Southern Standard

When I was first introduced to Greenville, South Carolina, it was like meeting an old Southern belle. I visited friends in stately historic homes that had beautiful gardens; dined at the Poinsett Club, an elegant social club started in the 1930s in a private mansion; and sat on dark wooden pews at Christ Episcopal, the downtown church that began as a mission in 1820. It was a small town experience that reminded me of the Southern hometowns of college friends.


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Often overlooked by its other South Carolina destinations, Greenville has come into its own. And now's the time to visit

In September, Greenville is home to the second Southern Exposure, an event created by Table 301 (Soby's, Restaurant O, Devereaux's, and The Lazy Goat) owner Carl Sobocinski and platinum-award winning singer and songwriter, Edwin McCain, to benefit the Local Boys Do Good Foundation for local charities. It's billed as three days of wine, food, and music. Here's the Web site, for more info: www.southernexposuregreenville.com

When I was first introduced to Greenville, South Carolina, it was like meeting an old Southern belle. I visited friends in stately historic homes that had beautiful gardens; dined at the Poinsett Club, an elegant social club started in the 1930s in a private mansion; and sat on dark wooden pews at Christ Episcopal, the downtown church that began as a mission in 1820. It was a small town experience that reminded me of the Southern hometowns of college friends.

From that world, a new Greenville has emerged over the last decade that is exciting and fresh—a New South diva. A city once on the brink of extinction as the self-proclaimed textile capital of the world, Greenville has embarked on an ambitious revitalization plan. Now it's boomtown.

Greenville is an easy two-hour drive south on I-85. There's plenty to see once you arrive—including a zoo and a fascinating collection of works by Old Masters at Bob Jones University—but if you haven't been before, stick with Main Street. You can explore the local shops, dine at one of sixty eating establishments in the downtown area, stroll through a beautifully landscaped park along the Reedy River, and then catch an afternoon minor league baseball game. Walking is easy and the many black iron benches along the street provide relaxing places to sit and people-watch. If you get a mid-afternoon craving, I love the locally made chocolate-covered graham crackers at Carolina Chocolates or the French pastries at Paris Cafe, owned by a Parisian. Lots of trees and well-maintained shrubs keep the busy sidewalks shady and cool, and colorful banners flutter overhead, welcoming visitors. If you walk from one end to the other, you can hop on a free trolley afterwards that will take you back to where you started.

West End Field is at one end of Main Street past the shops; it's the new baseball park that opened last year for Greenville's minor league team, the Greenville Drive. Adam Sadler, a former college baseball player who is in charge of the team's ticket sales, showed me around this jewel of a park. Built mostly of brick with black lampposts lining the entry, the park's seating is close to the field and the sections are small—you won't find more than fifteen rows of seats to a section. Designed to bring fans in on the game, it was modeled after the legendary Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox, which is the team's affiliate. My favorite spot is the grill deck just beyond first base. For five dollars you can watch the game from this fun location and grab some grub while you're at it.

The park is shouting distance from downtown and on hot summer nights, the bright stadium lights backlight the city. Greenville has a long history of incubating some well-known figures in the big leagues, including Shoeless Joe Jackson who got his start here as a teenager on a textile-mill team. His modest brick home stands across the street, and plans are in the making to turn it into a museum.

Back on Main Street, you'll find it jammed with homegrown eating establishments—from the swanky Restaurant O to the down-and-dirty Hot Dog King—and at its nexus with the river is the Peace Center, a large performing arts center offering concerts, theater, opera, and dance. Shops interrupt the dining scene. Monkee's, the shoe boutique, sells sparkly footwear, and Rush Wilson Ltd. offers handsome clothes for men by Burberry and Robert Talbott. Don't get too serious, though. O. P. Taylor's is a must-stop for kids' toys and I like the ice cold drinks in glass bottles, puzzles, wind chimes, and barrels of candy at Mast General Store. For kitchen gear, don't miss the Cook's Station—I bought a Kuhn Rikon vegetable slicer and some pressed-glass sherbet dishes on my last visit there, all reasonably priced.

If you have children with you, plan to explore the Falls Park in the middle of Main. Kids love to reach into the waters spilling off the shelf-like base of the falls sculpture at the entrance. Inside, a wide pedestrian bridge spans the crashing falls—its bold design looks like a big Frank Gehry grin. You can walk out over the falls on this daring arc of a bridge to look at the river and the cascading terraces of stone-edged gardens with standing-room only flowers, shrubs, and benches. Down along the water, new buildings have sprung up and old ones have been reclaimed, including artists' studios, offices, hotels, a restored warehouse made into a pavilion, and restaurants. A sidewalk along the water's edge takes you past these places, as well as by curving green lawns and new waterfalls.

Greenville has rewritten the handbook on what it means to be a New South city. For too long this Southern belle let the suburbs drive her car. Now they're in the back seat where they belong and this diva is behind the wheel. Main Street is her destination, and it's a pink-Cadillac ride all the way.

Where to Eat

The tree-lined heart of Main is packed with restaurants. Locals love those started by Carl Sobocinski, a Clemson University architecture student who got hooked on food while working as a busboy at one of the country clubs. Sobocinski has two restaurants on Main Street (Restaurant O and Soby's) and two on side streets off Main (Soby's on the Side and Devereaux's). I heard from my nephew, who works at O, that George Clooney was a regular this past year while filming Leatherheads, a romantic comedy he directs and stars in. Restaurant O is an upscale steak place and Soby's serves New American cuisine in an open warehouse setting. Soby's food is good—I recommend the chicken fried beef tenderloin with white pepper gravy—but be prepared for a lot of racket from the pounding of waiters' feet on the wide plank floors. Imagine a small-town version of the Harper's Restaurant Group and you'll have an idea of what the Sobocinski restaurants are like.

There are plenty of chains on Main, including Sticky Fingers and the Atlanta Bread Company. High Cotton, out of Charleston, recently opened a place by the river. One of my favorite boutique spots is the delightful Paris Cafe and Bakery, owned by a Parisian and her Canadian husband. They use their delicious fresh bread for sandwiches, including my favorite, the croque-monsieur. If you need a chocolate fix, be sure to make it to the north end of Main for the smooth and creamy chocolates made in-house at Carolina Chocolates.

Time to Spare?

If you have time to spare, you can visit the Greenville County Museum of Art a few blocks over on College Street. The Andrew Wyeth collection covers his entire career, and other recent exhibitions have highlighted the works of Jasper Johns and William H. Johnson, both native sons. If you're up for a ride to go shopping, head for Augusta Road, which splits from Main before West End Field. The Galleries of Brian Brigham is a rambling antiques store in a nineteenth-century mansion that has some pretty porcelain. I've heard the restaurant behind the shop serves a good lunch. Further out Augusta Road is Capers Place, a small collection of boutiques that includes luxury linens at The Finer Things, hip clothes at Savvy: Retail Therapy, and pretty stationery at Gage's. Come back to earth with a chili cheeseburger plate half-and-half (half fries, half onion rings) at Como's Pete's #4. High school kids have been scarfing down the fries and burgers at this family-run Italian restaurant since the 1950s. "We're like South 21," Nick Como, manager and son of one of the owners, told me, referring to Charlotte's burger joint drive-in. You'll be tanked up and ready for your departure, and in just the right frame of mind to chortle at the Gaffney Peachoid on your return ride home.

Where to Stay

The Westin's classy Poinsett Hotel is right on Main. Built during the height of the luxury-driven 1920s, it boasts gleaming marble floors, grand windows, and high ceilings. If you want something more modern, the new Riverplace Hampton Inn is on the water and features a comfy decor that reminds me of Pottery Barn crossed with Southern Living.

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(in order of appearance)


Laurie Prince writes the Life Lines column for this magazine, which appears every other month.
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