Charleston is home to some of the South's finest restaurants, owned and operated by some of its finest chefs. Their philosophies are simple: buy quality ingredients and don't mess them up. The chefs here are like one great big family with a little healthy sibling rivalry, but in the end, they have an enormous amount of respect for one another. It shows in the wide variety of offerings diners can choose from - from high-end beef and pork dishes at several white-tablecloth steakhouses to the classic Southern fried seafood platters and absolutely everything in between.
Get Your South On
Charleston has a few stalwarts that are simply must-tries, and they are not all out-of-range expensive.
For example, it would be a shame to come all the way to Charleston and not eat at Jestine's Kitchen or Hominy Grill. Both are acclaimed far and wide for their down-home Southern flavors: the perfect blue plate is Jestine's fried chicken (enough for two people), collard greens, and macaroni and cheese. Sample the pickled cucumber slices to start, add a basket of cornbread (with real bits of corn inside), wash it all down with a glass of sweet tea, and you might just start saying "y'all." Take a doggie bag if you must because you've got to try a dessert from the nearby Jestine's Sweet Shop. You can't go wrong with the three-berry cobbler, the Coca-Cola cake or the lemon cream pie (maybe get a whole one of these to go). Hominy Grill puts a slightly more modern spin on its eats with okra and shrimp beignet appetizers, a grilled eggplant and goat cheese sandwich, and sautéed chicken livers. But don't worry, there's plenty of collards, field peas with rice and fried chicken here too, some of the city's best shrimp and grits, and a monstrosity called the Charleston Nasty Biscuit. And to-die-for buttermilk pie.
While you're perusing menus, be on the lookout for new twists on old classics. Page's Okra Grill offers "redneck rolls, pulled pork barbecue and homemade pimento cheese deep-fried in a spring roll. Almost everyone has their own shrimp and grits, and now oysters are muscling their way onto everyday menus: fried and served on a spinach sauce that looks like Lowcountry pluff mud at Leon's Fine Poultry and Oysters or fried and served on a deviled egg sauce with bread-and-butter pickles on top at The Grocery. And if you just have to have fried chicken livers, your best stop is SNOB (Slightly North of Broad). For good ol' South Carolina barbecue and ribs, stop by Jim 'N Nick's Bar-B-Q on King Street for eat-in or take-out.
James Beard Award-winners
Charleston chefs are, without a doubt, some of the best in the country but definitely in the Southeast: Sean Brock, formerly of Husk and McCrady's, was named the 2010 Best Chef of the Southeast by the James Beard Foundation and won that organization's 2015 book award for "Heritage;" Mike Lata, chef at FIG (Food Is Good) and The Ordinary, was chosen in 2009 as the Best Chef of the Southeast. And Robert Stehling of Hominy Grill was 2008's Best Chef of the Southeast. Jason Stanhope, also of FIG, was chosen as the 2015 Best Chef of the Southeast.
These chefs all take the best locally or regionally produced food - from shrimp to beef and that all-important Carolina Gold Rice - and put their spin on old Southern favorites.
Husk bills itself as a celebration of Southern ingredients - from its historic cocktails, such as the Charleston Light Dragoon's Punch with brandy, rum, tea, lemon juice and sugar to the Southern fried chicken skins appetizer and the Atlantic grouper paired with mushrooms from the nearby Mepkin Abbey. At Husk, it's as much about where the food comes from as how it is prepared.
The same holds true at Chef Lata's FIG and The Ordinary, which is anything but. FIG specializes in seafood, such as a wonderful fish stew with shrimp, squid, mussels, Carolina Gold Rice and rouille, but The Ordinary does almost nothing but seafood. You just have to try one of the shellfish towers; there is plenty for everyone and every taste.
After four nominations, FIG took home the 2018 James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine Program. Chef Lata’s farm-to-table aesthetic put this bistro on the map soon after it opened in 2003, and it didn’t take long for the wine program to meet the same level of excellence thanks to thoughtful sourcing and a staff that knows its stuff.
In 2017, Bertha’s Kitchen in Charleston was designated as a James Beard Foundation America’s Classic. The family-run soul food operation is a local institution where people line up on weekdays for fried chicken, pork chops, yams, macaroni and cheese, field peas with hocks, lima beans, okra soup, cornbread and more. This is authentic, stick-to-your-ribs Southern cooking with a bit of Gullah flair.
Pitmaster Rodney Scott took the title of Best Chef: Southeast in the 2018 James Beard Awards. After decades of manning the pits at his family’s Hemingway operation, he opened Rodney Scott’s BBQ in Charleston in 2017, broadening his base of smoked-meat fans and winning national accolades. His self-taught techniques are lauded by critics and chefs, who admire his rustic, authentic touches that result in some of the best barbecue on the planet.
Let Them Eat Steak
Meat lovers can choose from the Oak Steakhouse located in a former bank, with a fantastic bar downstairs and a wonderful upstairs that lets you enjoy all the action; Halls Chophouse, which offers an extraordinary gospel brunch on Sunday with live music; and a relatively new addition, Michael's on the Alley, which offers a full complement of steaks, including a 30-ounce, bone-in ribeye called the Tomahawk Chop.
Eat and Stay the Night
A couple of fine-dining restaurants are attached to equally high-end hotels, including Charleston Grill in Belmond Charleston Place and Circa 1886 at Wentworth Mansion. Charleston Grill offers a variety of menu options, from light plates to big steaks to exotic flavors from around the world or new interpretations of Southern favorites. Circa 1886 introduces diners to a world of flavors such as antelope pate, duck confit fried rice or a sweet treat called Peanut Butter Pluff Mudd, a nod to the marshes that surround Charleston.
There are so many places and ways to enjoy a great meal in Charleston; it's impossible to list them all. Dive in and explore!