The theater trailblazers retreat to Avondale after the curtain falls on Queen Street
Brian Porter and Kyle Barnette walking with their pup, Oscar
Kyle Barnette and Brian Porter aren’t afraid to shake things up. Since their meet-cute in 2003 during stints at Memphis’ famed Playhouse on the Square, they’ve routinely asked themselves, “What if?” As in, what if they brought boundary-pushing shows to the historically genteel Holy City? “We said to ourselves, ‘If we’re going to make a splash, we’re either going to tank because Charleston doesn’t want this kind of theater, or we’re going to find out that it’s ready,” recalls Porter.
Soon after, he donned a platinum wig and mini skirt for the eponymous role in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the premier performance of What If? Productions, which he and Barnette founded in 2010. Turning patrons away at the door, they learned that Charleston was indeed ready, over the years offering shows such as The Legend of Georgia McBride, Hair, and 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche.
In the heart of Avondale on Savannah Highway, a dilapidated thrift store was transformed into the retro-styled Victory building, housing shops and restaurants, such as Poke Burri.
These days, Porter is the executive director of Footlight Players at Queen Street Playhouse, and Barnette, who in February left his 10-year post as executive director of the Charleston Horticultural Society, is now Footlight’s artistic director. The couple lived downtown for years, but they wanted a larger space for their dogs (sadly, two have since passed, but two-year-old golden retriever Oscar keeps them company) and more of a community feel—the kind of place where you could run next door to borrow a cup of sugar. “You wouldn’t do that downtown,” Porter deadpans. In 2013, they set their sights on Avondale, the artsy, family-friendly enclave west of the Ashley.
While they continue to transform the downtown theater scene—the current production is A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder (through May 8)—shop talk is banned at home. “If we start, we stop each other,” Barnette says. Instead, they take walks with Oscar. They smile and wave to their neighbor Shirley. And they borrow the occasional cup of sugar.
Porter and Barnette spent a recent sunny morning on the patio at Highfalutin Coffee Roasters (27 Magnolia Rd., highfalutin.coffee), chatting about their favorite ways to while away time in the neighborhood.
(Left) Alfresco seating at Avondale Wine & Cheese, (right) Sushi Ninja fare at Oak Barrel Tavern
Porter’s go-to is Triangle Char & Bar (828 Savannah Hwy., trianglecharandbar.com), Avondale’s bustling indoor/outdoor hub. He can’t get enough of the chicken or brisket tacos and loves the playful, colorful space and friendly bartenders and managers. “I like Cheers-style environments, where people know your name; they know what you like to eat and drink,” he says.
Defying typecasting, the typically extroverted Barnette would rather be across the street quietly feasting on the “krab” salad, dynamite roll, or chirashi bowl at Sushi Ninja at Oak Barrel Tavern (825-B Savannah Hwy., facebook.com/oakbarreltavern). “I’m not very chatty at restaurants,” he says. The unlikely sushi joint with the apt slogan, “good beers, okay wine, great sushi,” is intimate and wonderfully weird, says Barnette. Porter recalls a night when the bartender played a didgeridoo. “It’s like, ‘Where am I?’” he laughs.
They do agree on where to head after late rehearsals: Gene’s Haufbrau (817 Savannah Hwy., genes.beer) for chicken tenders, crawfish bites, “amazing” fries, and $5 GrandMa (Grand Marnier) shots, says Barnette. They stick to weeknights, though, when they’re more likely to run into neighbors than hordes of college students.
A few doors down, Avondale Wine & Cheese (813-B Savannah Hwy., avondalewc.hrpos.heartland.us/menu) is where they meet potential directors or business associates. “It’s a good place to have a glass of wine, some charcuterie, and a little discussion,” says Porter. And both contend that Pearlz Oyster Bar (9 Magnolia Rd., pearlzoysterbar.com) has the best happy hours and fried shrimp.
Down the road at Mex 1 Coastal Cantina (817 St. Andrews Blvd., mex1coastalcantina.com), “the spice that they put in their crispy tacos ... Oh, it’s so good!” Barnette raves. “I’m going to get it today.” But he wavers at the mention of Nirlep Indian Restaurant (908 Savannah Hwy. #7802, nirlepindianrestaurant.com). “Now, I want to go there,” he says. Barnette was a regular at Nirlep’s lunch buffet before leaving the nearby Horticultural Society.
When they’re craving Greek, they head to Platia (platiagreekfood.com), a food truck with a tent and outdoor tables next to The Schoolhouse co-working space and event venue (720 Magnolia Rd.). Barnette suggests working through the menu, as everything is delicious. He also likes the newest addition to the neighborhood, Poke Burri (835 Savannah Hwy., pokeburri.com), which serves up poke bowls and sushi doughnuts. “It’s nice and fresh and healthy and delicious,” Barnette says.
Charles Towne Fermentory offers some 14 brews on its rotating taproom menu, as well as wine, cider, and nonalcoholic options.
Every morning on his way to work, Porter stops into Highfalutin Coffee Roasters, which has quickly developed a fan base throughout the Lowcountry for its flavorful beans. “I really like the coffee,” Porter says. “But I also like supporting a locally owned establishment.”
They also love that they can do just about anything in Avondale within a few-block radius. There’s a milliner, a psychic, and multiple banks, grocery stores, and auto shops. Among the surprising number of salons, Barnette is partial to Magen Healey at Strawberry Blonde (29 Magnolia Rd., strawberryblondesalon.com), where he picks up the Bumble and bumble products that fill their bathroom shelves.
For coffee with a kick, they head to Gibby’s Bottle Shop (975 Savannah Hwy. #139, gibbysbottleshop.com), which carries Early Bird Coffee vodka from Cannon Distillery, a former Avondale shop slated to reopen on James Island. “It’s to die for,” Barnette says.
On Wednesdays from April to November, they stop by the West Ashley Farmers Market (55 Sycamore Ave., facebook.com/westashleyfarmersmarket), where local farmers, craftspeople, and specialty food vendors set up shop from 3 to 7 p.m.
Porter and Barnette take Oscar to Ackerman Dog Park (55 Sycamore Ave.) to play with his friends twice a week. They also stroll through the park fields and down the street behind The Schoolhouse.
It’s hard to miss the neon “Victory” sign in the center of Avondale. It marks a row of new shops including Poke Burri and the upcoming SweatHouz (835 Savannah Hwy., sweathouz.com). “You can go and detox and relax,” Barnette says. “I can’t wait!” He loves the way the building, which formerly housed a cavernous thrift store, has been transformed from something that “looked like it was about to fall apart” into “this cool, retro place.”
Another way they relax is over the refreshing ales at Charles Towne Fermentory (809 Savannah Hwy., chsfermentory.com). The lively craft brewery features a regular rotation of pop-up chefs and trivia nights.
And while they have no desire to participate, they like to cheer on the runners at the Avondale 5K (avondale5k.com), sponsored each fall by the Triangle Char & Bar and emceed by Lava Salon (811 Savannah Hwy., Ste. B, lavasalon.com) owner Geoff Richardson. “I don’t understand people who enjoy running,” Porter says. “But we love that it’s here.”
(Left) Bountiful beds at Magnolia Park and Community Garden, (right) The entrance to nearby Charles Towne Landing
Richardson also created one of Avondale’s defining features—the chART Outdoor Initiative & Gallery, an open-air exhibit with murals that transform the walls behind the shops on Alycia Alley into a massive canvas. Barnette also appreciates the rotating murals on the side of DB’s Cheesesteaks (2 Avondale Ave., dbscheesesteaks.com), as well as the cheeseburgers inside.
When they want to take part in the artistry of Mother Nature, Porter and Barnette head to the picturesque Magnolia Park and Community Garden (720 Magnolia Rd., charlestonparksconservancy.org), which leases private plots and donates harvests from community beds to local food pantries.
The guys routinely take walks with Oscar throughout Avondale and at nearby Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site (1500 Old Towne Rd., southcarolinaparks.com/charles-towne-landing), where settlers first arrived in Charleston in 1670. It features a museum, 80 acres of gardens, a natural habitat zoo, and miles of historical nature trails. “It’s just a very relaxing vibe,” Barnette says.
For longer nature walks, they head to the West Ashley Greenway, a former rail line that stretches for nearly eight miles past fields, creeks, and marshes. When Barnette worked at the Horticultural Society, he partnered with St. Andrew’s School of Math and Science (30 Chadwick Dr., ccsdschools.com/standrews) to create a pollinator garden. “It’s a little secret gem right off the Greenway,” he shares.
The nearby West Ashley Bikeway, which runs parallel to the Greenway to Higgins Pier (near Main Street and Chickadee Avenue), offers a hidden panorama perfect for watching the sun sink over the Ashley River.
While Brian Porter and Kyle Barnette erect a strict boundary between home and work, the stage plays a central role in their neighborhood’s history. The Mellow Mushroom (19 Magnolia Rd., mellowmushroom.com) building was once a movie theater, as evidenced by its cinema-themed décor. Construction of Avondale—conceived as a live, work, play community from the start—began in the 1930s but languished during World War II. The area housed a prisoner of war camp, using detainees to farm land and dig ditches while able-bodied men were off fighting. Once soldiers returned home, there was a resurgence of development, which paved the way for the Avondale of today. “People don’t realize how deep our history is here,” says historian and author Donna Jacobs, who lives in neighboring Byrnes Downs.