South Carolina is famous for its signature dishes, and Charleston has been an integral part of that. It is the heartbeat of some of the state’s most time-honored culinary traditions, so trying to devise a list of iconic eats and the best places to try them is easy—except when you try to pin it down to just 10.
Before a food can be considered iconic, it should be distinguished by both staying power and a solid, unwavering fan base. It should also reflect the culture of the region, as so many Charleston dishes do. Note that two of the most storied dishes found here—shrimp and grits and she-crab soup—do not appear on this list. That’s simply because both are so iconic, it’s impossible to name a single establishment whose interpretations outshine all the others in the area. (Translation: There’s no shortage of great shrimp and grits and she-crab soup in the Charleston area!)
With that, here are some other iconic Charleston foods to try and the establishments that helped make them so.
Bertha’s Kitchen, North Charleston
Iconic dish: Okra soup
A James Beard America's Classics Award winner, Bertha’s is known for plenty of rib-sticking dishes. The Gullah-inspired okra soup, however, has been roundly lauded as one of the most authentic and delicious versions of this culturally prized stew made of sliced okra, tomatoes, onion and spices. Goes great with rice.
Bowen’s Island, James Island
Iconic dish: Frogmore stew
Also widely known as Lowcountry boil, this dish is simply constructed on a foundation of sweet, local shrimp. Sausage, corn on the cob and potatoes go into the boiling pot along with seasonings to make a savory dish that can easily feed a crowd. Though it hails from the small town of Frogmore near Beaufort, this shrimp boil is a signature dish at Bowen’s Island along with the seasonally available roasted oysters.
Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit, downtown
Iconic dish: Biscuits
Biscuits have long been a Southern tradition, but Callie’s put them on the Charleston map. These hot, buttery gems draw biscuit-hungry crowds who line up early for them. Buttermilk, cheese and chive, cinnamon and other flavors have made the humble, crumbly bread a prized dish here and across the country, thanks to a robust mail-order business and accolades from The Oprah Magazine, Saveur and Food & Wine.
Ravenel Seafood, Ravenel
Iconic dish: Garlic crabs
A favorite Gullah dish, garlic crabs are the top finger-licking delicacy in Charleston. Ravenel Seafood is a tiny hub of crab commerce, serving up heaps of fresh blue crab flash-fried then dunked in a vat of garlicky, buttery goodness. Served up in clamshell containers, these crabs are enjoyed with the help of a mallet and your fingers—messy, but oh so worth it.
Dave’s Carry-Out, downtown
Iconic dish: Deviled crabs
Don’t discount the humble, little blue building. Inside this landmark, you’ll find a treasure trove of fresh seafood offerings. The deviled crab is legendary here, spicy and crabby and fried to a golden brown. This is where locals go for deviled crab as well as carryout fish and shrimp, all battered and fried to order. The only thing you’ll feel guilty about is the ridiculously small price.
Hank’s Seafood, downtown
Iconic dish: Oyster stew
This rich dish from Hank’s, one of Charleston’s best seafood restaurants, has a cult following, with diners and critics elevating this oyster stew to superstardom. Similar to a chowder, it is brimming with oysters, leeks, potatoes and bacon and served piping hot—a dreamy, creamy bowl of lusciousness.
Hannibal’s Soul Kitchen, East Charleston
Iconic dish: Crab rice
When you eat crab rice, you’re getting a true taste of the Lowcountry. Hannibal’s, serving since 1985, is famed for this Gullah dish, simply prepared in keeping with old customs: a buttery mix of white rice, crabmeat, bell pepper, onion, celery and bacon are fried up and served hot to soothe your hungry soul. This could be Charleston’s most satisfying comfort food.
Peninsula Grill, downtown
Iconic dishes: Coconut cake and Planter’s punch
Peninsula Grill lays claim to two Charleston traditions, each a famed menu item at this elegant dining establishment. The signature 12-layer coconut cake has found national favor and is the restaurant’s most popular dish, period. It’s been lauded by the likes of The New York Times, Bon Appetit, Food & Wine and Vogue, among others. You can get it at the restaurant or order online for a special treat.
The Planter’s Punch, said to have been the cocktail of choice among the Lowcountry’s 19th-century rice planters, has found modern-day favor thanks to the restaurant’s interpretation with its refreshing, tropical flavors. For legions of visitors, a Charleston vacation isn’t complete without a glass.
Timbo’s Peanuts, West Ashley
Iconic dish: Boiled peanuts
Even folks who don’t like boiled peanuts go wild over Timbo’s. Available in tantalizing flavors like ham and cajun, these boiled peanuts are served up by the pound from the small peanut trailer—a familiar, roadside destination for locals who know a great boiled peanut when they taste one.