Sunday, November 05, 2006

Lunch on Daniel Island

Daniel Island, South Carolina, has always struck me as a curious place. A planned-community built upon New Urbanism ideas, it's an unusual mix of traditional architecture, progressive planned-development ideas, and conspicuous consumption. I never know quite how I feel about the place. On the one hand, it's quite beautiful, from the natural landscape to the charming Charleston-style houses (see the Daniel Island real-estate web site for examples). On the other hand, the house prices are insane and make a mockery of the planners' stated goal of creating "a variety of housing options for people at various income levels." (Unless, of course, by "various" they really meant everything from "well-off" all the way to "fabulously rich".)

It's also built on an old swamp and is mosquito infested.

I lived on Daniel Island (in an apartment) when I first moved to Charleston. And, for the better part of the last five years, I've worked there. My overall conclusion is that, based upon this brave New Urban experiment, the planners and theorists need to go back to the drawing board and figure out how any place created with "humane urban design" could end up without any good places to eat lunch.

This doesn't mean there aren't any restaurants on Daniel Island. And it doesn't mean that there aren't any fancy places to buy lunch. There are, in my view, far too many of these. I would just prefer a little less "fancy" and a little more "good".

I won't name any names, because it's not the fault of any one particular restaurant. Maybe the rents are too high to support my type of lunch joint. Or maybe the Island's residents and employees are too classy to patronize such places. Rather than pick on one, let's roll them all together into one composite business--call it McSnoot's Cafe & Bistro--and address them as a genre.

When you enter McSnoot's, you notice it's a nice room. A good heavy door, lots of windows, tasteful art on the wall. There's no linoleum on the floor or vinyl-covered booths--all hardwoods and tile and solid wood furniture. And there's no long queue of patrons waiting to order at the counter. You pick your seat--whichever one you'd like, usually, since McSnoot's is rarely at full capacity, even during peak lunch hours.

The menu is nicely printed on thick, decorative paper, and has only a small number of options--soups and sandwiches mostly. But, don't worry. These aren't run-of-the-mill ham and turkey sandwiches. That wouldn't be "Island Living." You can expect your reuben to come on ciabatta instead of plain old rye, and with a blue-cheese coleslaw subsituted for the sauerkraut. And nothing dresses up a turkey sandwich like some alfalfa sprouts and brie cheese.

One note: please don't ask your waiter for a Coke. McSnoot's doesn't carry soft drinks, but they do have a fine selection of spiced teas and freshly-squeezed juices (for $2.25 a glass--quite reasonable for a lunch beverage.) Sip that spiced tea slowly, for you'll probably only see your waiter about once every fifteen minutes. There are six other tables in the cafe, after all. But, all in all, they'll get you in and out in no more than an hour-and-fifteen minutes--not bad for your typical lunch break. Lunch for two, with a tip for the rather bored waitperson, will run you
about 26 bucks. It's hard to beat island living.

This is the New Urbanism's version of downtown, but I'll take the old version. My happiest lunches were when I worked on Main Street in downtown Columbia. My wife worked downtown, too--about four blocks away--and we would walk from our offices and meet at one of the nearby restaurants and have a delightful lunch. And we had lots to choose from--hamburger joints, pizza spots, Japanese, Italian, fried chicken, you name it. Eddie's was the quentissential burger joint, and they hand battered their onion rings with a secret process that involved multiple dippings and soakings over 24 hours. Tony's, a tight little spot in the basement of an office building, served chicken lasagne in a creamy bechamel which would make your whole afternoon bright.

These lunch spots were dumpy, with old posters on the wall and lots of greasy smoke in the air. And they were crowded, too, turning as many patrons in 15 minutes as a Daniel Island eatery is likely to serve all day. And you'd be rubbing elbows and bumping knees with a wide range of people--bankers in suits, nurses in scrubs, utility workers in muddle coveralls, and batty old ladies out shopping for wigs. And we would walk away all told for about $10 bucks for the two of us. And, boy, was the food delicious.

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