me a shot of rum that had somehow spoiled). But we love it, because it’s got everything we need: proximity and no hassle. It’s on everybody’s way home, the beer’s cold, the tequila’s cheap, and drinks are quick to arrive. It’s always busy but never crazy, so you don’t have to fight through a crowd or get elbowed by anybody. Plus they’ve got a pool table, and everybody’s got their own cigarettes. Don’t order tacos off the menu boards, though. They’re not allowed to serve food anymore. Zero stars; would highly recommend.” (Photos: outdoorlux.com, Yelp/Brian D.)