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An Eater's Guide to Charleston

Eater logo Eater 2/28/2019 Erin Perkins
a pizza sitting on top of a table

Unofficial, highly opinionated information about the Holy City

Charleston celebrates, and almost worships, the bounty of its surroundings: from freshly-caught blue crabs to grains milled on nearby Edisto Island. The city by the sea sits below the Sandhills, the original coastline of the ancient seas across the Carolinas, and is therefore often referred to as the "Lowcountry." So when you hear those words, you'll know you're in the midst of a culinary landscape like no other. Use this guide to seek out the best Charleston has to offer.

Welcome to the Lowcountry

A variety of influences from Europe, West Africa, and the West Indies combine to create the Lowcountry flavor that permeates this quaint, history-steeped Southern city. Local recipes undisputedly owe a debt of gratitude to the influence of slaves indentured in the kitchens and rice fields early in the city's history. These families worked with products from the marshlands and sea to create a taste that remains uniquely Charleston, punctuated by a richness of spices from kitchen gardens and colonial trade. Dishes may have slightly evolved over time, but standard ingredients like oysters, rice, okra, crabs, and grits are still as prevalent as they were centuries ago. Today, the Holy City tries to balance the past with the present. A few old-school Southern haunts meet an excitement of newcomers.

When visiting Charleston, know that seafood is a must. The view from many rooftop bars will give you a front-row seat to the famous pink-hued sunsets. And oysters should start as many meals as possible — with a few cocktails too, of course.

As far as single food items go: try okra soup from Bertha's Kitchen, chicken liver pâté from FIG, roasted oysters from Bowen's Island, fried chicken from Martha Lou's, garlic crabs from Nana's Seafood and Soul, and the bacon-laden burger at Husk.

Where to Start on Eater Charleston's Best Maps

Eater puts out tons of maps detailing the top places and things to eat and drink in Charleston. Below, we pull the top one or two points on the most popular maps to help time-starved eaters prioritize which spots to visit.

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Get lost on the idyllic streets after your meal. [Photo: Shutterstock]

Hot Restaurant: The hottest of the hot, right now, is Babas on Cannon.

Essential Restaurant: If you need to narrow down the Essential 38, reserve a coveted spot at FIG and taste a farm-to-table Lowcountry trailblazer. Also, save a meal for Hannibal's to sample traditional Gullah/Geechee dishes. (If you're not sure what that last part means, see the Glossary below.)

Brunch: The volume of champagne bottles popping on Sundays could almost drown out all the church bells. Locals love their mimosas, bloodies, and brunch. If the lines are too long at Hominy Grill for the Charleston Nasty (also defined in the Glossary below), sneak over to French-influenced Chez Nous for a decidedly un-Southern, yet still quintessentially Charleston, experience.

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Husk Shrimp and Grits. [Photo: Bill Addison]

Shrimp and Grits: Choosing a favorite shrimp and grits place is a bit like choosing a favorite child — no one comes out happy. On the fancy end, you have Husk, and on the more humble end, you have Marina Variety Store. Both offer exemplary versions of this signature Charleston dish.

Oysters: Bowen's Island makes for the ultimate oyster roast experience, while The Ordinary is hard to beat for towers of raw mollusks with perfect mignonette. If a good deal is more important, check this map.

Bars: Find amazing cocktails in a chill atmosphere at The Belmont, also a decent starting point on the Essential Bars map.

Beer: If you only go to one Lowcountry brewery, stop by Coast Brewing to thank co- owners Jaime Tenny and David Merritt for helping to lead the way for South Carolina to have craft beers.

Charleston Food Neighborhoods to Know

These are the key areas of the city every self-proclaimed food person needs to get acquainted with — complete with what to eat and drink in each.

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Oh, Charleston, you're so pretty. [Photo: Shutterstock]

Downtown Charleston measures about four miles from top to bottom, so while there are plenty of great eating pockets in each neighborhood, we've divided the peninsula into groups that are within easy traveling distance from one another.

South of Calhoun

These are the well-traveled, historic neighborhoods of Charleston where carriage tours roam: French Quarter, Harleston Village, South of Broad, Ansonborough, and Lower King. You'll spot some of the oldest architecture here. Take time to walk by The Battery in between meals and gawk at some of the biggest mansions in the Holy City along the water and around White Point Garden.

Start your day with a crepe from Queen Street Grocery. If it's nice enough to sit outside, you can observe the carriage tours and learn a little history. Delight in fresh oysters, lobster rolls, and rosé for lunch after a stroll to 167 Raw. During dinner, splurge on the tasting menu at McCrady's, or go more casual with a plate of tacos at Minero. If you're still standing, end the night at longtime dive The Griffon for a round of darts and chef sightings. If beer bars aren't your thing, head over to The Gin Joint for a sophisticated cocktail.

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Upper King [Photo: Erin Perkins]

North of Calhoun

With affordable rents in the early aughts, Upper King quickly became a hot spot for local entrepreneurs to try out newfangled restaurant ideas and for rising chefs to finally have their own space. The real estate market rose quickly, and the restaurants spread into the nearby neighborhoods of Cannonborough/Elliotborough, Radcliffeborough, Mazyck-Wraggborough, and Eastside.

a bowl of salad © Provided
Ramen at Warehouse

Visit the heavenly scented bakery Brown's Court for a croissant and cappuccino. Lunch is a tough decision: for Asian soul food, hit up Xiao Bao Biscuit; for hip diner food visit The Rarebit; for fried fish goodness stop by Dave's Carry-Out. If you didn't make reservations on Upper King for dinner, veer from the foot traffic into Warehouse for a new ramen menu. Looking for a late night spot? Haul a cab over to Bar Mash for Negroni Jell-O shots and one of the best jukeboxes around.

Above The Crosstown

In the past three years, this region of the city has emerged as another frontier of innovation due to cheaper rents. If you're staying downtown, you could possibly walk to spots in North Central and Wagener Terrace, but NoMo is a trudge. If it's hot and you'd rather not risk crossing a multi-lane highway on foot, grab a bike or fire up a ride sharing app.

Avocado toast and Springbok coffee at The Daily make for a good way to start the day. For lunch, relax with a plate of chargrilled oysters and fried chicken on Leon's patio. During happy hour, allow the fine staff at Edmund's Oast to pour you a creative cocktail or a hard-to-find beer from its massive collection. Have a few snacks at Edmund's, like the pickled shrimp on rye toast, and then walk next door for a Mediterranean-influenced feast at Butcher & Bee's updated location.

a pizza sitting on top of a table
Pork Trifecta and pimento cheese — you must be in the South. [Photo: EVO]

North Charleston

North Charleston may not have the scenic landscape of downtown Charleston, but it's a must-visit for its diversity of cuisines. It can be overwhelming to traverse through the chain restaurants, but mom-and-pop places can be found in between. The burgeoning neighborhood of Park Circle is an easy start, but the best way to explore North Charleston is to check out this map of places to hit between downtown and the CHS Airport. Amazing tacos and Vietnamese fare await. If you're not on the way to catch a flight, put your name in for a table at EVO Pizzeria and wait across the street at hip wine bar Stems & Skins for a few glasses from the esoteric labels and interesting small plates. Once your table is ready at EVO, be sure to order the Pork Trifecta.

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Watch the boats go by in Mount Pleasant. [Photo: Shutterstock]

Mount Pleasant

Mount Pleasant is suburbia. Yoga moms hang out at Whole Foods, and everyone drives SUVs — ok, not really, but you'll see a lot of that here. Stop by H&R Sweet Shop in the Old Village for lunch — with $4.75 burgers and dollar hot dogs, it's an experience from another decade. Grab a few cocktails at Tavern & Table to watch the sunset, and then head Kanpai for some of the best sushi in the Lowcountry.

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Start with oysters at The Obstinate Daughter [Photo: OD]

Sullivan's Island

Due to proximity to Mount Pleasant, Sullivan's Island is a preppy, family-friendly version of a Southern beach. If you're coming off the beach at Sullivan's, stop by Home Team BBQ for smoked wings and a frozen Gamechanger. If you've cleaned all the sand off yourself, pop in The Obstinate Daughter for seafood-heavy Italian fare.

West Ashley

Full of traffic and strip malls, at first look, West Ashley may leave a bit to be desired, but if you know how to navigate the highway, there are some gems. Early Bird Diner meets your morning needs for home-cooking. Boxcar Betty's will feed you one of the best fried chicken sandwiches around for lunch. Glass Onion serves local, Southern staples for dinner. Voodoo Lounge is there if you want to get freaky with tiki drinks.

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Makes you want to dip your toes in. [Photo: Shutterstock]

Folly Beach

Tattooed bohemians with a penchant for surfing will feel welcome at Folly Beach. You're bound to get hungry after some time in the ocean. At Folly, you'll find intriguing menus far from the traditional hot dogs and crab cracks. Stop by Jack of Cups for a bowl of $9 Japanese, Indian, and Thai curries or Chico Feo for curry goat. Folly knows how to keep it interesting.

Johns Island/James Island/Kiawah

How far would you like to stray from downtown? Crust Wood-Fired Pizza makes for a casual dinner before or after a film at the Terrace Theater on James Island. If you're headed to Johns Island, stop off at whisky-centric cocktail bar Seanachai before hitting Wild Olive for dinner. If you're looking to drop some major coin, keep driving to Kiawah for fine dining at The Ocean Room.

Charleston Glossary of Terms

Lowcountry:

A geographic region along the coast of South Carolina, the term "Low Country" originally included all portions of the state below the Sandhills. Today, Lowcountry refers more specifically to the region hugging the coast, including the islands.

Lowcountry Boil:

If you're a local, you know how to make this dish of corn, shrimp, sausage, and potatoes at home. But if you're visiting, you should take a car out to Bowen's Island for its version. The shack is shanty, but the beer is cold, and the views are spectacular.

She-Crab Soup:

An almost too-rich combination of cream, crab meat, roe, and sherry, she-crab soup is said to be a throwback recipe from 1920s Charleston. Why anyone would want to eat thick, hot bisque in the muggy Lowcountry weather is beyond us, but we suspect hotels fed this to visitors to make the Holy City seem sophisticated.

Gullah/Geechee:

Gullah and Geechee refer to the people, language, and culture descended from enslaved West Africans in the Lowcountry. When slaves were freed in South Carolina, many migrated to the Sea Islands. Gullah/Geechee cuisine draws from the resources readily available to those families, like rice, benne seeds, crabs, oysters, shrimp, seasonal vegetables, and other products pulled from the sea and land.

Carolina Gold Rice:

Carolina Gold rice was at the core of colonial Charleston's economy and kitchens. The difficult production of the crop relied heavily on slave labor, so with the abolition of slavery came the end of the grain. It wasn't until Glenn Roberts founded Anson Mills in 1998 that the rice came back from near extinction and is now served on menus across the Lowcountry. If you have two minutes, Mind of a Chef explains the history with video here.

Crab Rice:

The first time you try crab rice you'll wonder why you hadn’t heard of this simple, yet satisfying, dish earlier in life. The presentation of crab rice is simple — it’s picked local crabs, lightly pan fried, over white rice. It's a humble dish but one born of deep Lowcountry roots.

Oyster Roast:

Place bushels of local oysters over a flame and cover with a wet sack to create an oyster roast. Tell friends to bring shuckers and beer, and it's a party. Oyster roasts are a fall tradition and are as common as tailgate parties in football towns. Bowen's Island allows you to sample the bounty of briny mollusks without all the work — well, except for the shucking.

Boiled Peanuts:

Green peanuts boiled in salted water until soft sound gross — until you try them. Perfect for baseball games or beach days, boiled peanuts (pronounced "bald" peanuts) are a Charleston staple.

Charleston Nasty:

This Hominy Grill favorite starts with the biscuit, then comes fried chicken breast, some cheese, and becomes truly "nasty" with the addition of a gravy made with sausage prepared in chef Robert Stehling's kitchen.

Sean Brock:

You've probably seen celebrity chef Sean Brock on Mind of a Chef (or on every food blog and magazine preaching the gospel of Southern ingredients). The James Beard Award winner has an empire of restaurants in Charleston, which are quickly spreading across the nation. He recently left Charleston, but his influence is still felt.

Frank Lee:

Many consider Frank Lee one of the first pioneers of the modern culinary scene in Charleston. The man is a treasure chest of knowledge on all things Lowcountry. He stepped down from his executive chef position at Slightly North of Broad, but you can still taste his influence in classic dishes like shrimp and grits or a local catch served with Carolina Gold rice.

Two Three Ways:

If you visited Charleston before 2006, then you may have noticed nothing but mini-bottles behind the bars. South Carolina did not allow free pours of liquor until recently, so shot-seeking imbibers would order two 1.7-ounce bottles to be split amongst three people. Yeah, it was a dumb law, and has been dismantled for over ten years, but you'll still hear people ordering shots this way today.

B.J. Dennis:

Consulting chef B.J. Dennis spreads knowledge of Gullah/Geechee culture and cuisine across the nation. Dennis started in fine dining restaurants, but now he's spotted at pop-ups, private events, and YouTube videos creating traditional dishes from the land.

Mike Lata:

James Beard Award-winning chef Mike Lata started FIG in 2003, and the restaurant just keeps getting better. Executive chef Jason Stanhope helms the lauded eatery now, while Lata presides over seafood house The Ordinary.

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Pro-tip: the bar seats at FIG are for walk-ins. [Photo: Leslie McKellar]

Reservations to Make in Advance

Husk; FIG; Edmund's Oast; The Macintosh (brunch)

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