Greenville, S.C., is best toured with your taste buds

Bob Jones University houses a vast collection of religious art.
Bob Jones University houses a vast collection of religious art.

GREENVILLE, S.C. — Someone once said, "Life is short. Eat dessert first."

Polishing off a moist slice of pineapple upside-down cake, with 20 other foodies at Soby's on the Side, the first stop on our culinary tour of Greenville, I fully appreciated that advice.

We started with dessert, but over the next three hours, we had ample opportunity to get in the other major food groups. We trooped to Devereaux's, an elegant restaurant in a century-old converted cigar factory; to The Nose Dive, a wildly popular gastropub whose motto is "where high-brows and lowlifes converge"; and to Soby's, where the building is old (a former cotton exchange) and the menu is new (as in New Southern cuisine).

Along the way, we sampled a velvety vichyssoise, a bison biscuit and a seafood sampler. When we arrived at our last stop, The Lazy Goat, with its enticing mix of Mediterranean, Moroccan and Mom's home cooking, we were ready for dessert again, this time a decadent crème brûlée with ginger snaps.

The Tuesday night culinary tour is just one example of this small (population: 60,000) South Carolina town's dedication to the pursuit of gastronomy. There are 99 restaurants in the downtown core alone, with not an Applebee's or an Olive Garden among them.

Independent restaurants include Larkin's on the River, Sassafras Southern Bistro, Nantucket Seafood, and High Cotton (an offshoot of the original in Charleston, S.C.), and nearly all are packed, even on weeknights.

There are genteel establishments, such as Brick Street Café, where you might expect ladies to peel off their gloves before nibbling their chicken salad. Then there are the less genteel, including Smoke on the Water, which bills itself as "a saucy Southern tavern," where you might expect patrons to peel off, at the very least, the labels on their beer bottles.

What has inspired this passion for cuisine? Why has Greenville joined the ranks of much larger cities — New York, New Orleans, San Francisco, Chicago — as a destination for gastronomes?

Local restaurateur Carl Sobocinski, co-founder of Greenville's annual Euphoria Festival, an extravaganza of food, wine and music, says two factors are responsible: "the diversity of dining options and a sophisticated dining public eager to take advantage of them," he says.

Greenville's food scene, however, is hardly its only attraction. Located in the picturesque Appalachian foothills, within easy driving distance of Charleston (three hours), Atlanta (two hours), Charlotte (90 minutes) and Asheville (75 minutes), the city has a colorful history.

Greenville occupies land given to the Cherokee Nation after the Treaty of 1763 ended the French and Indian War. The first white settler, Richard Pearis, opened a trading post near the Falls of the Reedy River in 1770, and during the Revolutionary War, Pearis and the Cherokee sided with the British.

Court Square in the downtown historical district dates back to 1797. Facing it is the elegant Poinsett Hotel, which opened in 1925 as the reincarnation of another hotel, Mansion House, which had been built on the site 100 years earlier.

By the start of the 20th century, Greenville had become known as the textile center of the world, thanks to the bevy of cotton mills processing South Carolina's No. 1 cash crop. The boom times didn't last long. By the 1960s, the mills had closed and the city had begun its decline.

Fast-forward 30 years to the 1990s, when a downtown renaissance was spearheaded by Max Heller, a Holocaust survivor who arrived in Greenville with one suitcase and founded a shirt emporium.

A two-time mayor and a lifelong visionary, Heller was the impetus for beautification projects including Falls Park on the Reedy River, which runs through the center of downtown, and the 28 inspirational slogans cut into the brick walkways along North Main Street.

How can you not love a city that has etched into its sidewalks daily reminders to its citizens to "do common things in an uncommon way" and to "Plan ahead: It wasn't raining when Noah built the ark."

BMW and Bob Jones

It's unnerving when a company shoves a release form under your nose, asking you to absolve it of all legal responsibility before sending you off to participate in one of its activities.

It would take more than a waiver, however, to curb the enthusiasm of visitors eager to test their mettle during the BMW Performance Drive Experience.

The BMW plant in Spartanburg, about 20 minutes from downtown Greenville, produces the company's X3 and X5 SUVs and the X6 crossover. Across the road from the plant, the BMW Performance Center lures Beemer lovers with the promise of driving nirvana.

After a safety briefing ("keep your seat belts fastened and don't text and drive at the same time"), we were divided into teams of eight, matched with a professional driver, and sent on three performance drives.

I began on the obstacle course, where car and driver must overcome hazards including desert-like dunes and a road flooded with a foot of water. Next came the autocross course, doing hot laps behind the wheel of the automotive equivalent of a Thoroughbred.

I had to leave before the final exercise, the time trials, which means I'll never know how I would have fared against the 70-something retiree and the teenager who looked barely old enough to have a driver's license.

No waiver is required for a visit to the Bob Jones University Museum and Gallery, back in Greenville, but you will need plenty of time to make your way through 30 galleries showcasing more than 400 pieces of art.

With the largest collection of religious art in the Western Hemisphere, it offers Egyptian, Greek and Roman antiquities spanning 37 centuries, and a Russian icon collection featuring pieces from the Romanov dynasty.

The major focus, however, is the Baroque period, with works by Caravaggio, Rubens and Van Dyck. The art is exhibited alongside period furniture, stained glass, tapestries and sculpture, making it easy to imagine you're in a great European cathedral rather than on a small college campus.

Throughout my tour, I overheard admiring exclamations: "Magnificent!" "Remarkable!" "Is that a Botticelli?"

'Medicinal moonshine'

Any visit to Greenville should include a leisurely stroll up and down the tree-lined main street, with its boutiques and galleries.

At the north end of Main Street, you can stop in for a tasting at the Dark Corner Distillery. Its name comes from the area of the Appalachian Mountains where two centuries ago, immigrants from England, Scotland and Ireland arrived, bringing with them their recipe for "medicinal moonshine." Their "dark corner" proved a safe place to hide from the revenuers.

Today, visitors can legally enjoy the 100-proof white lightning, awarded a silver medal at the American Distilling Institute Conference in Louisville earlier this year.

I would have awarded it a gold based on the description alone: "Sweet honeyed cornbread and delicate sweetgrass aromas, ... supple, fruity-yet-dry, medium yet full-bodied, with a tongue-warming kiss of vanilla custard, dusty straw and peppery spices, with a nice coppery tang."

At the south end of Main, bubbly biking entrepreneur Robin Bylenga runs Pedal Chic, which she began in the back of her car two years ago and which she advertises as "the first women-specific cycling shop in the Southeast."

Visitors (men included) are invited to join locals on the monthly "Spin and Sip," a leisurely cycle along the nearby Swamp Rabbit Trail, followed by a wine tasting at the shop.

Now, that's a ride worth gearing up for.