Weekend Away

Urban Wonderland

The Madcap gents hightail it to bustling Greenville

By Jason Oliver Nixon

Recently, at High Point Market, John and I ran into a Greenville native and friend and, over drinks, we discussed the state of downtown HP.

“You think downtown High Point struggles,” our pal said. “Greenville was worse back in the day. Twenty years ago, you just wouldn’t go to most of downtown. And now it’s really breathtaking. The restaurants, the shopping, the river walk and access to nature . . .”

Intrigued, John and I did our homework. Once the self-proclaimed textile capital of the world, Greenville, S.C., languished for decades when fabric firms moved overseas. Happily, a visionary urban revitalization master plan kicked off in the 1990s and continues to transform this once-uncut gem into the poster child for what a small-scale city downtown can become. Families love it. Foodies love it. BMW has its international manufacturing HQ here. Find Michelin’s U.S. headquarters there, too. It’s super walkable, super dog friendly. Heaps of nature make hiking and biking ideal. Expect loads of art galleries and working artist studios. Furman University. Cultural venues that range from the Children’s Museum of the Upstate to the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum, plus a world-class performing arts center. And a smattering of charming, newly spruced-up towns surrounding the city make for great day trips.

So on a crisp late fall afternoon, John and I piled into the Subaru and set sail for the three-hour drive to this mythical city in the northwest corner of South Carolina. We left the pups behind.

Home base for the weekend was The Westin Poinsett, a historic, 12-story property smack in the middle of Main Street’s hustle and bustle.

The Poinsett has had a seesaw history since its 1925 opening. After decades as a glittering hostelry it eventually morphed into a retirement home. And then, in the late 1970s/early 1980s, it was abandoned and regularly vandalized. Now, in a beige-on-beige sort of way, the Poinsett sparkles anew after its late 1990s restoration.

Speaking of hotel design, downtown Greenville lacks a good one-off boutique hotel: It’s all Hyatt Place and Aloft (perfect for folks with dogs), Hilton and Hampton Inn. Fortunately, a sleek AC Hotel by Marriott will soon open just down from the Poinsett, and construction of the high-style Grand Bohemian Greenville, perfectly situated at the base of Reedy River Falls, approaches completion.

Checked in, John and I hightailed it for sunset cocktails at the stylish UP on the Roof bar situated, incongruously, atop the Embassy Suites downtown. We wanted a birds-eye view to kick off the weekend festivities, and that’s just what we got. John and I sipped artisanal cocktails and took in the stunning vistas of downtown and the surrounding mountains.

After drinks, we walked a few blocks to Urban Wren, a newly opened eatery tucked into an urban neighborhood blossoming with brand-new lofts next to the still-busy Norfolk Southern tracks. Think an interesting, slightly vexing menu that travels from Italy to Asia and India with a few stops in between. Pair the far-flung menu with cement floors and an edgy Brooklyn vibe that caters to a young, stylish, and, apparently, moneyed crowd.

“Wow, $44 for salmon,” I blurted.

John harrumphed and commented on how packed the restaurant was. Jammed, in fact.

Even during a pandemic, the Greenville restaurant scene bristles with electricity. And residents are truly passionate — and vocal — about their dining-out likes and dislikes.

A Greenville friend checked in, “You have to go to ASADA and Fork and Plough. And you must have cocktails at EXILE and the Swordfish (Cocktail) Club. You will love Willy Taco Feed & Seed and Bar Margaret. And lunch at Afghan restaurant Aryana is a must. Have a glass of rosé and the pickled beet and pear salad at Passerelle Bistro overlooking the falls to take in the view but be sure to get off the beaten path — there are so many amazing options further afield.”

And so John and I mapped out a plan.

Saturday morning kicked off with superlative pastries and lavender-scented lattes at French-owned Le Petit Croissant cafe and from there we walked Main Street to the baseball stadium and back across the Reedy River.

The transformation of Falls Park on the Reedy is the crown jewel of the city’s impressive revitalization. Once all but hidden by a 1960s-era highway bridge, the stunning, mist-kissed falls are now part of a vast river walk that is populated with walkers and bikers who enjoy the numerous cafes and shops and taking in the views from the architecturally stunning pedestrian-only Liberty Bridge.

We stopped at the wonderful M. Judson Booksellers next to the Poinsett, explored Mast General Store, and popped into superlative men’s store Rush Wilson Limited. The sidewalks were bustling.

“It’s so nice to see so many people out and about,” mentioned John. “It almost feels ‘normal.’”

After exploring downtown, we hopped into the car and visited the buzzy parking lot sale at The Rock House Antiques. We stopped at the Hampton Station dining and entertainment complex and considered lunch al fresco but realized we were perhaps too old for the man bun and tattoos/ax throwing/mac and cheese scene. Instead, we visited the charming Greer, a vest pocket-sized town that, like Greenville, has been lavished with much urban-planning love. We were smitten with the blocks-long burg, explored Plunder for antiques and lunched upon crepes at Barista Alley. We drove to the nearby Hotel Domestique, a Provençal-style inn that caters especially to cyclists, and ogled the stonework and postcard-perfect nature views at the 1820s-era Poinsett Bridge.

We stopped in the town of Travelers Rest, an epicurean’s delight at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains just outside Greenville. So many restaurants! Driving back into town, we stopped for dinner at the James Beard-nominated working farm-cum-eatery Oak Hill Café and lapped up a terrific local cheese plate and duck confit with spaetzle.

Sunday morning was languid and began with a Tuscan-inspired lunch on the balcony at Main Street’s Jianna, where a glass of montepulciano paired perfectly with spot-on people watching and a shared plate of pasta.

Phone buzzing, it was our Greenville friend texting a slew of other restaurant and must-visit ideas.

“You need to meet artist Joseph Bradley. Try the cheese at Blue Ridge Creamery. Brunch at Topsoil. And I think you’d like the lunch counter at the Pickwick Pharmacy.”

Ah, so much to see, so little time. And so many reasons for a return visit.

With that in mind, John and I turned off our phones and spent the afternoon on the river walk with a picnic blanket and a pile of books and magazines.

The distant roar of the falls only added to the bliss.  PS

The Madcap Cottage gents, John Loecke and Jason Oliver Nixon, embrace the new reality of COVID-friendly travel — heaps of road trips.

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