Charleston Eats (& Sips)
As one of the top culinary destinations in America, Charleston has no shortage of wonderful experiences for foodie visitors to try. Southern cities have a way of incorporating their history and ingredients into their cuisine, giving storied dishes a creative twist. There is much attention paid to keeping with Southern tradition though, and one look at the menu will make it clear that you are not north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
The biggest problem when dining in Charleston is deciding where to eat. There are so many impressive restaurants, so little time! We managed to do a pretty epic food tour of the city though, and I have rounded up some of my favorite restaurants to try next time you are in the Holy City.
Favorite for Special Occasions: FIG
I could not have imagined a better place to ring in my birthday than FIG. An acronym for Food is Good, the cornerstone of the restaurant’s mission is fresh and local ingredients, allowing the menu to continually change for seasonable availability. Our experience at FIG was nothing short of extraordinary. Our server was knowledgeable, helpful and unobtrusive, allowing us to stretch the celebration out. We took advantage of the specials and new additions to the menu and as my uncle aptly put it, the chicken confit layered on fresh bread with goat cheese and spinach was “off the chain.” The amberjack and lightly breaded pork schnitzel were other favorites and helped me understand why FIG was so great – it paired together unlikely combinations for amazing results. Make sure you save room for dessert though – freshly baked sugar donuts with a side of blueberries and Greek yogurt.
Favorite for a Classy Lunch: S.N.O.B
For the city that likes its acronyms, S.N.O.B refers to the restaurant’s location Slightly North of Broad (Street). The restaurant is homey and the decorations will make you feel like you are in a friend’s dining room. S.N.O.B was one of the original innovators of the low country cuisine in Charleston and is still a mainstay on the dining scene. If you are looking to stick on the lighter side, the salmon salad is a crowd favorite, but if you are looking for a good dose of Southern cooking, try their infamous Shrimp ‘n’ Grits.
Favorite Soul Food: Martha Lou’s Kitchen
There is nothing pretentious about Martha Lou’s. They do not take reservations, and if you come when it is busy you will just have to wait in line like everyone else. They have their regulars and from the outside you can tell this place is an institution. The small, vibrant pink building serves some of the best ice tea and fried chicken in the state and I was thrilled to have been able to try it. Your choice of meat or fish comes with three sides and amongst our table we could not find a bad one. Paper towels and hot sauce are the only table accessories and when you leave here happy and full of cornbread, mac n’ cheese and collard greens, you will know why Martha has such a following.
Favorite Oysters: Pearlz Oyster Bar
Whether you want them raw, baked or fried, Pearlz is the place to go for oysters. In a city that prides itself on its seafood (and especially its oysters) there are many choices, but you will not be disappointed at the casual and fun Pearlz. Visiting for brunch was the perfect way to kick off our Sunday, but walking along East Bay Street on a Tuesday night, it was clear that happy hour is also a great time to go!
Favorite Ice Cream: Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams
The name gives it away – Jeni’s ice cream is nothing short of splendid! Located on a busy section of King Street, it’s the perfect detour on a day of shopping or sightseeing. Flavors rotate seasonally and you can buy pints to go. Salted Peanut Butter with Chocolate Flakes and Sweet Potato Pecan Praline – need I say more? I’m looking for Jeni’s to expand to Boston!
Favorite for Meat & Cheese: goat.sheep.cow.
A newcomer on the Charleston food scene, goat.sheet.cow., is the place to go for freshly sliced meats and cheeses. With a fresh and varied selection, there is something for everyone. Appetizer platters can be assembled and picked up for your next party or you can join them every Saturday for wine tastings. This is the small, local place you want to be frequenting and if you come when the weather is nice you can enjoy your purchases on their back patio.
Favorite French: 39 Rue de Jean
There is only so much Southern cooking you can eat without feeling like you are going to burst. For the day you need to favor the light lunch, head to this adorable French bistro. The name gives away the location, and tucked away on the quiet St. John Street, this is a perfect spot for lunch or appetizers. Mussels and frites are the favorite here and for good reason! The hardest decision of the day will be deciding which sauce you want your mussels in, but rest assured that any of the choices will pair nicely with their freshly baked bread and extensive wine list.
Favorite Pizza: EVO
The perfect last meal before hitting the airport, this wood-fired pizzeria in North Charleston serves up fresh and seasonal pizzas in the restaurant attached to their bakery. Make sure you start with the fresh bread, housemade pimento cheese and assortment of pickles to show you what differentiates this from any other pizzeria you have been to. Great assortment of craft brews as well (they had my favorite local beer from Maine on tap!).
Favorite Bakery: Bakehouse Bakery Café
All fall birthdays should start with pumpkin, right? At least that is the mantra I usually follow and Bakehouse Bakery Café was happy to oblige me. A slice of pumpkin bread for her and a warm cinnamon roll for him (and some sharing) kicked off the perfect birthday. The coffee selection was incredible, and everything we tried was delicious. The atmosphere makes it inviting to stay with a book, your laptop or a couple of friends. These out-of-towners opted for the seat at the window to watch the people buzzing by East Bay Street.
Favorite Pub: Blind Tiger Pub
Blind Tiger Pub is a great spot to try some local craft brews. If the weather permits, the outside courtyard is the place to enjoy your drinks where brick archways and overhanging trees allow for some shade. They are also known for their great brunch and lunch menu.
Favorite Pre-Dinner Drink: McCrady’s
McCrady’s has become a Charleston institution under the direction of Executive Chef Sean Brock. Dinner here continues to wow diners with innovative flavors and pairings, and it is no surprise that the restaurant continually finds itself on all the best of Charleston lists. Besides the food though, they are also well-known for their cozy bar serving creative cocktails and supplying an extensive wine list. A self-proclaimed wine and beer girl, I veered from my normal selections to try one of the bartender’s craft cocktails, the delicious Pimm’s Cup. The restaurant is homey with its brick archways and merits a stop even if you are not staying for dinner.
Favorite Post-Dinner Drink: The Belmont
This perfectly sized “cocktail club” was hopping after dinner, but was still not too noisy that you couldn’t hear your conversations. The drink list was interesting and deviated from your standard menu while still being original. The vibe was fun, comfortable and classic all in one. It was one of my aunt and uncle’s favorite places and they stand by the consistency of the drinks and the friendliness of the bartenders.
Favorite Experience: Low Country Boil
We were lucky enough to be staying with family during our trip to the Holy City, so we got to experience my aunt’s delicious low country boil in the comfort of home. Crab legs, sausage, shrimp, corn, potatoes in a special low boil seasoning is a quintessential Southern meal. Also known as a Beaufort Boil, this is typically found on the southern coast so you will have no problem finding one in Charleston.
Favorite Overall: Cru Café
Head over to the single family house which has been converted into a favorite restaurant of Charleston locals. The front porch is a charming place to enjoy the best of Cru, but we opted for the 4-seat chef’s table overlooking the kitchen. This made for such a personal and interactive experience with the food and beverage manager and the chefs engaging with us the entire meal. We also got to see their expert presentation in action, helping us narrow down our meal choices. The sesame tuna starter with Brussel sprouts was the overwhelming winner, but the fried green tomatoes with pork belly croutons and osso bucco with a side of gnocchi were close behind. Again, save room for dessert here as we were surprised with the white chocolate peach bread pudding (!). Let’s just say once again, we were part of the clean plate club. We were lucky enough to spend our last dinner in Charleston here, but Cru Café is also famous for their quick, delicious and affordable lunches!
With each visit it becomes clear that Charleston is not only one of my favorite cities, but it is the absolute best city for culinary adventures. The locals take so much pride in their cooking, and use fresh, local and creative ingredients. There is a mix of restaurants steeped in history as well as new ones popping up with innovative takes on Southern cuisine which makes Charleston the food mecca it is today.
Anyone interested in blending a historical trip with a foodie’s paradise should make it a point to spend a couple of days. There is truly nowhere like it. Until next time, Charleston!